US. Resumes assassination: Al Qaida
A U.S. military official familiar with operations in the tribal areas, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the operations, said: "We'll get these one-off flukes once every eight months or so, but that's still not a strategy -- it's not a plan. Every now and then something will come together. What that serves to do [is] it tamps down discussion about whether there is a better way to do it."
The target is identified
During seven years of searching for Osama bin Laden and his followers, the U.S. government has deployed billions of dollars' worth of surveillance hardware to South Asia, from top-secret spy satellites to sophisticated eavesdropping gear for intercepting text messages and cellphone conversations.
Yet some of the initial clues that led to the Libi strike were decidedly low-tech, according to an account supplied by four officials briefed on the operation. The CIA declined to comment about the strike and neither confirmed nor denied its involvement.
Hours before the attack, multiple sources said, the CIA was alerted to a convoy of vehicles that bore all the signatures of al-Qaeda officers on the move. Local residents -- who two sources said were not connected to the Pakistani army or intelligence service -- began monitoring the cluster of vehicles as it passed through North Waziristan, a rugged, largely lawless province that borders Afghanistan.
Eventually the local sources determined that the convoy carried up to seven al-Qaeda operatives and one individual who appeared to be of high rank. Asked how the local support had been arranged, a U.S. official familiar with the episode said, "All it takes is bags of cash."
Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis for Strategic Forecasting, a private intelligence group, said the informants could have been recruits from the Afghanistan side of the border, where the U.S. military operates freely.
"People in this region don't recognize the border, which is very porous," Bokhari said. "It is very likely that our people were in contact with intelligence sources who frequent both sides and could provide some kind of targeting information."
Precisely what U.S. officials knew about the "high-value target" in the al-Qaeda convoy is unclear. Libi, a 41-year-old al-Qaeda commander who had slowly climbed to the No. 5 spot on the CIA's most wanted list, was a hulking figure who stood 6 feet 4 inches tall. He spoke Libyan-accented Arabic and learned to be cautious after narrowly escaping a previous CIA strike. U.S. intelligence officials say he directed several deadly attacks, including a bombing at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan last year that killed 23 people.
Observing their prey
Alerted to the suspicious convoy, the CIA used a variety of surveillance techniques to follow its progression through Mir Ali, North Waziristan's second-largest town, and to a walled compound in a village on the town's outskirts.
The stopping place itself was an indication that these were important men: The compound was the home of Abdus Sattar, 45, a local Taliban commander and an associate of Baitullah Mehsud, the man accused by both the CIA and Pakistan of plotting the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27.
With all signs pointing to a unique target, CIA officials ordered the launch of a pilotless MQ-1B Predator aircraft, one of three kept at a secret base that the Pakistani government has allowed to be stationed inside the country. Launches from that base do not require government permission, officials said.
During the early hours of Jan. 29, the slow-moving, 27-foot-long plane circled the village before vectoring in to lock its camera sights on Sattar's compound. Watching intently were CIA and Air Force operators who controlled the aircraft's movements from an operations center at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
On orders from CIA officials in McLean, the operators in Nevada released the Predator's two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, 100-pound, rocket-propelled munitions each tipped with a high-explosive warhead. The missiles tore into the compound's main building and an adjoining guesthouse where the al-Qaeda officers were believed to be staying.
Even when viewed from computer monitors thousands of miles away, the missiles' impact was stunning. The buildings were completely destroyed, and as many as 13 inhabitants were killed, U.S. officials said. The pictures captured after the attack were "not pretty," said one knowledgeable source.
Libi's death was confirmed by al-Qaeda, which announced his "martyrdom" on Feb. 1 in messages posted on the Web sites of sympathetic groups. One message hailed Libi as "the father of many lions who now own the land and mountains of jihadi Afghanistan" and said al-Qaeda's struggle "would not be defeated by the death of one person, no matter how important he may be."
A temporary impact
Publicly, reaction to the strike among U.S. and Pakistani leaders has been muted, with neither side appearing eager to call attention to an awkward, albeit successful, unilateral U.S. military operation. Some Pakistani government spokesmen have even questioned whether the terrorist leader was killed.
"It's not going to overwhelm their network or break anything up definitively," acknowledged a military official briefed on details of the Libi strike. He added: "We're now in a sit-and-wait mode until someone else pops up."
Richard A. Clarke, a former counterterrorism adviser to the Clinton and Bush administrations, said he has been told by those involved that the counterterror effort requires constant pressure on the Pakistani government.
"The United States has gotten into a pattern where it sends a high-level delegation over to beat Musharraf up, and then you find that within a week or two a high-value target has been identified. Then he ignores us for a while until we send over another high-level delegation," Clarke said.
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