NBC News and news services
updated 12/11/2009 5:27:42 PM ET 2009-12-11T22:27:42

The al-Qaida extremist killed Tuesday by a U.S. drone strike in northern Pakistan was the group's director of external operations, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told NBC News on Friday.

Abdirizaq Abdi Saleh, better known by his nom de guerre Saleh al-Somali, was a member of al-Qaida's senior leadership, said the official, and "probably responsible" for planning and executing attacks in the U.S. and Europe.

Al-Somali was killed when two missiles fired from a Predator drone struck his car as he and another man left a home, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

While al-Somali was a senior official, he was not al-Qaida's No. 3 leader after Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The U.S. has long targeted men who held al-Qaida's No. 3 role as director of all international operations. Five of them, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is facing trial in New York, have been killed or captured since 9/11.

The strike marks the first time coalition forces killed a top al-Qaida figure in almost a year.

Al-Somali is the highest-ranking al-Qaida member killed in a Predator attack since January 2008, when his predecessor, Abu Laith al Libi, was killed not far from where al-Somali was hit. Al-Libi was blamed for a suicide bombing outside Bagram air base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice President Cheney in 2007.

Tuesday's attack happened a week after the White House promised to increase the tempo of Predator attacks in the Pakistani tribal areas.

Pakistan on Thursday denied that any such attack took place, disputing reports that at least four people were killed and four were injured in the Ladha area of South Waziristan province.

The CIA-operated drones have already been increasingly used near the Afghan border. Nearly 50 drone air strikes in northwestern border regions this year have killed about 415 people, including many foreign militants, according to officials and residents.

But Pakistan opposes expanded U.S. drone attacks against militants on its tribal areas, as well as any strikes on Baluchistan, where Washington believes Afghan Taliban leaders are hiding, the foreign ministry said last week.

Anti-American sentiment
Missile strikes from pilotless drone aircraft have created fierce anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, a strategic ally Washington wants to crack down harder on Taliban fighters operating along the porous border with Afghanistan.

The White House has authorized the expansion of the CIA's drone program in Pakistan to complement President Barack Obama's plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the New York Times reported, citing unnamed officials.

It said that for the first time, U.S. officials are talking with Islamabad about the possibility of hitting Baluchistan, where Pakistan is already facing a low-level insurgency from Baluch rebels seeking provincial autonomy.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said there were limits to Pakistani cooperation, and the drone attacks were counterproductive.

"This has never been part of our discussions. There are clear red-lines as far as we're concerned," he said when asked if there were any talks between Washington and Islamabad on expansion of drone attacks to Baluchistan.

"We have clearly conveyed our red-lines to them."

The drone strikes have been limited to Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal regions near the Afghan border, semi-autonomous lands believed to be sanctuaries for al-Qaida and the Taliban.

In outlining his Afghanistan strategy in a speech on Tuesday, Obama made a vague plea to Pakistan to fight the "cancer" of extremism and said the United States would not tolerate Pakistan allowing its territory to be a safe haven for militants.

The militant threat in Pakistan
U.S. lawmakers told Obama's top advisers Dec. 3 that the focus on sending additional troops to Afghanistan ignored the much larger threat of militants across the border in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Underscoring sensitivities of the drone issue, U.S. officials say strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistani leaders to decry the attacks in public.

But it is not just a rise in drone attacks, but the widening of the war geographically that worries Pakistanis.

Some of the most prominent militants reported killed by drone attacks include senior al-Qaida member Abu Laith al-Libi and al-Qaida chemical and biological weapons expert Abu Khabab al-Masri.

A drone missile strike in August killed Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was responsible for many suicide bombings including one that killed Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, according to Pakistani officials.

NBC News investigative producer Robert Windrem contributed to this report, as did the Associated Press and Reuters.

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