The U.S. missile strike that killed a top al-Qaida commander just over a mile from a Pakistani military base shows how entrenched Islamic militants are in the lawless tribal regions, where extremists have launched increasingly bold attacks.
The targeting of Abu Laith al-Libi also suggests American intelligence is improving and that President Pervez Musharraf is willing to turn a blind eye to attacks along the Afghan border if they avoid civilian casualties.
Pakistan has yet to confirm the death of al-Libi, reported Thursday on Islamic extremist Web sites and confirmed by an American official who said the veteran al-Qaida leader was hit by a missile from a U.S. Predator drone in a village in North Waziristan late Monday.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called the strike an important moment in the global war on terror, though he refused to provide details or explicitly say al-Libi was the target.
"While this particular strike was very successful and we were very pleased with the outcome, there is still a great deal more work to do," Mullen told a Pentagon news conference Friday, citing a recent increase in al-Qaida violence against targets inside Pakistan.
Deadly response from militants
News of the al-Qaida commander's killing sparked a deadly response from militants. A suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a military checkpoint Friday about two miles from the missile attack, killing five Pakistani soldiers and wounding five others.
The U.S. missile destroyed a house belonging to a local tribal leader, Abdul Sattar, known for his links to extremists in a village just over a mile from a base used by Pakistani security forces near Mir Ali, the second-largest town in North Waziristan.
Pakistani intelligence officials say they found the remains of satellite phones and a computer in the wreckage, suggesting the suspects had the ability to communicate outside the remote, rugged region, where land-based phone and Internet links are very limited.
By contrast, Pakistani security forces are largely confined to their bases and the main roads through North Waziristan, and have little capacity to venture into villages like the one targeted Monday night, according to Rahimullah Yousafzai, a respected Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban.
Awkward spot for Musharraf
The missile strike leaves an increasingly unpopular Musharraf in an awkward position.
While Pakistan, a key U.S. anti-terror ally, would welcome the killing of al-Libi — whose name means "the Libyan" in Arabic — as well as 11 Arab and Central Asian militant suspects, the attack has infringed on its national sovereignty and exposed how terror suspects operate with relative freedom on its soil.
"It shows the presence of al-Qaida in the tribal regions: that there are sanctuaries and that local Taliban are giving them help and networking with them," said Talat Masood, a retired general and defense analyst.
"It will also reinforce the impression that Pakistan is helpless when it comes to actionable intelligence and when the United States wants to act, it will."
Mahmood Shah, former security chief of Pakistan's tribal regions, said there are reportedly four groups of Arab al-Qaida militants in the region, most located near the main city of Miran Shah, in addition to much larger numbers of Central Asians, mainly from Uzbekistan, in the vicinity of Mir Ali.
Al-Libi, the leader of one of the Arab groups, had risen to prominence in the past year after appearing in several videos released by al-Qaida's media wing. The U.S. military also identified him as the likely mastermind of a February 2007 suicide bombing that hit its main base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Al-Libi, whom Pakistani intelligence described as the operational commander of al-Qaida in the border region, was among the most high-profile figures in the militant group after its leader, Osama bin Laden, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.
Attacks on security forces mount
The U.S. has expressed growing concern that al-Qaida figures who fled Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001 have been able to regroup inside North Waziristan and other tribal regions, posing a threat not just to U.S. forces across the border, but offering a potential base for global operations.
In recent weeks, there has been a blizzard of attacks on security forces in South Waziristan, including assaults on military forts, as well as suicide attacks across Pakistan that authorities say can be traced to Taliban militants in the tribal areas.
Over the past week, clashes have broken out north of Waziristan, in an area called Darra Adam Kagl, when militants commandeered four military trucks carrying ammunition, sparking fighting that left dozens dead and blocked a key road in northwestern Pakistan for several days.
Authorities have also blamed Taliban commanders based in South Waziristan for the December assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
A controversial September 2006 peace deal between the government and Taliban in North Waziristan gave a freer hand for militants to operate. It collapsed last July.
CIA Director Michael Hayden and Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, made a secret visit to Pakistan in early January to seek permission from Musharraf for greater involvement of American forces in trying to ferret out al-Qaida and other militant groups active in the tribal regions.
Musharraf, whose support of the war on terror has only deepened his growing unpopularity at home, was later quoted as saying U.S. troops would be regarded as invaders if they crossed into Pakistan.
But there has been scant reaction among the general public, which has "grown indifferent" to periodic U.S. strikes against al-Qaida suspects on its soil, said Masood, the retired general.
The government has steered clear of explaining what happened on Monday night and has not made a diplomatic protest as it did after the January 2006 assault that targeted and missed al-Zawahri, and killed several villagers, triggering angry protests.
"Had civilians been killed as in earlier cases it would have been criticized by the government," said Moonis Ahmer, an international relations professor at Karachi University. "As it was, just the target was eliminated. It may be that Musharraf has given a freer hand for the U.S. to carry out its operations."
Cross-border attacks reportedly decline
The killing of al-Libi is a boost for the U.S. in its battle against the terrorism network after a series of pessimistic assessments of its campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The U.S. military has reported a decline in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan from Pakistan in recent months. But militants have increasingly turned their attention to Pakistan itself, amid rising fears that Taliban fighters with al-Qaida ties and funding represent a deep threat to the stability of this nuclear-armed nation embroiled by political turmoil as it heads into parliamentary elections this month.
Masood said that while Taliban and al-Qaida remain separate entities, "they reinforce each other."
"They are networking and they draw sympathy and support from each other," Masood said. "Both are very negative on Pakistan's security and stability."