A New Year's CIA strike in northern Pakistan killed two top al-Qaeda terrorists long sought by the United States, including the man believed to be behind September's deadly suicide bombing at a Marriott hotel in the Pakistani capital, U.S. counterterrorism officials told The Washington Post Thursday.
Agency officials determined in recent days that among the dead in the Jan. 1 missile strike were a Kenyan national who used the name Usama al-Kini and who was described as al-Qaeda's chief of operations in Pakistan and his lieutenant, identified as Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, the sources said. Both men were associated with a string of suicide attacks in Pakistan in recent months and were also on the FBI's most-wanted list for ties to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Kini, who had been pursued by U.S. law enforcement agencies on two continents for a decade, was the eighth senior al-Qaeda leader killed in clandestine CIA strikes since July, the officials said.
'New acts of terror'
The CIA declined comment on the reported strike, citing the extreme secrecy of its operations on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where al-Qaeda is believed to be based. However, a U.S. counterterrorism official confirmed that the two died in a CIA strike on a building that was being used for explosives training.
"They died preparing new acts of terror," said the official, who insisted on anonymity because the agency's actions are secret.
Details of the attack were sketchy, but counter-terrorism officials privy to classified reports said the pair was killed by a 500-pound hellfire missiles fired by a pilotless drone aircraft operated by the CIA. The strike took place near Karikot in South Waziristan, a province in the rugged autonomous tribal region of northern Pakistan that has long been a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
The province has been frequently targeted by Predator drones in recent months as part of a controversial and increasingly lethal campaign to destabilize the terrorist group and kill key operatives. The attacks, occurring at a rate of about once every three days, have drawn protests from Pakistan's government but praise from top intelligence officials who say the strategy is forcing al-Qaeda into the open. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, alluding to the strategy in November speech, said the United States had "taken the fight to the enemy."
The counter-terrorism official who described the Jan. 1 attack said: "Clearly, al-Qaeda's safe haven in Pakistan isn't nearly as safe as it used to be."
Served as a central planner
Kini, whose given name was Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam, had trained terrorists in Africa in the 1990s and served as a central planner of the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, U.S. officials said. He was indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with those attacks and has been on the FBI's most-wanted list ever since.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he became al-Qaeda's emir of Afghanistan's Zabul Province, and later shifted between Afghanistan, Pakistan and East Africa, planning suicide missions, training operatives and raising money, U.S. officials said.
He became al-Qaeda's operations director for Pakistan in 2007 and was responsible for at least seven suicide attacks, the sources said. These included a failed assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto, the late Pakistani prime minister, in October of that year, and the Sept. 16, 2008, car-bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel. That attack killed 53 people.
Terrorism experts have cautioned that al-Qaeda has shown surprising resilience, quickly replacing leaders who are killed or captured. Still, there have been few occasions since 2001 when the group lost so many top operatives so quickly, the U.S. counterterrorism official noted.
"The continuous loss of senior talent has to have a pretty serious effect," he said.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.