A top al-Qaida operative was killed earlier this week in Pakistan's tribal region, landing another blow against the besieged terrorist network, a senior Obama administration official told NBC News on Thursday.
His "death removes a key threat inside Pakistan," the official said, because he collaborated closely with the Pakistani Taliban to conduct coordinated attacks.
The man killed in Waziristan was identified as Abu Hafs al-Shahri, whom U.S. officials described as al-Qaida's chief of operations in Pakistan and a Saudi citizen. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe classified counterterrorist operations.
Al-Shahri was also a contender to assume some duties of al-Qaida's second in command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the sources said.
Al-Rahman was killed by a CIA drone strike in late August, which is apparently how Al-Shahri was also killed, though U.S. officials refused to confirm the method since the drone program is classified.
As al-Qaida's Pakistan operations chief, a U.S. official said, al-Shahri's responsibilities included coordinating the activities of al-Qaida's depleted central leadership with Pakistan's principal network of Taliban militants, known as the TTP.
Al-Shahri is actually 30-year old Saudi Arabian national Osama Hamoud al-Shehri. He is #68 on Saudi Arabia's list of its "most wanted" 85 terrorist suspects.
According to Saudi media, he left Saudi Arabia for Syria at least a decade ago and was thereafter linked to al-Qaida in Afghanistan. While in Afghanistan, al-Shehri reportedly served as a personal bodyguard to Osama Bin Laden, and later took responsibility for providing training to the group's recruits in combat skills.
"This is another blow at the core of al-Qaida in Pakistan," the official said. "The loss of their chief of operations in Pakistan, an individual who played a key operational and administrative role for the group, will pose a challenge for (Ayman) Zawahiri."
Zawahiri is the Egyptian doctor who succeeded Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. raid, as al-Qaida leader.
Another senior al-Qaida leader, Younis al Mauretani, was recently captured in Pakistan's tribal areas in a joint operation staged by U.S. and Pakistani security forces.
U.S. and European officials have said that as a result of recent successful operations to kill or capture senior al-Qaida leaders, the group's core organization has been badly wounded and is almost certainly incapable of mounting another operation on the scale of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington.
Suicide blast kills 31
Also Thursday, a suicide bomber attacked the funeral service Thursday of a Pakistani tribesman opposed to the Taliban, killing 31 people, police said, two days after Taliban gunmen killed four children from another district in conflict with the militant network.
The blast during the ceremony in the Lower Dir region, 15 miles west of the Afghan border, wounded 75 people.
The bomber struck as around 200 mourners were attending the funeral in the Shina Samar Bagh village, police officer Sher Hassan Khan said.
Another police officer, Salim Marwat, said the attacker hid in a nearby field and then ran toward the graveyard shouting "Allah Akbar!" — the Arabic phrase meaning "God is Great" that is also a Muslim rallying cry — and then detonated his bomb.
Witness Gull Rehman said he saw the attacker, who was killed in the bombing, describing him as a man with a long beard. Rehman said he was knocked down by the blast but he was able to get up and help transport the injured to hospitals.
Later, police officers searched for parts of the bomb on the blood-soaked field, strewn with abandoned sandals.
The funeral was for Bakhat Khan, who was a member of a local "lashkar" or militia that is opposed to Taliban rule in the region, police said. He died Wednesday night.
The tribesmen in the northwest have formed several such militias, for which they typically receive some government funding. They have had some success at stopping militant infiltration but are routinely struck by revenge attacks.
Many of the bloodiest bombings of the last three years have targeted "lashkar" members or their families.
On Tuesday, Taliban gunmen killed four children as they were returning from school close to the main northwestern city of Peshawar. The insurgents said the attack was aimed at stopping locals there supporting a tribal militia that is fighting them.
Around 35,000 people have been killed in militant violence in Pakistan since it began in earnest in 2007.