NBC News has learned that a mud compound in remote Pakistan is part of what U.S. intelligence called the winter headquarters of al-Qaida.
Senior officials say U.S. intelligence discovered the location early this winter and that al-Qaida's No. 3 leader, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, stayed there much of January and was captured after moving to another location.
Seen from a satellite, the compound is close to the Afghan border, near six mountain passes and accessible mostly by motorbike.
A relative of the house's owner, who says he knows Osama bin Laden, says lots of people come and go and al-Libbi may have been among them. He and others say they saw Pakistani troops recently move in, seizing bombs, weapons, CD-ROMs and satellite phones.
Terror experts say these successes are pivotal.
“It tells us we've turned a significant corner in identifying the remaining elements of al-Qaida's leadership in Pakistan,” says NBC News analyst and terrorism expert Roger Cressey.
Another victory: Eight days ago, sources say a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone killed another top al-Qaida operative, Haitham al-Yemeni, near Mir Ali, more than 100 miles away.
“I think you're dealing with a combination of us getting very good at what we're doing, and they're also getting very tired after a number of years of being chased to the ground,” says Ron Marks, a former CIA operations officer.
In 2000, an unarmed Predator captured pictures of bin Laden, beamed back live to the CIA. But then, the United States had no military assets standing by to act. Now, the Predators are armed, and President Bush has given the CIA's counterterror center authority to fire without clearing it with him or top CIA officials.
Pakistan will not confirm the latest U.S.-al-Qaida takedown, blaming the explosion on a roadside bomb. Experts says that the Pakistani government is walking a delicate line — trying to help the United States without inflaming a sizeable pro-bin Laden, anti-American population.