Al-Qaida top aide killed by missile

Greg Miller and Josh Meyer

Los Angeles Times

Nov. 5, 2002 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - A missile fired from an unmanned CIA surveillance aircraft over Yemen killed six al-Qaida operatives, including one of the terrorist network's most senior figures who had been hunted by the United States for years, U.S. officials said Monday.

The principal target in the attack Sunday was Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a Yemeni who intelligence officials said was among the top 12 figures in al-Qaida. He was a key suspect in the bombings of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000 that killed 17 U.S. sailors and the recent bombing of a French tanker.

The strike represented a sharp escalation in tactics in the Bush administration's war on terrorism, demonstrating for the first time that the United States is willing to launch military-style assaults on al-Qaida members far from the theater of war in Afghanistan.

U.S. intelligence officials said al-Harethi was the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure in Yemen, a one-time bodyguard to Osama bin Laden who had risen rapidly in the ranks of the organization. Yemen is bin Laden's ancestral home.

President Bush did not directly address the incident Monday, but reiterated that he is determined to eliminate al-Qaida.

"The only way to treat them is (for) what they are - international killers," Bush said during a campaign stop in Arkansas. "And the only way to find them is to be patient, and steadfast, and hunt them down. And the United States of America is doing just that," he said. "We're in it for the long haul."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made it clear that the United States was pleased with the outcome of the attack, although he declined to discuss details.

Al-Harethi "has been sought after as an al-Qaida member, as well as a suspected terrorist connected to the USS Cole," Rumsfeld said. "So it would be a very good thing if he were out of business."

Pentagon officials declined to comment on the bombing, except to say that the U.S. military was not involved. CIA officials also refused to comment.

But U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that the strike was carried out by a CIA-run Predator aircraft, an unmanned surveillance drone armed with Hellfire anti-tank missiles.

The attack was said to have occurred in a rugged area in northern Yemen, an impoverished Persian Gulf nation long considered a haven for Islamic militants before it was reluctantly drawn into the campaign against al-Qaida following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Some news reports from Yemen cited witnesses who said there was a secondary explosion after the vehicle was hit, indicating it may have been packed with explosives. Television footage from the scene showed little more than a charred patch of earth. An Interior Ministry official told Yemen's Saba news agency that arms, traces of explosives and communications equipment were found in the car the suspects were driving.

Some witnesses said they also saw an aircraft, possibly a helicopter, in the area. Hellfires can also be launched by attack helicopters.

Yemeni authorities have said they detained or expelled dozens of al-Qaida figures after the Sept. 11 attacks. But much of the nation remains lawless, particularly along barren stretches of the Yemeni-Saudi-Arabian border.

CIA-operated Predator planes have been reported to be patrolling this territory in recent months, tracking the movements of al-Qaida figures. And a U.S. counterterrorism official confirmed Monday that authorities have been monitoring al-Harethi's movements for some time.

A former senior FBI official said al-Harethi, also known as Abu Ali, was al-Qaida's chief of operations in Yemen even before the Cole bombing, and that he had risen in prominence in the terror network in recent years. Intelligence officials said he has not been linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Officials said al-Harethi has been an associate of bin Laden's since the early 1990s when al-Qaida had headquarters in Sudan.

"The FBI has been trying to get him for years," one official said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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