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U.S. kills senior al-Qaida operative with missile strike
WASHINGTON -- U.S. forces killed a top associate of Osama bin Laden in Yemen in a missile strike, expanding the war on terror with America's first overt attack on suspected al-Qaida operatives outside of Afghanistan, a U.S. official said Monday.
Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi was one of several al-Qaida members traveling by car in northwest Yemen when a Hellfire missile struck it Sunday, killing him and five others. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the attack was believed to have been conducted by a CIA aircraft, possibly a missile-carrying Predator drone.
The official Yemeni news agency, local tribesmen and the U.S. official confirmed the strike killed al-Harethi. Witnesses said they saw an aircraft, possibly a helicopter, in the area. Hellfires can also be launched by attack helicopters.
The others killed were believed to be low-level operatives. The attack occurred in the northern province of Marib, about 100 miles east of Yemen's capital of San'a, where al-Qaida is considered active.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have said al-Harethi, also known as Abu Ali, was al-Qaida's chief operative in Yemen and a top target of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. An associate of bin Laden since the early 1990s in Sudan, al-Harethi is a suspect in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, on Oct. 12, 2000.
The CIA declined comment. On Monday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon press conference, "It would be a very good thing if he were out of business."
A Yemeni official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "Authorities have been monitoring this particular car for a while and we believe those men belonged to the al-Qaida terror network."
Many al-Qaida operatives fleeing the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan have joined comrades in Yemen. After the United States detected growth in al-Qaida presence there this spring, hundreds of U.S. troops deployed to Djibouti, the tiny African nation facing Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, officials said. The Marine amphibious assault ship Nassau recently replaced the USS Belleau Wood in the waters between the two nations.
Inside Yemen, U.S.-trained Yemeni troops deployed to suspected al-Qaida hotbeds in August.
Besides al-Harethi, at least one more Yemeni al-Qaida operative linked to the Cole attack, Mohammad Hamdi al-Ahdal, is thought to be in Yemen, U.S. officials say. In the Cole attack, two suicide bombers slammed an explosives-laden boat into the hull of the ship, killing 17 U.S. sailors and disabling the vessel.
Also believed to be in Yemen are Shaykh Dabwan and Suwaid, described as al-Qaida operatives who plan and provide support to terror operations, and an al-Qaida communications expert known as Miqdad, said a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Many al-Qaida followers in Yemen, bin Laden's ancestral homeland, are led by Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, bin Laden's Persian Gulf operations chief, U.S. counterterrorism officials said.
U.S. intelligence believes Yemeni-based terrorists linked to al-Qaida carried out the Oct. 6 attack on a French oil tanker, the Limburg. A small boat apparently crashed into the ship and exploded, blowing a hole in its hull and spilling 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden. One crewman was killed.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the CIA has used remotely operated Predator drone aircraft to make pinpoint strikes on al-Qaida leaders and do reconnaissance.
Mohammed Atef, bin Laden's military chief and a Sept. 11 organizer, was killed in November near Kabul in a joint airstrike by a Predator and U.S. military aircraft.
A Predator targeted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar at the start of the war on Afghanistan, but military lawyers could not decide whether he could be struck, officials have said. Its missiles were ultimately fired near him, but not to kill him.
In May, a CIA Predator attacked Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar near Kabul, missing him but killing some followers. Hekmatyar had offered rewards for those who kill U.S. troops. The former Afghan prime minister is said by U.S. counterterrorism officials to be loosely associated with al-Qaida.
Besides Yemen, other concentrations of al-Qaida operatives have emerged since the war in Pakistani cities and along a remote area of the Afghanistan-Pakistani border.