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By Simon Cameron-Moore
ISLAMABAD, Feb 1 (Reuters) - A missile strike that killed senior al Qaeda leader Abu Laith al-Libi in Pakistan this week marked the first big success the United States has notched in the region against Osama bin Laden's group for over two years.
In December 2005, a similar missile attack eliminated Hamza Rabia, an Egyptian jihadi who some analysts said had become al Qaeda number three after a predecessor was caught by Pakistani agents disguised in a burqa that year.
Like Rabia, Libi was targeted by a pilotless Predator aircraft that unleashed a missile on the house he was using in a village near the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, a known al Qaeda hot spot in the Pashtun tribal lands on the Afghan border.
At least that is what Pakistani intelligence officials say is what happened, going by the accounts gleaned from members of the Daur tribe in an area that is virtually "no-go" for Pakistan's security forces.
The CIA, which operates drones remotely, can't openly claim the kill on Pakistani territory. Nor can the Pakistanis. It is too embarrassing for the Pakistani-U.S. alliance.
"There was an explosion and a few people were killed. How the explosion took place. We don't know," Pakistan's Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz told reporters on Friday, denying knowledge of any missile attack.
But it was virtually a perfect hit, taking down not only Libi but a dozen Arab and Central Asian fighters with him, while no local people were killed.
Pakistani tribes have protested, seethed and sought revenge when similar strikes in the past killed their kinfolk.
PICKING OFF 2ND AND 3RD TIER
Libi, by all accounts, was a significant member of bin Laden's group, though analysts differ over whether he belonged to the second or third tier of the al Qaeda leadership.
Just three months ago he appeared with bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al Zawahri, in a video circulated to announce the merger of al Qaeda and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had been fighting alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan for several years.
Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al Qaeda", said Libi represented a bridge between al Qaeda and Libyan, Algerian, Uzbek and Turkmen Islamist militant groups.
"We have seen that he was also instrumental in training a number of Pakistani radicals who are living in the west, who came to North Waziristan for training," Gunaratna said.
Gunaratna said though Libi was a seasoned fighter, it was doubtful he was running operations as his main function seemed to be training.
Few people outside the intelligence community are familiar with any names in al Qaeda beyond bin Laden and Zawahri.
There's been no actionable intelligence on either for a long time. The U.S. launched a missile strike in Pakistan's Bajaur tribal region in January 2006 in the hope of killing Zawahri. It killed some local militants and their families.
A Western official described Libi as one of the top six leaders in al Qaeda's global structure and a top military commander. Security analysts at the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London called al-Libi's death the most important elimination of an al Qaeda leader since capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed because of his links with jihadis elsewhere and ability to organise attacks.
Mohammed is the man said to have been the real brains behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. He was caught in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi in March 2003.
Mahmood Shah, former security chief in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas, said Libi was running just one of four al Qaeda groups operating in North Waziristan.
"Al Qaeda have rings ... he would belong to the third ring and there would be many people in the third ring," said Shah.
Two of Zawahri's fellow Egyptians were in charge of running operations in the region, according to Gunaratna.
One of them was Obaidah al Masri, who according to a Pakistani newspaper, could have been targetted along with Libi in Monday's attack.
Veteran jihadi Shaikh Saiid al Masri is in charge of operations in Afghanistan, and sits on al Qaeda's 10-man shura, or consultative council, Gunaratna said.
In 2005, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf was talking of having broken the back of al Qaeda in Pakistan, but Western intelligence agencies fear the network has rebuilt, and most analysts have learnt not to get carried away by occasional successes, like killing Libi.
"In our experience we've seen that high-ranking al Qaeda leaders have been replaced in a very short time," a European intelligence source said. (With reporting by Mark Trevelyan in London and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)