WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. drone strike in Pakistan last week appears to have killed a top al Qaeda planner who Washington believes helped organize December’s deadly suicide bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
The CIA has stepped up the intensity of unmanned aerial drone attacks and intelligence-gathering operations in Pakistan since the December 30 bombing, which killed seven of the spy agency’s employees at a heavily fortified U.S. base in the eastern Afghan province of Khost.
“We have indications that Hussein al-Yemeni — an important al-Qaeda planner and facilitator based in the tribal areas of Pakistan — was killed last week,” a U.S. counterterrorism official said. “He’s thought to have played a key role in the attack on December 30th at Khost.”
The Khost bombing, the second-most deadly in CIA history, was carried out by a double agent linked to al Qaeda who was recruited by Jordanian intelligence. U.S. intelligence officials have vowed to avenge the attack.
CIA Director Leon Panetta, in an interview with the Washington Post published on its website on Wednesday, said attacks against al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal regions appear to have driven Osama bin Laden and other leaders deeper into hiding, leaving the organization incapable of planning sophisticated operations.
Al Qaeda’s disarray was so profound that one of its lieutenants, in an intercepted message, pleaded to bin Laden to come to the group’s rescue and provide some leadership, Panetta told the newspaper.
“It’s pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run,” he said.
Other U.S. intelligence officials have warned recently of a continuing threat from al Qaeda, which carried out the September 11 attacks against the United States in 2001, and its affiliates.
The U.S. counterterrorism official said Yemeni, in his late 20s or early 30s, had “established contacts” with groups ranging from Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to the network of Afghan Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the CIA’s highest priority targets.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took responsibility for an attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner.
The counterterrorism official said the drone strike believed to have killed Yemeni took place in an area called Miram Shah.
U.S. officials say the pilotless drones are one of the most effective weapons against militants. The strikes have killed senior Taliban and al Qaeda figures but they have caused resentment in overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan, where anti-American feeling runs high.
Two missile strikes by drones on Wednesday killed at least nine militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region, a major al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary, according to intelligence officials and residents.
Editing by John O'Callaghan