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CIA Missile in Yemen Kills 6 Terror Suspects

Unmanned plane fires at car carrying alleged Al Qaeda operatives, marking an aggressive shift in the Bush administration's tactics.

November 05, 2002|Greg Miller and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

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

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 Qaeda members far from the theater of war in Afghanistan.

The principal target in the attack Sunday was Qaed Sinan Harithi, a Yemeni who intelligence officials said was among the top 12 figures in Al Qaeda. He was a key suspect in the bombings of the U.S. destroyer Cole off Yemen in 2000 that killed 17 U.S. sailors and of a French tanker last month.

President Bush did not directly address the incident Monday but reiterated that he is determined to eliminate Al Qaeda.

"The only way to treat them is [as] 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 H. Rumsfeld made it clear that the United States was pleased with the outcome of the attack, although he declined to discuss details.

Harithi "has been sought after as an Al Qaeda 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 condition that they not be identified confirmed that the strike was carried out by a CIA-run Predator aircraft, a surveillance drone armed with Hellfire antitank missiles.

The attack was said to have occurred in a rugged area in northern Yemen, an impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation long considered a haven for Islamic militants before it was reluctantly drawn into the campaign against Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 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 weapons, traces of explosives and communications equipment were found in the wreckage of the car the men were driving in Marib province.

U.S. intelligence officials said Harithi was the highest-ranking Al Qaeda figure in Yemen, a onetime bodyguard to Osama bin Laden who had risen rapidly in the ranks of the organization. Yemen is Bin Laden's ancestral home.

Yemeni authorities are said to have detained or expelled dozens of Al Qaeda figures after the Sept. 11 attacks. But much of the nation remains lawless, particularly along barren stretches of the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border dominated by powerful tribes.

CIA-operated Predator planes have reportedly been patrolling this territory in recent months, tracking the movements of Al Qaeda figures. A U.S. counter-terrorism official confirmed Monday that authorities have been monitoring Harithi's movements for some time.

A former senior FBI official said that Harithi, also known as Abu Ali, was Al Qaeda'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 had not been linked to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Officials said Harithi had been an associate of Bin Laden since the early 1990s, when Al Qaeda was headquartered in Sudan. "The FBI has been trying to get him for years," one official said.

Intelligence and counter-terrorism officials said the attack marked a bare-knuckled turn in the war on terrorism.

Until now, U.S. authorities have not executed military-style attacks on top Al Qaeda personnel anywhere in the world except in war zones in Afghanistan.

In 1998, the United States launched a cruise missile attack on what was believed to be Bin Laden's headquarters in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people.

Since Sept. 11, the effort against Al Qaeda has depended largely on U.S. partnerships with other governments' security services in raids and other missions aimed primarily at capturing terrorist leaders.

The top Al Qaeda figure in captivity, Abu Zubeida, was captured in Pakistan this year in a raid led by Pakistani special police working with teams from the FBI. More recently, Ramzi Binalshibh, suspected of being a key player in the Sept. 11 plot, was captured in a raid in the Pakistani port city of Karachi.

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