WASHINGTON — An al Qaida militant suspected of playing a key role in a suicide bombing at a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan died last week in Pakistan, apparently in a retaliatory missile strike by a CIA drone, a U.S. counterterrorism official said Wednesday.
The death of Hussein al Yemeni was the latest blow to al Qaida's leadership from stepped up U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan's tribal area following the Dec. 30 suicide bombing.
Four CIA officers, three agency security guards and a senior Jordanian intelligence officer died in the suicide bombing at a top-secret CIA facility in Khost, Afghanistan. The bombing was carried out by a Jordanian double agent recruited to spy on al Qaida and was a huge embarrassment to the CIA.
The U.S. counterterrorism official, who requested anonymity to discuss the case, said that al Yemeni was killed on March 8 in Miram Shah, the administrative center of North Waziristan, one of seven regions bordering Afghanistan that constitute Pakistan's semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Area.
According to Pakistani news reports, at least six unidentified militants died March 8 in a missile strike in Miram Shah by a CIA-controlled drone aircraft. The CIA refuses to acknowledge that it's using drone aircraft.
Al Yemeni "was a conduit in Pakistan for funds, messages, and recruits, but his real specialty was bombs and suicide operations," the U.S. counterterrorism official said. "He's thought to have played a key role in the attack on December 30 at Khost."
Al Yemeni, described as being in his late 20s or early 30s, had contacts with al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the network's affiliate based in Yemen, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, an Islamist insurgent organization based in Miram Shah.
The strike that killed him was "a clean, precise action that shows that these killers cannot hide even in relatively built-up places," the U.S. counterterrorism official continued, adding that his death was "the latest victory in a systematic campaign that has pounded al Qaida and its allies, depriving them of leaders, plotters, and fighters."
Seth Jones, an expert at the RAND Corp. who's advised the Pentagon on Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that he thought that al Qaida's leadership had been badly "weakened" by the attacks.
However, he said that the al Qaida threat has had "ebbs and flows."
"They've gone in stages. I think we are on an ebb," Jones said.
CIA Director Leon Panetta told the Washington Post Wednesday that CIA attacks had driven Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants deeper underground, crippled the organization's leadership and left it unable to plan sophisticated attacks.
Some experts cautioned, however, that the network, though weakened, remains a potent threat, particularly its affiliates in Yemen and North Africa. They noted that Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair warned Congress in February that he was "certain" that al Qaida would try to strike inside the U.S. by the middle of the year.
"Al Qaida has shown itself to be an enemy in more than one place at one time," said Bruce Hoffman, a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2010