WASHINGTON (AP) – A U.S. strike inside Pakistan’s tribal region has killed two Kenyans said to be among al-Qaeda’s top operatives on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list, a U.S. counterterrorism official said.
The deaths of the men would appear to be a major victory in the fight against al-Qaeda and follow reports of top terrorists being killed by stepped up U.S. missile strikes in northwest Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.
One of the men, Usama al-Kini, is believed by U.S. intelligence to be behind the September 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad and the October 2007 attack on a convoy carrying Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. intelligence, said Thursday. Bhutto was killed in a separate attack in late 2007.
The other man killed was Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan. Both were believed to have been involved in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
The killings of the al-Qaeda operatives occurred on New Year’s Eve and were first reported by The Washington Post on its Web site Thursday night.
Al-Kini, the more senior of the two, became al-Qaeda’s top operations officer in Zabul province in Afghanistan. He then became operations chief for al-Qaeda in Somalia and the chief of operations in Pakistan, where he oversaw the hotel bombing that killed at least 54 people, the official said.
The official would not describe the secret mission. However, the CIA is known to operate pilotless drones that carry Hellfire missiles that have been used to strike ground targets in the lawless tribal region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.
The U.S. is suspected in around 30 missile strikes in northwest Pakistan since mid-August. Nearly all of the missiles have landed in North and South Waziristan, two semiautonomous tribal area considered al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds.
Pakistan routinely protests the strikes as violations of its sovereignty, noting they often kill civilians and deepen anti-American sentiment, but there are suspicions the Muslim nation has a secret deal with Washington allowing the attacks.
Gen. David Petraeus, who is in charge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, told The Associated Press late last year that at least three top extremist leaders were killed in recent months due to the missile strikes.
Petraeus did not identify the men. But there have been unconfirmed media reports that senior al-Qaeda operatives Abu Jihad al Masri, described by the U.S. as the terror network’s propaganda chief, and Khalid Habib, a regional commander, died in missile strikes in Pakistan in October.
In November, Pakistani intelligence officials said a U.S. missile strike killed Rashid Rauf, a British militant linked to a jetliner bomb plot, but there has been no independent confirmation of his death by the U.S. or Britain.
Similar attacks killed senior al-Qaeda commander Abu Laith al-Libi in January 2008 and Egyptian explosives and poisons expert Abu Khabab al-Masri in July.
Pakistan’s chief military spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment Friday on the latest reported deaths.
Pakistani analysts said it was difficult to know for sure whether the two Kenyans were dead, but added that al-Qaeda could probably easily replenish its ranks.
“I think (the attacks) are not affecting militant activity at all,” said Mahmood Shah, a former government security chief for Pakistan’s tribal regions. “In their normal combat they will lose two or three chaps, and they are rarely bothered. They have freedom in these areas.”