By MUNIR AHMAD, Associated Press Writer
Sun Dec 4, 6:47 AM ET
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – One of al-Qaida’s top five leaders, said to be responsible for planning overseas strikes, was killed by Pakistani security forces in a rocket attack near the Afghan border with U.S. help, American and Pakistani officials said Saturday.
Hamza Rabia, a key associate of al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri, died Thursday in an explosion in the North Waziristan tribal area, and his remains were identified in DNA tests, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said.
Two U.S. counterterrorism officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the information’s sensitivity, confirmed Rabia’s death but would not elaborate on the circumstances.
The officials said Rabia was believed to be an Egyptian and head of al-Qaida’s foreign operations, possibly as senior as the No. 3 official in the terrorist group. That would put him in a tier just below Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahri.
«He was al-Qaida’s No. 5 and this is what we know,» Ahmed told The Associated Press.
Rabia filled the vacuum created this year by the capture of the previous operations chief, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the two U.S. officials said.
As head of operations, Rabia would have been responsible for training, recruiting, networking and, most importantly, planning international terrorist activities outside the Afghan-Pakistan region.
One of the officials said Rabia also may have been involved in operations inside the region.
He had a wide array of jihadist contacts, the other official said, and was believed to be trying to reinvigorate al-Qaida’s terrorist operations.
The circumstances of Rabia’s death were still not clear.
NBC, citing anonymous officials, reported Saturday that the attack was launched by a U.S. drone. The Dawn newspaper, also citing sources it did not identify, reported that the attack on a mud-walled home near Miran Shah may have been launched from two pilotless planes.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said a missile attack on Thursday triggered a huge explosion in a stockpile of bomb-making materials, grenades and other munitions.
Miran Shah is a strategic tribal region where remnants of al-Qaida are believed to have been hiding and where Pakistani forces have launched several operations against them.
Assailants fired at least four rockets Saturday night at the town of Mir Ali, near where Rabia died, an intelligence official said Sunday on condition of anonymity because of the secretive nature of his job. One hit a power line, disrupting electricity to several villages, while the other three landed near an army base. No one was hurt, he said.
Authorities blame Islamic militants for rocket attacks and roadside bombings targeting security forces in North Waziristan.
Other Pakistani intelligence officials, also not identifying themselves for the same reason, said U.S. assistance played a critical role in tracking down Rabia and «eliminating the threat» that he posed.
Earlier, a top government administrator, Syed Zaheerul Islam, said Rabia died in an explosion while making bombs at a home near Miran Shah. Islam said the blast also killed four other people, including two local residents, and left two others injured, who have not been identified.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf confirmed Rabia had been killed.
«Yes, indeed, 200 percent confirmed,» Musharraf said in Kuwait at the start of a three-nation visit in the Middle East.
Al-Libbi twice tried to assassinate Musharraf for making the Islamic nation a key ally of the United States in its war on terrorism. Al-Libbi was captured in northwestern Pakistan on May 2 and later turned over to Washington for further investigation.
Military officials have said hundreds of Arab, Afghan and Central Asian militants are in North and South Waziristan.
Pakistan has deployed thousands of troops in the area, fighting intense battles with militants and killing and capturing several of them.
Officials have said they do not know the whereabouts of al-Zawahri or bin Laden.
By MUNIR AHMAD, Associated Press Writer