Key Al-Qaeda figure believed killed in Pakistan

WASHINGTON, Mar. 18 (AFP) – An Al-Qaeda figure who helped plan a deadly attack on the CIA in Afghanistan is believed to have been killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan, a US counterterrorism official said.

"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," the official told AFP Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

(AFP file) Pakistani army soldiers patrol a street in the northwestern town of Miranshah

Yemeni's specialty was in "bombs and suicide operations" and he was suspected of playing "a key role" in the December attack at a CIA post in eastern Afghanistan that killed seven Americans, the official said in an email.

The Al-Qaeda operative was apparently killed in a US drone strike in the Pakistani city of Miranshah in North Waziristan, in the country's northwest tribal belt.

Washington has stepped up drone raids in Pakistan against Islamist militants in the past year, as President Barack Obama has put Pakistan at the center of his fight against Al-Qaeda.

The account of Yemeni's death came as the CIA director, Leon Panetta, told the Washington Post that aggressive attacks against Al-Qaeda had forced the leadership deeper into hiding and hampered its ability to plan operations.

He stopped short of explicitly acknowledging the US bombing raids against militants by unmanned aircraft in Pakistan, a campaign that has become an open secret.

But he said the spy agency's battle against Al-Qaeda in Pakistan was "the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in in our history."

While declining to comment on the strike against Yemeni, Panetta appeared to confirm the Al-Qaeda operative had been killed.

He said the death of the Al-Qaeda figure sent a "very important signal that they are not going to be able to hide in urban areas."

Yemeni is suspected of helping plan the December 30 assault on the CIA post in Khost, the deadliest attack against the Central Intelligence Agency since 1983.

The bombing was carried out by a Jordanian double agent who was recruited to spy on Al-Qaeda but who blew himself up at the US base near the Pakistani border.

The counterterrorism official said "the strike that appears to have gotten him" in Miranshah was "a clean, precise action that shows these killers cannot hide even in relatively built-up places."

Yemeni's death "would be the latest victory in a systematic campaign that has pounded Al-Qaeda and its allies, depriving them of leaders, plotters and fighters," the official said.

Yemeni was believed to be in his late 20s or early 30s and had forged links to Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen, the Haqqani network and the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, the official said.

"He was a conduit in Pakistan for funds, messages, and recruits, but his real specialty was bombs and suicide operations," the official added.

Panetta, meanwhile, touted recent operations in Pakistan as "seriously disrupting Al-Qaeda."

"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."

Citing an intercepted message, the CIA chief said Al-Qaeda was in such disarray that one of its deputies had even pleaded to Osama bin Laden -- believed to be hiding along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan -- to come forward to provide some leadership.

Recent arrests of Taliban leaders were a sign of better cooperation with Pakistan's intelligence service, according to Panetta, who added: "They have been much more tolerant of the operations we have there."

He said the CIA had access to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the top Taliban commander recently in Pakistan, and that "we're getting intelligence" from the interrogation.

Despite increased pressure on its sanctuaries, Al-Qaeda was seeking recruits without criminal records or known ties to extremists, he said.

"What we are seeing is that they are now looking for those kind of clean credentials," Panetta said, citing the example of the youthful would-be bomber who attempted to explode a US-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

Panetta has previously defended the spy agency against criticism that security procedures were botched when the CIA post was attacked in Afghanistan.

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