Pakistan is investigating reports that a CIA missile strike killed a senior al-Qaeda commander as he traveled in a tribal region near the Afghan border, security officials said yesterday.
If confirmed, Sheikh Fateh al-Masri’s death would be the covert US missile program’s latest blow to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
Al-Masri is believed to have replaced Mustafa al-Yazid, who was killed in a missile strike in May and characterized by the group as its No. 3 commander.
The US has launched 21 missiles into northwest Pakistan this month, more than double the number fired in any previous month. Some of the strikes were aimed at disrupting suspected terrorist plots aimed at Europe, a Western counterterrorism official said on Tuesday.
Al-Masri was believed to be in a vehicle in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region when a drone-fired missile struck him on Saturday, two Pakistani security officials said. They said they received reports from agents in the field, but did not have a body or other confirmation of his death.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
Reports of militant deaths in Pakistan’s tribal belt are difficult to verify and many who are reported to have been killed have turned up alive later.
Extremist groups like al-Qaeda often announce the deaths themselves, but typically after weeks or months.
US officials rarely acknowledge or discuss the missile strikes, much less who they are targeting. However, a dozen or more top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders are known to have been taken out by the attacks since they began in earnest in 2008.
Many of the attacks are on commanders and foot soliders behind attacks on NATO and US troops in neighboring Afghanistan. US officials say major Afghan insurgent networks have bases in northwest Pakistan, out of the reach of US ground forces.
Pakistan’s civilian government officially condemns the missile strikes as violations of the nation’s sovereignty, but it is believed to aid at least some of them. However, there has been relatively little criticism of this month’s surge in attacks.