WASHINGTON - A missile fired from an unmanned CIA surveillance aircraft over Yemen killed six al-Qaida operatives, including one of the terrorist network's most senior figures - a man the United States had hunted for years, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The strike represented a sharp escalation in tactics in the Bush administration's war on terrorism, demonstrating for the first time that the United States is willing to launch military-style assaults on al-Qaida members far from the theater of war in Afghanistan.
The main target of Sunday's attack was Qaed Sinan Harithi, a Yemeni who intelligence officials said was among the top 12 figures in al-Qaida. He was a key suspect in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 that killed 17 U.S. sailors and the recent bombing of a French tanker.
President Bush did not directly address the incident yesterday but said he is determined to eliminate al-Qaida.
"The only way to treat them is [for] what they are - international killers," Bush said during a campaign stop in Arkansas. "And the only way to find them is to be patient and steadfast and hunt them down. And the United States of America is doing just that. We're in it for the long haul."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made it clear that the United States was pleased with the outcome of the attack, although he declined to discuss details.
Harithi "has been sought after as an al-Qaida member, as well as a suspected terrorist connected to the USS Cole," Rumsfeld said. "So it would be a very good thing if he were out of business."
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the strike, except to say that the U.S. military was not involved. CIA officials also refused to comment.
But U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that the strike was carried out by a CIA-run Predator aircraft, an unmanned surveillance drone armed with Hellfire anti-tank missiles.
The attack was said to have occurred in remote Marib province in northern Yemen, an impoverished Persian Gulf nation long considered a haven for Islamic militants before it was reluctantly drawn into the campaign against al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some news reports from Yemen cited witnesses who said there was a secondary explosion after the vehicle was hit, indicating that it may have contained explosives. Television footage showed little more than a charred patch of earth. An Interior Ministry official told Yemen's Saba news agency that weapons, traces of explosives and communications equipment were found in the car the suspects were driving.
U.S. intelligence officials said Harithi was the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure in Yemen, a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden who had risen rapidly in the organization. Yemen is bin Laden's ancestral home.
Yemeni authorities reportedly detained or expelled dozens of al-Qaida figures after the Sept. 11 attacks. But much of the nation remains lawless, particularly along barren stretches of the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border dominated by powerful tribes.
CIA-operated Predator planes have reportedly been patrolling this territory in recent months, tracking the movements of al-Qaida figures. And a U.S. counterterrorism official confirmed yesterday that authorities have been monitoring Harithi's movements for some time.
A former senior FBI official said Harithi, also known as Abu Ali, was al-Qaida's chief of operations in Yemen even before the Cole bombing, and that he had risen in prominence in the terror network in recent years. Intelligence officials said he has not been linked to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Officials said Harithi has been an associate of bin Laden since the early 1990s when al-Qaida was headquartered in Sudan. "The FBI has been trying to get him for years," one official said.
Intelligence and counterterrorism officials said the attack marks a bare-knuckled turn in the war on terrorism.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the effort against al-Qaida has depended largely on U.S. partnerships with other governments' security services in raids and other missions aimed primarily at capturing terrorist leaders.
The top al-Qaida figure in captivity, Abu Zubaydah, was captured in Pakistan this year in a raid led by Pakistani special police working with the FBI. More recently, Ramzi Binalshibh, suspected of being a key player in the Sept. 11 plot, was captured in a raid in Karachi.
Some questioned yesterday why the CIA had killed Harithi rather than seeking to capture and interrogate him. Some wondered whether it represented a new mind-set in the al-Qaida hunt.
"It means the rules of engagement have changed," a former CIA official said.
U.S. officials declined to say whether the Yemeni government granted permission for the operation or was even aware of it beforehand. But the attack is likely to inflame anti-American sentiment in Yemen, where there is widespread sympathy for al-Qaida.
Pentagon officials said they had hoped the circumstances surrounding the attack would remain vague partly to keep al-Qaida guessing about U.S. tactics, but also to avoid embarrassing the Yemeni government. Yemeni officials also were reluctant to confirm the U.S. role in the attack.
"The reality is that the Yemeni government cooperated in this," a counterterrorism official said. "It could not have been done without them."
Greg Miller and Josh Meyer write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.