Al-Qaida leader believed dead in Pakistan

Commander likely killed in explosion


NEW DELHI -- An Egyptian believed to be commander of al-Qaida international operations was killed last week in Pakistan's mountainous border region near Afghanistan, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said yesterday.

Abu Hamza Rabia died Thursday in an explosion in the tribal area of North Waziristan, Musharraf told reporters during an official visit to Kuwait.

Pakistani Information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who was traveling with Musharraf, described Rabia as either No. 3 or No. 5 in the al-Qaida hierarchy. In Washington, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official agreed that Rabia was responsible for international planning, including operations against the United States.

"People like to put numbers on these people, and we try to stay away from that," said the counterterrorism official. "But no one would take issue with [Rabia] being described as the No. 3 behind [Osama] bin Laden and [Ayman al-]Zawahiri. He's a senior member of al-Qaida, and this is a significant blow to them."

At the same time, other experts cautioned that the killing probably would have a limited impact because al-Qaida has become less of a hierarchical organization since the 2001 attacks on American targets and more of a movement that can carry out missions without direction from top leaders.

Pakistani and American officials have said they believe bin Laden is alive and probably hiding somewhere along the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. His top lieutenant, al-Zawahiri, has tried to rally the network's supporters in several recent video and audio tapes.

Rabia is said to have taken over al-Qaida's international operations after the capture of Libyan Abu Faraj Farj al Libbi in early May. Farj was handed over to U.S. authorities a month later and his current whereabouts have not been disclosed. Farj had been seen as the successor to Sept. 11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in 2003.

Contrasting reports quickly emerged about the circumstances surrounding Rabia's death.

Pakistani authorities said Rabia was killed along with five other militants when bomb-making material exploded in a house where they were hiding in the village of Asoray, east of Miranshah, the region's administrative capital.

But Pakistan's English-language Dawn newspaper reported that the explosions were caused by several missiles from an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, striking the house about 1:45 a.m. Thursday.

Local residents heard six explosions and, according to the Dawn report, "three foreigners of Middle Eastern origin," including Rabia, were later pulled from the rubble and buried in an undisclosed location. The report quoted unnamed "officials and tribal witnesses."

The U.S. repeatedly has flown drones armed with missiles along the rugged mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. But armed operations by foreign forces are a sensitive political issue for Musharraf, so if the U.S. were involved in Rabia's death, Pakistan's government would be unlikely to confirm it.

Pakistan has called Rabia one of a group of extremists involved in attempts to assassinate Musharraf in 2003. In August 2004, the government offered rewards for Rabia and others, with experts saying at that time that Rabia ranked eighth in al-Qaida's hierarchy.

Several counterterrorism specialists questioned the usefulness of such ranking efforts.

"We need to shy away from rank ordering these guys other than bin Laden and Zawahiri," said Roger W. Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism official in the Bush and Clinton administrations.

"But clearly, he was upper tier and a significant figure. He's one of the people who was involved in planning and operational management, and anytime you get one of these guys you are hurting their ability to target the United States."

Paul Watson and Ken Silverstein report for the Los Angeles Times.

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