In the predawn hours of Jan. 29, a CIA Predator aircraft flew in a slow arc above the Pakistani town of Mir Ali. The drone's operator, relying on information secretly passed to the CIA by local informants, clicked a computer mouse and sent the first of two Hellfire missiles hurtling toward a cluster of mud-brick buildings a few miles from the town center.
The missiles killed Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda commander and a man who had repeatedly eluded the CIA's dragnet. It was the first successful strike against al-Qaeda's core leadership in two years, and it involved, U.S. officials say, an unusual degree of autonomy by the CIA inside Pakistan.
Having requested the Pakistani government's official permission for such strikes on previous occasions, only to be put off or turned down, this time the U.S. spy agency did not seek approval. The government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was notified only as the operation was underway, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
Officials say the incident was a model of how Washington often scores its rare victories these days in the fight against al-Qaeda inside Pakistan's national borders: It acts with assistance from well-paid sympathizers inside the country, but without getting the government's formal permission beforehand.
It is an approach that some U.S. officials say could be used more frequently this year, particularly if a power vacuum results from yesterday's election and associated political tumult. The administration also feels an increased sense of urgency about undermining al-Qaeda before President Bush leaves office, making it less hesitant, said one official familiar with the incident.
Independent actions by U.S. military forces on another country's sovereign territory are always controversial, and both U.S. and Pakistani officials have repeatedly sought to obscure operational details that would reveal that key decisions are sometimes made in the United States, not in Islamabad. Some Pentagon operations have been undertaken only after intense disputes with the State Department, which has worried that they might inflame Pakistani public resentment; the CIA itself has sometimes sought to put the brakes on because of anxieties about the consequences for its relationship with Pakistani intelligence officials.
U.S. military officials say, however, that the uneven performance of their Pakistani counterparts increasingly requires that Washington pursue the fight however it can, sometimes following an unorthodox path that leaves in the dark Pakistani military and intelligence officials who at best lack commitment and resolve and at worst lack sympathy for U.S. interests.
Top Bush administration policy officials -- who are increasingly worried about al-Qaeda's use of its sanctuary in remote, tribally ruled areas in northern Pakistan to dispatch trained terrorists to the West -- have quietly begun to accept the military's point of view, according to several sources familiar with the context of the Libi strike.
"In the past, it required getting approval from the highest levels," said one former intelligence official involved in planning for previous strikes. "You may have information that is valid for only 30 minutes. If you wait, the information is no longer valid."
But when the autonomous U.S. military operations in Pakistan succeed, support for them grows in Washington in probably the same proportion as Pakistani resentments increase. Even as U.S. officials ramp up the pressure on Musharraf to do more, Pakistan's embattled president has taken a harder line in public against cooperation in recent months, the sources said. "The posture that was evident two years ago is not evident," said a senior U.S. official who frequently visits the region.
A U.S. military official familiar with operations in the tribal areas, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the operations, said: "We'll get these one-off flukes once every eight months or so, but that's still not a strategy -- it's not a plan. Every now and then something will come together. What that serves to do [is] it tamps down discussion about whether there is a better way to do it."
The Target Is Identified
During seven years of searching for Osama bin Laden and his followers, the U.S. government has deployed billions of dollars' worth of surveillance hardware to South Asia, from top-secret spy satellites to sophisticated eavesdropping gear for intercepting text messages and cellphone conversations.
Yet some of the initial clues that led to the Libi strike were decidedly low-tech, according to an account supplied by four officials briefed on the operation. The CIA declined to comment about the strike and neither confirmed nor denied its involvement.
Hours before the attack, multiple sources said, the CIA was alerted to a convoy of vehicles that bore all the signatures of al-Qaeda officers on the move. Local residents -- who two sources said were not connected to the Pakistani army or intelligence service -- began monitoring the cluster of vehicles as it passed through North Waziristan, a rugged, largely lawless province that borders Afghanistan.
Eventually the local sources determined that the convoy carried up to seven al-Qaeda operatives and one individual who appeared to be of high rank. Asked how the local support had been arranged, a U.S. official familiar with the episode said, "All it takes is bags of cash."
Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis for Strategic Forecasting, a private intelligence group, said the informants could have been recruits from the Afghanistan side of the border, where the U.S. military operates freely.
"People in this region don't recognize the border, which is very porous," Bokhari said. "It is very likely that our people were in contact with intelligence sources who frequent both sides and could provide some kind of targeting information."
Precisely what U.S. officials knew about the "high-value target" in the al-Qaeda convoy is unclear. Libi, a 41-year-old al-Qaeda commander who had slowly climbed to the No. 5 spot on the CIA's most wanted list, was a hulking figure who stood 6 feet 4 inches tall. He spoke Libyan-accented Arabic and learned to be cautious after narrowly escaping a previous CIA strike. U.S. intelligence officials say he directed several deadly attacks, including a bombing at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan last year that killed 23 people.
Alerted to the suspicious convoy, the CIA used a variety of surveillance techniques to follow its progression through Mir Ali, North Waziristan's second-largest town, and to a walled compound in a village on the town's outskirts.
The stopping place itself was an indication that these were important men: The compound was the home of Abdus Sattar, 45, a local Taliban commander and an associate of Baitullah Mehsud, the man accused by both the CIA and Pakistan of plotting the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27.
With all signs pointing to a unique target, CIA officials ordered the launch of a pilotless MQ-1B Predator aircraft, one of three kept at a secret base that the Pakistani government has allowed to be stationed inside the country. Launches from that base do not require government permission, officials said.
During the early hours of Jan. 29, the slow-moving, 27-foot-long plane circled the village before vectoring in to lock its camera sights on Sattar's compound. Watching intently were CIA and Air Force operators who controlled the aircraft's movements from an operations center at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
On orders from CIA officials in McLean, the operators in Nevada released the Predator's two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles -- 100-pound, rocket-propelled munitions tipped with a high-explosive warhead. The missiles tore into the compound's main building and an adjoining guesthouse where the al-Qaeda officers were believed to be staying.
Even when viewed from computer monitors thousands of miles away, the missiles' impact was stunning. The buildings were destroyed, and as many as 13 inhabitants were killed, U.S. officials said. The pictures captured after the attack were "not pretty," said one knowledgeable source.
Libi's death was confirmed by al-Qaeda, which announced his "martyrdom" on Feb. 1 in messages posted on the Web sites of sympathetic groups. One message hailed Libi as "the father of many lions who now own the land and mountains of jihadi Afghanistan" and said al-Qaeda's struggle "would not be defeated by the death of one person, no matter how important he may be."
A Temporary Impact
Publicly, reaction to the strike among U.S. and Pakistani leaders has been muted, with neither side appearing eager to call attention to an awkward, albeit successful, unilateral U.S. military operation. Some Pakistani government spokesmen have even questioned whether the terrorist leader was killed.
"It's not going to overwhelm their network or break anything up definitively," acknowledged a military official briefed on details of the Libi strike. He added: "We're now in a sit-and-wait mode until someone else pops up."
Richard A. Clarke, a former counterterrorism adviser to the Clinton and Bush administrations, said he has been told by those involved that the counterterror effort requires constant pressure on the Pakistani government.
"The United States has gotten into a pattern where it sends a high-level delegation over to beat Musharraf up, and then you find that within a week or two a high-value target has been identified. Then he ignores us for a while until we send over another high-level delegation," Clarke said.
Some officials also emphasized that such airstrikes have a marginal and temporary impact. And they do not yield the kind of intelligence dividends often associated with the live capture of terrorists -- documents, computers, equipment and diaries that could lead to further unraveling the network.
The officials stressed that despite the occasional tactical success against it, such as the Libi strike, the threat posed by al-Qaeda's presence in Pakistan has been growing. As a senior U.S. official briefed on the strike said: "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then. But overall, we're in worse shape than we were 18 months ago."
© 2008 The Washington Post