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Originally published October 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 31, 2008 at 1:25 AM

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Targeting al-Qaida is taking toll

A U.S.airstrike in northwest Pakistan is believed to have killed a front-line leader of al-Qaida, anti-terror officials said this week, continuing an aerial barrage that has angered a key American ally but is thought to have hurt the network's operations.

Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — A U.S airstrike in northwest Pakistan is believed to have killed a front-line leader of al-Qaida, anti-terror officials said this week, continuing an aerial barrage that has angered a key American ally but is thought to have hurt the network's operations.

Intelligence indicates that a missile apparently fired from a U.S. Predator drone killed Khaled Habib, a veteran Egyptian militant who became a leader this year of the "external operations" core based in South Asia but targeting the West, a senior European anti-terror official said Thursday.

Habib apparently died in a vehicle that was blown up in the attack Oct. 16 in the village of Saam, a hub of foreign militants protected by tribesmen loyal to a Taliban chief in South Waziristan, according to the senior official.

As with other al-Qaida bosses thought to have been slain by U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan this year, confirmation of Habib's demise remains difficult, but "we have good reason to believe he is dead," the senior European anti-terror official said.

U.S. anti-terror forces have set their sights on a key second-tier of leaders who run day-to-day operations for the fugitive Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Previous operational chiefs slain this year included Abu Laith al-Libi, a top Libyan. Anti-terrorism officials also believe that a strike in July killed Midhat Mursi al Sayid Umar, an Egyptian explosives expert. At least 15 suspected Predator strikes have taken place since early August, more than three times the year's total up until then.

As the pace of the raids has accelerated, they have become very delicate for Pakistan's 7-month-old civilian government. On Wednesday, Pakistani leaders summoned U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson to demand a halt to airstrikes, saying they were a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. Nonetheless, the aerial onslaught appears to have kept the predominantly Arab al-Qaida core on the run. Residents in North and South Waziristan say militants in recent weeks have avoided mosques and religious schools that have been prime targets.

In 2005, bin Laden appointed Habib commander of military operations in Afghanistan, according to the official and Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based terror expert. A close friend of Zawahiri, Habib was considered an "able commander," but seen as "more of an introvert" and "much less inspiring" than more powerful chiefs who have since been killed or captured, said Gunaratna.

In 2006, Habib played a role in talks with tribesmen in the region to ensure a refuge for al-Qaida, according to Gunaratna. The network operates in the part of South Waziristan where he operated with the protection of Baitullah Mehsud, a prominent Taliban chief and top al-Qaida ally, officials say.

In addition to the high-ranking casualties, American and Pakistani pressure appears to have slowed al-Qaida's prolific propaganda and communications activities on the Internet, the senior European official said. Anti-terror experts are waiting to see whether bin Laden issues a video before Tuesday's U.S. presidential election, as he did before Americans voted in 2004.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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