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U.S. Intelligence: 2 Top Al-Qaida Terrorists Killed

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. U.S. officials are telling NPR about what they're calling a significant victory against the war against al-Qaeda in Pakistan. A CIA strike on New Year's Day is said to have killed al-Qaeda's chief of operations in Pakistan, along with his top lieutenant. If the U.S. intelligence is accurate, this is an important development; both men have been on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists for many years. Joining us now is NPR intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten. Morning, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN: Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us what officials have been telling you.

GJELTEN: Well, Renee, you know, we heard last week there were at least five missile strikes against suspected al-Qaeda targets over a two-day period - on New Year's Day and then on the next day - in the Waziristan region of Pakistan, near the village of Karikot; this is in the mountainous area along the border with Afghanistan. Now, we're told by U.S. counterterrorism officials that among those killed on one of those New Year's Day strikes were two top al-Qaeda operatives. One of them, as you say, was allegedly al-Qaeda's chief of operations in Pakistan, a man known to U.S. intelligence experts as Fahid Msalam. The other's been identified as Msalam's senior aid. Msalam is said by U.S. officials to have been the al-Qaeda operation's chief in Pakistan and a mastermind of that big bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September, when more than 50 people were killed.

I need to say this was first reported last night by the Washington Post, but U.S. counterterrorism officials have separately told me it's true. We don't have information to corroborate that separately from these U.S. sources. I can only pass on what I'm told, but these officials tell me they're sure that these two al-Qaeda operatives were killed there on New Year's Day.

MONTAGNE: Besides that big bombing, what else are these two accused of doing in the past?

GJELTEN: They are well-known to U.S. law enforcement, Renee. The second man's name is Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan. Both are from Kenya, and both are alleged to have been involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In fact, both were indicted in U.S. federal court for their alleged role in those bombings, and since then, they've been on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists, each with a $5 million reward on his head. One report I read last night alleged that they'd actually been involved in terrorism as far back as 1993 in Somalia. In the last two years, they've allegedly moved back and forth between East Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kenyon authorities have charged them in connection with the bombing of a hotel in Kenya in 2002. So, they're definitely big-time international terrorists. And if, indeed, they were killed on New Year's Day, it would be significant.

MONTAGNE: Caught in alleged history, do you know more details about how they were killed?

GJELTEN: No, I don't. I was told last night that these two men were in a building that was used for explosives training and operation planning. They were said to have been at work on a new bombing plot, but no details on how they were killed; presumably it was a CIA missile strike. The CIA is not commenting, but we do know the CIA in the last six months has carried out dozens of these missile strikes from unmanned aircraft in that region.

MONTAGNE: Now, if all of this turns out to be true as described, what does it say about the U.S. effort against al-Qaeda?

GJELTEN: It's certainly a lot more aggressive. It was really ramped up, Renee, this past summer, after President Bush signed an executive order that authorized more joint operations in Pakistan against al-Qaeda by the U.S. military and the CIA - not just missile strikes; attacks involving AC-130 gunships, helicopters, even commando forces on a couple of occasions. And it's apparently having an effect. We've heard now of a half dozen or more senior al-Qaeda figures killed in these strikes in the last few months. U.S. intelligence officials say it's possible because they're getting a lot better targeting information about where these guys are: intercepted telephone calls, Internet traffic, human intelligence on the ground. Maybe somebody is going to get those $5 million rewards, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Well, just lastly and briefly, is there any reaction from Pakistan?

GJELTEN: Not yet, you know, they're so focused on India right now. But this would suggest they're allowing this fight to go on.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tom Gjelten covers intelligence for NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.

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