A senior al Qaeda operative was killed by a missile fired from a CIA Predator aircraft on the Pakistani side of the remote area near the Afghan border earlier this week, U.S. intelligence officials told ABC News.
The CIA refused to confirm or deny any operational matter.
Haitham al-Yemeni, a native of Yemen known for his bomb-making skills, had been tracked for some time in the hope that he would help lead the United States to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, intelligence officials said. But with the recent capture in northwest Pakistan of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, thought to be al Qaeda's No. 3 man, officials worried al-Yemeni would soon go into hiding, and decided to take action.
Al-Yemeni was in line to replace al-Libbi, intelligence analysts said.
"It's an important step that has been taken in that it has eliminated another level of experienced leadership from the directorate of al Qaeda itself," said Vince Cannistraro, former head of counterterrorism for the CIA and now an ABC News consultant. "It will help weaken the organization and make it much less effective."
The CIA has the authority to fire at will against senior al Qaeda figures anywhere in the world, though it is unclear whether the Pakistanis approved of the action in advance. A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., said he was unaware of any such actions this week.
"There is a determination by the president that any member of al Qaeda that can be identified can be attacked," said Cannistraro.
This would be only the fourth known time the CIA Predator has opened fire on al Qaeda targets.
Most recently, six suspected terrorists, including Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a close associate of bin Laden, were killed in Yemen in November 2002 in an attack the Yemen government said it approved in advance.
Officials said that on two occasions the Predator has been used to attack individuals mistakenly thought to be bin Laden.