Nov. 5, 2002 -- The CIA used an unmanned Predator drone to blow up a car carrying six suspected al Qaeda operatives in Yemen on Sunday, sources told ABCNEWS.
The passengers were believed to include a man linked to the bombing of the USS Cole two years ago, sources said.
He was identified as Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, also known as Abu Ali. Sources said he was considered al Qaeda's top man in Yemen.
All that was left of the car was rubble in the desert. U.S. sources said the car was destroyed by two Hellfire missiles launched from the Predator surveillance plane.
Officials said the CIA, using American and Yemeni agents on the ground — and the Predator overhead — had been tracking the suspect for weeks, waiting for the right moment.
Yemeni government sources have confirmed that traces of explosives and communications equipment were found in the car traveling in the oil-producing Marib province, about 100 miles east of the capital, San'a on Sunday.
Speaking to Reuters today, a Yemeni government official said authorities were investigating the car blast.
‘It Would Be a Very Good Thing’
On Monday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to comment on who fired the missiles, but left no doubt as to how he felt about the death of al-Harthi.
"He's been an individual that has been sought after as an al Qaeda member as well as a suspected terrorist connected to the USS Cole," Rumsfeld said. "So it would be a very good thing if he were out of business."
The Cole was bombed in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000 by attackers who rammed the vessel with an explosives-packed inflatable boat, killing 17 U.S. sailors.
The CIA launched Sunday's missile attack, sources said, because the government of Yemen could not, and its military was incapable of carrying out the operation.
Yemen officials have been working with the United States, but are desperate to avoid publicity because some of the country's tribal leaders strongly support Osama bin Laden.
The raid was carried out in the tribal area of Marib, the region where bin Laden's father was born. It's also where 19 Yemeni soldiers were killed last year as they tried to raid a suspected al Qaeda stronghold, sources said.
Since then, the government of Yemen has helped to gather intelligence on suspected al Qaeda members, and has used its own commandos, freshly trained by the United States, to conduct other raids against suspected terrorists.
Safe Haven for Terrorists
Since the United States has driven so many al Qaeda fighters out of Afghanistan, American officials have been increasingly concerned that Yemen would become a safe haven for terrorists on the run.
Parts of Yemen remain beyond control of the central government, especially the vast eastern third of the country known as the Hadramawt.
Sunday's attack is the first time the U.S. is known to have used a Predator to launch an attack outside of Afghanistan. The unmanned aircraft have been successfully used many times during the campaign in Afghanistan.
The United States has several thousand troops in the region, where many other countries also have weak central governments or none at all, and where the U.S. officials also believe terrorists are likely to hide.
ABCNEWS' John McWethy contributed to this report.