In the dead of night, the US Predator aircraft swooped in over the hamlet of Haisori, locking in on an abandoned house five travelers had quietly entered just hours before, according to neighbors. Then, they say, the drone fired on the stone and mud dwelling for about eight minutes, reducing it to rubble.
Pakistani officials say the airstrike, which took place last Thursday in tribal region of North Waziristan, killed five people, including Al Qaeda's No. 3 man, Egyptian Abu Hamza Rabia. Conflicting reports cast some uncertainty on Mr. Rabia's death and his exact rank, however.
If Islamabad's account holds true it would represent the third Al Qaeda "No. 3" to be killed or captured in as many years. Taking out the terrorist network's operations manager represents an intelligence victory with obvious short-term gains in disrupting terrorist planning, but also points to Al Qaeda's ability to bounce back from these losses in the past, say analysts.
"Authorities may be able to capture whichever lieutenant takes on this position, but equally Al Qaeda has quickly been able replace these guys," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist who has followed Al Qaeda since its inception. "We expect again they will be able to come up with someone new who is equally committed."
Haisori, located close to the border with Afghanistan, is in the heart of a remote area where remnants of Al Qaeda are believed to be hiding out.
Pakistani officials have said that Rabia's death was confirmed by DNA tests.
After the strike, neighbors crept into the rubble of the home and collected the bodies, saying they were almost unrecognizable. Armed militants later appeared to collect the dead, villagers said by telephone. They thanked the villagers, and melted back into the mountains.
Al Qaeda loyalists in North Waziristan later told Pakistani journalists that the airstrike indeed killed five people, but said the only Arab among the group was Moroccan Suleiman Almaghreby.
Pakistani officials later admitted they did not have Rabia's body nor photographic evidence. But intelligence officials here said they had tracked their target for days and were 100 percent certain Rabia had entered the house in Haisori. President Pervez Musharraf, speaking to reporters in Kuwait City, later called the information "200 percent confirmed."
It was impossible to verify either side's claim. Many Al Qaeda militants go by multiple aliases and carry fake passports. But Pakistani officials have in the past misidentified their captures.
Mr. Yusufzai, who has followed Al Qaeda since its inception, said the swift denial from the militants indicated it probably was Rabia who has been killed. "We can't really be sure he was number three in their operation, but he must rank high."
The No. 3 position, or operations chief for the Al Qaeda network, would be responsible for planning major global attacks, and coordinating with strike teams around the world.
It's a risky post to hold. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a main architect of the Sept. 11 strikes on Washington and New York, was nabbed in Rawalpindi in 2003. Then came Libyan Abu Faraj al Libbi, who was captured this May in Pakistan's tribal belt.
Accounts of an American predator operating inside Pakistani territory is expected to cause a backlash in the tribal region.