WASHINGTON: Al Qaeda's third-in-command, whose role spanned from operations to fundraising, is believed to have been killed earlier this month in a US missile strike in the tribal areas of Pakistan, officials said on Monday.
The CIA has stepped up the pace of unmanned drone strikes in the tribal zone bordering Afghanistan, targeting not only high-level al Qaeda and Taliban targets but largely unknown foot soldiers as well.
"In terms of counterterrorism, this would be a big victory," a US official said of the death of Sheikh Sa'id al Masri, also known as Mustafa Abu al Yazid.
Al-Masri was widely seen as al Qaeda's No 3 figure and its main conduit to leader Osama bin Laden.
As al Qaeda's chief operating officer, he had a hand in everything from finances to operational planning, the official said on condition of anonymity.
"We have strong reason to believe ... that al Masri was killed recently in Pakistan's tribal areas," the US official said.
Earlier on Monday, al Qaeda announced al Masri's death in an Internet posting, according to the US-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant websites.
In addition to al Masri, the announcement said that his wife, three of his daughters, his granddaughter and other men, women and children were killed.
SITE said al-Masri, an Egyptian, served as the general head of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and that his last known public statement, dated May 4, eulogised the deaths of top militants in Iraq.
The US official said al-Masri is believed to have been killed earlier in May but did not provide a specific date.
CIA Director Leon Panetta has asserted that attacks against al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal regions appear to have driven bin Laden and other leaders deeper into hiding, leaving the organisation incapable of planning sophisticated operations.
But the White House warned last week of a dangerous "new phase" in the terrorism threat, citing the failed Christmas Day bombing of a US airliner and the botched Times Square car bomb attempt earlier this month.
In March, US officials said a drone strike in Pakistan killed a key al Qaeda planner, Hussein al Yemeni.
US officials say the pilotless drones are one of the most effective weapons against militants, but they have stoked resentment in Pakistan, where anti-American feeling runs high.