Rashid Rauf, the man believed to be a key planner in the 2006 plot to blow up airliners flying from London's Heathrow airport to destinations in the United States and Canada, was killed on Saturday in a U.S. drone attack targeting a remote village in Pakistan's border region along Afghanistan, a senior Pakistani intelligence official told CBS News.
A second Arab al Qaeda operative, Abu Al-Asr Al Misri, was also killed in the attack, according to the Pakistani official.
Western defense officials in Islamabad responding to the news said, if confirmed, the killing of the two men, especially Rauf, could deal a significant blow to al Qaeda militants who use Pakistan's border region for refuge, frequently traveling in and out of Afghanistan.
The Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity, said the drone attack in the north Waziristan region killed a total of five men.
"We have no confirmed information yet on the identity of the other three men. But we have confirmed the death of Rashid Rauf and Al Misri," the official said.
Rauf, a dual British-Pakistani citizen, was arrested in Pakistan in August 2006 on charges related to the Heathrow airliner plot. While Pakistani officials said at the time they intended to extradite him to Britain, Rauf was kept in the country and interrogated by Pakistan's security and intelligence officials.
Last December, Rauf mysteriously escaped from a Pakistani jail. The exact circumstances surrounding the escape have never been fully explained. Suspicions that some of the police guarding Rauf helped him escape have not been confirmed, though two policemen were arrested at the time.
A British intelligence source told CBS News that if Rauf is dead, then it would be a "significant blow" to al Qaeda in Pakistan.
"It would appear that Rauf was the link between al Qaeda in Pakistan and affliliated people here in the United Kingdom." The source added that "Rauf could have been the head of all foreign operations for al Qaeda."
According to the same source, if Rauf was targeted by the U.S., then it will present a human rights dilemma for the British government, as Rauf holds both British and Pakistani nationality. Clearly the British government will not welcome the "murder of one of its subjects by another sovereign power."
A western defense official in Islamabad who spoke to CBS News said Rauf's killing was likely to further embolden the U.S. in using drones, in spite of protests from the Pakistani government.
However, he warned that al Qaeda militants could choose to migrate to some of Pakistan's bigger cities, in the hope of inviting U.S. attacks there.
"If the militants leave the border region and go to bigger towns, the question will be, how far does the U.S. go after them?" said the defense official. "Ultimately, more U.S. attacks in more prominent areas could jeopardize the U.S.-Pakistan relationship," he added.
By Farhan Bokhari