al Qaeda’s praetorian guards and al Qaeda high command the target of the March 2006 strike at Danda Saidgai
Task Force 145, the special operations group responsible for the hunt for al Qaeda in Iraq leadership and the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has been active in Pakistan’s tribal belts. The recent capture of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is very likely a TF-145 operation. Two incidents earlier in the year, the strike against high level al Qaeda and Taliban leaders at a dinner in Damadola, and the assault on al Qaeda’s train camp in Danda Saidgai also have the signature of the hidden hand of Task Force 145. This information was recently leaked in the Washington Posts, which the Daily Times provides an excellent summary on the hunt for Osama and the strike on Danda Saidgai., a camp in North Waziristan.
A special US unit now has the authority to go after Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan without having to seek permission first, according to two US officials. A comprehensive report on the hunt for bin Laden run by the Washington Post on Sunday says that Lieutenant General Stanley A McChrystal, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operates on the understanding with Pakistan that U.S. units will not enter Pakistan, except under extreme circumstances, and that Pakistan will deny giving them permission.
This is what happened in January 2006, when the JSOC troops clandestinely entered the village of Saidgai, two officials familiar with the operation said, and Pakistan protested.”The authority,” one knowledgeable person said, “follows the target”: if the target is bin Laden, the stakes are high enough for McChrystal to decide any action on his own.
Lt.Gen. McChrystal and JSOC command Task force 145. Like the hunt for Zarqawi in Iraq, Lt.Gen. McChrystal has been given wide latitude in the hunt for al Qaeda command’s senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Damadola airstrike was conducted by unmanned U.S. Predators purportedly with the assistance of Pakistani scouts (called the ‘Spider Group’), bu the likelihood is U.S. Special Operations teams were on the ground spotting for the Predators. While Zawahiri escaped the conflagration, five senior al Qaeda commanders, including Abu Khabab, the chief of the weapons of mass destruction program, were killed.
I documented the attack in Danda Saidgai in March and explained this wasn’t an ordinary, hastily assembled terrorist training camp:
The terrorist camp in Danda Saidgai wasn’t just a transient camp hastily assembled, but a “sprawling hideout ” and “military complex” which housed hundreds of foreign fighters and served as a training center. There were “eight residential quarters” which served as barracks for the terrorists. This camp has been in existence for some time, and it is believed there are several more like it spread throughout the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Northwest Frontier Provinces.
It turns out this was a special camp used to train al Qaeda’s elite Black Guard, the praetorian guard designated to protect Osama bin Laden. The cover story for the strike was that Pakistani Army units, including helicopters equipped with night vision equipment, hit the camp. But the truth is Task Force 145 struck with air and ground forces, and inflicted dozens of casualties on al Qaeda recruits and Imam Asad, a senior Chechen al Qaeda commander and associate of recently slain Shamil Basayev. Asad was the camp commander and at the time the commander of al Qaeda in Pakistan, a position of honor and power within al Qaeda due to the importance of the country to the organization.
The Black Guard are specially selected al Qaeda members who take a blood oath to defend bin Laden to the death. Their numbers are estimated to be at around 200-500 guards. They are highly trained in weapons, tactics and in the martial arts. The rank and file are branded. Senior al Qaeda leaders serve a stint as squad leaders before receiving their assignments. Osama bin Laden selects the squad leaders himself and establishes personal ties with these future leaders.
For bin Laden to personally select the squad leaders, he would have to be in attendance at the camp, unless the individual members were brought to his hiding place. The fact that Task Force 145 struck in Danda Saidgai indicates intelligence believed there was a strong possibility bin Laden and perhaps Ayman al-Zawahiri were in the camp. Lt.Gen. McChrystal committed his valuable resources and the potential diplomatic backlash by striking inside Pakistani territory.
The assaults on Damadola and Danda Saidgai would cement al Qaeda’s desire to go from a behind the scenes actor in Waziristan to seize overt political and military power in the region. Covert strikes against bin Laden and Zawahiri were direct threats to al Qaeda. The Pakistani government could not be trusted to keep the Americans from entering Pakistan, and were now of little use. Al-Qaeda went to war with Pakistan, with the goal of establishing the the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan, a goal which would become reality just over six months later.