US strikes in Pakistan aimed at stopping the next Sept. 11 attack
US Special Operations Forces have stepped up attacks inside Pakistan's lawless tribal agencies in part of an effort to prevent the next major attack inside the United States, senior military and intelligence sources told The Long War Journal.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said reports that the Bush administration is focused on "getting Osama bin Laden," the elusive leader of al Qaeda's global network, are overblown.
"Getting bin Laden would be nice, and it would clearly be a victory, but at the end of the day, al Qaeda's network will still exist," one source told The Long War Journal. "We need to take down that network to stop the next attack on US soil. Al Qaeda is more than bin Laden."
The cross-border raids are designed to disrupt al Qaeda's training camps and safe houses that aid in preparing for attacks against the West, sources say. The US is also targeting al Qaeda's Taliban allies in Pakistan, such as the powerful Haqqani family in North Waziristan and the Taliban forces of Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan.
"The Haqqanis, Nazir, Baitullah [Mehsud], Faqir [Mohammed], and others in the tribal areas not only facilitate attacks against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, they play a critical role in facilitating attacks against the West by providing safe havens and sponsoring camps that train foreign terrorists," a military intelligence source said.
Many of the major post-Sept. 11 plots and attacks against the West have been traced back to Pakistan's tribal areas. Western Arabs and South Asians have traveled to Pakistan's tribal areas for approval, guidance, training, and support to conduct their attacks.
"We believe the next major attack will be carried out by someone carrying a Western passport," one official said, clearly worried at the security situation in northwestern Pakistan. "It is imperative we stop the next [Sept. 11] attack. This is what we are trying to do."
The intelligence officials agreed the writ of Pakistani state is absent from Pakistan's tribal areas and much of the Northwest Frontier Province. The deteriorating situation has forced the US to step up its strikes.
"[The decision to strike at the camps] is the best in a series of bad options," one intelligence source said. "If we do nothing, al Qaeda festers and we've failed. If we wait for the Pakistanis to take care of this, it won't happen," the source stated, expressing frustration at the lack of cooperation and initiative on the part of the Pakistani government and military. "If we strike, we risk destabilizing the new government. But Pakistan is hardly stable and northwestern Pakistan is enemy territory."
"You might as well paint the entire Northwest Frontier Province red," one senior military intelligence source said, referring to the map used by The Long War Journal that tracks the hot spots in the Northwest Frontier Province.
US intelligence believes al Qaeda has regenerated its capacity to strike at the West by rebuilding in Pakistan's northwest. There are currently 157 training camps and "more than 400 support locations" spread throughout the tribal areas and the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province, senior intelligence officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Long War Journal on Aug. 13. This number does not include Taliban camps and support locations in Baluchistan province.
Targeting al Qaeda's external operations
The US military has launched 18 cross-border strikes inside Pakistan this year, according to numbers compiled by The Long War Journal. Attacks have skyrocketed over the past three weeks. Ten strikes have been carried out since Aug. 31. The US carried out 10 cross border attacks in Pakistan during 2006 and 2007 combined.
While the sources refused to provide specific details on the targets in Pakistan due to operational security concerns, a look at the strikes inside Pakistan this year shows that several of the targets clearly were involved in the portion of al Qaeda's network designed to strike at the West. Many other of the targets support al Qaeda and Taliban operations inside Afghanistan.
The first major strike against al Qaeda's "external operations" network took place in the town of Damadola in the Bajaur tribal agency on May 14. The missile strike killed Abu Sulayman Jazairi, a senior Algerian al Qaeda operatives who western intelligence sources described as the operational commander tasked with planning attacks on the West. Fourteen others were killed in the strike, including several members of Jazairi's staff.
Jazairi succeeded Abu Ubaidah al Masri, a senior al Qaeda operative who served as al Qaeda operations chief for global strikes. Ubaidah is thought to have died of an illness. In addition to being al Qaeda's external operations chief, Jazairi also was a senior trainer and an explosives expert. These skills enabled him to directly train operatives for strikes in the West.
The next major strike occurred more than two months later in the Azam Warsak region in South Waziristan on July 28. The attack killed Midhat Mursi al Sayyid Umar, a senior al Qaeda commander who is better known as Abu Khabab al Masri, along with four members of his staff.
Khabab served as the chief of al Qaeda's weapons of mass destruction program, known as Project al Zabadi. He is best known for running a training camp at Derunta in Afghanistan, where he conducted experiments on animals to determine the effectiveness of chemical weapons. Khabab was also a master bomb-marker, and passed his skills onto his associates.
The third strike that can be directly traced to al Qaeda's external operations is the Aug. 30 attack on an al Qaeda safe house in the Korzai region near Wana in South Waziristan. The target of the strike was a known al Qaeda safe house, locals later told the Pakistani press. Five were killed in the attack, including two Canadians of Arab origin. The men held Canadian passports.
Targeting the Pakistani Taliban
Of the fifteen other strikes, most can be directly traced back to the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan and Taliban forces run either by Mullah Nazir or Baitullah Mehsud.
The US has conducted seven strikes against the Haqqanis in North Waziristan this year. The Haqqanis are closely allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda, and have close links with the Inter-Services Intelligence. One of the strikes killed Abu Laith al Libi, al Qaeda's senior commander in Afghanistan, in a compound in Haqqani's tribal areas.
The Haqqanis, led by legendary mujahideen commander Jalaluddin, run a parallel government in North Waziristan and conduct military and suicide operations in eastern Afghanistan. Siraj Haqqani, Jalaluddin's son, has close ties to Osama bin Laden and is one of the most wanted terrorist commanders in Afghanistan. The Haqqanis also actively recruit foreign Muslims to conduct suicide attacks in Afghanistan.
Nine strikes have been carried out in South Waziristan in regions controlled by Mullah Nazir and Baitullah Mehsud.
While many Pakistan analysts have portrayed Nazir as a "pro-government tribal leader" because of his opposition to Uzbek fighters settling in his tribal areas and his rivalry to Baitullah, a closer look at Nazir shows he is committed to the Taliban and al Qaeda cause.
Nazir openly supports al Qaeda and its leadership, and admitted he would provide shelter to senior al Qaeda leaders. "How can I say no to any request from Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar under tribal traditions, if they approach me to get shelter," Nazir asked the Pakistani press in the spring of 2007. Arab al Qaeda operatives help finance Nazir's operations. He also openly supports the continuation of the jihad in Afghanistan and trains and provides fighters to support operations in Afghanistan.
Baitullah is the overall leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, an amalgam of local Taliban organizations throughout the tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province. He is viewed as one of the most dangerous Taliban leaders in Pakistan. His forces fight inside Afghanistan and he has vowed to assist al Qaeda in attacking Western governments. He has been behind a two-year terror campaign in Pakistan that has claimed thousands of lives.
The US struck a Taliban safe house in the town of Makeen in South Waziristan on June 14 in an attempt to kill Baitullah. Makeen is Baitullah's home town.
Questions about whether the attacks will continue
The recent spate of attacks inside Pakistan have caused political turmoil inside Pakistan. The most controversial strike inside Pakistan occurred on Sept 3, when US forces conducted an air assault in a border village in South Waziristan. More than 20 Pakistanis were killed in the attack. The US stated Taliban fighters were killed in the action, while the Pakistani government claimed only women and children were killed.
The incident prompted political leaders to make promises to defend Pakistan's borders, while the military issued orders to open fire on US forces crossing the border. A purported US raid was thwarted by the Pakistani military on Sept. 15. The government also briefly closed the vital Torkham border crossing point in Khyber to NATO traffic for one day as a warning to the US. More than 70 percent of NATO's supplies flow through the Torkham border crossing point.
Yet the US has conducted six attacks inside Pakistan since the Sept 3. raid. The latest attack occurred just hours after Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, left Pakistan vowing to respect Pakistan's sovereignty.
US military and intelligence officials wonder how long the strikes can continue. The Pakistanis may get serious and close the Torkham and Chaman crossing points to NATO traffic for extended periods. The strikes may cause the current Pakistani government to collapse, leaving a political vacuum that can be filled with Taliban sympathizers such as Nawaz Sharif.
"We're damned if we do and damned if we don't," one official said in desperation.
US attacks inside Pakistan in 2008:
• US strikes Taliban camp in South Waziristan
Sept. 17, 2008
• Report: US helicopters fired on while crossing Pakistani border
Sept. 15, 2008
• US hits compound in North Waziristan,
Sept. 12, 2008
• US targets Haqqani Network in North Waziristan,
Sept. 8, 2008
• US airstrike killed five al Qaeda operatives in North Waziristan,
Sept. 5, 2008
• Report: US airstrike kills four in North Waziristan,
Sept. 4, 2008
• Pakistanis claim US helicopter-borne forces assaulted village in South Waziristan,
Sept. 3, 2008
• US hits al Qaeda safe house in North Waziristan,
Aug. 31, 2008
• Five killed in al Qaeda safe house strike in South Waziristan,
Aug. 31, 2008
• Al Qaeda safe house targeted in South Waziristan strike,
Aug. 20, 2008
• Cross-border strike targets one of the Taliban's 157 training camps in Pakistan's northwest,
Aug. 13, 2008
• Six killed in strike in South Waziristan,
July 28, 2008
• Report: Strike targets Baitullah Mehsud's hideout in Pakistan,
June 14, 2008
• Senior Algerian al Qaeda operative killed in May 14 strike inside Pakistan,
May 24, 2008
• Missile strike kills 20 in South Waziristan,
March 16, 2008
• Unprecedented Coalition strike nails the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan,
March 13, 2008
• Missile strike on al Qaeda meeting in South Waziristan kills 13,
Feb. 28, 2008
• Senior al Qaeda leader Abu Laith al Libi killed in North Waziristan,
Jan. 31, 2008