The US launched an airstrike inside of Pakistan’s tribal areas early Saturday morning, ending a 24-day lull in attacks against Taliban and al Qaeda networks inside Pakistan.
An unmanned US Predator strike aircraft fired two missiles into a compound of a Taliban commander based in the town of Malik Khel in the Ladha region of the Taliban-controlled tribal agency of South Waziristan. Twenty-five extremists, most of them from Uzbekistan, were killed in the strike, a senior Taliban leader told Reuters.
“Our people have informed us that at least 25 people were killed,” the Taliban official said.”It could be more. Most of them are Uzbek mujahideen.” The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, commanded by Tahir Yuldashev, operates in South Waziristan.
Ladha is in the eastern half of South Waziristan in a region controlled by Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. There were at least two other strikes in Baitullah’s territory in South Waziristan during 2007, and another strike this year.
In mid-June 2008, a strike hit a Taliban safe house in Baitullah’s hometown of Makeen. In mid-October 2008 , a Predator strike took place in the village of Saam, also in the Ladha region. And on Jan. 2, 2009, another strike took place in Madin in the Lahda region.
Today’s strike is the fifth attack this year and the first since Jan. 23, when US Predators conducted attacks in North and South Waziristan. The Jan. 23 attacks took place just two days after President Barack Obama took office.
The airstrike in South Waziristan is also the first since Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, disclosed that the CIA was operating a covert air base that is used to conduct the attacks inside of Pakistan. “As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base,” Feinstein said after brushing off criticism and protests over the attacks.
Senator Feinstein’s spokesman later claimed she was referring to a February 2008 report in the Washington Post. In September 2006, the Asia Times reported the US was operating a secret base in Tarbella, a region 12 miles outside of Islamabad.
Pakistan’s defense minister rejected Feinstein’s claim on Feb. 13. “We do have the facilities from where they can fly, but they are not being flown from Pakistani territory,” Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar said. “They are being flown from Afghanistan… I do not know on what she based all this.”
Senior officials in Pakistan’s government and military, including the president, the prime minister, and the Army chief of staff, have repeatedly protested US airstrikes inside the tribal areas as violations of the country’s sovereignty. The disclosure of the base puts the Pakistani officials in a difficult situation with the citizens of Pakistan.
Background on US strikes against al Qaeda and the Taliban’s networks in Northwestern Pakistan
Click map for full view. Taliban presence, by district and tribal agency, the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies. Information on Taliban presence obtained from open source and derived by The Long War Journal based on the presence of Taliban shadow governments, levels of fighting, and reports from the region. Map created by Bill Raymond for The Long War Journal.
US intelligence believes al Qaeda has reconstituted its external operations network in Pakistan’s lawless, Taliban-controlled tribal areas. This network is tasked with hitting targets in the West, India, and elsewhere. The US has struck at these external cells using unmanned Predator aircraft and other means in an effort to disrupt al Qaeda’s external network and decapitate the leadership.
As of last summer, al Qaeda and the Taliban operated 157 known training camps. Al Qaeda has been training terrorists holding Western passports to conduct attacks, US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal. Some of the camps are devoted to training the Taliban’s military arm, some train suicide bombers for attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, some focus on training the various Kashmiri terror groups, some train al Qaeda operatives for attacks in the West, Some train the Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda’s Shadow Army, and one serves as a training ground for the Black Guard, the elite bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and other senior al Qaeda leaders.
There were 36 recorded cross-border attacks and attempts in Pakistan during 2008, according to numbers compiled by The Long War Journal. Twenty-nine of these attacks took place after Aug. 31. There were only 10 recorded strikes in 2006 and 2007 combined.
During 2008, the US strikes inside Pakistan’s tribal areas killed five senior al Qaeda leaders. All of the leaders were involved in supporting al Qaeda’s external operations directed at the West.
Abu Laith al Libi, a senior military commander in Afghanistan, was killed in a strike in North Waziristan in January 2008.
Abu Sulayman Jazairi, al Qaeda’s external operations chief, was killed in a strike in Bajaur in March 2008.
Abu Khabab al Masri, al Qaeda’s weapons of mass destruction chief, and several senior members of his staff were killed in a strike in South Waziristan in July 2008.
Khalid Habib, the leader of al Qaeda’s paramilitary Shadow Army, was killed in a region controlled by Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan in October 2008.
Abu Jihad al Masri, the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group and member of al Qaeda’s top council, was also killed in North Waziristan in October 2008.
In 2009, US strikes have killed two senior, long-time al Qaeda leaders. Osama al Kini and his senior aide, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan were killed in a New Years Day strike in South Waziristan. Kini was al Qaeda operations chief in Pakistan. Both men were behind the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed 224 civilians and wounded more than 5,000 others.
US attacks inside Pakistan during 2009:
Feb. 14, 2009
Jan. 23, 2009
Jan. 2, 2009
Jan. 1, 2009
For a summary of US strikes inside Pakistan in 2008, see US strikes in two villages in South Waziristan.