A swarm of unmanned US aircraft pounded an al Qaeda camp today in the Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan.
Five unmanned US strike aircraft, likely the Predators and Reapers, are reported to have fired 18 missiles at a camp and vehicles in the village of Datta Khel, a known al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold. This is the largest recorded US airstrike in Pakistan, indicating a top al Qaeda, Taliban, or Haqqani Network leader, or leaders, may have been present.
Seventeen terrorists are reported to have been killed in the missile attack. At this time, no senior al Qaeda or Taliban commanders have been reported killed.
The US has ramped up the attacks in Pakistan since the beginning of December, after a lull in strikes in October and November of 2009, when only four airstrikes were launched. There were eight strikes in December 2009, and 11 in January of this year. Today’s strike is the 12th this year. [For up-to-date charts on the US air campaign in Pakistan, see: Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2010.]
Today’s airstrike is the 13th since Dec. 30, 2009, when a Jordanian al Qaeda operative and double agent carried out a suicide attack at Combat Outpost Chapman in Afghanistan’s Khost province. The bomber killed seven CIA officials, including the station chief, and a Jordanian intelligence officer.
Since the Dec. 30 suicide attack, the US has been hunting Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Hakeemullah appeared with the Jordanian suicide bomber on a martyrdom tape that was released shortly after the attack.
Hakeemullah was rumored to have been killed in a strike on Jan. 14, but the Taliban later released a tape to confirm he is alive. Rumors of his death have since resurfaced, as unnamed tribal elders claimed Hakeemullah died from wounds received in the strike and was buried in the Arakzai tribal agency.
Pakistani Taliban leaders have since denied the rumors and claimed that Hakeemullah would release another tape to prove he is alive. But today, Azam Tariq, Hakeemullah’s spokesman, backtracked on previous statements and said there is no need to release a tape, fueling suspicion the Taliban leader may have been killed.
“We don’t feel any need presently to release a video, but whenever we feel a need, we will do so,” Tariq told The Associated Press. “We are not going to fall prey to this trap and make our leader vulnerable to the spy network, and secondly, the leadership council has restricted the leader from speaking to the media for certain reasons.”
Datta Khel is a hub of al Qaeda activity
The Datta Khel region is a known hub of Taliban, Haqqani Network, and al Qaeda activity. Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the Taliban commander for North Waziristan, administers the region, but the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, and allied Central Asian jihadi groups are also based in the area. The Lashkar al Zil, or al Qaeda’s Shadow Army, is known to have a command center in Datta Khel.
The Datta Khel region has been hit hard by the US, especially in the past several weeks. The US has conducted nine airstrikes in the Datta Khel region since June 2007, and six of those nine strikes have taken place since Dec. 17, 2009.
A strike on Dec. 17, 2009, targeted Sheikh Saeed al Saudi, Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law and a member of al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis, or executive council. Al Saudi is thought to have survived the strike, but Abdullah Said al Libi, the commander of the Shadow Army or Lashkar al Zil, and Zuhaib al Zahibi, a general in the Shadow Army, were both killed in the attack.
Datta Khel borders the Jani Khel region in the settled district of Bannu. The Jani Khel region has long been a strategic meeting place and safe haven for al Qaeda and the Taliban. Jani Khel was identified as the headquarters for al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis back in 2007. Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command, has operated in the Jani Khel region. The US has struck al Qaeda safe houses in Jani Khel twice since last year. These strikes are the only two Predator attacks that have occurred outside of Pakistan’s tribal areas since the US airstrikes began in 2004.
The town of Jani Khel is a known haven for al Qaeda leaders and fighters. Senior al Qaeda operative Abdullah Azzam al Saudi was killed in a Predator strike in Jani Khel on Nov. 19, 2008. Azzam served as a liaison between al Qaeda and the Taliban operating in Pakistan’s northwest.
In addition, Al Qaeda is known to have deposited its donations received from Europe into the Bayt al Mal, or Bank of Money, in Jani Khel, according to a report at the NEFA Foundation. The Bayt al Mal served as al Qaeda’s treasury.
Background on the recent strikes in Pakistan
US intelligence believes that 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. The US also has targeted al Qaeda-linked Taliban fighters operating in Afghanistan, particularly the notorious Haqqani Network.
As of the summer of 2008, al Qaeda and the Taliban operated 157 known training camps in the tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province. 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 unit for Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and other senior al Qaeda leaders.
The air campaign has had success over the past two months. Since Dec. 8, 2009, the air campaign in Pakistan has killed two senior al Qaeda leaders, a senior Taliban commander, two senior al Qaeda operatives, and a wanted Palestinian terrorist who was allied with al Qaeda. The status of Hakeemullah Mehsud is still unknown.
Already this year, the US has killed Mansur al Shami, an al Qaeda ideologue and aide to al Qaeda’s leader in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu Yazid; and Haji Omar Khan, a senior Taliban leader in North Waziristan. Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, the Abu Nidal Organization operative who participated in killing 22 hostages during the 1986 hijacking of Pan Am flight 73, is thought to have been killed in the Jan. 9 airstrike. And Abdul Basit Usman, an Abu Sayyaf operative with a $1 million US bounty for information leading to his capture, is rumored to have been killed in a strike on Jan. 14, although a Philippine military spokesman said Usman is likely still alive and in the Philippines.
In December 2009, the US killed Abdullah Said al Libi, the top commander of the Shadow Army; Zuhaib al Zahib, a senior commander in theShadow Army; and Saleh al Somali, the leader of al Qaeda’s external network [see LWJ report, “Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2010” for the full list].
US strikes in Pakistan in 2010:
Feb. 2, 2010
Jan. 29, 2010
Jan. 19, 2010
Jan. 17, 2010
Jan. 15, 2010
Jan. 14, 2010
Jan. 9, 2010
Jan. 8, 2010
Jan. 6, 2010
Jan. 3, 2010
Jan. 1, 2010