US Predators launched attacks in Pakistan’s tribal agency of Khyber for the second day straight. Fifty-four “terrorists” were reported killed in three separate strikes in an area of Khyber known to host the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Unmanned Predator strike aircraft, or the more deadly Reapers, fired missiles at two compounds in the villages of Shandana and Speen Drang in the Tirah Valley, and at a safe house in the village of Nakai in Malik Deen Khel. Fifteen “terrorists” were killed in the Nakai strike, seven were killed in Shandana, and 32 members of the Lashkar-e-Islam were killed in Speen Drang, according to reports in SAMAA, Dawn, and the Associated Press.
The targets of the strikes are unclear. According to CNN, Ali Marjan, a commander of the Lashkar-e-Islam, a Taliban-like group based in Khyber, was among those killed during a meeting of the Lashkar-e-Islam. No senior al Qaeda or Taliban leaders have been reported killed in the strike.
Today’s three strikes follow another strike in Khyber yesterday, which also hit a target in the Tirah Valley. Seven Taliban fighters from Swat and South Waziristan were reported killed in yesterday’s strike.
The strikes in Khyber signal a possible shift in the Predator campaign. Prior to the four strikes in Khyber over the past two days, there has been only one other attack in the tribal agency since the US began its air campaign in 2004. On May 15, 2010, Predators fired at truckloads of jihadists in the Tirah Valley, killing 15 fighters.
This year the strikes have been confined almost exclusively to North Waziristan, where the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, and a host of Pakistani and Central and South Asian terror groups are based. All but 13 of this year’s 112 strikes have taken place North Waziristan. Of the 13 strikes that have occurred outside of North Waziristan, seven took place in South Waziristan, five occurred in Khyber, and one took place in Kurram.
Khyber agency is a terrorist haven
Khyber has become a hub of Taliban and al Qaeda activity since the Pakistani military launched an operation in the Mehsud tribal areas in South Waziristan in October 2009. Taliban forces have relocated to the Bara and Jamrud regions and the Tirah Valley in the Khyber agency [see LWJ report, Taliban escape South Waziristan operation].
Tariq Afridi, a powerful Taliban commander based in Darra Adam Khel, has taken control of Taliban operations in Khyber. The Taliban and Lashkar-e-Islam, a local Taliban ally commanded by Mangal Bagh, have gained power in Khyber despite a series of Pakistani military operations that began in the summer of 2007 which were supposedly designed to relieve Taliban pressure on neighboring Peshawar. A total of five military offensives have failed to dislodge the terror groups.
Both the Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Islam are known to operate bases and training camps in the Tirah Valley as well as in Bara and Jamrud. These safe havens in Khyber enable these terror groups to launch attacks inside Pakistan as well across the border in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. In November 2008, the US military attacked Taliban forces in the Tirah Valley after they retreated across the border from Nangarhar in Afghanistan. US strike aircraft and artillery killed seven Taliban fighters during the hot pursuit.
The Khyber Pass is NATO’s main conduit for supplies into Afghanistan; an estimated 70 percent of NATO’s supplies move through this strategic crossing point. Between September 2007 and April 2008, the Khyber Pass was shut down seven times due to Taliban attacks.
The Predator strikes, by the numbers
The pace of the Predator strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas has slowed over the past two weeks, with just four strikes between Nov. 29 and Dec. 16. But with four strikes in the past two days, the pace has picked back up. The US has now launched seven attacks in Pakistan this month.
The pace of the strikes from the beginning of September up to the end of November was unprecedented since the US began the air campaign in Pakistan in 2004. September’s record number of 21 strikes was followed by 16 strikes in October and 14 more in November. The previous monthly high was 11 strikes in January 2010, after the Taliban and al Qaeda executed a successful suicide attack at Combat Outpost Chapman that targeted CIA personnel who were active in gathering intelligence for the Predator campaign in Pakistan. In the bombing at COP Chapman, seven CIA officials and a Jordanian intelligence officer were killed.
The US has carried out 112 attacks inside Pakistan this year, more than doubling last year’s number of strikes. In late August, the US exceeded last year’s strike total of 53 with a strike in Kurram. In 2008, the US carried out a total of 36 strikes inside Pakistan. [For up-to-date charts on the US air campaign in Pakistan, see LWJ Special Report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2010.]
Since Sept. 1, the US has conducted 58 strikes in Pakistan’s tribal agencies. The bulk of those attacks took place against the terror groups in North Waziristan, with 52 strikes in the tribal agency. Many of the strikes targeted cells run by the Islamic Jihad Group, which have been plotting to conduct Mumbai-styled terror assaults in Europe. A Sept. 8 strike killed an IJU commander known as Qureshi, who specialized in training Germans to conduct attacks in their home country.
The US campaign in northwestern Pakistan has targeted top al Qaeda leaders, al Qaeda’s external operations network, and Taliban leaders and fighters who threaten both the Afghan and Pakistani states as well as support al Qaeda’s external operations. [For a list of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in the US air campaign in Pakistan, see LWJ Special Report, Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2010.]