Unmanned US Predators struck yet again in Pakistan’s lawless tribal agencies today, again in the Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan. Six “militants” were reported killed in the third strike in five days. The recent strikes mark an end to a pause in the Predator program that sparked much speculation as to the causes.
The latest strike took place in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan. Unmanned US Predators, or the more deadly Reapers, fired several missiles at a compound and a car in the area, according to Dawn and The Associated Press.
At this time, no senior Taliban or al Qaeda fighters have been reported killed in the attack.
The target of the strike is also not known, but the Datta Khel area is known to host a plethora of al Qaeda and allied jihadist and Taliban groups.
The Datta Khel area is administered by the Taliban commander for North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadar. He provides shelter to top al Qaeda leaders as well as terrorists from numerous Pakistani and Central Asian terror groups.
Datta Khel is a known hub of Taliban, Haqqani Network, and al Qaeda activity. While Bahadar administers the region, 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.
Datta Khel serves as a command and control center for al Qaeda’s top leaders. Some of al Qaeda’s top leaders have been targeted and killed in Datta Khel. 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.
But the most significant attack in Datta Khel took place on May 21, 2010; it resulted in the death of Mustafa Abu Yazid, a longtime al Qaeda leader and close confidant of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.
Yazid served as the leader of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the wider Khorasan, a region that encompasses portions of Pakistan, Iran, and several Central Asian states. More importantly, Yazid was as al Qaeda’s top financier, which put him in charge of the terror group’s purse strings. He served on al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis, or top decision-making council. Yazid also was closely allied with the Taliban and advocated the program of embedding small al Qaeda teams with Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
Despite the known presence of al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist organizations in North Waziristan, and requests by the US that action be taken against these groups, the Pakistani military has indicated that it has no plans to take on Bahadar or the Haqqani Network, the other major Taliban group based there. Bahadar and the Haqqanis are considered “good Taliban” by the Pakistani military establishment as they do not carry out attacks inside Pakistan. Yet Bahadar, the Haqqanis, and other Taliban groups openly carry out attacks in Afghanistan.
The Predator strikes, by the numbers
Today’s strike is the third in five days. A strike on Feb. 20 in South Waziristan was the first in Pakistan since Jan. 23, when the Predators pounded three different targets in North Waziristan. Many analysts speculated that the pause in strikes was related to the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis by a US consular official in Lahore on Jan. 27. Pakistan has refused to release the American.
But a look at the Predator strike history shows that there have been several long pauses in time between the strikes. The most recent gap was not the longest since the US ramped up the program in August 2008 [see LWJ report, Analysis: Gap in Pakistan Predator strikes not unusual].
January 2011 proved to be the slowest month for Predator strikes in a year, with nine, and February is on track to be slower than January. The recent slowdown in attacks has occurred after the pace of the strikes from the beginning of September 2010 until the end of December picked up. September’s record number of 21 strikes was followed by 16 strikes in October, 14 in November, and 12 in December. 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. The suicide bombing at COP Chapman killed seven CIA officials and a Jordanian intelligence officer.
The US carried out 117 attacks inside Pakistan in 2010, more than double the number of strikes that occurred in 2009. By late August 2010, the US had exceeded 2009’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 – 2011.]
In 2010 the strikes were concentrated almost exclusively in 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 the 117 strikes took place North Waziristan. Of the 13 strikes occurring outside of North Waziristan, seven were executed in South Waziristan, five were in Khyber, and one was in Kurram. That trend is holding true this year, with all seven strikes in 2011 taking place in North Waziristan.
Since Sept. 1, 2010, the US has conducted 75 strikes in Pakistan’s tribal agencies. The bulk of those attacks have aimed at the terror groups in North Waziristan, with 67 strikes in the tribal agency. Many of the strikes have 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 – 2011.]