The CIA has carried out its first airstrike in Pakistan’s tribal areas against the Taliban and al Qaeda since the March 17 attack that sparked protests from top Pakistani government and military officials.
Today’s strike took place in the town of Angoor Adda in South Waziristan, an area under the influence of South Waziristan Taliban warlord Mullah Nazir. Unmanned Predators or Reapers fired four missiles at a pickup truck transporting fighters from the Haqqani Network, the al Qaeda-linked Taliban subgroup, Pakistani intelligence officials told AFP.
Six Haqqani Network fighters were reported to have been killed. A local official claimed that all of those killed were from Afghanistan. No senior al Qaeda, Taliban, or Haqqani Network leaders were reported to have been killed.
Today’s strike is the first in Pakistan’s tribal areas since the deadly March 17 strike in Datta Khel that killed more than 30 people, including 10 Taliban fighters and a senior lieutenant loyal to North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar. Pakistani officials, including General Pervaz Kayani, the top military commander, denounced the strike and claimed that everyone killed was a civilian attending a jirga, or council, to resolve a local mining dispute. But the Taliban were reported to have mediated the jirga.
After the March 17 strike, the Predator program was placed on hold, and reports indicated that Pakistan was to officially request that the the US curtail or even end the operation. But a US official told ABC News yesterday that the CIA had no intention of ending the program, as top al Qaeda leaders continue to shelter in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Today’s strike also took place one day after a meeting between the top intelligence chiefs of the US and Pakistan. Yesterday, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate chief Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha and CIA Director Leon Panetta met in Washington to discuss the deteriorating relationship between the two agencies after a series of disagreements, most recently over CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who was detained by Pakistani police after killing two men in Lahore.
“Good Taliban” leader Mullah Nazir supports al Qaeda
The territory where today’s strike occurred is controlled by Mullah Nazir, the leader of the Taliban in the Waziri tribal areas in South Waziristan. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services consider Nazir and his followers “good Taliban” as they do not openly seek the overthrow of the Pakistani state.
In the summer of 2009, the military signed a peace agreement with Nazir stipulating that he would not shelter al Qaeda or members of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which were based in the Mehsud tribal areas of South Waziristan. The Pakistani government launched a military operation against the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan in October 2009, but left Nazir’s areas untouched. Nazir has continued to allow the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, al Qaeda, and other terror groups safe haven in his tribal areas.
Nazir openly supports Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, and wages jihad in Afghanistan. Significantly, more senior al Qaeda leaders have been killed in Nazir’s tribal areas during the US air campaign than in those of any other Taliban leader in Pakistan. Nazir also shelters the Mehsuds from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, in violation of the peace agreement with the Pakistani government.
In the past, the US has killed several senior al Qaeda leaders in Nazir’s territories. One of the most senior al Qaeda leaders killed was Midhat Mursi al Sayyid Umar, who is better known as Abu Khabab al Masri. Abu Khabab was killed along with four members of his staff in a Predator strike on July 28, 2008.
Two other top al Qaeda leaders killed while in Nazir’s care were Osama al Kini (Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam), al Qaeda’s operations chief in Pakistan; and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, one of al Kini’s senior aides. Both men were wanted by the US for their involvement in the 1998 suicide attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In another strike in Nazir’s territory, US Predators also killed Abu Hazwa Jawfi, who is said to have led Jundallah, a Pakistani terror group that is based in Karachi and maintains with close ties with al Qaeda.
The Predator strikes, by the numbers
During the month of March, the US carried out seven Predator strikes inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. Five of the seven strikes in March hit targets in North Waziristan, and the other two took place in South Waziristan. Today’s strike is the first in April in Pakistan.
Four of the last 11 strikes in Pakistan have taken place in Mullah Nazir’s territory in South Waziristan, indicating a possible shift in focus from the tribal agency of North Waziristan, where the overwhelming majority of the strikes have occurred since January 2010.
Many analysts speculated that the long pause in strikes from Jan. 23 to Feb. 20 was related to the shooting deaths in Lahore on Jan. 27 of two Pakistanis by a US consular official, Raymond Davis, who works for the CIA. Pakistan released Davis on March 16 after the US agreed to pay “blood money” to the families of the two Pakistanis killed.
But a look at the Predator strike history shows that there have been several long pauses in time between the strikes. The 28-day gap from late January to mid February 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.]
February 2011 proved to be the slowest month for Predator strikes in a year, with three, since November 2009. The recent slowdown in attacks has occurred after the pace of the strikes picked up from the beginning of September 2010 until the third week in January 2011. September’s record number of 21 strikes was followed by 16 strikes in October, 14 in November, 12 in December, and 9 in January. 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 in 2010, seven were executed in South Waziristan, five were in Khyber, and one was in Kurram. That trend is holding true this year, with 16 of 19 strikes in 2011 taking place in North Waziristan.
Since Sept. 1, 2010, the US has conducted 81 strikes in Pakistan’s tribal agencies. The bulk of those attacks have aimed at the terror groups in North Waziristan, with 69 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 IJG 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. The campaign has been largely successful in focusing on terrorist targets and avoiding civilian casualties, as recently affirmed by the Pakistani military. [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.]