US strikes in Bajaur tribal areas, kills 27 Taliban, al Qaeda

Bajaur Taliban leader Faqir Mohammed.

Unmanned aircraft operated by the US attacked a meeting of the Bajaur Taliban, killing 27 Islamist extremists. The attack came close to killing one of the senior-most Taliban commanders in Pakistan.

The strikes, likely carried out by Predators or Reapers, struck underground bunkers in Damadola in the Mamond region in the northern tribal agency of Bajaur. The Taliban were holding a regional shura, or council, with members from Dir, Swat, and Mohmand in attendance. Al Qaeda members were also present.

The attack killed 17 Taliban members and 11 “foreigners,” according to The Nation. At this time, no senior al Qaeda or Taliban leaders have been reported killed.

Faqir Mohammed, the leader of the Taliban in Bajaur and the deputy leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, was at the meeting but left 10 minutes prior to the strike, according to a report at Dawn. Two of Faqir’s relatives are thought to have been killed in the strike. A US intelligence official involved in the covert program confirmed Faqir’s presence at the meeting.

The official, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the program, said that he believes Faqir was tipped off about the strike, just minutes before it was executed, by pro-jihadi elements within Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency.

“We’ve seen Taliban and al Qaeda leaders leave meetings minutes before the hit far too often for this to be a coincidence,” the official said.

Damadola and the Mamond region are known Taliban strongholds in Bajaur. Al Qaeda is known to have operated a command and control center in Bajaur for directing operations in northeastern Afghanistan.

Since January 2006, the US has struck four times in Bajaur; all of the attacks have hit targets in the Mamond region. Two of the attacks targeted Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command. Zawahiri is known to be close to Faqir.

Today’s attack takes place as the Pakistani military is conducting operations against the Taliban in the Mamond region in Bajaur. Earlier this year, the military claimed the Taliban were “defeated” in Bajaur and in the neighboring Mohmand tribal agency during operations in the area that ended in March, but the Taliban have remained entrenched.

Bajaur airstrike is first outside Waziristan in six months

The US airstrike in Bajaur is the first outside the Waziristan tribal agencies since the April 1 attack that targeted a high-level meeting at a compound in Arakzai run by Hakeemullah Mehsud. Among the 12 extremists killed in the strike was Abdullah Hamas al Filistini, a senior al Qaeda trainer.

Since April, the US has focused much of its efforts on the networks run by Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan and the Haqqani Network and Abu Kasha al Iraqi in North Waziristan. The US succeeded in killing Baitullah, the former leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, in an early August strike in South Waziristan.

Today’s attack is the third this month, and the ninth since the beginning of September. Seven of the nine strikes have taken place in North Waziristan.

The US has carried out 45 airstrikes inside Pakistan so far this year. In all of 2008, 36 strikes were carried out. Since the US ramped up cross-border attacks in 2008, 15 al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed [see LWJ report, “US airstrikes alone cannot defeat al Qaeda”].

The US is considering switching from a counterinsurgency-centric strategy aimed at defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan to a counterterrorism strategy targeting al Qaeda’s network in Pakistan using unmanned airstrikes and covert operations by special operations commandos [see LWJ report, “Counterterrorism at the expense of counterinsurgency will doom Afghanistan and Pakistan: US officials”].

Background on US strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban networks in northwestern 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.

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 those attacks took place after Aug. 31. From 2004 through 2007, there were only 10 recorded strikes.

US attacks inside Pakistan during 2009:

US strikes in Bajaur tribal areas, kills 22 Taliban, al Qaeda

Oct. 24, 2009

US airstrike targets al Qaeda in North Waziristan

Oct. 21, 2009

US kills 4 in strike on Haqqani Network in North Waziristan

Oct. 14, 2009

US strike kills Haqqani Network and foreign fighters in North Waziristan

Sept. 30, 2009

US aircraft strike in North and South Waziristan

Sept. 29, 2009

US airstrike targets Haqqani Network in North Waziristan

Sept. 24, 2009

Two al Qaeda leaders reported killed in North Waziristan strike

Sept. 14, 2009

12 killed in second US strike in North Waziristan

Sept. 8, 2009

Senior al Qaeda leaders reported killed in North Waziristan strike

Sept. 7, 2009

US strikes Taliban compound in South Waziristan, 8 killed

Aug. 27, 2009

US Predators target the Haqqanis in North Waziristan

Aug. 20, 2009

US kills 14 in strike on Taliban training camp in South Waziristan

Aug. 11, 2009

Baitullah Mehsud’s wife killed in Predator attack

Aug. 5, 2009

US Predator strikes in North Waziristan, kills 5

July 17, 2009

US strikes Taliban communications center in South Waziristan

July 10, 2009

US kills 25 Taliban in second Predator strike in South Waziristan

July 8, 2009

US Predator strike on Taliban camp kills 8 in South Waziristan

July 8, 2009

US Predator strike kills 14 Taliban in South Waziristan

July 7, 2009

13 Taliban fighters killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan

July 3, 2009

Scores of Taliban killed in second US strike in South Waziristan

June 23, 2009

Six killed in US Predator attack in South Waziristan

June 23, 2009

US strikes target Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan

June 18, 2009

US kills 5 in South Waziristan strike

June 14, 2009

US strikes Taliban, al Qaeda in North Waziristan

May 16, 2009

US strikes again in South Waziristan

May 12, 2009

US strike targets Baitullah Mehsud territory in South Waziristan

May 9, 2009

US strike kills 10 Taliban in South Waziristan

April 29, 2009

US airstrike targets Taliban training camp in South Waziristan

April 19, 2009

US Predator kills four in South Waziristan strike

April 8, 2009

US strikes Haqqani Network in North Waziristan

April 4, 2009

US launches first strike in Arakzai tribal agency

April 1, 2009

Latest US strike targets al Qaeda safe house in North Waziristan

March 26, 2009

US airstrike kills 8 in Baitullah Mehsud’s hometown

March 25, 2009

US launches second strike outside of Pakistan’s tribal areas

March 15, 2009

US missile strike in Kurram agency kills 14

March 12, 2009

US airstrike kills 8 in South Waziristan

March 1, 2009

US airstrike in Pakistan’s Kurram tribal agency kills 30

Feb. 16, 2009

US Predator strike in South Waziristan kills 25

Feb. 14, 2009

US strikes al Qaeda in North and South Waziristan

Jan. 23, 2009

US hits South Waziristan in second strike

Jan. 2, 2009

US kills 4 al Qaeda operatives in South Waziristan strike

Jan. 1, 2009

For a summary of US strikes inside Pakistan in 2008, see “US strikes in 2 villages in South Waziristan.”

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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20 Comments

  • m3fd2002 says:

    It’s interesting to see comment on the assumption that leaders leave shura meetings minutes before strikes. If true they would be easy targeted as they are tracked and hit away from any potential civilians. My guess is that they would be using motorcycles for transport.

  • jayc says:

    The Pakistani newspaper Dawn is reporting that some of his relatives were also killed in the strike. The LWJ article also implies that he was tipped off, leaving his mates to take the brunt of the attack.
    What a great bunch of leaders that the Taliban have! You know, if it was me, I might be inclined to tell my kin and subordinates, “Hey guys, we might just want to de-ass this twenty, like right now!”

  • Glenmore says:

    Seems like almost every strike is right AFTER some bigwig leaves. But a bunch of lesser bad guys die. Pattern? Coincidence? Mole? Or somebody we’re following to try and find a bigger wig (like Mullah Omar etc.)?

  • Tyler says:

    Sounds like what a Cobra gunship pilot would call a ‘target rich environment.’ Some Pakistani sources saying 25 dead including 6 foreigners. That Faqir’s son-in-law and two unidentified ‘commanders’ are among the dead.

  • KnightHawk says:

    “Pattern? ”

    You bet, your neighborly ISI at work.

  • Bing says:

    So, who tipped of the ISI from our side?

  • Tyler says:

    Could just be Faqir has a good counter-surveillance scheme. A network of lookouts watching the skies for drones.
    Worth noting the last time we took a shot at Faqir was also in late October in Bajaur. The Chenegai airstrike that hit a madrassa doubling as a Taliban barracks, killing upwards of 70 people almost all militants.

  • Xavier says:

    Bing,
    No one from our side need to tip ISI off. THe drones take off from Pak soil as I understand. So all ISI needs to have is some one in their country to tell about an event in their country.

  • Civy says:

    The Reaper is a more capable platform, but still can’t be in many places at the same time. To track multiple departing targets one needs multiple aircraft.
    A simple solution is a small, disposable, scissor-winged ISR glider that can be dropped from from a Predator or Reaper to track secondary targets for a short time while the main bird attacks the primary target.
    The technology to do this exists. It’s just too cheap for any defense contractor to make a killing off of. It’s also a good way for a heavy bomber or strike fighter to confuse the hell out of a Russian SAM system if you use a transponder pod in place of the ISR module.
    You launch dozens of these things, electronically disguised as heavy bombers, and the SAM can’t figure out which one is the real bomber. The B52’s had a big, heavy version of this back in the 50s.

  • Smokey says:

    “So, who tipped of the ISI from our side?”
    Well if we include the ISI people in our plans then this is how the al-Qaeda supportive ISI moles find out. But it’s good to see some top guys escaping because if it has become a pattern the I’m quite sure our guys are following that pattern with Predators. So they may get away but as some have already said, there’s got to be some CIA drones assigned to tracking “escapees”.
    And as the Taliban and AQ top dogs don’t carry electronic equipment, they have to rely on physical messengers. I’m sure they’ve got a system of “messenger huts/houses” where a Taliban messenger will drop off something that he himself doesn’t even know what it is at an assigned hut/house, and then perhaps hours or days later a veiled wife of a Taliban leader/fighter will fetch the message and take it to either a similar message drop-off hut/house or actually take it to a terrorist leader.
    I’m sure this is what they’re doing because how else can they mask the trail of physical messengers? There could be like up to 5-10 drop-off points before a message finally finds it’s way to someone like bin Laden.
    however, if we strike REALLY HARD at their mid-level and senior level operational commanders, they’ll become more and more screwed and the leaders will get cut off from their own guys. They’re desperate to make an announcement in the form of attacks, to their own militants and say “Don;t worry, we’re still here.”
    Hope they all taste Hellfire, smart and precise.

  • Bing says:

    I’m just wondering how the ISI would get real time intel of an imminent strike, unless we’re relaying that information to them. If so, stupid on our part.
    Xavier,
    Predators and Reapers take off regularly from Pak bases.

  • davidp says:

    Top leaders could also be avoiding strikes by staying at meetings for only a limited amount of time – they might have worked out the approval delay and make sure the top targets leave 10 minutes less than that after the meeting starts.

  • Civy says:

    This is pure speculation, but based on the attack sequence of US forces in Kunar the day after COP Keating was nearly over-run, and the fact that Damadola is due east of Asadabad – right on the mooj infiltration route for fighters going back to the Soviet occupation – it is likely this strike was one of following the rats back to their nest after Keating.
    It’s significant that the KIA were in an underground bunker. Even Reapers can’t carry the 2-5,000lb bunker buster bombs usually required. These are usually delivered by strike aircraft from very high altitudes. This would imply a Predator was used as a target designator for much heavier bombs delivered by something like an F15 Strike Eagle or BONE – probably from standoff ranges inside Afghanistan.
    My response is “it’s about time”. The value of the UAV is in its persistence. It can be flown night and day, day in and day out pretty much forever with mid-air refueling (not an advertised property to date). This makes it an excellent surveillance platform, but not an especially good strike aircraft.
    There is one exception. A Reaper could carry an AGM-154C with a BROACH warhead on each of it’s inboard hardpoints. Of special interest here is terminal guidance is provided by lazing the target, presumably by a special forces ground team.
    OT, but the sensor-fused AGM-154A and Reapers should give the Russian armorers nightmares about Georgia. Reapers are currently being evaluated for fitting the sidewinder missile – to make a mess of Russian attack helicopters, one would assume.
    //maps.google.com/maps?q=Damadola,+bajaur&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&ie=UTF8&hl=en&cd=1&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=23.875,57.630033&hq=Damadola,+bajaur&hnear=&radius=15000&ll=34.948991,70.952454&spn=1.069345,1.668549&t=h&z=10

  • tyrone says:

    Pakistan has radar. Radar can track drones in their own airspace. ISI might have access to real time radar info via moles. If a drone gets close to a Taliban bigwig meeting – then better let the bigwig know he might be targeted. (Requires that someone in ISI know about the meeting schedule. And that he also have access to drone locations via radar map.) Complex but possible.

  • grh says:

    According to press reporting over the last few months there is an intel “fusion” cell, US-Pak. Since Pakistan allows the US to employ UAVs from their territory (thx Senator Feinstein for letting the public know this), part of the deal is surely Pak knowledge and tacit or full approval to strike inside Pakistan territory, despite public prostetations otherwise. Pakistan knows before hand, however the warning time is much less than cruise missile strikes from the Indian Ocean. Can’t help agreeing how cowardly it is for the leaders to save their skin and let the others die for the cause. I expect nothing less from their ilk.

  • Bing says:

    tyrone,
    I’m reminded of Occam’s Razor and somehow don’t see an elaborate radar net around t-ban hideouts as that plausible without it being completely obvious.

  • AussieArmChairGeneral says:

    A Reaper could carry 4 250 kg Small Diameter Bombs. These bombs can penetrate 6 foot of reinforced concrete. Enough perhaps for a Taliban “bunker”. It may not have been a North Korean style bunker dug deep into a mountainside.

  • stu says:

    Lots of “hmm” speculation here. But at least we all owe our guys a hearty congratulations for the great work they’re doing! Yes, the Taliban are crafty, but our side is getting pretty good at sniping these snakes.

  • Civy says:

    AussieACG,
    The Reaper can carry 1,500lbs on the 2 inner hardpoints, but we don’t have any 1,500lb bombs, so the AGM-154-C with a BROACH warhead would be a good choice at 1,000lbs. Fuel pods for more endurance and leaving the bombing to heavies might be even better.
    AGMs have standoff range to help defeat a visual watch for the Predator or Reaper, which tend to flash their wings in daylight, and so can be spotted. No RADAR required. The AGM-154-A is a cluster bomb unit IIRC, a nice pairing for a Reaper – assuming they have the fire-control software done. Expensive though.
    SDBs don’t have the punch to breech hardened facilities and kill 27 people, nor do 500lb bombs. A drone could provide terminal guidance, perhaps, for the AGM-154-C, as it’s own PGM is a lazer guided bomb, but that would make detection far more likely.
    Styrofoam gliders with 2-3 meter wings, and cheap cameras, might help a lot. Start by dropping dummy ones all over the place for a few months to scare the crap out of them, and then the real ones will be seen as more false alarms. During the day they can stay airborne for many hours. Good, cheap psych-ops until the real ones are used. Impossible to tell a glider from a Reaper too if you don’t know their altitude.
    Best guess is the tip-offs are coming from Paki boarder posts whose tips are handsomely rewarded by Arab money from Saudi Arabia. Lots of cheap eyes and ears. Hard gap to plug.

  • OG says:

    It seems kind of suprising that we would take off from a location that ISI could monitor. It also seems kind of suprising that we would share enough mission detail that ISI would know when and where a strike was going to occur. Something doesn’t add up.

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