US Predators strike 3 times in al Qaeda haven of North Waziristan

Today, US Predators launched thee airstrikes in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan, killing 13 “militants” in an area known to host al Qaeda’s top leaders.

The first strike took place in the Datta Khel area, a command and control center for al Qaeda and allied terror groups. The unmanned Predators or the more deadly Reapers fired two missiles at a vehicle as it pulled up to a compound in the area.

A Pakistani intelligence official said all of those killed in that strike were “local militants,” but did not identify which group they belonged to. “Preliminary reports said all of them were local militants but we are trying to get more information,” the official told AFP.

Predators carried out a follow-up strike in the Datta Khel area, killing three more “militants” as they were riding motorcycles. “Foreigners,” a term reserved for Arab al Qaeda and Central Asian terrorists, may have been killed in the second strike.

In the third strike, Predators fired several missiles at a vehicle parked at a compound in the town of Mandi Khel. Six terrorists were reported killed in the third attack.

No senior al Qaeda, Taliban, or other terrorist leaders have been reported killed in today’s strikes.

The target of today’s attacks is not clear. The US targets senior al Qaeda leaders, al Qaeda’s external operations networks, and the mishmash of terrorist groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, that carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

So far this year, US has carried out nine strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas; all have occured in North Waziristan. Five of those nine strikes have taken place in the Datta Khel area.

The US airstrikes in the tribal areas have been controversial in Pakistan. Earlier this week in Miramshah, the main town in North Waziristan, more than 2,000 Pakistan ‘tribesmen’ protested the strikes. The Taliban are suspected of organizing the protest, as an estimated “150 armed Taliban militants” stood watch over the protest, The Associated Press reported. The Taliban and the Haqqani Network exercise control over North Waziristan, and a protest could not have been organized and executed without their consent.


Colonel Imam. Photo from the Irish Times.

Also in North Waziristan today, Colonel Imam, one of the the so-called “fathers of the Taliban,” was reported by Dawn to have been killed. Imam and another Inter-Services Intelligence official, Khalid Khawaja, were captured last year by a group that calls itself the “Asian Tigers,” which in reality is a front for the Pakistani Taliban.

Khawaja was executed by the Taliban in May 2010, on the orders of Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, according to a leaked phone transcript. Mir has denied the charge, however. Khawaja was found near the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, with a note pinned on him saying he spied for the CIA and the ISI.

Background on al Qaeda in the Datta Khel area

The Datta Khel area is administered by Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the Taliban commander for North Waziristan. Bahadar 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, and some of them have been targeted and killed there. A strike in Datta Khel 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, which 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

The pace of the strikes from the beginning of September 2010 until the end of December has been 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, 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 72 strikes in Pakistan’s tribal agencies. The bulk of those attacks have aimed at the terror groups in North Waziristan, with 65 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.]

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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