US Predators strike again in al Qaeda stronghold of Datta Khel

US Predators carried out yet another attack in the al Qaeda haven of Datta Khel in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan, the second in the area in two days.

Conflicting reports about the number of those killed and the target of the strike have emerged, however. Geo News reported that the CIA-operated unmanned Predators, or the more deadly Reapers, fired two missiles at a compound, killing 14 “militants.” Al Jazeera put the number of dead at 35 Taliban fighters and said the compound was known to be used as a training camp and meeting place.

Dawn and Reuters reported that the target was either a compound or a vehicle outside of the compound, and put the casualties between 22 and 25, without specifying if those killed were civilians or terrorists. The compound was owned by North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and was hosting a meeting of “elders loyal to Bahadar” who were “trying to mediate between two warring militant groups inside.” The reports did not indicate which two groups were in talks with Bahadar’s tribal elders.

Sharabat Khan, a senior lieutenant to Bahadar, and several foreign fighters were reported to have been killed in the strike, The Associated Press reported.

But some Pakistanis are claiming that civilians and policemen were killed in the strike. Syed Masood Kausar, the governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which is adjacent to the tribal areas, denounced the strike, which he claimed targeted a “tribal jirga,” or council.

“I strongly condemn this drone attack,” Kausar said in a statement released to the press. “A tribal jirga was targeted in which several tribal elders and tribal policemen were martyred. We want to make it clear that the government of Pakistan and its people will not tolerate such attacks. These attacks are against the sovereignty of Pakistan.”

Later, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff condemned the attack and called it a “senseless attack” that targeted “a jirga of peaceful citizens including elders of the area.” [See LWJ report, Pakistan’s Army chief ‘condemns’ US Predator in Datta Khel].

Datta Khel is one of the most targeted areas in the CIA’s air campaign in Pakistan. Forty-five of the 234 strikes, or 19 percent, have taken place in Datta Khel since the US began carrying out strikes in Pakistan in 2004, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. And so far this year, eight of the 19 strikes in Pakistan have taken place in Datta Khel.

Today’s strike is the second in the Datta Khel area in two days, and the third in Datta Khel since Feb. 21. Five “militants” were killed in yesterday’s strike, which targeted a vehicle, and six more “militants” were killed in an attack on a vehicle and a car in the Feb. 21 strike.

Background on 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, 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, 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, a practice well-established in the country now.

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 shelter groups that carry out attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Predator strikes, by the numbers

The strike in North Waziristan is the sixth in Pakistan’s tribal areas since March 11, and the fifth in four days.

The US has carried out seven Predator strikes inside Pakistan’s tribal areas this month. Five of the seven strikes in March have hit targets in North Waziristan, and the other two took place in South Waziristan.

Three of the last 10 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 recent 28-day 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.]

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.]

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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  • Charley says:

    Now that Davis is out, the pace has picked up, and not a day too early. We should allow these scum to regroup.

  • yz says:

    Not just rank and file, but commanders, freaking awesome.

  • Bungo says:

    That ought to slow ’em down a little bit. My heart soars like an eagle.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    But some Pakistanis are claiming that civilians and policemen were killed in the strike.
    That’s a shocking development. /sarcasm

  • kp says:

    Lots of different numbers out there for numbers killed: teens, twenties, thirties, forties from two missiles fired at a meeting and a vehicle outside the meeting building.

    But this one from Xinhua who have been good with detailed reports for the last three attacks (reporting local Urdu TV channels) has details not show anywhere else.

    “At least 80 people were killed in U.S. drone strikes launched Thursday morning in different parts of Pakistan’s northwest tribal area of North Waziristan, reported local state-run Urdu TV channel PTV, but the report failed to give details other than saying 12 missiles were fired at different targets in the afore-said area.”

    80 dead; 12 missiles; multiple targets. That’s a big attack. Interesting report. Well see which one turns out to be most accurate.

    Did we intend to hit a jirga (even if it has a Bandar commander there?). Did we get the intel from ISI? Are they getting the US to do their pre-NW-operation dirty work? Or was it a targeted mission and we knew who would be there (all part of the management and support infrastructure for AQ and the Taliban in the region).

  • rainbow says:

    So who is this Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani ? He claims a peaceful meeting of tribal elders. In that area of Pak are there ANY peaceful tribal elders left ?

  • kp says:

    One more thing: the last time we killed this many in one go was US drone strike on a Pakistan funeral with 60 to 80 killed when the US was going after Baitullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain Mehsud and Mullah Sangeen Zadran.

    It may be we knew that other leaders were there but were perhaps going for a multiple big targets.

    “Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani called Thursday’s strike “unjustified and intolerable” and said it was a violation of human rights”

    The next closest is the Dec 2010 attacks with 4 attacks killing more than 60.

  • Justin says:

    they always say civilians are killed. Im sure we have the intelligence nailed down. This is a striking blow. Keep those drones flying boys

  • Frank says:

    According to the tribesmen, the meeting was being held to discuss a local land dispute over the ownership of chromite deposits in the area.
    The CIA can stick their drones where the sun don’t shine.

  • rainbow says:

    Really Justin you are sure we have everything nailed down eh ? I bet those CIA people thought they were going to have everything nailed down when that double agent blew them to bits. You think we have boots on the ground intel on that ? Maybe someone had a grudge and wanted us to take care of the problem for them and a bunch of innocents or rivals or whatever were taken out. The point is mistakes are made but if we rely on the Paks for the intel we have no idea, only they do. Thats why I asked the question “who is this Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani ? He claims a peaceful meeting of tribal elders. In that area of Pak are there ANY peaceful tribal elders left ? ”

  • kp says:

    Pakistan has lodged a complaint with US State over the attack

    Larger body count reported in Pakistani media

    According to media reports, suspected US drones fired upon a compound in the Datta Khel area where a meeting was held under the leadership of an area TTP commander, Gul Bahadur. The jihadist, who reports military activity and situations on the ground in tribal regions of Pakistan, said that about twelve drones launched the attack and the targeted meeting was actually attended by tribesmen and government envoys. He added that more than 80 people were killed including widows and orphaned children.

    The “widows and orphaned children” is a nice touch. Especially coming from the TTP.

    As it would seem that each attack has to be approved by lawyers who check to see if the attack is “reasonable” in terms of collateral damage I think we can be sure that this wasn’t a Pakistani message with “bomb these UTM coords” at this time. So there was some ID of who was there and a balance between value of target and collateral damage. If the meeting was about (unltimately) who gets to pay taxes to the taliban then they’re directly financial supporters of the organization.

    The other point is a couple of Hellfires isn’t going to kill 40 to 80 people. This sounds like a GBU.

  • kp says:

    This Xinhua report (which I posted earlier but didn’t make it to the comments) quotes local media indicating a rather larger attack than most other reports. Was there mutliple attacks at different locations?

    At least 80 people were killed in U.S. drone strikes launched Thursday morning in different parts of Pakistan’s northwest tribal area of North Waziristan, reported local state-run Urdu TV channel PTV, but the report failed to give details other than saying 12 missiles were fired at different targets in the afore-said area.

    Late Thursday morning, there came in the news that U.S. drones launched a strike in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan. Initial reports by most of the local media said that two missiles were fired at a house in which militants were said to be holding a meeting inside, killing 4 people and injuring several others.”

    But the death toll has kept rising as more information came in from the remote area with inadequate communication facilities. Some local media reports said the target of the U.S. drones is a house at a village in the Datta Khel area in which a meeting was being held by local Taliban militants while others reported that the target was actually a tribal “jirga” or council of elders to resolve dispute over the ownership of minerals in the mountains in North Waziristan tribal region.

    According to a tribal elder who asked to remain anonymous in a telephone interview from Miranshah, center of North Waziristan, the tribesmen from Madda Khel tribe were holding a meeting at Nawai Adda area, some 25 kilometers from Miranshah, when two U.S. drones fired four missiles at the participants of the tribal council at 11:30 am (local time)

    The elder said that the strike killed 41 people including six tribal elders and some children.

  • Pyro says:

    kp, hellfires have killed more than 40 people MANY times, including in Dec 2010 and when they attacked Baitullah Mehsud’s funeral, killingm80.
    The Pakistani response indicates that yes, while some elders were killed, many high level mujahideen were also killed in this massive drone attack air strike.

  • kp says:

    Some other Pakistani side comments on the attack might explain what happened (or not).

    According to sources, when the Kazha Madakhel Wazir tribesmen were holding the Jirga in an open ground in the village, the drones were chasing a speedy car coming from somewhere near the Afghan border. The drones had by then fired four missiles at the car but missed the target as the driver was driving very fast to escape the missile strikes. The driver, who had panicked due to the continuous missile strikes on the car, drove towards the village and was passing by the place where the Jirga was in progress when his vehicle again came under attack.

    The villagers said the drone fired two more missiles and struck the car, killing all the five men on board. The Jirga members decided to conclude their meeting and help retrieve the bodies of the victims that had been turned into pieces. The Jirga members had yet to move from their position when the drones started firing missiles on the gathering.

  • kp says:

    Me again … I think this is a record for a single story.

    Quoting the LWJ news: “in North Waziristan that killed 11 Taliban fighters, including a commander, and 21 tribal members in North Waziristan”. Perhaps up to 40. The 80 numbers that came from some of the tribesmen seem to be a gross exaggeration.

    The casualty numbers shows the above “stories” about a vehicle passing or pulling into the compound “out of the blue”. 11 Taliban would need a truck to move around. Typically you get 5 in a SUV.

    Xinhua has two drones and 4 missiles in the attack. Not a lot of missiles.

    The remaining interesting question is did we target the jirga separately or did they put themselves in harms way by rescuing the Taliban from the initial attack?

    Was the jirga in the open or in a building? Could be see it before the strike? From this report it was in a building (“Local people retrieved dead bodies and injured from the debris of collapsed buildings”). Plural buildings.

    Did we know about it before the strike or were we just following the TTP commander to a big meeting?

    Are the leaders who financially and logistically support the local Taliban/TTP considered part of their infrastructure and so a legitimate target when TTP is running a meeting they attend? I suspect not direct targets but perhaps acceptable collateral damage.

    I suspect we knew about a big meeting run by the TTP with a commander turning up and we hit it. Given previous reports ones might speculate they hit the vehicle and hit the building associated with it.


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