March 25, 2009: Al Qaeda has a serious intelligence problem in its Pakistani sanctuary. Someone is ratting them out. In the last seven months, U.S. UAVs have carried out 38 Hellfire missile attacks on al Qaeda (and a few Taliban) leaders. In the three years before that, there were less than a dozen such attacks. Something has changed, and it has the al Qaeda leadership increasingly worried, alarmed, paranoid and desperate to find out who is letting the Americans know where the terrorist leaders are. This Hellfire campaign is hitting al Qaeda at the very top, with at least nine (of 20) senior leaders, and dozens of middle-management types killed in the last seven months.
While al Qaeda believes local Pakistanis are responsible for leaking location information to the Americans, it's a bit more complicated than that. First of all, the U.S. has had a good informant network in the Pakistani tribal territories for the last few years. This came about in the late 1990s when, after having been away for a decade (since Russia left Afghanistan in the late 1980s), U.S. intelligence operatives returned to the Afghan border area, and began developing an informant network inside Afghanistan, using tribal connections on the Pakistani side. After September 11, 2001, this network kept growing. So did the force of Predator (and later the larger Reaper) UAVs available to run round-the-clock surveillance on al Qaeda operations. The main obstacle to using all this information was the Pakistani president (Pervez Musharraf), an army general who did not want to anger the tribesmen by letting the Americans launch a lot of Hellfire missiles from their UAVs. Musharraf insisted on personally approving each Hellfire strike, and he did not do this very often. Musharraf lost his job last August, and the U.S. told the new civilian government that it was now open season on al Qaeda. The new Pakistani government asked the Americans to be as discreet, and accurate, as possible, and then hunkered down for the public outrage over this American "attack on Pakistan." But in fact, the Hellfire attacks were killing men who were responsible for terrorist attacks that had killed hundreds of Pakistanis.
The U.S. intelligence network in Pakistan had connections everywhere. Even pro-Taliban tribesmen were willing to earn some money by informing on al Qaeda. That's because many Taliban did not like the al Qaeda people (most of the them foreigners) much at all. The Taliban has tried to maintain good, or at least civil, relations with al Qaeda. But that efforts has frayed to the point where al Qaeda big shots like Osama bin Laden spends most of his time staying hidden from U.S. UAVs, Pakistani troops and hostile Pushtun tribesmen.
Pakistani officials believe that the multimillion dollar rewards on bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders may now actually work. The problem has always been that you can't capture an al Qaeda big shot without the assent of local tribal leaders. For a large chunk of that reward, that assent may now be had from some chiefs, and bin Laden knows it. He also knows that he has lost an irreplaceable number of veteran leaders, to U.S. Hellfire missiles, in the last seven months. Rumor has it that big money was paid for the information that made some of these attacks possible. It's bad enough that al Qaeda is losing senior people, it's worse that they are now seen, by local tribesmen, as a way to get rich. Al Qaeda leaders now know what it's like to be terrorized.
The falling out between the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda has been a long time coming. The terrorist organization has been in the region since it moved to Afghanistan in the late 1990s. In late 2001, most surviving al Qaeda members fled to Pakistan. There, many of them married women from Pushtun tribes. While some of the newly married remained in the terrorism business (either in Pakistan or farther away), the rest sought to make a living locally. This brought them into conflict with their new neighbors. Partly because the al Qaeda men sought to impose their Islamic conservative customs on their neighbors, and partly because al Qaeda men were competing with, or stealing from, their neighbors. Over the last four years, this has led to increasing hostility between the al Qaeda foreigners and local Pushtun tribes. Hundreds of al Qaeda men have been killed by angry tribesmen.
And then there's the matter of ethnic tensions. One of al Qaeda's weaknesses is that it is dominated by Arabs. This often causes resentment when the non-Arabs find themselves left out of decision making, or on the short end when it comes to distribution of resources. This was first seen in Afghanistan, where the al Qaeda Arabs made themselves very unpopular several years before September 11, 2001. Now the bad feelings have spread to Pakistan. There, the hundreds of al Qaeda members hiding out in tribal areas along the Afghan border, have split along ethnic lines. The Arab al Qaeda, who still have access to lots of cash, have made themselves very unpopular with the al Qaeda members from Central Asia. The Central Asians, particularly Islamic radicals from Uzbekistan, always felt this was their turf, and that the Arab al Qaeda should recognize that, and not throw their weight, and money, around in a disrespectful (to the Uzbeks) manner. Over the last few years, Pakistani and U.S. intelligence operatives were able to use these bad feelings to get information on where al Qaeda leaders were hiding out. These men were either captured in Pakistan, or killed by American UAVs firing Hellfire missiles.
The Arabs do have an attitude problem. In Afghanistan, they viewed the Afghans as a bunch of uneducated hicks, and the Afghans picked up on this. It's true that many of the senior Arab al Qaeda were well educated, much better than the average Afghan, but they would have been wise to keep any feelings of superiority to themselves. But they didn't, and while there appear to have been attempts to act more diplomatically after al Qaeda survivors were driven into Pakistan, this didn't last. The basic problem was self-preservation. The Pakistani army and intelligence forces came down hard on al Qaeda after the terrorists declared war on the Pakistani government in 2002, killed hundreds of Pakistanis in terrorist attacks and made several assassination attempts on the Pakistani president. When the Pakistani army showed up in the tribal territories four years ago, many of the tribes were no longer willing to host the terrorists.
The army had never come into the tribal territories before, and the tribes knew the soldiers were there now because of the al Qaeda threat to the government. The tribes could understand that, and knew that the army meant business. The army was also willing to negotiate, and eventually get out of the territories if the al Qaeda members were handed over. Some tribes, or tribesmen, refused to do this. But there were fewer hiding places now, and the Arabs used their greater cash resources to save themselves, at the expense of Central Asian terrorists. Whatever bad feelings that existed between the Arabs and Central Asians before, now became much worse. This led to captured Central Asians giving up information on where Arab al Qaeda might be. This, combined with information obtained from tribesmen and other captured terrorists, led to the round up of dozens of key al Qaeda leaders three years ago.
However, the presence of the army in the tribal territories angered many of the locals. Since Pakistan was created in 1947, the tribal territories along the Afghan border have been ruled by a special "tribal law." This was inherited from the departing British colonial rulers. The bottom line was, soldiers stay out of tribal territory, and the tribes won't go raiding (as they had done for centuries) into areas where the government law applied. The presence of the army caused many tribesmen to join the Taliban, which had also fled to Pakistan after 2001. But, in the main, the tribesmen oppose outsiders, whether they be Arabs from al Qaeda, or Pakistanis from the army.