Counter-Terrorism: The Great Fear

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April 7, 2010:  In North Waziristan, a section of Pakistan's tribal territories that borders Afghanistan, there is growing fear among the Islamic militants who have long used the area as a base area and refuge. So far this year, there has been at least one missile attack a week, leaving more al Qaeda or Taliban, usually leaders, dead. American UAVs, often operating in pairs, or packs of four, roam the skies almost constantly. Terrorist leaders are now terrorized, and have cut back on travel, and use of satellite phones. When terrorist leaders do travel, they use public transport, surrounded by women and children. The terrorists know that American ROE (Rules of Engagement) discourage "collateral damage" (civilian casualties), so the terrorists try to have women and children around at all times. But the locals know that the ROE doesn't absolutely forbid civilian casualties, and either refuse to rent rooms in their compounds to al Qaeda or Taliban leaders, or flee if the terrorists insist on staying.

The Arabs and Afghan tribesmen have long been impressed by Western technology, and tend to exaggerate its capabilities. After you've handled an iPhone for a few minutes, that's not hard to do. So the continuing accurate missile attacks have the terrorists imagining all manner of capabilities for the UAVs and missiles.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Army division stationed in North Waziristan, is receiving reinforcements, and apparently preparing to seize known terrorist camps and urban bases (Taliban, al Qaeda and the Haqqani network). The Taliban have been trying to intimidate local tribes by murdering hostile tribal leaders. The message is that an anti-Taliban stance can get you killed. It's clear that, since the Taliban can't face the army in battle, they are attempting to terrorize a frightened (of the Taliban) population that is trying to protect itself. This terror campaign is the last straw for many tribesmen. Although inclined to support the Taliban and al Qaeda, the Islamic radicals have abused their hospitality with arrogant behavior, and periodic attempts to impose unwelcome lifestyle rules on the locals. Seeing how visibly frightened the terrorists are, the locals are less intimidated. Many locals see the occasional civilian casualties as a bearable loss if it means getting rid of all the Islamic radicals.

The American UAV campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan began in 2008, and has killed about a thousand people so far. Some 30 percent of the dead were civilians, largely because the terrorists try to surround themselves with women and children. The Taliban and al Qaeda don't like to discuss these attacks, even to score some media points by complaining of civilian casualties. But the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services do monitor radio and email in the area, and believe that about 700 terrorists, including two dozen senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, and nearly a hundred mid-level ones, have died from the UAV missile attacks. Civilian deaths are minimized by trying to catch the terrorists while travelling, or otherwise away from civilians. Journalists visiting the sites of these attacks later, find few locals claiming lots of civilian casualties. Unlike Afghanistan, the Pakistani Pushtuns tend to avoid criticizing their government, for fear of retribution from tribal leaders or the government itself.

While the terrorist groups are concerned about the losses, especially among the leadership, what alarms them the most is how frequently the American UAVs are finding their key people. The real problem the terrorists have is that someone is ratting them out. Someone, or something, is helping the Americans find the terrorist leaders. That would be Pakistani intelligence (ISI), which promptly began feeling some heat when the civilians were back in power in 2008. After the purge of many Islamic radical (or pro-radical) officers, the information from the Pakistani informant network began to reach the Americans.

This Hellfire campaign is hitting al Qaeda at the very top, although only a quarter of the attacks so far have taken out any of the most senior leaders. But that means over half the senior leadership have been killed or badly wounded in the last two years. Perhaps even greater damage has been done to the terrorist middle management. These are old and experienced lieutenants, as well as young up-and-comers. They are the glue that holds al Qaeda and the Taliban together. Their loss is one reason why it's easier to get more information on where leaders are, and why rank-and-file al Qaeda and Taliban are less effective of late. The deaths of so many bodyguard and aides has rank-and-file terrorists thinking that the Hellfire missiles are actually being fired at any al Qaeda or Taliban, no matter what their rank.

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. does have an informant network in the Pakistani tribal territories, especially, during the last few years, in the Taliban heartland of North and South Waziristan. This is a relatively small area (11,500 square kilometers) of mountains and forests along the Afghan border. The people living here are very wary of outsiders, so it takes years to develop local informants.

Over a decade ago, 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. This was a tedious business, especially in Waziristan. After September 11, 2001, this network was worked with greater urgency. The growing force of Predator (and later the larger Reaper) UAVs were available to run round-the-clock surveillance on what was going on down there. 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 approve very often. Musharraf lost his job two years ago. The U.S. and the new civilian Pakistani government agreed 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 thousands 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 do not like al Qaeda (most of them are foreigners) much at all. The Taliban has tried to maintain good, or at least civil, relations with al Qaeda. But that effort has frayed to the point where an al Qaeda big shot 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 (and allies), to U.S. Hellfire missiles, in the last two years. 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.

 

 


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