Attrition: Decapitation Terrorizes Al Qaeda


September 20, 2009: On September 7th, American UAVs over Pakistan killed two more al Qaeda commanders, including a Uzbek Islamic radical who had been involved with carrying out attacks in Germany and Uzbekistan. Since this "decapitation" (of key terrorists) program began in 2008, some 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. For all of 2008, there were 36 attacks, causing 317 deaths. The UAV campaign actually began in earnest a year ago. Since then, there have been over fifty attacks. The rate of attacks has been increasing this year.

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. It wasn't always that way. In 2007, there were only five UAV attacks, compared to three in 2006, one in 2005 and one in 2004. Back then, it wasn't just the lack of identified targets that kept the UAVs away, but fewer UAVs, and Pakistani resistance to American UAVs making attacks inside Pakistan (even though the targets were terrorists attacking Pakistanis, including senior leaders.) By 2008, the Pakistanis changed their mind.

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.

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 had a good 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.

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 a year ago last August. 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 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 (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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