The Pakistani army’s campaign in South Waziristan got a boost this week when an American drone attack eliminated an important al Qaeda operative.
The Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, reported that the high-ranking terrorist, Mustafa al-Yazid, an al Qaeda founding member, was killed by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). It was the first drone attack since the Pakistani army began its offensive into the jihadists’ South Waziristan stronghold last weekend.
The Predator drone, and its larger Reaper version, has been credited with creating conditions favourable for the long-awaited invasion. A retired Pakistani army colonel analysing Operation-i-Nijaat (Path to Salvation), the army’s name for the Waziristan campaign, wrote that the command structure of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was “in disarray” due to the deaths these unmanned missile strikes have caused among its leadership.
The most famous victim of this death from the air was former TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud. Mehsud was killed last August after the United States had put a five million dollar reward on his head in March under its Rewards for Justice Program. A side benefit of Mehsud’s death was the bloody, internecine battle that broke among the Pakistani Taliban for the vacant leadership.
Also last March, two other terrorist leaders had lucrative bounties placed on them. Information leading to Sirajuddin Haqqani, a major NATO opponent in the Afghanistan insurgency, and Abu Yahya al-Libi would net an informant a million dollars for each one.
But while Haqqani and al-Libi have yet to become acquainted with a Hellfire missile, the number and status of those terrorists who have is impressive. Among those now enjoying their promised 72 virgins in paradise are Osama al-Kini, al Qaeda’s external operations chief; Khalid Habib, leader of al Qaeda’s fighting force, the Shadow Army; and Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the Islamic Union of Uzbekistan, which is currently threatening Germany with terrorist attacks.
The drone campaign against al Qaeda’s and the TTP’s leadership got seriously underway only in 2008 after military dictator Pervez Musharraf was replaced as Pakistan’s president by a civilian, Asaf Zardari. Since Musharraf’s political demise, it is estimated Hellfire missiles have killed 700 jihadists in Pakistan, including two dozen senior al Qaeda and TTP leaders.
The reason for the previous Pakistani government’s poor performance was a missile shortage due to the Iraq war and to Musharraf possessing only a lukewarm attitude towards battling the Pakistani Taliban. He viewed the TTP fighters as a military asset in any future war against India and, according to one analyst, did not want to anger them with a deluge of Hellfire missiles. As a result, Musharraf would approve all drone attacks personally.
And the former Pakistani president did not approve many, as statistics bear out. The military news website, strategypage.com, states that while there have been about 50 Hellfire attacks this year, causing 365 deaths by July, and 36 in 2008, killing 317 terrorists, there were only five attacks in 2007, three in 2006 and one in 2005, when Musharraf ruled.
Interestingly, _strategypag_e.com states that al Qaeda and the TTP have probably been hurt worst by the Hellfire’s “decapitation” of “nearly a hundred mid-level” personnel. This echelon is comprised of “old and experienced lieutenants, as well as young up-and-comers” that carry out the terrorist groups’ military operations. Without them, the terrorist leaders’ strategic plans could not be turned into reality.
Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad recently interviewed one such “old and experienced” al Qaeda field commander, Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri. Kashmiri, 45, heads al Qaeda’s military operations branch and commands its elite 313 Brigade. The Pakistani native gained his extensive battle experience fighting against India. Shahzad describes him as possessing “unmatched guerrilla expertise.”
But Kashmieri’s notoriety as a valuable al Qaeda asset has drawn a $600,000 bounty down on his head from the Pakistani government as well as three Hellfire missile attacks. Shahzad writes the first one occurred in May and the other two last month, after which both Pakistani intelligence and the CIA pronounced Kashmiri dead.
In talking to Shahzad, his first interview ever, Kashmiri probably wanted to prove to the Islamist world he was still alive. But probably not for long. Shahzad said that while waiting for Kashmiri in a remote, Waziristan safe house, his al Qaeda escorts told him he would be able to hear “the voices of the drones” above his head.
In a story published this week in the New York Times, journalist David Rohde, who spent seven months in Taliban captivity in Waziristan before escaping, also said he could hear those propeller-driven voices. Rohde actually experienced a Hellfire attack last March when two “deafening explosions” occurred nearby. The missiles had killed seven Arab and Taliban jihadists travelling in two cars.
Besides dead terrorists, what is almost equally as satisfying about the drone campaign is the constant terror it engenders among those jihadists not yet targeted. Life under the Predator is not a pleasant one, as Rohde attests. He writes the drones were a “terrifying presence” for months and their strikes had “created a paranoia among the Taliban.” Rhodes noted the Taliban also “bitterly criticized” President Obama for increasing the missile attacks.
Even more irritating for al Qaeda and TTP adherents than the strikes are the informers who sell them out by telling authorities the terrorists’ whereabouts. Even when in the wilds of Waziristan, Shahzad’s escorts told him informers were everywhere. Besides bad nerves, their constant presence and the terrorists’ inability to do much about it must cause them extreme vexation.
Drone attacks have done much to disable the Taliban and al Qaeda, killing an estimated third of their leadership. Many valuable and irreplaceable terrorist cadres have been lost. And as the Pakistani army continues its march into Waziristan, smoking the common enemy out of their lairs, the Hellfire missile will ensure more will suffer Mustafa al-Yazid’s fate.
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