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Predator strikes increase, al-Qaida’s strength erodes

Unmanned U.S. aircraft target leaders, operatives

This photograph provided by the U.S. Air Force shows an MQ-1 Predator make its final approach to Indian Springs Auxiliary Field in Nevada on April 26, 2005.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
This photograph provided by the U.S. Air Force shows an MQ-1 Predator make its final approach to Indian Springs Auxiliary Field in Nevada on April 26, 2005. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Greg Miller Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – An intense, six-month campaign of Predator strikes in Pakistan has taken such a toll on al-Qaida that militants have begun turning violently on each other out of confusion and distrust, U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say.

The pace of the Predator attacks has accelerated dramatically since August, when the Bush administration made a previously undisclosed decision to abandon the practice of obtaining permission from the Pakistani government before launching missiles from the unmanned aircraft.

Since Aug. 31, the CIA has carried out at least 38 Predator strikes in northwest Pakistan, compared with only 10 reported attacks in 2006 and 2007 combined, in what has become the CIA’s most expansive targeted killing program since the Vietnam War.

Because of its success, the Obama administration is set to continue the accelerated campaign despite civilian casualties that have fueled anti-U.S. sentiment and prompted protests from the Pakistani government.

“This last year has been a very hard year for them,” said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official who tracks al-Qaida’s operations in northwest Pakistan. “They’re losing a bunch of their better leaders. But more importantly, at this point they’re wondering who’s next.”

U.S. intelligence officials said they see clear signs that the Predator strikes are sowing distrust within al-Qaida. “They have started hunting down people who they think are responsible” for security breaches, the senior U.S. counterterrorism official said, discussing intelligence assessments on condition of anonymity. “People are showing up dead or disappearing.”

The counterterrorism official and others, who also spoke anonymously, said the U.S. assessments are based in part on reports from the region provided by the Pakistani intelligence service.

The stepped-up Predator campaign has killed at least nine senior al-Qaida leaders and dozens of lower-ranking operatives in what U.S. officials described as the most serious disruption of the terrorist network since 2001.

Among the people killed since August are Rashid Rauf, the suspected mastermind of an alleged 2006 trans-Atlantic airliner plot; Abu Khabab Masri, who was described as the leader of al-Qaida’s chemical and biological weapons efforts; Khalid Habib, an operations chief allegedly involved in plots against the West; and Usama al-Kini, who allegedly helped orchestrate the September bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

Al-Qaida’s founders remain elusive. U.S. spy agencies have not had reliable intelligence on the location of Osama bin Laden since he slipped across the Pakistan border seven years ago, officials said. His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, remains at large after escaping a missile strike in 2006.

But the Predator campaign has depleted the organization’s operational tier. Many of the dead are longtime loyalists who had worked alongside bin Laden and were part of the network’s hasty migration into Pakistan in 2001 after U.S. forces invaded neighboring Afghanistan. They are being replaced by less experienced recruits who have had little, if any, history with bin Laden and al-Zawahri.

No approval needed

The offensive has been aided by technological advances and an expansion of the CIA’s Predator fleet. The drones take off and land at military airstrips in Pakistan, but are operated by CIA pilots in the United States.

Predators originally were designed as video surveillance aircraft that could hover over a target from high altitudes. But new models are outfitted with additional intelligence gear that has enabled the CIA to confirm the identities of targets even when they are inside buildings and can’t be seen through the Predator’s lens.

Even so, officials said that the surge in strikes has less to do with expanded capabilities than with the decision to skip Pakistani approval. “We had the data all along,” said a former CIA official who oversaw Predator operations in Pakistan. “Finally we took off the gloves.”

The Bush administration’s decision to expand the Predator program was driven by growing alarm over al-Qaida’s resurgence in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

A 2006 peace agreement between Islamabad and border tribes had allowed the network to shore up its finances, resume training operatives and re-establish ties to satellite groups.

The Bush administration had been constrained by its close relationship with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who lobbied against aggressive U.S. action. But by last summer, after a series of disrupted terror plots in Europe had been traced to Pakistan, there were calls for a new approach.

Musharraf was forced to resign in mid-August. Within days, Bush had approved new rules: Rather than requiring Pakistan’s permission to order a Predator strike, the agency was allowed to shoot first.

The effect was immediate.

There were two Predator strikes on Aug. 31, and three more by the end of the week. CIA officials had suspected that their targets were being tipped by Pakistani intelligence to pending U.S. strikes. Bypassing the government ended that concern.

It also eliminated delays. Former CIA officials said getting permission from Pakistani authorities could take a day or more, sometimes causing the agency to lose track of the target it was trying to hit. The missed opportunities were costly because it often took months to assemble the intelligence necessary for a strike.

Seeking a new strategy

Pakistan repeatedly has criticized the Predator campaign. “Drone attacks are counterproductive,” said Nadeem Kiani, news attache at the Pakistan embassy in Washington, D.C. Rather than firing missiles, Kiani said, the United States should provide intelligence to Pakistan, “and we will take immediate action.”

U.S. officials said that despite such complaints, the Pakistan government’s opposition has been muted because the CIA has expanded its targeting to include militant groups that threaten Islamabad.

The success of the Predator campaign has prompted some people in the counterterrorism community to speak of a post-al-Qaida era in which its regional remnants – in North Africa and elsewhere – are all that remain after the center collapses.

“You can imagine a horizon in which al-Qaida proper no longer exists,” said Juan Zarate, former counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush. “If you were to continue on this pace, and get No. 1 and No. 2, al-Qaida is dead. You can’t resuscitate that organization as we know it without its senior leadership.”

How to achieve that end without undermining the government in Pakistan is a key issue facing the Obama administration as it searches for a new strategy in the region. CIA Director Leon E. Panetta traveled to Islamabad last week for talks with Pakistani intelligence officials.

Asked about the drone attacks in a meeting with reporters last month, Panetta refused to discuss the Predator program directly, but said, “Nothing has changed our efforts to go after terrorists, and nothing will change those efforts.”

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