Greg Miller / Los Angeles Times – 2009-03-22 22:25:27
Photo Caption: A pilot at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson controls a Predator supporting ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jim Wilson / New York Times
WASHINGTON (March 22, 2009) — An intense, six-month campaign of Predator strikes in Pakistan has taken such a toll on al Qaeda that militants have begun turning violently on each other out of confusion and distrust, US intelligence and counterterrorism officials say.
The pace of 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 attacks reported 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-US sentiment and prompted protests from the Pakistani government.
“This last year has been a very hard year for them,” said a senior US counterterrorism official who tracks al Qaeda’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.”
US intelligence officials said they see clear signs that the Predator strikes are sowing distrust within al Qaeda. “They have started hunting down people who they think are responsible (for security breaches),” the senior US 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 US 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 Qaeda leaders and dozens of lower-ranking operatives, in what US 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 Qaeda’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, Pakistan’s capital.
Al Qaeda’s founders remain elusive. US 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-Zawahiri, 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 US forces invaded neighboring Afghanistan. They are being replaced by less experienced recruits who have had little, if any, history with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.
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. Some of the pilots — who also pull the triggers on missiles — are contractors hired by the agency, former officials said.
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