Terror Watch: A Fresh U.S. Strike at Al Qaeda

In the latest example of a sharp escalation of U.S. airstrikes inside Pakistan, an unmanned U.S. drone killed an alleged Al Qaeda fixer and four associates along the Afghan-Pakistan border, according to reports from the region and a Western counterterrorism source.

The Saudi, known as Abdullah Azzam al-Saudi, was regarded by intelligence agencies as a cog, rather than a big wheel, in the network that facilitates the movement of would-be jihadi fighters to indoctrination and training encampments in the loosely governed Pakistani border region known as FATA (federally administered tribal areas). According to news reports from Pakistan, al-Saudi was one of five militants killed when what is believed to have been a missile fired early Wednesday by an unmanned U.S. Predator drone hit a house in northwest Pakistan. The target house reportedly was located in Indi Khel, a village in the Pakistani district of Bannu, which is outside the FATA territories.

According to the Long War Journal, a military blog,the Bannu action is the first such attack to take place outside the FATA and the deepest strike inside Pakistani territory yet carried out against a jihadi target by a U.S.-operated missile. Two Western counterterrorism sources, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, acknowledged that an attack had occurred and that al-Saudi is believed to have been killed during the assault.

The Bannu attack is the latest in a series of increasingly regular strikes against suspected militant encampments in Pakistan—most of which are believed to be sheltering people considered by Western intelligence agencies to be "foreign fighters." The airstrikes have proven controversial inside Pakistan, triggering public protests and complaints from the country's leaders. After the new chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus, flew to Islamabad for meetings with senior Pakistani officials earlier this month, President Asif al-Zardari released a public statement criticizing the raids. "Continuing drone attacks on our territory, which result in loss of lives and property, are counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government. It is creating a credibility gap," he said.

But there is no indication that the Bush administration intends to scale back the raids. In fact, from all indications, they are increasing dramatically. In addition, the drones are being used against a far broader range of targets. "Originally, this was a 'high-value target' technique," said John Pike, director of Global Security, a think tank that tracks the war on terror. "Now it's business as usual."

As NEWSWEEK reported last summer, President Bush approved more relaxed rules of engagement for U.S. forces along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The Pentagon once required "90 percent" confidence on the part of intelligence agencies that a "high-value target" was present before approving Predator strikes inside Pakistan. Under the revised rules, U.S. officials on the ground now need only 50 to 60 percent confidence to shoot at compounds suspected of sheltering foreign fighters, according to knowledgeable U.S. sources who would speak of sensitive matters only anonymously.

U.S. forces in the region gradually began stepping up the rate of such attacks earlier this year, as NEWSWEEK reported last Marchfollowing visits to Pakistan by several high-ranking American officials, including intelligence czar Mike McConnell, CIA director Michael Hayden and Adm. William Fallon, then the commander of U.S. forces in the region. U.S. and Pakistani sources said at the time that the increased attacks were at least partly the result of agreements—reached by the American visitors with Pakistan's now-departed president, Pervez Musharraf, and other top Pakistani officials—which gave the U.S. virtually unrestricted authority to attack targets in border areas, on the understanding that Pakistan would later have to deny complicity in the attacks and might have to condemn them for domestic political purposes.

Western officials knowledgeable about the attacks, which since last summer have come almost weekly, say that most of the targets were "foreign fighters"—including some midlevel Al Qaeda "facilitators" like the latest suspected attack target, al-Saudi. But at least one top Qaeda operative has been killed in the Predator strikes. After a missile hit a home in North Waziristan last January, reportedly killing 10 militants, U.S. officials confirmed that among the dead was Abu Laith al-Libi, a top field commander who was believed to be a liaison between Qaeda's fugitive leaders and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

In the days since the Nov. 4 U.S. presidential election, reports from the region have recorded two suspected American missile strikes inside Pakistan in addition to the one that reportedly occurred today. On Nov. 7, only three days after the election, missiles fired from a U.S. drone hit a village in North Waziristan along Pakistan's Afghan border, allegedly killing five foreigners and several more locals, according to The New York Times. Then on Nov. 11, six foreign fighters and five others were killed in another suspected U.S. missile strike in North Waziristan, according to The Washington Post.

President-elect Barack Obama spoke during his campaign about the need to bolster U.S. forces fighting Al Qaeda and their Taliban allies inside Afghanistan and the possibility of expanding U.S. operations against militants who use Pakistan as a safe haven. Two days after his election, Obama began receiving regular intelligence briefings by a team of officers from the CIA and the intelligence czar's office, but it is unclear how much detail about current U.S. operations against targets inside Pakistan has been discussed.

The latest suspected U.S. missile strikes occurred as Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, released the first post-election comment by a high-ranking jihadi leader about the results of the American election. In his message—an audio track which was laid in over a montage of graphics and file tape, including pictures of the late Black Muslim leader Malcolm X—Osama bin Laden's deputy accused Obama of being a "captive to the same criminal American mentality toward the world and toward the Muslims" that the Bush administration displayed. Zawahiri went on to describe Obama, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as "house Negroes." A U.S. counterterrorism official said that the insults hurled at the president-elect and other esteemed African-Americans demonstrated how "out of touch Al Qaeda is with the rest of the world."