CIA offs another of its assets in Pakistan


Richard Moore

CIA Makes Unilateral Strike
Inside Pakistan
By Joby Warrick & Robin Wright

20 February, 2008
The Washington Post

In the predawn hours of Jan. 29, a CIA Predator aircraft flew in a slow arc 
above the Pakistani town of Mir Ali. The drone¹s operator, relying on 
information secretly passed to the CIA by local informants, clicked a computer 
mouse and sent the first of two Hellfire missiles hurtling toward a cluster of 
mud-brick buildings a few miles from the town center.

The missiles killed Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda commander and a man who
had repeatedly eluded the CIA¹s dragnet. It was the first successful strike 
against al-Qaeda¹s core leadership in two years, and it involved, U.S. officials
say, an unusual degree of autonomy by the CIA inside Pakistan.

Having requested the Pakistani government¹s official permission for such strikes
on previous occasions, only to be put off or turned down, this time the U.S. spy
agency did not seek approval. The government of Pakistani President Pervez 
Musharraf was notified only as the operation was underway, according to the 
officials, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Officials say the incident was a model of how Washington often scores its rare 
victories these days in the fight against al-Qaeda inside Pakistan¹s national 
borders: It acts with assistance from well-paid sympathizers inside the country,
but without getting the government¹s formal permission beforehand.

It is an approach that some U.S. officials say could be used more frequently 
this year, particularly if a power vacuum results from yesterday¹s election and 
associated political tumult. The administration also feels an increased sense of
urgency about undermining al-Qaeda before President Bush leaves office, making 
it less hesitant, said one official familiar with the incident.

Independent actions by U.S. military forces on another country¹s sovereign 
territory are always controversial, and both U.S. and Pakistani officials have 
repeatedly sought to obscure operational details that would reveal that key 
decisions are sometimes made in the United States, not in Islamabad. Some 
Pentagon operations have been undertaken only after intense disputes with the 
State Department, which has worried that they might inflame Pakistani public 
resentment; the CIA itself has sometimes sought to put the brakes on because of 
anxieties about the consequences for its relationship with Pakistani 
intelligence officials.

U.S. military officials say, however, that the uneven performance of their 
Pakistani counterparts increasingly requires that Washington pursue the fight 
however it can, sometimes following an unorthodox path that leaves in the dark 
Pakistani military and intelligence officials who at best lack commitment and 
resolve and at worst lack sympathy for U.S. interests.

Top Bush administration policy officials ‹ who are increasingly worried about 
al-Qaeda¹s use of its sanctuary in remote, tribally ruled areas in northern 
Pakistan to dispatch trained terrorists to the West ‹ have quietly begun to 
accept the military¹s point of view, according to several sources familiar with 
the context of the Libi strike.

³In the past, it required getting approval from the highest levels,² said one 
former intelligence official involved in planning for previous strikes. ³You may
have information that is valid for only 30 minutes. If you wait, the information
is no longer valid.²

But when the autonomous U.S. military operations in Pakistan succeed, support 
for them grows in Washington in probably the same proportion as Pakistani 
resentments increase. Even as U.S. officials ramp up the pressure on Musharraf 
to do more, Pakistan¹s embattled president has taken a harder line in public 
against cooperation in recent months, the sources said. ³The posture that was 
evident two years ago is not evident,² said a senior U.S. official who 
frequently visits the region.

A U.S. military official familiar with operations in the tribal areas, who spoke
on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the 
operations, said: ³We¹ll get these one-off flukes once every eight months or so,
but that¹s still not a strategy ‹ it¹s not a plan. Every now and then something 
will come together. What that serves to do [is] it tamps down discussion about 
whether there is a better way to do it.²

The Target Is Identified

During seven years of searching for Osama bin Laden and his followers, the U.S. 
government has deployed billions of dollars¹ worth of surveillance hardware to 
South Asia, from top-secret spy satellites to sophisticated eavesdropping gear 
for intercepting text messages and cellphone conversations.

Yet some of the initial clues that led to the Libi strike were decidedly 
low-tech, according to an account supplied by four officials briefed on the 
operation. The CIA declined to comment about the strike and neither confirmed 
nor denied its involvement.

Hours before the attack, multiple sources said, the CIA was alerted to a convoy 
of vehicles that bore all the signatures of al-Qaeda officers on the move. Local
residents ‹ who two sources said were not connected to the Pakistani army or 
intelligence service ‹ began monitoring the cluster of vehicles as it passed 
through North Waziristan, a rugged, largely lawless province that borders 

Eventually the local sources determined that the convoy carried up to seven 
al-Qaeda operatives and one individual who appeared to be of high rank. Asked 
how the local support had been arranged, a U.S. official familiar with the 
episode said, ³All it takes is bags of cash.²

Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis for Strategic Forecasting, a 
private intelligence group, said the informants could have been recruits from 
the Afghanistan side of the border, where the U.S. military operates freely.

³People in this region don¹t recognize the border, which is very porous,² 
Bokhari said. ³It is very likely that our people were in contact with 
intelligence sources who frequent both sides and could provide some kind of 
targeting information.²

Precisely what U.S. officials knew about the ³high-value target² in the al-Qaeda
convoy is unclear. Libi, a 41-year-old al-Qaeda commander who had slowly climbed
to the No. 5 spot on the CIA¹s most wanted list, was a hulking figure who stood 
6 feet 4 inches tall. He spoke Libyan-accented Arabic and learned to be cautious
after narrowly escaping a previous CIA strike. U.S. intelligence officials say 
he directed several deadly attacks, including a bombing at a U.S. military base 
in Afghanistan last year that killed 23 people.

Alerted to the suspicious convoy, the CIA used a variety of surveillance 
techniques to follow its progression through Mir Ali, North Waziristan¹s 
second-largest town, and to a walled compound in a village on the town¹s 

The stopping place itself was an indication that these were important men: The 
compound was the home of Abdus Sattar, 45, a local Taliban commander and an 
associate of Baitullah Mehsud, the man accused by both the CIA and Pakistan of 
plotting the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27.

With all signs pointing to a unique target, CIA officials ordered the launch of 
a pilotless MQ-1B Predator aircraft, one of three kept at a secret base that the
Pakistani government has allowed to be stationed inside the country. Launches 
from that base do not require government permission, officials said.

During the early hours of Jan. 29, the slow-moving, 27-foot-long plane circled 
the village before vectoring in to lock its camera sights on Sattar¹s compound. 
Watching intently were CIA and Air Force operators who controlled the aircraft¹s
movements from an operations center at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

On orders from CIA officials in McLean, the operators in Nevada released the 
Predator¹s two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles ‹ 100-pound, rocket-propelled munitions
tipped with a high-explosive warhead. The missiles tore into the compound¹s main
building and an adjoining guesthouse where the al-Qaeda officers were believed 
to be staying.

Even when viewed from computer monitors thousands of miles away, the missiles¹ 
impact was stunning. The buildings were destroyed, and as many as 13 inhabitants
were killed, U.S. officials said. The pictures captured after the attack were 
³not pretty,² said one knowledgeable source.

Libi¹s death was confirmed by al-Qaeda, which announced his ³martyrdom² on Feb. 
1 in messages posted on the Web sites of sympathetic groups. One message hailed 
Libi as ³the father of many lions who now own the land and mountains of jihadi 
Afghanistan² and said al-Qaeda¹s struggle ³would not be defeated by the death of
one person, no matter how important he may be.²

A Temporary Impact

Publicly, reaction to the strike among U.S. and Pakistani leaders has been 
muted, with neither side appearing eager to call attention to an awkward, albeit
successful, unilateral U.S. military operation. Some Pakistani government 
spokesmen have even questioned whether the terrorist leader was killed.

³It¹s not going to overwhelm their network or break anything up definitively,² 
acknowledged a military official briefed on details of the Libi strike. He 
added: ³We¹re now in a sit-and-wait mode until someone else pops up.²

Richard A. Clarke, a former counterterrorism adviser to the Clinton and Bush 
administrations, said he has been told by those involved that the counterterror 
effort requires constant pressure on the Pakistani government.

³The United States has gotten into a pattern where it sends a high-level 
delegation over to beat Musharraf up, and then you find that within a week or 
two a high-value target has been identified. Then he ignores us for a while 
until we send over another high-level delegation,² Clarke said.

Some officials also emphasized that such airstrikes have a marginal and 
temporary impact. And they do not yield the kind of intelligence dividends often
associated with the live capture of terrorists ‹ documents, computers, equipment
and diaries that could lead to further unraveling the network.

The officials stressed that despite the occasional tactical success against it, 
such as the Libi strike, the threat posed by al-Qaeda¹s presence in Pakistan has
been growing. As a senior U.S. official briefed on the strike said: ³Even a 
blind squirrel finds a nut now and then. But overall, we¹re in worse shape than 
we were 18 months ago.²

© 2008 The Washington Post

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