The other day United States (US) Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-operated Unmanned Vehicles (UMVs), commonly known as drones, eliminated another key Al Qaeda commander in the Af-Pak region by firing missiles at a house in a village Mubarakshi in Mir Ali tehsil (sub-division) of North Waziristan Agency. This time the victim has been identified as Sheikh Abu Zaid, who reportedly was the chief operational commander of Al Qaeda in the region at the time of his death. The killing of Zaid has been confirmed by Al Qaeda in a post on its website.
Zaid’s killing is the most high-profile Al Qaeda commander death in the drone attacks in recent months. The elimination of Zaid is going to further weaken Al Qaeda in Pakistan (AQIP) and may compel the network to relocate its basis to new-found save heavens in Yemen and Somalia.
The killing of Abu Zaid is significant from various aspects. Firstly, he was the operational commander of Al Qaeda at the time of his death and had succeeded Abu Yahya Al Libi, the ferocious Al Qaeda commander. Zaid becoming the operational chief commander of the organization in the region suggests his importance in the ranks of the most dreaded militant-terrorist organization across the globe. Zaid’s succeeding of Libi itself shows the importance he had attained in the hierarchy of Al Qaeda. However, at the same time it is important to note that he was not a well-known Al Qaeda commander like Al Libi.
Secondly, as Abu Zaid was not a well-known figure it suggests that Al Qaeda had no other choice but to make him the operational commander because it did not have left any other main commander in its battery to assign the task. This also means that drone attack have taken a heavy toll of Al Qaeda ranks as it is already lost around 15 of its top commanders in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-operated drone attacks in Pakistan. Moreover, as the Al Qaeda leadership has come under unceasing drone attacks in Pakistan it chose to shift elsewhere its main base from the FATA or for that matter Pakistan. There have been reports from the CIA and other western intelligence estimates that due to heavy drone attacks Al Qaeda relocated most of its bases to Yemen and Somalia or Northern Africa. Large-scale attacks on government forces in these two countries by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-affiliated militant organizations in the last couple of years corroborate the reports of western intelligence agencies.
In the same period there have been a few Al Qaeda top-rank leaders killed in the US drone attacks in Pakistan. Al Libi, Ilyas Kashmiri (unconfirmed) and Abu Zaid are perhaps the only main commanders of Al Qaeda who have been killed in FATA in the last two years. In fact it has been for quite some time now that Al Qaeda has constantly been losing ground in Pakistan. Even as early as 2009 Washington indicated the weakening of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. For instance, on one occasion in 2009 the CIA then Chief Michael Hayden while leaving office had stated that FATA were no longer ‘safe’ nor a ‘heaven’ for Al Qaeda leadership. In his own words Hayden had said: “The great danger was that the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan was a safe haven for Al Qaeda. It is my belief that the senior leadership of Al Qaeda today believes that it is neither safe, nor a haven. That is a big deal in defending the United States. What we and our Pakistani allies have been able to do have changed the equation there,” he said.
It may be mentioned, the entire US intelligence community assessment, made public after the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) had warned that FATA had become a safe heaven for Al Qaeda leadership after its driving out of Afghanistan. At that time it was apprehended by the US President George Bush’s administration that Al Qaeda could use Pakistani soil to plan attacks on the US mainland. Some characters of the US government had even went to the extent by suggesting that if Pakistan could not eliminate Al Qaeda and Taliban from its soil and there was no other option available with the US to secure itself FATA may be “flattened”.
Since then there has been a continual expression of concern from the Americans including the think tanks, US Congress, intelligence community, the State Department and the Pentagon that Al Qaeda had got itself well-entrenched in the FATA. Moreover, that any future attacks on the US mainland à la September 11 2001 would be planned and executed from the FATA. After sensing the genuineness of the Al Qaeda threat the US resorted to unmanned vehicles or drone attacks inside Pakistan mostly on the tribal territory. So far tens of such attacks have been conducted in which hundreds of people and militants have lost their lives.
Irrespective of Pakistan’s implicit expression of concern on US drone attacks on its territory according to international media reports US strikes against terrorist suspects in Pakistan’s tribal region have been getting accurate. The deaths of leading Al Qaeda figures including Khalid Habib, a veteran combat leader and operations chief involved with plots to attack the West; Rashid Rauf, who was accused of planning to send terrorist operatives with homemade liquid bombs onto several airliners flying from Britain to the United States and Canada in 2006; Abu Khabab al-Masri, al Qaeda’s most seasoned explosives expert and trainer; Abdallah Azzam, a senior aide to al-Masri; Abu al-Hassan al-Rimi, a leader of cross-border operations against US-led forces in Afghanistan; Abu Sulaiman al-Jaziri, a senior external operations planner and facilitator for al Qaeda; Abu Jihad al-Masri, al Qaeda’s senior operational planner and propagandist; Usama al-Kini, who was accused of planning the Marriott hotel bombing in Islamabad; Abu Yahya Al Libi and now Abu Zaid testify the importance of drone attacks for the US to aim accurately at its targets.
Independent sources, citing both tribesmen and officials, in various parts of FATA particularly Waziristan that there are a handful of Al Qaeda leaders apparently left in the area. These sources disclosed that the drone attacks by the CIA have been quite successful in killing a number of Al Qaeda leaders but they have also caused civilian casualties. Though these sources do not have direct access to the foreign insurgents but their claims are based on studying the trends and observing the local atmosphere.
Now if it really turns out that Al Qaeda has lost ground in FATA then there is a potential danger that Al Qaeda in order to win recruits and to survive would try to reach out to the Pakistani cities. If Al Qaeda decides and attempts so it would have catastrophic and pernicious consequences. Obviously Al Qaeda tried its utmost and the streak of suicide attacks started in the last quarter of 2007 kept on increasing claimed hundreds of lives in length and breadth of Pakistan particularly the KP and FATA. In the meanwhile Al Qaeda has been strengthening its networking with other militant groups active in Afghanistan, Kashmir and FATA.
So it would be interesting to see how neutralizing the FATA safe havens of Al Qaeda and killing of its several leaders would impact the overall security situation in Pakistan.
From the situation an important question arises: Whether Al Qaeda, which is one of the most dreaded and resourceful militant-terrorist organizations across the globe, could be put on the back foot through drones attacks? If the answer is yes then the Al Qaeda threat perception made by the Americans was overblown and highly exaggerated. However, this does not mean that there would be no more no suicide or signature Al Qaeda attacks inside Pakistan particularly in the cities. The US drone attacks may have killed several top Al Qaeda leaders but there is no trace of scores of Al Qaeda operatives. In light of international and local reports one can conclude that at least most of the operatives have left FATA.
(The writer is a political analyst and researcher, who is about to get his doctoral degree specializing in religious extremism and terrorism in Pakistan:email@example.com)
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