U.S. strikes more precise on al Qaeda

EXCLUSIVE:

U.S. strikes against terrorist suspects in Pakistan’s tribal region have become more accurate in the past few months, leading to the confirmed deaths of eight senior al Qaeda leaders and a decrease in civilian casualties that have roiled U.S.-Pakistani relations, The Washington Times has learned.

Among those killed was the mastermind of a 2006 plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard planes flying across the Atlantic and the man thought to have planned the Sept. 20 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, that killed 53 people, including two members of the U.S. military.

“The strikes have become increasingly accurate,” a senior Pakistani official told The Times on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject. The official, who has worked closely with U.S. authorities, also said fighting was escalating between the foreign militants and members of native Pakistani tribes in the area along the Afghan border. As a result, he said, Arab al Qaeda members “are increasingly isolated.”

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden apparently remains at large, judging from an audio recording released Wednesday. In the message, the terrorist mastermind called for a holy war against Israel because of its Gaza offensive and questioned whether the United States could succeed in Afghanistan. It was the first such recording since May and appeared to be authentic.

Still, officials from the outgoing Bush administration said they have scored significant hits.

“Within the last year or so we’ve had a very significant impact on senior al Qaeda leadership,” Vice President Dick Cheney told PBS’ “NewsHour” on Wednesday without elaborating.

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told reporters Thursday that al Qaeda is feeling a backlash from Pakistani tribes and is under strain because of the loss of senior leaders.

Pakistan’s tribal region, which was once a safe haven for the group, is not “safe nor a haven” anymore, Mr. Hayden said.

The Times obtainedthe names of all eight senior al Qaeda members confirmed killed by U.S. missile strikes in the tribal region in the past six months.

The list, which has not been published before, is as follows:

• Khalid Habib, a veteran combat leader and operations chief involved with plots to attack the West. He was a deputy to Shaikh Saiid al-Masri, al Qaeda’s No. 3 leader.

• 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. British police discovered the plot before it could be carried out.

• Abu Khabab al-Masri, al Qaeda’s most seasoned explosives expert and trainer. U.S. authorities said he was responsible for attempts to obtain chemical and biological weapons.

• Abdallah Azzam, a senior aide to al-Masri.

• Abu al-Hassan al-Rimi, a leader of cross-border operations against U.S.-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. Al-Kini was on the FBI’s terrorist most wanted list.

Pakistani officials have protested U.S. strikes as a violation of the country’s sovereignty. After a Nov. 19 attack on Bannu, a district in the North West Frontier Province, the Pakistani government summoned U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson to the Foreign Ministry and lodged a formal protest.

In early December, U.S. forces based in Afghanistan carried out roughly 25 strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda camps in the border areas, most of them with pilotless craft.

Pakistani officials complained that the strikes were killing innocent people and threatened to shoot down U.S. drones.

In the past six weeks, however, Pakistan has lodged few protests and the public uproar has quieted, suggesting greater U.S. accuracy.

Corrected paragraph: Daniel L. Byman, a terrorism analyst at Georgetown University and consultant to the Sept. 11 commission, said he supported the policy of targeting al Qaeda militants but was surprised at how little controversy it has provoked in the United States.

“It is interesting that we focus much more on the people we imprison than the people we kill,” he said.

A U.S. counterterrorism official told The Times that aggressive efforts are continuing to try to locate bin Laden and other fugitives.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the terrorist organization is still a major threat to U.S. assets and the U.S. mainland.

Al Qaeda’s threats against Israel also worry counterterrorism officials who fear that the Gaza offensive is providing new ammunition for anti-U.S. propaganda and al Qaeda links to extremists in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

“Any time Israel is engaged in a conflict with Hamas or other extremist groups, al Qaeda is going to try to get in the mix to show that it remains relevant,” the U.S. official said.

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