Drone attacks deliver fatal blow to Qaeda in Pakistan
ISLAMABAD/DERA ISMAIL KHAN WHEN Al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al Libi arrived in northwest Pakistan several years ago, he commanded so much respect that even some of the world’s most dangerous militants held him in awe.
Already a legend in the shadowy world of jihad for breaking out of a high security US prison in neighbouring Afghanistan in 2005, he seemed to promise endless funds, training and inspiration for men who dreamed of unleashing carnage in New York or London.
By the time he was killed in a US drone strike last week, he was the latest victim of a series of the unmanned aerial attacks that has crushed Al Qaeda’s network along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence officials and commanders of militant groups said.
Its finances have dried up, and those who once idolised the group wonder whether it can survive.
“Imagine. They used to travel in Land Cruisers and double-cabin pickup trucks a few years ago,” said a commander from the Pakistani Taliban, which is close to Al Qaeda. “Now, they are riding motorcycles due to lack of resources.” The downfall of the network in the border area started with the killing of Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town in May last year, and the sustained campaign of drone attacks has further weakened the group. Only about eight hardcore Al Qaeda leaders are still believed to be based in the lawless borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, compared with dozens a few years ago.
Current Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahri is among those believed to be hiding in the area. Many Al Qaeda loyalists have sold their weapons or sought donations to fund attempts to escape to their home countries, the Taliban commander added, speaking in a telephone interview.
But the strike that killed Libyan cleric Libi in North Waziristan, and other similar attacks on militant hideouts, have not made the region any safer. Several other armed groups infest the area, and are not noticeably weaker.
While the aerial campaign has weakened Al Qaeda, its ally the Pakistani Taliban remains a highly potent force despite a series of Pakistan army offensives against its strongholds in the northwest.
Seen as the biggest security threat to the US-backed government, the Taliban is blamed for many of the suicide bombings across Pakistan, and a number of high profile attacks on military and police facilities.
The Haqqani network, which is strongly allied to the Taliban in Afghanistan, also has bases in Pakistan’s northwestern badlands, according to US officials. The group and Pakistani officials however deny they operate from there.
For the United States, however, the leaders of Al Qaeda, the group that was behind the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, appear to be the prime target.
“We just took down another leader in Al Qaeda the other day,” US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta told NATO forces during a visit to Kabul last week, referring to Libi, who was Al Qaeda’s second in command and top strategist.
“The worst job you can get these days is to be a deputy leader in Al Qaeda, or for that matter, a leader,” he added, to laughter.
Residents in the area, Pakistani intelligence officers and former militants said in interviews that the aerial offensive has put Al Qaeda commanders and fighters on the defensive, restricting their movements and their ability to forge closer alliances with other militant groups.
Financing was proving troublesome, since it is traditionally done in cash and in person to avoid being tracked through the banking system.
Libi was one of the few Al Qaeda leaders who kept up personal contacts with commanders from other major militant groups like the Pakistani Taliban.
He used his charisma, and credentials as a theologian, to try and keep Al Qaeda’s network intact in the face of growing pressure from the remotely-piloted drones.
“Libi’s death is a big blow to Al Qaeda. It is currently facing serious financial problems in the Pakistani tribal areas,” said a Pakistani intelligence official, a view echoed by some diplomats in Islamabad.