The missile delivered by a US Predator drone, that killed senior al Qaeda operative in Yemen, Salim Sinan al-Harethi, and five of his men, as they drove through Yemen’s oil-rich province of Marib on Sunday, November 3, effected the first American targeted liquidation outside Afghanistan.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military sources, it was above all a rapidly-assembled reprisal for a chilling event that Washington prefers to keep dark in its shadowy war with Osama bin Laden’s network.
According to those sources, al Qaeda last week murdered seven CIA agents in a mountain cave near Pakistan. The agents, disguised as peddlers, had piled donkeys with wares and were traveling through the wild border area in search of al Qaeda lairs, when the hunters were caught. Local al Qaeda operatives identifying them as US agents tailed them to the outskirts of Shkin, then approached them. Promising them likely customers and hinting at a large group of the objects of their search, the terrorists lured the agents to a lonely spot out in the country.
The Americans were then bound and thrown into a cave, where they were killed.
The CIA is searching for the bodies but dares not send men into the lawless frontier villages.
However, their success in their death-from-the-sky revenge operation against the al Qaeda team in Yemen has encouraged the Americans, according to our sources, to revive this method of operation in Afghanistan too, particularly with conditions on the ground growing increasingly hazardous.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Kabul report that the most striking development this week was a report published in a small local bi-weekly called Panjerer (Window) that claimed the fiery Islamic fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was deported from both Iran and Iraq, has wound up in Kunar Province in northeastern Afghanistan. Pentagon and State Department sources report him as having opened up a secret back door to enable Taliban fighters to move in and out of Pakistan. According to Panjerer, Hekmatyar, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants are in the last stages of a three-way negotiation to create an alternative government that will seek to overthrow Hamid Karzai’s regime in Kabul. Our sources in Kabul add that this shadow government will also dedicate itself to evicting American forces from Afghanistan
So concerned was President Karzai when he learned of the plot, that he sent messengers speeding to Kunar Province with an offer of a cabinet post and other rewards for Hekmatyar if he would give up his plan and subversion in general.
Karzai also took action this week to shore up his failing authority outside the capital. He sacked 32 political, military and security officials around the country, including Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar, as well as the mayor of Jalalabad.
However, the head of security and intelligence in Kandahar Province, whose negligence was blamed for the unsuccessful assassination attempt against Karzai three months ago, defied the presidential order. On Tuesday, November 5, he said that, before stepping down, he must “confer with my commanders, soldiers and leaders of my tribe”.
Warlords Cheat on US and Karzai
Many of the Afghan warlords and provincial chiefs who pledged loyalty to the Karzai presidency and promised to help the Americans hunt down the Taliban and al Qaeda, are proving treacherous.
After willingly accepting US weapons and military training for their men, they now have no qualms about exploiting two additional gold mines: Iran and al-Qaeda. Emissaries from both have been handing out handsome bribes in return for the warlords’ pledges of cooperation in the campaign to lure US troops deep into a quagmire-like situation.
The other bad news for the United States is confirmation from various sources that Osama bin Laden is very much alive and to a significant extent in command of his forces in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the West. Some top CIA officials dismiss these reports as disinformation. But August Henning, chief of the German federal intelligence service, the BND, sent the CIA a secret report detailing why he believes bin Laden is hiding in the mountainous areas of the Afghan-Pakistani frontier.
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly first revealed that bin Laden was alive on October 18, in Issue No. 81. The al Qaeda leader was indeed in the Afghan-Pakistan frontier area at one time but later, according to our sources, reached Saudi Arabia where he is now, moving about through the Empty Quarter between Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen.)
Ismail Khan, the wily governor of the city of Herat, is a walking example of why the United States can trust almost no one in Afghanistan. An ethnic Tajik, Khan managed to get out of the Americans a haul of weapons and training for some of his 30,000 fighters. Extending the other hand, he also obtained several million dollars from Iran, together with generous supplies of weapons. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say he still maintains his close ties with Tehran, from whose Khorazan province he trucks explosives and mines to Herat. Nothing loath, he also recently made contact with Taliban and al Qaeda senior officers and offered to work for them too.
Ismail Khan is not the only two-timer.
Another Afghan governor, Kandahar’s Gol Agha Shirzay, toured the Iranian province of Baluchistan three weeks ago. He was afforded a royal welcome, wads of cash and arms for cooperating with the Islamic Republic. The official pretext for his Iran tour was to hold talks on sharing the waters of the Hirmand River that runs through his turf. He promised his hosts their fair share but, in secret, he also undertook to harass US forces on his land and help Iranian saboteurs and agents drag them into a war of attrition.
Kandahar, like Oruzgan province, is now home to fugitive Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. From their new hideouts, they are preparing terrorist attacks around the world and against US troops in Afghanistan. Shirzay obviously never intended living up to the promises he gave the Americans to eradicate these terrorist nests.
The United States has been warned that more complex strikes are being planned against its troops in Afghanistan, for which last weekend’s sporadic attacks were the foretaste. In each of those incidents, only a single shell or rocket was launched, causing no casualties. But Washington was alarmed by the boldness and sophistication shown by the attackers.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda are particularly active in the eastern Afghan province of Paktia, where the village of Urgun and city of Gardez are two of their centers of operation. The US military command in Afghanistan is now considering whether a resumed offensive along the border with Pakistan might, if launched, become a death trap for American soldiers. President George W. Bush does want casualties on the Afghan front while he is busy planning war on Iraq.
The success of the Predator attack in Yemen has US military planners itching to use the drones again in Afghanistan. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources say that US drone operation crews recently trained in Israel, which has gained experience in using pilot-less aircraft for “targeted killings” of Palestinian terrorists.
However, the Americans have not solved the problem of their intelligence blind spot in Afghanistan which makes the tracking and killing of al Qaeda men difficult.
The resources absent in Afghanistan are present in Yemen, where the United States set up an effective intelligence infrastructure after the October 2000 attack that killed 17 sailors on the USS Cole and the strike against a French supertanker more than a month ago, in which one crewman died.