The fingerprints of Al Qaeda's interim operations commander Saif al Adal were all over the assault on the important Pakistani PNS Mehran naval air base in Karachi, which began Sunday night, May 22 and ended only after 17 hours of fierce combat, debkafile's counter-terror sources report. It was the jihadist group's first major revenge operation for Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan on May 2. Fourteen Pakistani military personnel were killed and 15 injured. Four attackers died, 4 were captured and 2 got away.
The operation had four telltale features:
1. In planning and execution, the Merhan hit looked as though it was modeled on the Al Qaeda attack of May 12, 2003 on three fortified estates populated by a Saudi-foreign mix in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which Saif al Adal orchestrated.
2. The Pakistani base also had a strong foreign military presence of at least five Americans and 11 Chinese naval personnel. The attack therefore aimed at damaging the US-Pakistani intelligence collaboration which al Qaeda believes to have been indispensible to the operation for killing Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Targeting Chinese personnel was meant to tear a hole in Islamabad's ties with Beijing which contribute substantially to Pakistan's military potency.
According to official statements, no Americans or Chinese advisers were hurt in the attack despite earlier reports that hostages were taken from the latter group.
3. The military professionalism exhibited by the estimated 12-15 attackers was greater than the usual combat standards of terrorist organizations or Pakistani Taliban.
The outer walls of the base were smashed in with explosives and the intruders used ladders to climb in, a method used in al Qaeda's attack on the US consulate in Jeddah on December 7, 2004 and believed adopted by Saif al-Adal based on mistakes he made in the break-in to the Riyadh estates.
4. Meticulous and detailed advance surveillance of the base's layout armed the attackers with precise targets, indicating aid from an inside accomplice or long and careful reconnaissance by spies disguised in Pakistani military uniforms with false ID.
The operation's objectives were:
First, to impair Pakistan's intelligence-gathering capabilities: Pakistani surveillance aircraft take off from Mehran for their missions over the tribal districts bordering Afghanistan, especial North Waziristan, home to terrorist stgronholds. Some of this information is passed on to the Americans for Predator drone missile strikes.
Second, to destroy the three P-3C Orion surveillance planes the US had given Pakistan: Two were totaled and a third badly damaged. The hangars housing them, which contained a substantial amount of surveillance and technical equipment, were blown up and set on fire.
Third, to disable Islamabad's intelligence operations over the Arabian Sea coastal area and water which separates Pakistan from India:
No indigenous Pakistani element, including Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack in Karachi, would have wanted to harm Pakistani's intelligence capacity against India.
Al Qaeda's motives were quite separate from those of Taliban in this case: In recent years, a high goal on its agenda has been to stir up trouble, up to and including war, between the two nuclear neighbors by means of terrorist operations in India which are clearly labeled "made in Pakistan." By hitting Mehran and so removing the seeing eyes of Pakistani surveillance , al Qaeda aimed to give itself a free hand to launch more attacks on India.
In summing up the operation, debkafile's military sources judge it was not one of the biggest or most dramatic al Qaeda has ever perpetrated. But it achieved its goals in terms of strategic gains, precision and rapid organization at very short notice after the death of its leader.
Saif al-Adal does not specialize in the mega-attacks typical of al Qaeda's late leader. His expertise lies in medium-scale, precisely targeted serial terror recurring at short intervals. More attacks are therefore coming.