One of Pakistan’s most dangerous terrorist groups, the Tehrik-e-Taliban, has claimed responsibility for a July 2 assault when Pakistani engineers and scientists in a bus traveling on the Rawalpindi-Peshawar Road were rammed by a lone suicide bomber on a motor bike, killing six and wounding 36 others, according to press accounts confirmed by U.S. officials.
Former U.S. intelligence officials believe the Tehrik-e-Taliban were also responsible for a May 27 attack on a Lahore police station and the local office of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service, killing 15 police officers, one ISI lt. colonel and 10 other persons.
Other Tehrik-e-Taliban targets include the Kahuta Research Laboratories which built Pakistan’s nuclear bombs, weapons grade uranium and long-range missiles, along with the Army-run Mechanical Complex at Taxila, both built with Chinese assistance.
“The terrorists are sending a clear message: they can strike where they want, what they want, and when they want,” said an administration official.
John Nagl, president of the Center for New American Security, said recently: that the “brew” of the growing strength of the Pakistan terror group Tehrik-e-Taliban and its “potential to damage the Pakistan government and to seize control of at least some of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons” is the “most dangerous brew in the world today.”
Currently there are four major jihadi groups operating inside Pakistan and three inside Afghanistan, according to counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen who has publicly described the Pakistan four as a “fragmented coalition, based on “alliances of convenience” who have “no central leadership that can be dealt with, co-opted or eliminated.”
“The presence of core (Al-Qaeda) leaders and nuclear weapons in Pakistan…makes the Taliban an extremely serious threat to the international community and our entire strategic position,” he wrote recently.
According to U.S. and Indian intelligence officials, the TTP are perhaps the most formidable of the jihadi groups because it contains a growing number of ex-servicemen from the Pakistani army. Members of the Pashtun tribe contributed a large number of trained and experienced soldiers and officers to the Pakistan army when Pakistan was established in 1947.
According to recent statements by Bahukutumbi Raman, a former senior Indian intelligence expert, the Pakistani government neglected these servicemen after their terms of service were up, and the TTP was quick to utilize them, not only for the training of new recruits but also for conducting operations.
Their superiority in conventional military and guerilla operations is unquestioned, several sources said. Using ambushes, diversionary attacks, flanking movements, frontal assaults and asymmetric warfare methods including suicide attacks, the TTP fought the Pakistani Army to a stalemate in the Swat Valley, then began operations in the Baajur Agency, the Kurram Agency and North Waziristan where it again outfought Islamabad’s regular forces.
But the latest attack is clear evidence that the TTP has devised a new strategy that focuses more of its power in attacking key, highly sensitive military facilities, acting on its vow to topple the Pakistan government and seize its nuclear weapons. The July 2 assault nearly embarrassed the Islamabad government, which claimed that the plant that employed the targeted workers was “non-nuclear,” a statement vigorously denied by U.S. experts. “That’s just plain bull,” said a congressional source, noting that the wounded were treated at a hospital run by the Kahuta nuclear lab.
For several former CIA officials the strike demonstrated the excellent and timely intelligence possessed by TTP operatives. “The attackers had very exact information,” said one.
Part of the TTP’s excellence is due to its gifted leader, Baitullah Mehsud from the Shubi Khel branch of the Mehsud tribe in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region. He is a notorious figure: accused of orchestrating the murder of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and he has boasted that he will attack Washington, D.C.
His career has been colorful. After the U.S.-invasion of Afghanistan, Baitullah fled Afghanistan and went to South Waziristan. Writing for the Jamestown Foundation, Taliban expert Muktiar Khan has stated that Baitullah has great political acumen, is skilled at creating liaisons with local tribal leaders and is deft in using them and the media to get out his message that Afghanistan must be liberated by jihad: “ Only jihad can bring peace to the world.”
Baitullah’s tactics know no mercy He introduced suicide bombings, the recruitment of children for martyrdom operations, and the beheading of what he termed, “anti-Taliban spies,” and he tolerates no dissent. Over 200 tribal leaders who resisted his program were killed by the most brutal means, Khan said.
Baitullah is protected by a personal force of 20,000 men who are seasoned fighters, sources said. He is the second Pakistani to carry a U.S. bounty on his head of $5 million, the first being Mir Amal Kasi, who was captured in Pakistan and executed in 2002 for the murder of two CIA agents outside the agency’s headquarters in 1993.
U.S. officials see Baitullah as a dangerous Al-Qaeda facilitator, and there is a stolid, unrelenting determination to put an end to him and his career that has resulted in some very close calls.
Late last month, the agreement among Pakistan, India, and the United States to exchange intelligence, began to produce solid results. Thanks to pressure from the CIA, the three countries agreed to share data on Taliban commanders and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the latter allegedly the force behind the terrorist attack on Mumbai last November which left 170 dead, according to the State Department.
On June 23, three Predator drones launched three Hellfire missiles killing 83 people at a funeral for a Taliban commander who had been killed during a Predator strike earlier that day, according to U.S. officials and press accounts.
According to a former CIA official, the Predators fired on Taliban vehicles as they attempted to flee the funeral. This official said that the abrupt appearance of the Predators above the vehicles required “precise information” that could not have come from human intelligence.
The attack took place at the village of Lattaka in the Shabikhel area of South Waziristan where Mehsud is based.
He added that it was “highly possible” that a passenger in one of the vehicles had been speaking on his cell phone and was intercepted by U.S. technical intelligence specialists in Afghanistan, but he felt it was equally likely that the targeting intelligence came from U.S. spy satellites that keep constant surveillance on vehicular movements in Pakistan.
This former official said that Predators had been observed in the area by local villagers, yet had not fired until specific vehicles at the funeral had begun to move.
Both June 23 attacks coincided with a meeting between top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders that included Siraj Haqqani, Yahu Yahya al-Libi, two senior deputies of Mullah Abdullah Zakir, and Abdul Haq, according to news accounts.
The three Taliban leaders escaped.
Pentagon officials confirmed that the two June attacks were the fourth and fifth Predator attacks since the first of the year.
On July 3, 13 more Taliban were killed in Beitullah’s Mehsud territory at the Khotat Kai camp as part of a continuous, coordinated campaign to eliminate Mehsud and his network of training camps, according to Pentagon officials.
A former senior CIA official said that the operation has been a coordinated operation of U.S. and Pakistani forces where the two forces operate independently of each other and not under joint command and control.
But according to several sources, Baitullah barely escaped the June attacks: “We missed by a whisker,” one former U.S. intelligence official said.
Raman, a former senior Indian intelligence official, said the strikes were “well-planned, intelligence-driven and smartly executed.”
But Baitullah is still active, and the question remains, is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal secure?
Under the terms of secret agreements, U.S. personnel have been stationed in Pakistan whose sole function is to guarantee and secure the safety of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal and keep it out of the hands of terrorists, according to several serving and former U.S. officials.
The United States has spent $100 million in bolstering security for Islamabad’s arsenal, including securing warheads, storing missiles and triggers in separate facilities, and putting together a more invulnerable system of command and control.
Some of the American technicians have had direct access to the nuclear weapons themselves, these sources said.
In any case, Pakistan’s nukes are currently secure, in the opinion of several former and serving U.S. officials. “They are for now,” said one.
Yet doubt still lingers.
Asked if Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was safe, former senior CIA official Milt Bearden was skeptical. “We don’t even know where it all is,” he said.
But South Asia expert Anthony Cordesman replied, “If the Pakistanis thought we knew where it all was, they’d move it.”
According to Pakistani Ministry of Interior figures, from June 2007 to the present, 2,267 have died in 158 Taliban suicide attacks.
By Richard Sale – Middle East Times Intelligence Correspondent