An intense, six-month campaign of Predator strikes in Pakistan has taken such a toll on Al Qaeda that militants have begun turning violently on one another out of confusion and distrust, U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials say.
The pace of the Predator attacks has accelerated dramatically since August, when the Bush administration made a previously undisclosed decision to abandon the practice of obtaining permission from the Pakistani government before launching missiles from the unmanned aircraft.
Since Aug. 31, the CIA has carried out at least 38 Predator strikes in northwest Pakistan, compared with 10 reported attacks in 2006 and 2007 combined, in what has become the CIA's most expansive targeted killing program since the Vietnam War.
Because of its success, the Obama administration is set to continue the accelerated campaign despite civilian casualties that have fueled anti-U.S. sentiment and prompted protests from the Pakistani government.
"This last year has been a very hard year for them," a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said of Al Qaeda militants, whose operations he tracks in northwest Pakistan. "They're losing a bunch of their better leaders. But more importantly, at this point they're wondering who's next."
U.S. intelligence officials said they see clear signs that the Predator strikes are sowing distrust within Al Qaeda. "They have started hunting down people who they think are responsible" for security breaches, the senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said, discussing intelligence assessments on condition of anonymity. "People are showing up dead or disappearing."
The counter-terrorism official and others, who also spoke anonymously, said the U.S. assessments were based in part on reports from the region provided by the Pakistani intelligence service.
The stepped-up Predator campaign has killed at least nine senior Al Qaeda leaders and dozens of lower-ranking operatives, in what U.S. officials described as the most serious disruption of the terrorist network since 2001.
Among those killed since August are Rashid Rauf, the suspected mastermind of an alleged 2006 transatlantic airliner plot; Abu Khabab Masri, who was described as the leader of Al Qaeda's chemical and biological weapons efforts; Khalid Habib, an operations chief allegedly involved in plots against the West; and Usama al-Kini, who allegedly helped orchestrate the September bombing of the Marriott Hotel in the capital, Islamabad.
Al Qaeda's founders remain elusive. U.S. spy agencies have not had reliable intelligence on the location of Osama bin Laden since he slipped across the Pakistan border seven years ago, officials said. His deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, remains at large after escaping a missile strike in 2006.
But the Predator campaign has depleted the organization's operational tier. Many of the dead are longtime loyalists who had worked alongside Bin Laden and were part of the network's hasty migration into Pakistan in 2001 after U.S.-led forces invaded neighboring Afghanistan. They are being replaced by less experienced recruits who have had little, if any, history with Bin Laden and Zawahiri.
The offensive has been aided by technological advances and an expansion of the CIA's Predator fleet. The drones take off and land at military airstrips in Pakistan, but are operated by CIA pilots in the United States. Some of the pilots -- who also pull the triggers on missiles -- are contractors hired by the agency, former officials said.
Predators were originally designed as video surveillance aircraft that could hover over a target from high altitudes. But new models are outfitted with additional intelligence gear that has enabled the CIA to confirm the identities of targets even when they are inside buildings and can't be seen through the Predator's lens.
The agency is also working more closely with U.S. special operations teams and military intelligence aircraft that hug the Pakistan border, collecting pictures and intercepting radio or cellphone signals.
Even so, officials said that the surge in strikes has less to do with expanded capabilities than with the decision to skip Pakistani approval. "We had the data all along," said a former CIA official who oversaw Predator operations in Pakistan. "Finally we took off the gloves."
The Bush administration's decision to expand the Predator program was driven by growing alarm over Al Qaeda's resurgence in Pakistan's tribal belt.
A 2006 peace agreement between Islamabad and border tribes had allowed the network to shore up its finances, resume training operatives and reestablish connections with satellite groups.
The Bush administration had been constrained by its close ties with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who argued against aggressive U.S. action. But by last summer, after a series of disrupted terrorist plots in Europe had been traced to Pakistan, there were calls for a new approach.
"At a certain point there was common recognition of the untenable nature of what was happening in the FATA," said a former senior U.S. counter-terrorism official, referring to Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas where Al Qaeda is based.
The breaking point came when Musharraf was forced to resign mid-August, officials said. Within days, President Bush had approved the new rules: Rather than requiring Pakistan's permission to order a Predator strike, the agency was allowed to shoot first.
The effect was immediate.
There were two Predator strikes on Aug. 31, and three more by the end of the week. CIA officials had suspected that their targets were being tipped by Pakistani intelligence to pending U.S. strikes; bypassing the government ended that concern.
It also eliminated delays. Former CIA officials said getting permission from Pakistani authorities could take a day or more, sometimes causing the agency to lose track of the target. The missed opportunities were costly because it often took months to assemble the intelligence necessary for a strike.
In 2006, for example, the CIA got word from Pakistani intelligence that Habib was staying at a compound in Miram Shah. A CIA officer involved said he spent weeks at a Pakistani military outpost near the compound, monitoring images from a Predator on a flat-screen device.
"We had a Predator up there for hours at a stretch, just watching, watching," the official said. The agency studied the layout of the compound, trying to determine who slept where, and scanning the surrounding roads for the arrival of Habib's truck.
"They took a shot at the compound a week after I left," the official said. "We got some bodyguards, but he was not there." It took more than two years for the agency to catch up to Habib again. He was killed in a Predator strike in South Waziristan in October.
Pakistan has repeatedly criticized the Predator campaign; the attacks are reported to have caused dozens of civilian casualties. "Drone attacks are counterproductive," said Nadeem Kiani, press attache at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington. Rather than firing missiles, Kiani said, the United States should provide intelligence to Pakistan "and we will take immediate action."
U.S. officials say that despite such complaints, the Pakistani government's opposition has been muted because the CIA has expanded its targeting to include militant groups that threaten the government in Islamabad.
The success of the Predator campaign has prompted some counter-terrorism officials to speak of a post-Al Qaeda era in which its regional affiliates -- in North Africa and elsewhere -- are all that remain after the center collapses.
"You can imagine a horizon in which Al Qaeda proper no longer exists," said Juan Zarate, former counter-terrorism advisor to Bush. "If you were to continue on this pace, and get No. 1 and No. 2, Al Qaeda is dead. You can't resuscitate that organization as we know it without its senior leadership."
How to achieve that without undermining the government in Pakistan is a key issue the Obama administration faces as it searches for a new strategy in the region. In a tour of the region, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta arrived in Islamabad Saturday for talks with Pakistani intelligence officials.
"There's a risk of driving [Al Qaeda and its allies] farther and farther into Pakistan, into cities," said Daniel Byman, a former CIA analyst and terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "There's a danger of weakening the government we want to bolster. It's already to some degree a house of cards."
In fact, the stepped-up strikes have coincided with a deterioration in security in Pakistan. Over the last six months, Taliban elements tied to Al Qaeda have carried out increasingly bold attacks, including in Islamabad, and a recent truce between the government and militants in the Swat Valley was seen by some observers as a capitulation to Islamic hard-liners.
But proponents of the strikes argue that the opportunity to cripple Al Qaeda, perhaps permanently, outweighs concerns over the strains being placed on Pakistan.
"Is this really helping when you have radical militants controlling more territory than ever before?" Zarate said. "That is a good question, but that is a different question from whether this is effective against Al Qaeda."
So far, that appears to be the prevailing view within the Obama administration. A strike in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province last Sunday was the second in four days, and the ninth this year.
Panetta, asked about the Predator attacks in a meeting with reporters last month, refused to discuss the program directly, but said, "Nothing has changed our efforts to go after terrorists, and nothing will change those efforts."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Predator strikes in Pakistan dramatically increased in 2008. In 2009, through March 19, there have been nine more.
*Of these, 29 occurred on or after Aug. 31; Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf resigned Aug. 18.
Some of the Al Qaeda leaders killed in Predator strikes in the last several months, according to U.S. officials:
Khalid Habib: Combat and operations chief; involved in plots to attack Western targets; deputy to Sheik Said Masri, Al Qaeda's No. 3
Rashid Rauf: Alleged mastermind of the 2006 transatlantic airliner plot
Abu Khabab Masri: Explosives expert and trainer; responsible for chemical and biological weapons efforts
Abu Hassan Rimi: Led cross-border operations against coalition forces in Afghanistan
Abu Sulaiman Jaziri: Senior external operations planner and facilitator
Abu Jihad Masri: Senior operational planner and propagandist
Usama al-Kini: Allegedly helped plan Marriott attack in Islamabad; on FBI's terrorist most wanted list
Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan: Al-Kini's lieutenant; on FBI's terrorist most wanted list
Abdullah Azam Saudi: Senior aide to Said Masri
Sources: Longwarjournal.org; Times reporting