Fri, Jan 08, 2010 - Page 7 News List

ANALYSIS : US sends lethal message in wake of attack on CIA


Following the deaths of seven CIA employees in Afghanistan, the US struck back at militant targets in Pakistan on Wednesday with explosives apparently launched from an airborne drone.

The attack was the fifth of its kind since the bombing that killed several top CIA operatives at a secretive eastern Afghan base reportedly used as a key outpost in the effort to identify and target terror leaders.

The latest attack was a lethal message that US President Barack Obama’s administration views its airstrikes as too effective to abandon, even though they are unpopular with civilians and the US-backed governments in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The apparent strike killed 13 people in an area of Pakistan’s volatile northwest teeming with militants suspected of directing the suicide attack last week across the border in Afghanistan.

The US deaths were a reminder that while the use of drones may lessen the risk to US pilots, the CIA-run operation has its own human weakness: the intelligence agents who practice old-fashioned spycraft to pinpoint the targets.

The attack came as a severe blow to the expertise and talent pool of the CIA in a little-understood country where its spies are now most at risk.

Charles Faddis, a former agency case officer, said it was a major strike to agency operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“CIA is a small outfit,” said Faddis, who recently published Beyond Repair, a scathing assessment of the agency. “You don’t lose this many people in one strike and not feel it acutely.”

A message posted by a top al-Qaeda leader Wednesday on jihadist Internet forums praised the bombing and said it was to avenge the deaths of a Pakistani Taliban leader and two al-Qaeda figures: Baitullah Mehsud, Abu Saleh al-Somali and Abdullah Saeed al-Liby. Terrorist watchdog groups disagreed over whether the message, signed by al-Qaeda’s No. 3, Sheikh Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, was claiming responsibility for the attack.

Al-Somali was a senior al-Qaeda operations planner who was killed in a US missile strike last month in western Pakistan, a US counterterrorism official said. Mehsud was a Pakistani Taliban leader killed on Aug. 5 in a CIA missile strike in northwest Pakistan.

He was suspected of being involved in plotting attacks against the US and Europe, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss covert operations.

The role of al-Liby could not be immediately determined.

The CIA outpost bomber, a Jordanian doctor identified as Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was apparently a double agent — perhaps even a triple agent — who had been considered a key asset. Al-Balawi was invited inside the facility bearing a promise of information about al-Qaeda’s second in command, presumed to be hiding in Pakistan.

A federal law enforcement official said on Wednesday that the bomber entered the base by car and detonated a powerful explosive just outside the base’s gym where CIA operatives and others had gathered.

It was unclear whether the explosives were hidden in a suicide vest or belt, but they set off a “significant blast,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the investigation.

A small team of FBI agents, including bomb and evidence technicians, flew to the remote Afghan base soon after the blast, the official said. The team, which is working closely with the CIA, has since returned and is still trying to identify the components of the explosives and whether they included shrapnel.

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