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We're going to hear now about the CIA secret campaign against al-Qaida in Pakistan. The agency has been using unmanned aircraft to launch missile strikes against suspected al-Qaida targets. The campaign began under President Bush and U.S. intelligence officials tell NPR that it has brought al-Qaida to the verge of, quote, "a complete defeat," unquote, in its sanctuary along the border with Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has been told about the reported success of the CIA campaign and he authorized new missile strikes just three days after he took office.
Here's more from NPR intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN: A year ago this month, the director of national intelligence and the director of the CIA both went up to Capitol Hill and warned members of Congress that al-Qaida was back, stronger than it had been in years, thanks to a sanctuary in Pakistan.
A few months later, the CIA turned up the heat. Unmanned aircraft began targeting suspected al-Qaida leaders and facilities in Pakistan on a routine basis. Now, U.S. intelligence officials are reporting the results of the ramped up campaign. The al-Qaida leadership has been decimated, says one official. Osama bin Laden and his top deputy are still on the run, but up to a dozen senior and midlevel operatives are said to have been killed.
The enemy is really, really struggling, says another official. These attacks, he says, have produced the broadest, deepest and most rapid reduction in al- Qaida leadership in several years.
One result of the campaign, the officials say, is some new tension between local Pakistani tribal leaders and the foreign-born al-Qaida operatives who move through their area.
The officials asked not to be identified because of the sensitivities surrounding the CIA campaign. Their claims could not be independently verified and there will be some skeptics. Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: I think we should always be hesitant in assessing the long term impacts of this kind of damage inflicted on al-Qaida, because, of course, over the past seven and a half years al-Qaida's obituary has been written any number of times.
GJELTEN: But Hoffman does note that the killing of a large number of al-Qaida operatives would make it much harder for the network to replace lost leaders. That point is reinforced by a senior counterterrorism official. In the past, the official says, you could take out the number three and number four just moved up. But, he says, if you take out number three and then numbers four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten, it becomes a lot more difficult.
U.S. intelligence agencies routinely monitor al-Qaida communications. We know that they know how bad this is for them, the counterterrorism official said, we see al-Qaida guessing, trying to figure out how this is happening.
Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University says one effect of the strikes against al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan could be a demoralization of Jihadi warriors in other parts of the world.
HOFFMAN: Might they not conclude, if the United States can reach out and target these highly protected and highly valued individuals, what happens to the ordinary foot soldiers.
GJELTEN: Intelligence officials cite various reasons for the alleged success of the CIA campaign. The agency is now using Reaper drones, an enhanced version of the Predator model used previously. The Reaper is capable of carrying two Hellfire missiles, as well as precision-guided bombs. Officials also cite improved intelligence, some of it gathered by human sources on the ground in Pakistan.
The officials are careful to say the reported success of the Pakistan campaign does not necessarily mean the al-Qaida threat has diminished. As many as 100 fighters have already graduated from training camps in Pakistan and are said to be prepared for terrorist operations in the West.
The officials also warn that the gains against al-Qaida in Pakistan could be reversed if the Pakistani military pulls back from the tribal areas to focus instead on the border with India where tensions are rising.
At a Senate hearing last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked about recent criticism of the missile strikes by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. In answering, he chose his words very carefully.
ROBERT GATES: I think that the strikes that are being undertaken are - well, let me just say both President Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after al-Qaida wherever al- Qaida is.
GJELTEN: And where might that be? Al-Qaida has been defeated in one area before, only to pop up somewhere else. It's operations in Pakistan may be weakened, but officials say the network is now gaining strength in East Africa.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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