Tag Archives: Pakistan

Hostage locations difficult to track – and may be getting harder

 American hostage Warren Weinstein is shown in this image captured from an undated video courtesy of SITE Intelligence Group.


American hostage Warren Weinstein is shown in this image captured from an undated video courtesy of SITE Intelligence Group.

The U.S. drone strike that accidentally killed two hostages in Pakistan exposes intelligence shortfalls that former and current U.S. officials say appear to be growing more frequent as militants expand their safe havens and as Washington gathers less on-the-ground human intelligence.

Obtaining timely intelligence on hostages has always been difficult, especially in volatile regions where the United States has limited access and where militants have well-established operations.

But as unrest spreads, militants are acquiring more safe havens, from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq, complicating and often hampering U.S. intelligence-gathering. This is especially so in the wake of the Arab Spring as militants exploit the vacuum left by shattered institutions.

That has forced American intelligence operatives to become more dependent on electronic eavesdropping and spy satellites rather than using informants and on-the-ground human intelligence, say the former and current U.S. officials.

The inadvertent killing of American doctor Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto in a January U.S. drone strike, acknowledged by U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday, follows two failed U.S. attempts in the past nine months to rescue Western hostages. Those efforts apparently relied on dated or incomplete information.

Last July, U.S. Delta Force commandos swooped into eastern Syria to try to rescue U.S. journalist James Foley and other hostages, only to find they had been moved. Foley was later executed by his Islamic State captors.

A December attempt to free American photojournalist Luke Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie in Yemen failed when their al Qaeda captors were alerted to U.S. commandos’ approach and executed them.

Of all those regions, few have remained off limits for as long as Pakistan’s rugged northwest North Waziristan, where Weinstein and Lo Porto were held and where a generation of Taliban and al Qaeda militants have built a stronghold for launching attacks on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

Some former U.S. officials say the problem is too few U.S. informants on the ground in danger zones such as Pakistan or Yemen. “You can’t do intelligence operations without HUMINT,” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official, using the acronym for “human intelligence.”

Rescue missions in enemy territory are inherently risky and, officials say, based on imperfect information.

“The rule is, you almost never know where these guys are,” said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“NO ONE SILVER BULLET”

The latest killings re-ignited criticism from hostages’ family members about White House efforts to protect their loved ones, and stoked controversy over the lethal drone program.

In the drone strike that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto, sources said the Central Intelligence Agency had no idea the two were being held there despite hundreds of hours of surveillance of the al Qaeda compound.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that before the strike, U.S. government assessments had arrived at “near certainty” that civilians would not be harmed. An internal review of the operation is underway to see if reforms are needed to prevent similar incidents, Earnest said.

Whether mistakes were made or not, it is very difficult for U.S. spy agencies to acquire timely information about where and how hostages are being held, the officials said.

“It’s a very complex proposition,” requiring the stitching together of multiple streams of intelligence from various data collection methods, said Dane Egli, a former senior White House advisor for hostage policy under President George W. Bush. “There’s no one silver bullet.”

To militant groups, hostages are an extremely valuable commodity and kidnappers make their captives’ security a top priority, the officials said.

Egli said that opportunities to learn information from local inhabitants or interrogating detainees have been reduced as the United States has withdrawn troops and intelligence assets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Another obstacle is the expansion of safe havens and ungoverned spaces, from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to Yemen.

“Any time they have secured real estate … it’s harder for us to penetrate the (U.S. military) Special Forces for us to do a surprise mission” and attempt rescue, Egli said.

Sometimes there is virtually no information at all. American journalist Austin Tice disappeared in Damascus in August 2012, and has not been heard from other than a brief video that surfaced five weeks later.

U.S. officials have given Tice’s family no indication they know where he is, a person familiar with the situation said on Thursday.

 

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In Pakistan school attack, Taliban terrorists kill 145, mostly children

Women mourn for a student who was killed during an attack by Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School, at his house in Peshawar on Dec. 16, 2014.

Women mourn for a student who was killed during an attack by Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School, at his house in Peshawar on Dec. 16, 2014.

An indiscriminate attack by a Pakistani Taliban group that killed 145 children and adults at a military-run school in northwestern Pakistan is drawing worldwide condemnation — even from Afghanistan’s Taliban. Seven people wearing explosive vests killed 136 children and nine staff members when they opened fire, seemingly at random, at the school in Peshawar, Pakistan, Asim Bajwa, a Pakistani military spokesman, told reporters. All seven attackers also died, although it was not clear whether they blew themselves up or were killed, Bajwa told The Associated Press. “Their sole purpose, it seems, was to kill those innocent kids. That’s what they did,” Bajwa said.

As evening arrived, Pakistani officials declared a military operation to clear the school of attackers to be over. Throughout the day, terrified parents visited area hospitals, frantically searching for their children. “My son was in uniform in the morning. He is in a casket now,” parent Tahir Ali wailed as he came to a hospital to collect the body of his 14-year-old son Abdullah, according to The Associated Press. “My son was my dream. My dream has been killed.

” Students in green uniforms could be seen on Pakistani television fleeing the school. More than 1,000 students in grades 1 to 10 attend classes at the school, including many children of military families. Besides those killed in the attack, numerous people were injured, Chief Minister Pervez Khattak of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province said earlier. Ambulances were seen transporting the injured after the attack started in the early morning. Among the injured were 121 students, three staff members and nine Pakistani military commandos, a military official said. The attack drew widespread condemnation, even from the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. 548 “Killing innocent children is against the principals of Afghan Taliban and we condemned,” Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement to the media. “Our thoughts are with the families of those who lost their love[d] ones.” Pakistan’s neighbors, India and Afghanistan, and the United States also were among those who sent condolences. “By targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack, terrorists have once again shown their depravity,

” President Obama said in a statement. “We stand with the people of Pakistan, and reiterate the commitment of the United States to support the government of Pakistan in its efforts to combat terrorism and extremism and to promote peace and stability in the region.” Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistan native who survived a 2012 shooting and won the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts to promote education, denounced the attack in a Facebook post on her Malala Fund nonprofit page. “I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold blooded act of terror in Peshawar that is unfolding before us,” she wrote in the statement. “Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this.”

Pakistan has been on an offensive, dubbed Zarb-e-Azb, against the Tehreek-e-Taliban, a Pakistani militant group trying to overthrow the government. Taliban spokesman Mohammed Khurasani claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to media, citing revenge for the killings of Taliban members, the AP reported. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rushed to Peshawar to show his support for the victims and vowed the attack on the school would not deter the government’s fight against the group.

Pakistani army troops arrive to conduct an operation at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen in Peshawar, Pakistan, Dec. 16, 2014.

Pakistani army troops arrive to conduct an operation at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen in Peshawar, Pakistan, Dec. 16, 2014.

“The government together with the army has started Zarb-e-Azb and it will continue until the terrorism is rooted out from our land,” Sharif said. “We also have had discussions with Afghanistan that they and we together fight this terrorism, and this fight will continue. No one should have any doubt about it.”

Terrorists storm army school in Peshawar, Gunmen hold 500 students hostage

A hospital security guard helps a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen in Peshawar

A hospital security guard helps a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen in Peshawar

NEW DELHI: Terrorists on Tuesday stormed an army school in Peshawar. At least seven people were injured, including five children, when the armed men opened fire on a private school in Peshawar on Tuesday, according to TV reports.

Gunmen in Pakistan took hundreds of students and teachers hostage on Tuesday, military officials at the scene said.

A Reuters journalist at the scene could hear heavy gunfire from inside the school as soldiers surrounded it.

Military officials said at least six armed men had entered the military-run Army Public School. About 500 students and teachers were believed to be inside.

The Army Public School is located on Warsak Road near Army Housing Colony.

Security forces have cordoned off the school and entered the building. Officials are also monitoring the situation from a helicopter. Attackers and security personnel also exchanged fire inside the school.

Terror outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have claimed responsibility for attack.

“Our people successfully entered the army school in Peshawar this morning. We are giving them direct instructions to not harm minors,” TTP spokesperson Muhammad Khorasni told The Express Tribune.

“Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Khyber-I forced us to take such an extreme step,” he said.

BREAKING NEWS – Pakistan’s Karachi airport under attack

File Photo: Pakistani policemen cordon the airport in Karachi.

File Photo: Pakistani policemen cordon the airport in Karachi.

Gunmen attacked a cargo and VIP area of Karachi‘s international airport late on Sunday night, engaging in a heavy firefight with security forces and killing at least four of them, Pakistani security officials said.

The officials said that at least eight attackers were involved, and that the fighting was continuing early on Monday morning.

Security forces sealed off the airport, and flights began being diverted away from Karachi within minutes of the fighting. Witnesses saw smoke rising from the airport’s old terminal, and one Pakistani news channel aired footage of at least one plane on fire nearby.

Senior police official Rao Muhammad Anwar says the militants are armed with automatic weapons and grenades and exchanging gunfire with security officials.

 

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US operates global drone war from German base – ex-pilot

A testimony by a former US Air Force drone pilot has revealed that the US is using its Ramstein Air Base in Germany to wage highly controversial drone warfare in Africa, Yemen, and Pakistan.

“The entire drone war of the US military wouldn’t be possible without Germany,” Brandon Bryant, who resigned in 2011, told NDR television and Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Last year, German media revealed that the US uses its military bases in Germany to conduct targeted killings of suspected terrorists in Somalia. But Bryant now says that Ramstein Air Base in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate is involved in strikes on Pakistan and Yemen.

During his five years of service, Bryant flew more than 1,000 operations in Pakistan and Yemen. Although Bryant was seated at his control pad in New Mexico – far from the actual drones – there is mounting evidence that the base in Germany plays a key role.

Data from the remote controlled drones is transmitted via satellite to Germany. It is then sent back to America via fiber optic cable. Live pictures are analyzed and classified by teams of US intelligence officers in Germany, suggesting Ramstein is the nerve center behind the operations.

Bryant said that Ramstein was always “the first port of call” during any strike.

Supporters of Pakistan’s outlawed Islamic hardline Jamaat ud Dawa (JD) carry placards as they shout anti-US slogans during a protest against the US drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal region, in Islamabad on November 8, 2013.

Polls show that the majority of Germans have consistently disapproved of drone strikes, saying they are secretive, do not follow a legal process, and can prove ineffective if the wrong targets are eliminated.

Aware of these concerns, the United States – which has a military presence in the country guaranteed by post-WWII agreements – has denied that its German base, which houses over 600 personnel, is directly involved in the strikes.

“The US government has confirmed that such armed and remote aircrafts are not flown or controlled from US bases in Germany,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters on Friday.

In total, up to 900 people may have been killed in Yemen since strikes began in 2002. More than 3,700 people have died in Pakistan since 2004. The figures were collated on the basis of reports by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent online news source, as the CIA and the Pentagon do not reveal official figures.

In the wake of the revelation, foreign policy spokesperson for the Greens party, Omid Nouripour, urged Angela Merkel’s government to take action. “It is shameful that the German government simply closes its eyes to violations of international law on German territory,” Nouripour told DPA news agency.

While the new revelations may put further strain on the relationship between Washington and Berlin – which is already tense due to Edward Snowden‘s leaks about NSA surveillance – they are unlikely to lead to specific measures from Germany.

Berlin cannot freely inspect – much less close down – US bases without pulling out of key military cooperation agreements.

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Pakistani ex-President Musharraf charged with high treason

A Pakistani court has charged former President Pervez Musharraf with treason for implementing emergency rule and suspending the constitution in 2007. Musharraf has already been found guilty of the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

If convicted of the charges he could face the death penalty. Musharraf has pleaded not guilty and claims the charges are politically-motivated.

Judge Tahira Safdar read out the five charges in the hearing which included treason for subverting the constitution and instituting emergency rule in Pakistan in 2007. Musharraf defended himself in the court hearing and made a speech in which he named himself a patriot and said he had acted within the constitution when he declared a state of emergency.

“I am being called a traitor, I have been chief of army staff for nine years and I have served this army for 45 years. I have fought two wars and it is ‘treason’?” he told the court. His lawyer later asked for permission for Musharraf to be exempt from house arrest to visit his ailing mother in Dubai.

Musharraf tendered his resignation as president in 2008 because of mounting charges against him by the Pakistani opposition. He then fled into exile in London for four years, returning to Pakistan in March last year with the intention of running in elections.

However, in his absence the Pakistani government had issued warrants for his arrest in connection with the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf was barred from running in the elections.

The former president was indicted for the murder of Bhutto in August of last year. Then-opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed in December 2007 during a political rally in the city of Rawalpindi by a suicide bomber. The judge ruled that Musharraf was complicit in her murder because he had not provided adequate security during the rally.

Musharraf’s trial has been dogged with delays since it began last November. Initially the former president refused to present himself at a hearing after it was found that incendiary devices had been planted along the road to the court. In addition, he was taken to hospital with chest pains on the way to court at the beginning of January.

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Qaeda Militants Seek Syria Base, U.S. Officials Say

WASHINGTON — Dozens of seasoned militant fighters, including some midlevel planners, have traveled to Syria from Pakistan in recent months in what American intelligence and counterterrorism officials fear is an effort to lay the foundation for future strikes against Europe and the United States.

“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the Al Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, told a House panel recently.

The extremists who concern Mr. Brennan are part of a group of Qaeda operatives in Pakistan that has been severely depleted in recent years by a decade of American drone strikes. But the fighters still bring a wide range of skills to the battlefield, such as bomb-building, small-arms tactics, logistics, religious indoctrination and planning, though they are not believed to have experience in launching attacks in the West.

Syria is an appealing base for these operatives because it offers them the relative sanctuary of extremist-held havens — away from drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan — as well as ready access to about 1,200 American and European Muslims who have gone there to fight and could be potential recruits to carry out attacks when they return home. Senior counterterrorism officials have voiced fears in recent months that these Western fighters could be radicalized by the country’s civil war.

New classified intelligence assessments based on information from electronic intercepts, informers and social media posts conclude that Al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al-Zawahri, is developing a much more systematic, long-term plan than was previously known to create specific cells in Syria that would identify, recruit and train these Westerners.

Al Qaeda has in the past blessed the creation of local branches in places like Yemen, where an affiliate has tried to strike the United States. But the effort in Syria would signify the first time that senior Qaeda leaders had set up a wing of their own outside Pakistan dedicated to conducting attacks against the West, counterterrorism officials said. It also has the potential to rejuvenate Al Qaeda’s central command, which President Obama has described as being greatly diminished.

The assessment by the United States, however, has some detractors among even its staunchest counterterrorism partners, which also see an increase in Pakistan-based veterans of Al Qaeda among Syrian rebel groups but which disagree over whether they are involved in a coordinated plan to attack the West.

“At this stage, it’s a lot less organized than a directed plan,” said one Western security official. “Some fighters are going to Syria, but they’re going on an ad hoc basis, not at an organized level.”

Most of the operatives identified by intelligence officials are now focused on attacking Syrian government troops and occasionally rival rebel factions. But the fact that these kinds of operatives are showing up in Syria indicates to American officials that Mr. Zawahri is also playing a long game — counting on easy access to Iraq and Qaeda support networks there, as well as on the United States’ reluctance to carry out drone strikes or other military operations against targets in Syria.

“A key question, however, is how using Syria as a launching pad to strike the West fits into Zawahri’s overall strategy, and if he’s soft-pedaling now, hoping to consolidate Al Qaeda’s position for the future,” said one American counterterrorism official. “Clearly, there is going to be push and pull between local operatives and Al Qaeda central on attack planning. How fast the pendulum will swing toward trying something isn’t clear right now.”

The new assessment is not likely to change American policy toward Syria any time soon, but it puts pressure on the Obama administration and its allies because it raises the possibility that Syria could become the next Afghanistan.

Top officials at the F.B.I., the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security say they are working closely with European allies to track Westerners returning from Syria.

There are perhaps “a few dozen” Qaeda veterans of fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan in Syria, two top counterterrorism officials said. “What we’ve seen is a coalescence in Syria of Al Qaeda veterans from Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as extremists from other hot spots such as Libya and Iraq,” Matthew G. Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate panel in March. “From a terrorism perspective, the most concerning development is that Al Qaeda has declared Syria its most critical front.”

In his first speech as secretary of Homeland Security in February, Jeh C. Johnson put it even more bluntly. “Syria has become a matter of homeland security,” he said.

The Qaeda veterans have multiple missions and motivations, counterterrorism officials say. Like thousands of other foreign fighters, many have been drawn on their own to Syria to fight the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Many others, like Abu Khalid al-Suri, a Syrian-born veteran of Al Qaeda, were sent by the terrorist group’s central command in Pakistan first to fight Mr. Assad, but also to begin laying the groundwork to use enclaves in Syria to launch attacks against the West, American officials said.

Mr. Suri, who is believed to have been close to Osama bin Laden and to have fought against American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, was sent to mediate conflicts between Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, and another extremist faction, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which Al Qaeda has disavowed. He was killed in a suicide attack in February by the rival group.

Many of the Qaeda planners and operatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan have clustered in the east and northwest sections of Syria, in territory controlled or heavily influenced by the Nusra Front, intelligence officials said.

Sanafi al-Nasr, a Saudi-born extremist who is on his country’s list of most wanted terrorists, traveled to Syria from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region late last year and emerged as one of the Nusra Front’s top strategists. Jihadi forums reported that he was killed in fighting last week, but American counterterrorism officials said those reports could not be confirmed.

“Al Qaeda veterans could have a critical impact on recruitment and training,” said Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst at Flashpoint Global Partners, a security consulting firm that tracks militant websites. “They would be lionized, at least within the ranks, as experienced mujahedeen.”

While these senior Qaeda envoys have been involved in the immediate fight against Syrian forces, American counterterrorism officials said they also had broader, longer-term ambitions.

Without naming Mr. Nasr, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, told a Senate panel in February that a “small nucleus” of Qaeda veterans from Afghanistan and Pakistan in Syria who are “separate from al-Nusra harbor designs on attacks in Europe and the homeland.”

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, agreed, saying, “The large majority of Al Qaeda-linked commanders now in Syria are there due to the potential for Syria to be the next jihadist safe haven.”

Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist movements, said that launching attacks on Western targets did not appear to be a priority for the Nusra Front now. However, the group’s ideology, or a belief that it was under direct threat, could lead it to attack the West eventually, he said.

“As soon as they get targeted, they will move the battle outside,” Mr. Hanieh said.

via Qaeda Militants Seek Syria Base, U.S. Officials Say – NYTimes.com.

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Hero Bin Laden doctor decries treatment in letter smuggled out of Pakistani prison

The hero doctor jailed in Pakistan for helping the U.S. kill Usama bin Laden bared his frustration with the country’s tribal court system in a letter smuggled out by a supporter last week. “My legal right to consult with my lawyers is being denied,” wrote Dr. Shakil Afridi, who worked with the CIA on a vaccination ruse that helped confirm the Al Qaeda leader’s presence in an Abbottabad compound, paving the way for the May 2011 SEAL mission in which he was killed. The one-and-a half page letter, handwritten in Urdu and smuggled out of the Peshawar Central Jail, comes as Afridi awaits a Dec. 18 decision which could result in a new trial. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison for colluding with terrorists, although the conviction was widely seen as punishment for aiding the U.S. in an operation that proved embarrassing for Pakistan. Afridi’s cousin, Qamar Nadeem, verified the letter’s authenticity by matching it to letters Afridi previously wrote before prison authorities barred him from meeting with family and legal advisers in September 2012 after he gave an exclusive interview to Fox News speaking from his jail cell. In the letter, which was reviewed by FoxNews.com, Afridi wrote that he is being held in complete isolation. “What sort of court and justice is this?” wrote Afridi, decrying the inhumane treatment he’s been subjected to while kept in complete isolation. Qamar said Afridi’s words speak volumes of the suffering and mental torture he is coping with daily, but also show he isn’t ready to accept his fate without a fight. Afridi’s legal journey has been long and arduous. Regarded as a hero in the U.S., he is seen in many quarters of Pakistan as a traitor. A judge who overturned his sentence and ordered a retrial in August died in a gas explosion at his Islamabad apartment several weeks ago, raising suspicions he was killed. The trial court refused to grant the new trial and, as a final appeal of that decision nears, local authorities have drummed up a host of old charges against Afridi. His supporters believe the new charges, including one of murder for the death of a boy he treated for appendicitis in 2007, are meant to ensure that Afridi remains behind bars even if the collusion charges are thrown out. A three-member tribunal, which operates under the archaic tribal law system, heard arguments on the merits of a new trial at a court in Peshawar on Monday. The tribunal’s decision, which could force local authorities to launch a new trial, is expected on Dec. 18. “We are confident that Dr. Shakeel Afridi would be freed after a free and fair trial”, said Afridi’s lawyer, Samiullah Afridi. But others from the defense team feel the case has been crafted on political rather legal grounds and a favorable verdict is unlikely. One of Afridi’s lawyers fears the letter going public could hurt the doctor’s bid for freedom. Hero Bin Laden doctor decries treatment in letter smuggled out of Pakistani prison | Fox News.