CIA Strikes Intensify in Pakistan Amid Heightened Threats in Europe
By SIOBHAN GORMAN
WASHINGTON—In an effort to foil a suspected terrorist plot against European targets, the Central Intelligence Agency has ramped up missile strikes against militants in Pakistan's tribal regions, current and former officials say.
The strikes, launched from unmanned drone aircraft, represent a rare use of the CIA's drone campaign to preempt a possible attack on the West.
The terror plot, which officials have been tracking for weeks, is believed to target multiple countries, including the U.K., France, and Germany, these officials said.
The exact nature of the plot or plots couldn't be learned immediately, and counterterrorism officials in the U.S., Pakistan and Europe are continuing to investigate. There have, however, been multiple terror warnings in recent days in France, Germany and the U.K.
"There are some pretty notable threat streams," said one U.S. military official, who added that the significance of these threats is still being discussed among counterterrorism officials but that threats of this height are unusual.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano plans to discuss the current European terrorism intelligence with her European counterparts at a U.N. aviation security meeting this week in Montreal. "We are in constant contact with our colleagues abroad," she told a Senate panel last week. "We are all seeing increased activity by a more diverse set of groups and a more diverse set of threats. That activity, much of which is Islamist in nature, is directed at the West generally."
The CIA has launched at least 20 drone strikes so far this month in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a lawless region neighboring Afghanistan. That is the highest monthly total in the past six years, according to a tally by the New America Foundation think tank. The previous monthly high was 12 strikes in January, following the December suicide attack that killed seven CIA agents on an agency base in eastern Afghanistan.
The latest known drone strike occurred Monday, hitting a house in Northwestern Pakistan. Four people were killed in that attack, the Associated Press reported.
Separately, Pakistan on Monday protested NATO helicopter strikes that killed more than 70 militants, saying the attacks breached its air space. NATO said it attacked in self defense. Unlike the CIA drone strikes, manned attacks are rare in the region.
Not all of the drone strikes in the latest wave are connected to the suspected European plot. But many have targeted militants who are part of the Haqqani network, a militant group connected to al Qaeda. The group controls a key region abutting Afghanistan, where U.S. defense and intelligence officials believe Osama bin Laden could be hiding.
Since al Qaeda has been under pressure from the drone campaign and other counterterrorism operations, it has come to rely increasingly on affiliates in the region as well as in countries like Yemen and Somalia. The failed Christmas Day attack on a Detroit-bound Northwest flight, for example, was hatched in Yemen, authorities believe.
Last week, France stepped up its level of vigilance over what was thought could be an imminent al Qaeda threat. Authorities said that they had uncovered a suicide bombing plot to attack the Paris subway linked to al Qaeda's North African affiliate. They said the threat might be connected to France's recent vote to ban the wearing of burqas, the head-to-toe garb worn by the most conservative Muslim women.
Earlier this month, the Eiffel Tower was evacuated due to a bomb scare, but that was determined to be a false alarm.
In recent weeks, intelligence officials in the U.K. have issued warnings that the al Qaeda threat remains high.
While it couldn't be learned who is believed to be behind the plot against European targets, the targeting of the Haqqani network suggests it could be involved.
"There have been some actionable targets, including Haqqani targets, that have presented themselves," said one U.S. military official.
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More interactive graphics and photos If the Haqqani network were involved in a European terror plot, it would be the first known instance where it sought to launch attacks outside of South Asia, said Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University who has written extensively on terrorism. The Haqqani group's involvement would be particularly worrisome, he said, because "you're talking about one of the more skilled and competent groups spreading its wings." The Haqqani network is also believed to have been involved in the December attack on the CIA base.
A U.S. official declined to speak about the strikes this month or a connection to the suspected European plot. The official vowed to continue to keep the pressure on al Qaeda and affiliated militant groups in Pakistan.
"Our operational tempo has been up for a while now, we have good information driving it, and—given the stakes involved—we hope to keep the pressure on as long as we can," the official said. "The mix of threats isn't new. Sometimes it's groups like the Haqqanis, and sometimes it's al Qaeda or the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban."
U.S. officials believe that conducting attacks in an area where militants are present can disrupt planned attacks, even if they do not hit the precise cells plotting the attack.
In advance of the Afghan elections, the military increased both targeted special operations attacks against Taliban leaders, and increased more general operations in areas considered insurgent strongholds, in hopes of making it more difficult for militants to attack polling centers on the day of the election.
While targeting militants involved in planning an attack is the most effective way to disrupt a plot, stepped up operations forces other militants to communicate less and act more carefully, making it more difficult for them to carry out plans.
"The strikes are a product of precise intelligence and precise weapons," the official said. "We've been hitting targets that pose a threat to our troops in Afghanistan and terrorists plotting attacks in South Asia and beyond."
The drone campaign has come under increasing legal pressure in recent months, with civil-liberties and human-rights groups filing suit to press for more transparency about the campaign.
—Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.
Write to Siobhan Gorman at firstname.lastname@example.org