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Pakistan: Terrorist Suspects Killed in U.S. Airstrike

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

A U.S. air strike in Pakistan may have missed a top al-Qaeda leader, but it did kill at least 18 people and prompted protests. Now Pakistani security officials say several terrorist operatives were among the dead. The officials told the Associated Press that one was an explosives expert. Another was described as a relative of al-Qaeda's number two leader. Pakistanis say the attack missed that second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the strike highlights the challenge of tracking down al-Qaeda leaders.

Here's NPR National Security Correspondent, Jackie Northam.


Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the administration's hunt for al-Qaeda leaders has focused on some of the most inhospitable areas of the world: Afghanistan, Yeman and the mountainous regions of Northwestern Pakistan. Friday's missile strike, reportedly from a pilot-less CIA aircraft, hit a brick compound in Damadola. The village is in a remote semiautonomous region of Bajaur, along the Afghanistan border.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Middle East specialist with the CIA, says many people in the isolated region are sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

Former Middle East Specialist REUEL MARC GERECHT (CIA):

Mr. REUEL MARC GERECHT (former Middle East specialist with the CIA) Bin Laden and his men have known that area since the 1980s and it seems likely that they have built up networks at least in some of those areas and once those networks; once those ties and friendship has been built it's very difficult to deconstruct it.

NORTHAM: Gerecht, now with the American Enterprise Institute, says those loyalties also make it virtually impossible for the CIA to penetrate those remote regions of Pakistan. Pakistan's government, under President Pervez Musharraf, will not allow the U.S. military to carry out attacks on its soil.

Vincent Cannistraro, former director of intelligence at the National Security Council, says one way to chart the comings and goings of suspected terrorists is by using video surveillance from satellites and drones.

Mr. VINCENT CANNISTRARO (Former Director of Intelligence, NSA): Another way is of course with signals intelligence and that has been less productive in recent years as al-Qaeda has taken extraordinary measures to protect themselves particularly with communication security.

NORTHAM: It's unclear what, how much, or what caliber of intelligence was used to prompt Friday's air strike. But Rand Beers, who served on the National Security Council for the past four administrations, says given the intelligence it had, the U.S. could have asked Pakistan to attack the compound but...

Mr. RAND BEERS (National Security Council): We have asked in the past the Pakistanis to help us go after these individuals. They've run operations. They were unsuccessful.

NORTHAM: Beers says that President Musharraf's alliance with United States has put him at odds with members of Pakistan's Intelligence Service and its military. And so the U.S. has few options other than using unmanned drones. The aircraft called Predators are armed with HELLFIRE missiles. They've been used three times in Pakistan since 9/11 with devastating effect. But there's often collateral damage. Pakistani officials say women and children were killed in Friday's attack.

Former CIA Official Gerecht says that's inevitable in the war on terrorism.

GERECHT: If you go after them, you have to expect that you are going to probably kill individuals who are not directly connected to al-Qaeda or their support structure. I just don't see any way around that and that's just part of the ugly side of this war as with any war.

NORTHAM: The nature of the air strike on sovereign territory and the death of innocent people has sparked some protests and complaints by the Pakistan government. But former CIA Official Cannistraro, says those types of attacks don't happen in a vacuum.

CANNISTRARO: These are really done for political cover because these kinds of attacks, Predator attacks, in a sovereign country like Pakistan, do not take place without the collaboration and the cooperation of the host government.

NORTHAM: Pakistani officials continue to comb the area around Damadola trying to identify those killed in the attack.

Jackie Northam, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.