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November 2, 2007
Notes from the Pentagon

Pacific terrorism
U.S. special operations forces in the Pacific have made significant progress in the past year battling the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the Philippines.

"Abu Sayyaf ... has been mitigated very successfully by the government of the Philippines and their security forces," said a senior officer of the Special Operations Command-Pacific, known as SOC-PAC, which is supporting operations against the Islamist group.

"In the past year, several of their key leaders have been killed."

The officer said during a background briefing in Honolulu, where the SOC-PAC has its headquarters, that the remaining Abu Sayyaf members are divided and fighting among themselves over who will replace leaders who have been killed.

Additionally, electronic "chatter" picked up from the group about plans for attacks against Filipino and U.S. targets revealed that "it's just that, chatter," the officer said, noting that in the past such chatter has led to actual attacks.

"So their ability to turn chatter into action has been substantially mitigated in the past year," the officer said.

The officer would not say that the group has been defeated, but another sign of its growing weakness as an Islamist terrorist force is that many members of Abu Sayyaf are turning themselves in to Philippines authorities.

"This is a great success for the Philippine government," he said, noting that many were disarmed, debriefed and reintegrated back into society. Some received cash rewards for giving up their Abu Sayyaf membership.

The success against Abu Sayyaf is an indirect result of U.S. special forces troops Army, Air Force and Navy commandos who helped train and assist Filipino security forces. A key element of the assistance has been the provision of military equipment and intelligence.

A second major U.S. special operations effort in the Pacific is support to the Indonesian government in battling another al Qaeda-linked group, Jemaah Islamiyah, that operates throughout Southeast Asia.

Jemaah Islamiyah "is a little tougher target because Indonesia, unlike Philippines, is a Muslim country," the officer said.

"In Indonesia the difficulty is that the government is playing hardball against this group but at the same time is catering to the ideological bent of the society," the officer said, noting that a lot of "empathy" for the group exists in Indonesia, making countering it more difficult.

Pacific Command-based special operations commandos currently are working with local forces in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Pakistani commandos
Recently retired Pakistani Gen. Ehsan ul-Haq, the former No. 3 officer in the military, said Pakistan has increased both the numbers and quality of its commando forces in the war against Islamic extremists.

The Pakistan military's Special Services Group numbers more than 10,000 troops and is on the front line in fighting terrorists operating throughout the country, especially in remote border areas.

"These are very, very professional forces, elite and highly trained," Gen. Ehsan said during a meeting with reporters and editors of The Washington Times.

The general said the commandos are experts at what the British once called "frontier warfare."

The commandos were supported by training and equipment provided by the U.S., he said.

Al Qaeda in Iraq
The commander of international forces in Iraq said yesterday that significant progress has been made against al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq.

"It's clear that they no longer have significant sanctuaries and logistics capabilities to support numerous simultaneous attacks against large portions of the population," Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters via televideo conference.

Gen. Odierno said the group still has some capability to conduct deadly and "vicious" attacks against civilians in parts of Iraq.

But he noted that "the top levels of the leadership have been taken, either killed or captured."

"Some of them have been replaced, but those who replace them are not as good as those who were there before," Gen. Odierno said. "And we continue to see a slow degradation in al Qaeda's capability here in Iraq."

He said U.S., allied and Iraqi offensive security operations contributed to the success.

"But the real change has been that the populace rejects al Qaeda," Gen. Odierno said. "They no longer have the passive support of the community. They've been rejected by their actions, and the people do not want to support them. In fact, what we find for the most part is that people will do anything to keep them out of their area, and they want to work closely with us to ensure that remains."

New Afghan tactics
Insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan are entering the country without weapons and are being armed for attacks once inside the country, a U.S. Army commander in Afghanistan said this week.

Brig. Gen. Rodney Anderson, deputy commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force-82, told reporters by teleconference Wednesday that insurgents infiltrate Afghanistan without weapons and "then conduct their attacks or link up with their equipment once inside the country."

Afghan border police have detected and detained some of these infiltrators, he said.

Suicide bombing attacks in Afghanistan have been carried out by a combination of foreign fighters as well as some Afghans, Gen. Anderson said.

CIA interrogations
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden revealed this week, in defending agency interrogations of terrorists, that more than 70 percent of the intelligence used in a recent national estimate came from questioning captured terrorists.

"The last six years have shown us that the best sources of information on terrorists and their plans are the terrorists themselves," Mr. Hayden said in a speech Tuesday in Chicago.

Calling the intelligence "simply irreplaceable," he also noted that the elicited information "is the sole reason we have rendition, detention and interrogation programs."

Fewer than 100 of the most hardened captured terrorists have been put through interrogation since 2002. "Of those, less than a third have required any special methods of questioning," Mr. Hayden said.

The CIA director said the National Intelligence Estimate confirmed that the danger of another major al Qaeda attack against the U.S. is real. Al Qaeda aims "to execute a spectacular attack that would cause mass casualties, massive destruction and economic harm," he said.

Mr. Hayden noted that the estimate was less certain about one key element of al Qaeda plans: the presence of group operatives inside the U.S.

The CIA director's comments are a tacit admission that the agency continues to have a difficult time planting spies inside or close to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

  • Bill Gertz covers the Pentagon. He can be reached at 202/636-3274.

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