One of the ways al Qaeda and the Taliban has regrouped in Pakistan, while avoiding air strikes, is to plan and train in the hundreds mosques in the country’s vast ungoverned tribal areas, military sources say.
A former U.S. officer who worked along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border told HUMAN EVENTS that, after the Taliban was ousted from Kabul in 2001 and fled to Pakistan, they realized that one relatively safe haven was a mosque.
The officer said the Taliban-al Qaeda axis began gravitating to mosques "virtually as soon as they were chased out of Afghanistan. Originally they keep the training sites separate, but as we started using drones to attack them, and showed no willingness to go into mosques they migrated indoors. By the time they saw everything that went on in Iraq with us avoiding mosques they were nearly 100 percent there by, maybe, mid 05."
The officer said the U.S. refrains from striking the religious centers from high-flying Predator drones, the only U.S.-directed weapon used to kill terrorists in the federally administered tribal areas. The Taliban and al Qaeda leaders came to put two and two together. A village meeting of terrorists might be targeted; meet in a mosque and you are relatively safe.
In Iraq, insurgents have used mosques during specific battles as a place to store weapons and launch attacks. But in Pakistan, mosques as safe havens have become part of the extremists’ broad overall strategy to rebuild terror networks, and bring down the governments in that country and in Afghanistan.
Their use is so extensive special operations forces have conducted super-secret missions along the border to intercept communications inside the religious centers.
"Their are tons of mosques there," the former officer said. "They are the only educational establishments for the population. You can hear call to prayer from four or five mosques in a medium sized village." The U.S. monitors the mosques to learn of new attacks and track senior terrorists it may strike once they leave the compound.
Besides using ground receivers along the border, the U.S. relies heavily on Predator drones to eavesdrop on tribal area chatter, including radio and phone traffic.
The source said one network of mosques under regular surveillance is run by the Haqqanis, a family of Muslim fighters closely aligned with the Taliban and al Qaeda in the tribal area’s North Waziristan. The source called these mosques, "Taliban central."
The Obama administration has been debating internally whether to expand Predator strikes. But the discussion are not believed to including putting mosques on the target list because of the subsequent anti-American uproar in Pakistan.
"We’re shooting ourselves in the foot by making the mosque a no-fire area," a senior military intelligence official told HUMAN EVENTS. "We’re afraid of their information operations campaign. If we hit a mosque they’ll raise a hue and cry because they know the press will be all over it."
He described the typical tribal-area mosque this way:
"The mosque is a meeting house where prayers and preaching are conducted. It is also where you might find a farmers market, education center, or health clinic. It’s also where combat operations against the infidel are planned. It is a weapons transshipment point. All of those things. Think of the grange our farmers have in the mid-west. Well, there’s your mosque. Only we would have no trouble putting a Predator on the grange."
Nadeem Haider Kiani, spokesman for the Pakistan embassy in Washington, told HUMAN EVENTS that if the U.S. has information on any terror-supporting mosque it should provide it to government officials at a joint-info sharing center in Kabul, Afghanistan.
"If there is any information on groups hiding in such and such an area the information will be helpful if shared with the right person," Kiani said.
The military officer said Osama bin Laden is thought to use villages and caves as safe havens in the tribal areas, not mosques.
"A mosque is too big a surveillance target for us and he knows it," the officer said.
For the first time, a senior U.S. official, in this case CIA Director Leon Panetta, acknowledged earlier this year that the agency operates Predator strike drones over Pakistan. He called the drone "the only game in town" in the tribal areas. It was a concession that the U.S. military does not operate there and needs the Pakistan government to do the ground fighting.