Washington: The US and Pakistan are building a joint intelligence team to go after top terrorist suspects inside Pakistan, US and Pakistani officials said, a fledgling step to restoring trust blown on both sides by the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces during a secret raid last month.
The move comes after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presented the Pakistanis with the US list of most-wanted terrorism targets, US and Pakistani officials said on Wednesday.
The investigative team will be made up mainly of intelligence officers from both nations, according to two US and one Pakistani official. It would draw in part on any intelligence emerging from the CIA`s analysis of computer and written files gathered by the Navy SEALs who raided bin Laden`s hideout in Abbottabad, as well as Pakistani intelligence gleaned from interrogations of those who frequented or lived near the bin Laden compound, the officials said.
The formation of the team marks a return to the counterterrorism cooperation that has led to major takedowns of al Qaeda militants, like the joint arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003. All those interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
The US and Pakistan have engaged in a diplomatic stare-down since the May 02 raid, with the Pakistanis outraged over the unilateral action as an affront to its sovereignty, and the Americans angry to find that bin Laden had been hiding for more than five years in a military town just 35 miles from the capital Islamabad.
The US deliberately hid the operation from Pakistan, recipient of billions in counterterrorism aid, for fear that the operation would leak to militants.
A series of high-level US visits has aimed to take the edge off. Marc Grossman, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and CIA deputy director Mike Morell met with intelligence chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha last month. Last week, the secretary of state and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, held a day of intensive meetings with top Pakistani military and civilian officials.
Among the confidence-building measures was a visit by the CIA to re-examine the bin Laden compound last Friday. Pakistan also returned the tail section of the US stealth Black Hawk helicopter that broke off when the SEALs blew up the aircraft to destroy its secret noise- and radar-deadening technology.
The CIA has also shared some information gleaned from the raid, and Pakistan has reciprocated, US and Pakistani officials said on Wednesday.
The joint intelligence team will go after five top targets, including al Qaeda No 2 Ayman al-Zawahri, and al Qaeda operations chief Atiya Abdel Rahman, as well as Taliban leader like Mullah Omar, all of whom US intelligence officials believe are hiding in Pakistan, one US official said.
Another target is Siraj Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani tribe in Pakistan`s lawless tribal areas. Allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda, the Haqqanis are behind some of the deadliest attacks against US troops and Afghan civilians in Afghanistan. US intelligence officials say their top commanders live openly in the Pakistani city of Miram Shah, close to a Pakistani Army outpost.
Pakistani officials say the US has never provided them accurate intelligence as to the Haqqani leaderships` location. Pakistani officials also argue that as the Haqqani network has been careful never to attack the Pakistani government, there is no reason to attack them.
One official said a final target on this preliminary list is Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, leader of a group called Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, which the State Department blames for several attacks in India and Pakistan, including a 2006 suicide bombing against the US consulate in Karachi that killed four people.
A second US official confirmed that the Pakistanis and Americans have agreed to go after a handful of militants as a confidence-building measure, but the official would not confirm the specific names on the list.
Pakistani officials say those five have always been top targets, but they too did not confirm that the new agreement specifically names them as joint targets.
Intelligence-sharing operations between the US and Pakistan were already strained before the bin Laden raid, particularly by the arrest and detention in January of CIA security contractor Raymond Davis in the shooting deaths of two Pakistani men. Davis said the two were trying to rob him.
Davis was eventually released in March after the dead men`s relatives agreed to accept blood money under Islamic tradition, an agreement Pakistani intelligence officials say they brokered.
But only a day after his release, a covert CIA drone strike killed at least two dozen people in the Pakistani tribal areas — people the CIA said were militants and the Pakistanis said were civilians.
Both sides disputed media reports that Pakistan had completely shut down joint intelligence centres it operates with the Americans following the bin Laden raid.
Two of the five "intelligence fusion centres" where the US shares satellite, drone and other intelligence with the Pakistanis were mothballed last fall, long before either the Davis or bin Laden controversies, the Pakistani official and another US official say. It was part of the fallout of the public embarrassment of the WikiLeaks cables disclosures, which revealed a closer US-Pakistani military relationship than publicly acknowledged by Pakistan.
Another two fusion centres, plus smaller cooperative intelligence sharing facilities remain operational, both sides say, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
The high value target team is expected to use any intelligence found at the bin Laden compound in the hunt, although a month after the raid analysts have found nothing "actionable”, a term describing intelligence that leads to a strike or operation against a new al Qaeda target, two US officials say. The CIA-led teams have gotten through more than 60 percent of the computer files and written material taken from the compound, so far.
They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the ongoing review of the now-classified bin Laden files.