Pakistan killing weakens Al Qaeda, inflames tribes

Naik Mohammad, a top Al Qaeda supporter in the tribal regions, was killed in a rocket attack last week.

For many tribesmen, he was like David fighting the Goliath of Pakistani and US forces, and his "martyrdom" Thursday ensures him a place in the myths and legends of Pashtun culture.

Naik Mohammad, a top Al Qaeda supporter, led the armed resistance against Pakistan's security forces and protected hundreds of Arab, Chechen, and Uzbek guerrillas hiding in the tribal region of South Waziristan.

The long-haired holy warrior and seven comrades were killed in a rocket attack in a village named Doag outside the regional capital of Wana. His hideout, a fellow tribesman's mud hut, was located after tracing a satellite phone call by Mr. Mohammad - perhaps with US help.

As thousands of tribesmen mourn his death, Pakistan and US officials are hailing the strike as a success for their coordinated strategy to trap Al Qaeda remnants - possibly including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri - along the Afghan border.

"This is a big success in our ongoing war against terrorism," said military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan. In Kabul, Lt. Col. Tucker Mansager of the US coalition forces said, "It is our hope that his death will help disorganize the ongoing fight by foreign terrorists in the tribal areas of Pakistan and allow the Pakistan military to better destroy the terrorists that remain in the area."

Some analysts agree that Mohammad's death will disrupt the local support network relied upon by the foreign militants.

"The killing of Naik Mohammad is like removing the shield of Al Qaeda militants in the tribal region," says Sailab Mehsud, an expert on South Waziristan. "It will benefit fighting Pakistani forces on both local and international fronts. It will demoralize and warn local militants that if their commander can be killed, so can they. And it will send a strong message internationally that Pakistani forces are serious in their fight against terrorism."

So far, the tribal belt is quiet after Mohammad's killing; but the local saying is that tribesmen become silent whenever they are angry. Naik's deputy commanders are choosing his replacement to continue their fight, while his footmen are stoking anti-US sentiments.

"Our operations will continue and the anti-Muslim forces will have to face the consequences.... Naik Mohammad embraced martyrdom with the grace of Allah, but the mission and our activities will continue as long as mujahids are alive," says his associate.

Rumors are circulating among tribesmen that an unmanned US spy plane was in the vicinity prior to the attack and may have fired the deadly shot. Tribal elders say Mohammad's supporters are exploiting these stories to rally the tribes against Pakistan's security forces.

"They are distributing pamphlets and seeking help of local clerics in the far-flung areas to put the blame of Naik Mohammad's death on America and to malign Pakistan's security forces [by saying] they got the help from Americans to kill tribesmen," says a tribal elder.

For months, Pakistan has been pressuring local militants and foreign fighters hiding in South Waziristan after they fled the US bombings in Afghanistan.

Last week, thousands of military and paramilitary troops, with the help of gunship helicopters and jet fighters, launched a five-day operation in South Waziristan, killing more than 80 militants, mostly foreigners, and 17 soldiers.

The latest fighting broke out after a deal soured between Islamabad and five pro-Al Qaeda tribal commanders, including Mohammad. He refused to cooperate when the authorities attempted to register the foreign militants.

Mohammad became controversial for some tribesmen who saw him as responsible for their suffering by not giving up support of the foreigners, deemed to be terrorists by the government.

But his sudden violent death is eclipsing the resentment. His comrades are lionizing him and saying that he is an example of the immortality jihadis achieve - in this life and the hereafter.

The tale resonates at least among one local tribesman.

"He lived and died like a true Pashtun," says Ahmed Noor. "He was a symbol of bravery according to tribal culture and traditions.

"His life is a perfect story for any play or a movie: the mission to liberate Afghanistan from occupying forces ... the fight against Americans in Afghanistan and then Pakistani troops ... and a perfect ending as he breathed his last while his guns, grenades and rocket lay next to him."

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