Pakistan's tribal belt: a militant hotbed
Pakistan's tribal belt, where Al-Qaeda reportedly hatched a plot to launch coordinated attacks in Britain, France and Germany, has been branded the terror group's global headquarters.
Washington considers the remote mountains, plunging valleys and thick forest on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan the most likely hiding place of Osama bin Laden, and has named the area the most dangerous place on Earth.
The BBC described the plot to carry out Mumbai-style attacks in three countries as "one of the most serious Al-Qaeda attack plans in recent years" and inspired by the group's fugitive leadership in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Planning had been at an advanced state but a recent series of drone strikes in Pakistan had killed several plot leaders and severely disrupted the plans, Sky News reported.
A covert American drone war has been conducted for years in Pakistan's northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and stepped up under President Barack Obama as a premier line of defence against Al-Qaeda.
At least 21 US drone strikes have targeted Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Haqqani network, one of the most potent US adversaries in Afghanistan, in the tribal zone in September -- the highest number in any single month.
In the latest high-profile killing, Pakistani intelligence officials said Sheikh Fateh, Al-Qaeda's operational chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was killed in a US drone attack in North Waziristan on Saturday.
Britain says 50 percent of plots aimed at Britain were linked to Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, while bomb-making factories and training camps in FATA have been associated with a host of terror plots across the West in recent years.
The region is the headquarters of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whose leader Hakimullah Mehsud has been charged in the United States over the killing last year of seven Americans at a CIA base in Afghanistan.
The December 2009 attack in Khost, near the Pakistani border, was the deadliest attack on the CIA since 1983 and plotted in Pakistan's tribal belt.
The United States has blacklisted the group as a terror organisation and holds TTP responsible for a plot to bomb Times Square in New York on May 1.
American investigators say TTP was involved in recruiting and training Faisal Shahzad -- the Pakistani-born American charged over the plot.
TTP has been blamed for hundreds of attacks that have killed more than 3,700 people in Pakistan in the last three years since they unleashed a campaign in 2007 to avenge the government's alliance with the US-led war on terror.
Around 140 US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt since August 2008 have killed around 1,140 people, including TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud.
Pakistani security officials say bin Laden's right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri narrowly escaped a drone attack in Bajaur in 2006.
The border features some of the most inaccessible terrain in the world, with its towering mountains, plunging valleys, narrow ravines and network of caves.
Bin Laden, Western intelligence agents believe, is protected both by his inner circle and a wider reign of terror. People are beheaded on the least suspicion and video evidence distributed as a warning to others.
Bodies are regularly found dumped on the roadside, their chests etched with the words "American spy".
Pakistan has carried out various offensives in FATA but the military has so far stopped short of ordering a similar offensive into North Waziristan, which has been seen as the ultimate fortress of foreign and Pakistani militants.
It has become a base for a potent vortex of Afghan, Pakistani, Uzbek and Arab militants who fled the 2001 US-led invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan, and is described by intelligence officials as a black hole.
The border is not marked, allowing militants to slip easily into eastern areas of Afghanistan, which are among the most troubled in the country.
The region is also a headquarters for the Haqqani network, locked in fighting with the Americans in Afghanistan, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani who claims to command 2,000 fighters.
© 2010 AFP