The Guardian is repeating whispers heard around nomadic campfires near the Khyber Pass.
The CIA is equipping Pakistani tribesmen with secret electronic transmitters to help target and kill al-Qaida leaders in the north-western tribal belt, in a tactic that could aid Pakistan’s army as it takes the battle against extremism to the Taliban heartland.
As the army mops up Taliban resistance in the Swat valley, where a defence official predicted fighting would be over within days, the focus is shifting to Waziristan and the Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud.
But a deadly war of wits is already under way in the region, where tribesmen say the US is using advanced technology and old-fashioned cash to target the enemy.
Over the last 18 months the US has launched more than 50 drone attacks, mostly in south and north Waziristan. US officials claim nine of the top 20 al-Qaida figures have been killed.
That success is reportedly in part thanks to the mysterious electronic devices, dubbed “chips” or “pathrai” (the Pashto word for a metal device), which have become a source of fear, intrigue and fascination.
“Everyone is talking about it,” said Taj Muhammad Wazir, a student from south Waziristan. “People are scared that if a pathrai comes into your house, a drone will attack it.”
According to residents and Taliban propaganda, the CIA pays tribesmen to plant the electronic devices near farmhouses sheltering al-Qaida and Taliban commanders.
Hours or days later, a drone, guided by the signal from the chip, destroys the building with a salvo of missiles. “There are body parts everywhere,” said Wazir, who witnessed the aftermath of a strike.
Declan Walsh reports on 5:27 audio