Unmanned US Predator or Reaper strike aircraft killed 19 “militants,” including foreign fighters, in a pair of strikes in the Miramshah and Mir Ali areas of Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan today. The strikes broke a one-week-long lull in US attacks in the tribal areas.
In the first strike, the CIA-operated drones fired a pair of missiles at a compound used by “militants” in the village of Spalga near Miramshah, according to AFP. SAMAA reported that seven people were killed and seven more were wounded in the strike. The exact target of that strike has not been disclosed, and the identity of those killed is not known.
In the second strike, the drones fired missiles at a pickup truck that was traveling near the town of Mir Ali. A Pakistani intelligence official told AFP that 12 Uzbek fighters, likely from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, were killed.
Senior terrorists are known to have sheltered in the village of Spalga in the past. The US has struck at targets in the village four other times since the end of 2009, according to data on the strikes that has been compiled by The Long War Journal.
Saleh al Somali, al Qaeda’s operations chief, was killed in a US drone strike in Spalga on Dec. 9, 2009. Al Somali was a longtime al Qaeda operative who was present in Mogadishu during the infamous Black Hawk Down incident that resulted in the deaths of 19 US troops and hundreds of Somalis during an operation to detain a warlord in the capital in the fall of 1993.
Al Qaeda’s external operations network has been a prime target of the covert US air campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The US has targeted al Qaeda and Taliban camps designated to train operatives holding foreign passports, while the leadership of the external operations branch has also been hit hard.
The Haqqani Network, a Taliban group that operates in North Waziristan as well as in eastern Afghanistan, administers the Miramshah area where today’s first attack took place. Al Qaeda leaders and operatives, who are closely allied with the Haqqani Network, shelter in the area, as do other terror groups. Similarly, the Mir Ali area, about 25 kilometers east of Miramshah, is also used by a variety of terror groups for shelter and training. A local al Qaeda leader named Abu Kasha al Iraqi holds sway in the Mir Ali area.
US strikes in Pakistan in 2012
Today’s strikes are the first in Pakistan’s tribal areas in one week, and just the sixth and seventh this year. Six of the seven strikes this year have taken place in or around Miramshah in North Waziristan, a stronghold of the Haqqani Network.
The first strike this year took place on Jan. 11; it was the first by the US in Pakistan in 55 days. The previous strike took place on Nov. 16, 2011. The pause was the longest since the program was ramped up at the end of July 2008 [see LWJ report, US drone strikes in Pakistan on longest pause since 2008, from Dec. 19, 2011].
The program was put on hold from the end of November to the second week in January, following a clash between US forces and Pakistani Frontier Corps troops on the border of the Afghan province of Kunar and the Pakistani tribal area of Mohmand on Nov. 25-26. The US troops struck in Pakistan after taking mortar and machine gun fire on the Afghan side of the border from Pakistani troops. Twenty-four Pakistani Frontier Corps troops were killed.
The clash led to Pakistan’s closure of the border crossings in Chaman and Khyber to NATO supply columns destined for Afghanistan; the supply lines remain closed to this day. In the aftermath of the Mohmand incident, Pakistan also threatened to shoot down US drones flying in Pakistani airspace, and ejected US drones and personnel from the Shamsi Airbase in Baluchistan.
US officials told The Long War Journal on Dec. 12, 2011 that the program had been put “on hold” due to tensions over the Mohmand incident, but that the drones would strike again if a high value terrorist target that could not be ignored was spotted.
The Jan. 11 strike killed Aslam Awan, a deputy to the leader of al Qaeda’s external operations network. Awan was a Pakistani citizen from Abbottabad, the same town where Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in a cross-border raid in May 2011. Awan is the most senior al Qaeda leader killed in a drone strike since mid-October, when Abu Miqdad al Masri, a member of al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis who also was involved in al Qaeda’s external operations, was killed. [For a list of senior terrorist leaders and operatives killed in drone strikes, see LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2012.]
Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, was also rumored to have been killed in the Jan. 11 strike. His death has not been confirmed, however, and the Pakistani Taliban have denied he was killed.
The last strike took place on Feb. 8 in Miramshah’s bazaar. Badr Mansoor, a senior Taliban and al Qaeda leader, was reported to have been killed in the strike. Mansoor ran training camps in the area and sent fighters to battle NATO and Afghan forces across the border, and linked up members of the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen with al Qaeda to fight in Afghanistan.
Despite the US airstrikes, al Qaeda operatives claim they are still capable of conducting training and operations in the area. Abu Zubaydah al Lubnani, a Lebanese member of al Qaeda who operates along the Afghan-Pakistani border, has said that while the drones have “delayed some operations or even stopped them,” the terror group is still functioning in the region.
“I want here to confirm that Qaedat al-Jihad is still standing in Khorasan, solid and strong, despite what hit it, and it is still producing operations and it doesn’t know the path of despair…,” Lubnani said in statement that was recently released on jihadist forums. The statement was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.