The US launched its first drone strike in Pakistan in more than a month, killing four foreign fighters from Turkmenistan in an attack today in an area known to be infested with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
The CIA-operated, remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers fired a pair of missiles a vehicle as it traveled in the village of Hisokhel in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan.
Pakistani intelligence officials told Dawn that the four fighters were members of the Turkistan Islamic Party. “Local militant sources” said they were from the country of Turkmenistan and were allied with North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar.
The Turkistan Islamic Party, which is closely allied with al Qaeda and fights in Afghanistan, is known to host training camps in North Waziristan, particularly in the Mir Ali area. In July, the group released a video of women training for jihad at one of its camps. In the past, the Turkistan Islamic Party has also released videos of children training to wage jihad.
The Mir Ali area is in the sphere of influence of Abu Kasha al Iraqi, an al Qaeda leader who serves as a key link to the Taliban and supports al Qaeda’s external operations network. He is rumored to have been killed in a US drone strike last year, but the report was never confirmed.
Bahadar and the Haqqani Network also operate in the Mir Ali area. Moreover, Mir Ali is a known hub for al Qaeda’s military and external operations councils. Al Qaeda and allied terror groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Group, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and a number of Pakistani and Central and South Asian terror groups host or share camps in the area.
Despite the known presence of al Qaeda and other foreign groups in North Waziristan, and requests by the US that action be taken against these groups, the Pakistani military has indicated that it has no plans to take on Hafiz Gul Bahadar or the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. Bahadar and the Haqqanis are considered “good Taliban” by the Pakistani military establishment as they do not carry out attacks inside Pakistan. In June 2012, Bahadar banned polio vaccinations in North Waziristan, in protest against US drone strikes.
Today’s strike is the first since July 28, and just the fifth since President Barack Obama’s speech at the end of May outlining a reduced US counterterrorism role in the world. Three al Qaeda military trainers, from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Kuwait, were killed in the July 28 strike in North Waziristan.
Obama said that the drones, which are currently operated by the CIA, will eventually be turned over to the military, and that the pace of the strikes will be reduced. Even though al Qaeda has expanded its operations in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Egypt, and in North and West Africa, Obama claimed that the terrorist organization has been sufficiently weakened.
The US has launched 19 drone strikes in Pakistan so far this year, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. The number of strikes in Pakistan has decreased since a peak in 2010, when 117 such attacks were recorded. In 2011, 64 strikes were launched in Pakistan, and in 2012 there were 46 strikes.
The US has targeted al Qaeda’s top leaders and its external operations network, as well as the assortment of Taliban and Pakistani jihadist groups operating in the region. The strikes have been confined mostly to North and South Waziristan. Of the 344 strikes recorded since 2004, 327, or 95%, have taken place in the two tribal agencies. But al Qaeda is known to have an extensive network throughout Pakistan.