US Predators miss target in South Waziristan strike

Unmanned US strike aircraft fired at a vehicle in an area of South Waziristan controlled by the Taliban, but failed to hit the target, according to reports from the region. Today’s failed strike is the first recorded instance of Predators missing their target.

The CIA-operated Predators or the more deadly Reapers launched a pair of missiles at a vehicle in the Azam Warsak area of South Waziristan, but the missiles missed their target, Pakistani intelligence officials told AFP.

“US drones first fired two missiles targeting a militant vehicle but they failed to hit, allowing rebels, who were said to be over four in number, to run away,” a senior Pakistani security official told the news agency.

The unmanned strike aircraft then fired two more missiles at the vehicle but “failed to destroy it.”

The target of the strike is unknown. Al Qaeda operatives and members of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan are known to shelter in the area.

“Good Taliban” leader Mullah Nazir supports al Qaeda

The area is controlled by Mullah Nazir, the leader of the Taliban in the Waziri tribal areas in South Waziristan. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services consider Nazir and his followers “good Taliban” as they do not openly seek the overthrow of the Pakistani state.

In the summer of 2009, the military signed a peace agreement with Nazir stipulating that he would not shelter al Qaeda or members of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which were based in the Mehsud tribal areas of South Waziristan. The Pakistani government launched a military operation against the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan in October 2009, but left Nazir’s areas untouched. Nazir has continued to allow the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, al Qaeda, and other terror groups safe haven in his tribal areas.

Nazir openly supports Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, however, and wages jihad in Afghanistan. Significantly, more senior al Qaeda leaders have been killed in Nazir’s tribal areas during the US air campaign than in those of any other Taliban leader in Pakistan. Nazir also shelters the Mehsuds from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, in violation of a peace agreement with the Pakistani government.

In the past, the US has killed several senior al Qaeda leaders in Nazir’s territories. One of the most senior al Qaeda leaders killed was Midhat Mursi al Sayyid Umar, who is better known as Abu Khabab al Masri. Abu Khabab was killed along with four members of his staff in a Predator strike on July 28, 2008.

Two other top al Qaeda leaders killed while in Nazir’s care are Osama al Kini (Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam), al Qaeda’s operations chief in Pakistan; and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, one of al Kini’s senior aides. Both men were wanted by the US for their involvement in the 1998 suicide attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

In another strike in Nazir’s territory, US Predators also killed Abu Hazwa Jawfi, who is said to have led Jundallah, a Pakistani terror group that is based in Karachi and maintains with close ties with al Qaeda.

The Predator strikes, by the numbers

Today’s strike is just the third this month. The last Predator strike in Pakistan took place on March 11, when the CIA killed five “militants” in North Waziristan.

Today’s strike is also the third in South Waziristan this year, and just the third in the tribal agency since Sept. 28, 2010. All but four of the other strikes in Pakistan since Sept. 28, 2010 have occurred in North Waziristan. The other four strikes took place in the tribal agency of Khyber.

Three of the last six strikes in Pakistan, however, have taken place in Nazir’s territory in South Waziristan, indicating a possible shift in focus from the tribal agency of North Waziristan, where the overwhelming majority of the strikes have occurred since January 2010.

A strike on March 8 also took place in Nazir’s tribal areas. The previous strike in South Waziristan, on Feb. 20, broke a 28-day-long pause in Predator attacks in Pakistan. A senior al Qaeda operative named Abu Zaid al Iraqi and several members of the Punjabi Taliban are thought to have been killed in the Feb. 20 airstrike.

Many analysts speculated that the long pause in strikes from Jan. 23 to Feb. 20 was related to the shooting deaths in Lahore on Jan. 27 of two Pakistanis by a US consular official who worked for the CIA. Pakistan has refused to release the American.

But a look at the Predator strike history shows that there have been several long pauses in time between the strikes. The recent 28-day gap was not the longest since the US ramped up the program in August 2008. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Gap in Pakistan Predator strikes not unusual.]

February 2011 proved to be the slowest month for Predator strikes in a year, with three, since November 2009. The recent slowdown in attacks has occurred after the pace of the strikes picked up from the beginning of September 2010 until the third week in January 2011. September’s record number of 21 strikes was followed by 16 strikes in October, 14 in November, 12 in December, and 9 in January. The previous monthly high was 11 strikes in January 2010, after the Taliban and al Qaeda executed a successful suicide attack at Combat Outpost Chapman that targeted CIA personnel who were active in gathering intelligence for the Predator campaign in Pakistan. The suicide bombing at COP Chapman killed seven CIA officials and a Jordanian intelligence officer.

The US carried out 117 attacks inside Pakistan in 2010, more than double the number of strikes that occurred in 2009. By late August 2010, the US had exceeded 2009’s strike total of 53 with a strike in Kurram. In 2008, the US carried out a total of 36 strikes inside Pakistan. [For up-to-date charts on the US air campaign in Pakistan, see LWJ Special Report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2011.]

In 2010 the strikes were concentrated almost exclusively in North Waziristan, where the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, and a host of Pakistani and Central and South Asian terror groups are based. All but 13 of the 117 strikes took place North Waziristan. Of the 13 strikes occurring outside of North Waziristan in 2010, seven were executed in South Waziristan, five were in Khyber, and one was in Kurram. That trend is holding true this year, with 12 of 15 strikes in 2011 taking place in North Waziristan.

Since Sept. 1, 2010, the US has conducted 77 strikes in Pakistan’s tribal agencies. The bulk of those attacks have aimed at the terror groups in North Waziristan, with 67 strikes in the tribal agency. Many of the strikes have targeted cells run by the Islamic Jihad Group, which have been plotting to conduct Mumbai-styled terror assaults in Europe. A Sept. 8 strike killed an IJG commander known as Qureshi, who specialized in training Germans to conduct attacks in their home country.

The US campaign in northwestern Pakistan has targeted top al Qaeda leaders, al Qaeda’s external operations network, and Taliban leaders and fighters who threaten both the Afghan and Pakistani states as well as support al Qaeda’s external operations. The campaign has been largely successful in focusing on terrorist targets and avoiding civilian casualties, as recently affirmed by the Pakistani military. [For a list of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in the US air campaign in Pakistan, see LWJ Special Report, Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2011.]

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Gerry says:

    Spotters (I’m guessing) in this case at least, failed to give proper coordinates or, laser, or improper azimuth.

  • kp says:

    Possibly failed guidance on two missile (unlucky … they may have missed before with one but the backup hit). Possibly bad designator on the drone.

    Hopefully not countermeasures from AQ.

    Was this a flight of two Predators (2 Hellfire each) or a single Reaper with 4 Hellfire.

    I presume they went into squirter mode mode and managed to avoid the drone (which makes me think single drone having problems tracking all the targets … no Gorgon’s Stare yet for the CIA?).

  • alexanderrcm says:

    This is very disturbing. I pray that it is not a sign that the rogues in the area have found countermeasures to the hell fire missiles. Iran is an obvious potential supplier of such possible new counter measures. When will we spank them. They have so much American blood on their hands without declaring war against us. Why do we play their game? I liked GW’s assessment, you stand with us or against us. Too bad he didn’t follow it up with serious repercussions for all the bad actors in the Middle East.


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