A senior al Qaeda operative who served as an aide to al Qaeda’s external operations chief was killed in a drone strike last week, according to US officials. The report has not been confirmed.
Aslam Awan, a deputy to the leader of al Qaeda’s external operations network, was killed in the Jan. 11 airstrike in Miramshah, the main town in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan, US officials told Reuters. The external operations network is a branch of al Qaeda’s military council that is tasked with striking in the US, Europe, and areas outside of South Asia.
Awan is a Pakistani citizen who is also known as Abdullah Khorasani, US officials told Reuters. He is from Abbottabad, the same Pakistani city where Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011 by US special operations forces. US officials did not disclose why they believe Awan was killed, and al Qaeda has not released a statement confirming his death.
The Jan. 11 strike targeted a compound on the outskirts of Miramshah; four “militants,” including three “Arabs,” were said to have been killed in the strike. The identity of the Arabs has not been disclosed. That strike ended a 55-day-long pause, the longest lull in strikes since the US ramped up attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas in August 2008.
The drone strikes had been put on hold after a clash between US and Pakistani forces along the Afghan border resulted in the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops. US officials told The Long War Journal on Dec. 12, however, that they would strike if a top-level al Qaeda leader was spotted.
The Jan. 11 strike was followed by another on Jan. 12, also near Miramshah, in which six more “militants,” including “foreigners,” a term used to describe Arab members of al Qaeda and Central Asian terrorists, were thought to have been killed. Pakistani intelligence officials said that Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, was killed in that strike, but offered little evidence to back up the claim. The Taliban have denied the reports.
Reuters said Awan was “a significant figure” in what US officials described as “the remaining core leadership of al Qaeda” based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Awan’s boss, the external operations chief, has not been named but is said to be known by the CIA.
US officials have previously claimed that only two significant al Qaeda leaders – Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir, and Abu Yahya al Libi, a top leader – remain in Pakistan. But US intelligence officials who have spoken to The Long War Journal have said this analysis is deeply flawed, as al Qaeda has leveraged members of allied terror groups to fill leadership positions, and the terror group operates throughout Pakistan, not just in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan where the drones are active.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.