Unmanned US strike aircraft attacked terrorist targets in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency for the third time in less than three weeks, killing four “militants” in an area known to serve as an al Qaeda haven.
The Predators or Reapers, more commonly called drones, fired a pair of missiles at a vehicle traveling in the town of Degan near Miramshah, according to AFP.
“The vehicle burst into flames after the missiles hit. Militants have cordoned the area and (are) taking out the bodies,” a local Pakistani official told AFP. The operatives are said to be from Turkmenistan.
The exact target of the strike has not been disclosed, and the identity of those killed is not known. The Turkmen fighters may be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or one of the smaller Central Asian terrorists groups, such as Jund al Khilafa, that operate in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Today’s strike is the third in Pakistan’s tribal areas in 13 days; all three strikes have taken place in or around Miramshah in North Waziristan, a stronghold of the Haqqani Network, which shelters al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups.
The Jan. 11 strike 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 after US and Pakistan Frontier Corps troops clashed in the Afghan province of Kunar and the Pakistani tribal area of Mohmand on Nov. 25-26. 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. 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.
The three strikes over the past two weeks signal that the moratorium on the drone program in Pakistan has now been lifted.
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. However this has not been confirmed, and the Pakistani Taliban have denied he was killed.
The second strike this month, on Jan. 12, killed six “militants,” including several “foreigners,” according to reports. No senior terrorist leaders or operatives have been reported killed in the Jan. 12 strike.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.