Today the US launched its first drone strike in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency in nearly a month. The strike in North Waziristan targeted an abandoned school that is known to be used by foreign fighters.
The unmanned Predators or the more heavily armed Reapers fired a pair of missiles at the abandoned high school for girls that is located in the bazaar in Miramshah in North Waziristan. Four “militants” were said to have been killed in the strike, SAMAA reported, but their identity was not disclosed.
“We don’t know about their identity and nationality but those living in the girls’ school were mostly Arabs,” the official said, according to SAMAA. Another Pakistani official told AFP that the school was occupied by Uzbek and Tajik militants, which is likely a reference to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU is closely allied with the Haqqani Network and is known to conduct operations with the group in eastern Afghanistan. During a raid in the eastern Afghan province of Wardak on April 25, Coalition special operations forces attempted to capture a senior Haqqani Network operative linked to the IMU’s leadership cadre in Pakistan.
A Pakistani security official said today that intelligence officials intercepted communications between the militants that included a request for “four coffins for the slain men.” More than two dozen fighters were believed to be occupying the school before it was struck.
Miramshah serves as the headquarters of the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network, a powerful Taliban subgroup that operates in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and is supported by Pakistan’s military and its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. The Haqqani Network is one of four major Taliban groups that joined the Shura-e-Murakeba, an alliance brokered by al Qaeda late last year. The Shura-e-Murakeba also includes Hafiz Gul Bahadar’s group; Mullah Nazir’s group; and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which is led by Hakeemullah Mehsud and his deputy, Waliur Rehman Mehsud. The members of the Shura-e-Murakeba agreed to cease attacks against Pakistani security forces, refocus efforts against the US, and end kidnappings and other criminal activities in the tribal areas.
US strikes in Pakistan in 2012
Today’s strike in Miramshah is the first since March 30, when the US hit a compound in Miramshah’s bazaar, killing four militants. Since that strike, Pakistan’s parliament has demanded that the US end the drone strikes in the tribal areas as a condition for the reopening of the NATO supply line that runs through Pakistan into Afghanistan.
The US has carried out 12 strikes so far this year. Three took place in South Waziristan, and nine in North Waziristan; seven of those strikes have been executed in or around Miramshah.
The program has been scaled down from its peak in 2010, when the US conducted 117 strikes, according to data collected by The Long War Journal. In 2011, the US carried out just 64 strikes in Pakistan’s border regions. With only 12 strikes in the first four months of 2012, the US is on a pace to carry out just 36 strikes in Pakistan this year.
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 US also killed Badr Mansoor, a senior Taliban and al Qaeda leader, in a Feb. 8 strike in Miramshah’s bazaar. 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 and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.