Six Uzbek fighters were among those reported killed in the latest US drone strike in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan.
The remotely piloted Predators or the more advanced Reapers fired at least six missiles at a compound and a vehicle in the village of Khushhali Turikhel near Mir Ali, according to reports from Pakistan. The Uzbek fighters were “visiting a spring for leisure” when they were attacked, a Pakistani intelligence official told The Express Tribune, which put the number of Uzbeks killed at six. AFP reported that seven “militants” were killed.
No senior al Qaeda or allied jihadist commanders from foreign terrorist groups are reported to have been killed in the strike.
The Uzbek fighters were likely members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or the Islamic Jihad Group, an IMU splinter. Both groups are closely tied to al Qaeda and the Taliban, and are known to operate in the Mir Ali area.
Mir Ali is a terrorist haven
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. Taliban leader Hafiz Gul 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.
Since Sept. 8, 2010, several Germans and Britons have been reported killed in Predator strikes in the Mir Ali area. The Europeans were members of the Islamic Jihad Group, an al Qaeda affiliate based in the vicinity of Mir Ali. The IJG members are believed to have been involved in an al Qaeda plot that targeted several major European cities and was modeled after the terror assault on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008. The plot was orchestrated by Ilyas Kashmiri, the al Qaeda leader who was killed in a US drone strike in June 2011.
Mir Ali also hosts at least three suicide training camps for the the Fedayeen-i-Islam, an alliance between the Pakistani Taliban, the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Jaish-e-Mohammed. In early 2011, a Fedayeen-i-Islam spokesman claimed that more than 1,000 suicide bombers have trained at three camps. One failed suicide bomber corroborated the Fedayeen spokesman’s statement, claiming that more than 350 suicide bombers trained at his camp.
Prior to this year, the US has been pounding targets in the Datta Khel, Miramshah, and Mir Ali areas of North Waziristan in an effort to kill members involved in the European plot. Al Qaeda and allied terror groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Group, the Eastern 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 region. These groups are given aid and shelter by Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar and the Haqqani Network, a Taliban subgroup run by Siraj and Jalaluddin Haqqani.
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 Haqqani Network. Bahadar and the Haqqanis are considered “good Taliban” by the Pakistani military establishment as they do not carry out attacks inside Pakistan. Bahadar has recently banned polio vaccinations in North Waziristan in protest of US drone strikes.
Background on the US strikes in Pakistan
The US has struck targets inside Pakistan’s tribal areas four times this month. All four strikes took place in North Waziristan. Today’s strike is the second in seven days. The last strike took place in the Shawal Valley, a known stronghold of the Taliban and al Qaeda. Twelve Taliban fighters, including a commander loyal to Hafiz Gul Bahadar, were reported to have been killed.
Today’s strike is just the seventh in Pakistan since June 4, when the US killed Abu Yahya al Libi, one of al Qaeda’s top leaders, propagandists, and religious figures. Abu Yahya was killed in a strike on a compound in Mir Ali. Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen fighters belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were reportedly among the 14 terrorists killed along with Abu Yahya.
Al Qaeda has since released two videos of Abu Yahya; both look as if they were produced sometime after November 2011. The first video, which appears to have been taped long ago, addressed the Syrian revolution. Abu Yahya spoke about US ethics in the second video. Abu Yahya did not address reports of his death in either video. [See Threat Matrix reports, As Sahab releases video of Abu Yahya al Libi; Al Qaeda suggests Abu Yahya al Libi is alive, promises video; and Al Qaeda releases another tape from Abu Yahya al Libi.]
The US has carried out 28 strikes in Pakistan so far this year. Ten of the strikes have taken place since the beginning of June; Eight occurred in North Waziristan and two were in South Waziristan. [For data on the strikes, see LWJ reports, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2012; and Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2012.]
The drone program was scaled back dramatically from the end of March to the beginning of the fourth week in May. Between March 30 and May 22, the US conducted only three drones strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas as US officials attempted to renegotiate the reopening of NATO’s supply lines, which were closed from the end of November 2011 until July 3. Pakistan closed the supply lines following the Mohmand incident in November 2011, in which US troops killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani soldiers were killed after they opened fire on US troops operating across the border in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
In addition to Abu Yahya, two other high-value targets have been killed in the strikes this year. A Jan. 11 strike in Miramshah, the main town in North Waziristan, killed Aslam Awan, a deputy to the leader of al Qaeda’s external operations network.
And on Feb. 8, the US killed Badr Mansoor, a senior Taliban and al Qaeda leader, in a 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. Osama bin Laden described Mansoor as one of several commanders of al Qaeda’s “companies” operating in the tribal areas. He was later promoted to lead al Qaeda’s forces in the tribal areas.
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.
So far this year, the US has launched three more strikes in Pakistan (28) against al Qaeda and allied terror groups than it has in Yemen (25) against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In 2011, however, the US launched only 10 airstrikes in Yemen, versus 64 in Pakistan.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.