ISLAMABAD: The death of a senior al Qaeda leader in a US drone strike in tribal badlands, the first strike in almost two months, signalled that the US-Pakistan intelligence partnership is still in operation despite political tensions.
The Jan 10 strike and its follow-up two days later were joint operations, a security source based in the tribal areas told Reuters.
They made use of Pakistani “spotters” on the ground and demonstrated a level of coordination that both sides have sought to downplay since tensions erupted in January 2011 with the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in Lahore.
“Our working relationship is a bit different from our political relationship,” the source told Reuters, requesting anonymity. “It’s more productive.”
US and Pakistani sources told Reuters that the target of the Jan 10 attack was Aslam Awan, a citizen of Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden was killed last May by a US commando team.
They said he was targeted in a strike by a US-operated drone directed at what news reports said was a compound near the town of Miramshah in North Waziristan.
That strike broke an undeclared eight-week hiatus in attacks by the armed, unmanned drones that patrol the tribal areas.
The sources described Awan, also known as Abdullah Khorasani, as a significant figure in the remaining core leadership of al Qaeda, which US officials say has been sharply reduced by the drone campaign.
The ‘real’ partnership
The source, who says he runs a network of spotters primarily in North and South Waziristan, described for the first time how cooperation on strikes works, with his agents keeping close tabs on suspected militants and building a pattern of their movements and associations.
“We run a network of human intelligence sources,” he said.
“Separately, we monitor their cell and satellite phones.
“Thirdly, we run joint monitoring operations with our US and UK friends,” he added, noting that cooperation with British intelligence was also extensive.
Pakistani and US intelligence officers, using their own sources, hash out a joint “priority of targets lists” in regular face-to-face meetings, he said.
“Al Qaeda is our top priority,” he said.
He declined to say where the meetings take place.
Once a target is identified and “marked,” his network coordinates with drone operators on the US side. He said the United States bases drones outside Kabul, likely at Bagram airfield.
From spotting to firing a missile “hardly takes about two to three hours”, he said.
It was impossible to verify the source’s claims and American experts, who decline to discuss the drone programme, say the Pakistanis’ cooperation has been less helpful in the past.
US officials have complained that when information on drone strikes was shared with the Pakistanis beforehand, the targets were often tipped off, allowing them to escape.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 23rd, 2012.