WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD: A militant who acted as a senior operations organiser for al Qaeda was targeted and killed in one of two US drone strikes launched against targets inside Pakistan last week, a US official said.
US and Pakistani sources told Reuters that the target of the attack was Aslam Awan, a Pakistani national from Abbottabad, the same town 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 on Jan 10 directed at what news reports said was a compound near the town of Miramshah in the border province of North Waziristan.
That strike broke an undeclared eight-week hiatus in attacks by the armed, unmanned drones that patrol Pakistan's tribal areas and are a key weapon in US President Barack Obama's counter-terrorism strategy.
The sources described Awan, who also was known by the nom-de-guerre 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.
Pakistani officials could not confirm that Awan was killed in the drone attack, but the US official said he was.
One of the sources described Awan as an associate of al Qaeda's current chief of external operations, whose identity is known to intelligence officials but not to the general public.
“Aslam Awan was a senior al-Qaeda external operations planner who was working on attacks against the West. His death reduces al-Qaeda's thinning bench of another operative devoted to plotting the death of innocent civilians,” a US official said.
A Pakistani security source based in the country's border region said that Awan was the remaining member of an al Qaeda cell Pakistani authorities have been trying to roll up since 2008.
“We thought he was very close to Ayman al-Zawahiri,” the source said, referring to al Qaeda's current leader and bin Laden's long-time deputy, a former Egyptian doctor.
However, a US source said that American experts did not believe that Awan was particularly close to al-Zawahiri.
In the other drone strike, also in North Waziristan, a group of “foreign fighters” sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda, some of Uzbek ethnicity, were targeted on Jan 12.
MILITANTS HIT NEAR BORDER The targeted militants were believed to be travelling, possibly in preparation for an operation near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, and some were injured or killed in the attack, the US source said.
US officials said they could not confirm news reports, based on claims from Pakistani sources, that Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the TTP, Pakistan's most potent domestic affiliate of the Taliban movement, was also killed in the June 12 attack.
Pakistani and US sources said that Mehsud was not targeted in the drone strike, and one Pakistani source said: “He is alive. Hakimullah is alive.”