When information on drone strikes was shared with the Pakistanis beforehand, the targets were tipped off, allowing them to escape: US officials. - Reuters (File Photo)

ISLAMABAD: The death of a senior Al Qaeda leader in a US drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas, 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 Pakistani security source based in the tribal areas said.

They made use of Pakistani “spotters” on the ground and demonstrated a level of coordination that both sides have sought to downplay since tensions first 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 said. “It’s more productive.”

Pakistani and US sources said the target of the Jan 10 attack was Aslam Awan, a Pakistani national from Abbottabad, the 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 directed at what news reports said was a compound near the town of Miramshah in the border tribal agency of North Waziristan.

That strike broke an undeclared eight-week hiatus in attacks by the armed, unmanned drones that patrol the tribal areas and are a key weapon in President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy.

The sources described Awan, also 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. Most of the drone attacks are conducted as part of a clandestine CIA operation.

The Pakistani source, who helped target Awan, could not confirm that he was killed, but the US official said he was.

European officials said Awan had spent time in London and had ties to British extremists before returning to Pakistan.

The source, who says he runs a network of spotters primarily in North and South Waziristan, described for the first time how US-Pakistani cooperation on strikes works, with his Pakistani 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 about 40km north of the capital.

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 program, 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.

The security source said very few innocent people had been killed in the strikes. When a militant takes shelter in a house or compound which is then bombed, “the ones who are harbouring him, they are equally responsible”, he said.

“When they stay at a host house, they (the hosts) obviously have sympathies for these guys.” He denied that Pakistan helped target civilians.

“If ... others say innocents have been targeted, it’s not true,” he said. “We never target civilians or innocents.”

The New America Foundation policy institute says that of the 283 reported strikes from 2004 to Nov 16, 2011, between 1,717 and 2,680 people were killed. Between 293 and 471 were thought to be civilians — approximately 17 per cent of those killed.

The Brookings Institution, however, says civilian deaths are high, reporting in 2009 that “for every militant killed, 10 or more civilians also died.”—Reuters