Washington: 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 said 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 January 10 directed at what news reports said was a compound near the town of Miranshah 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. Most of the drone attacks are conducted as part of a clandestine CIA operation.
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.
Several previous alleged chiefs of external operations for al Qaeda have been caught or killed in drone attacks or counter-terrorism operations, the most notorious being Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC. Mohammed was captured and is being held by US authorities in the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility.
Because their role in arranging operations involves interacting with militants in the field, external operations chiefs of al Qaeda have found themselves more vulnerable to exposure and counter-attacks by security forces than the movement`s most senior leaders, who until bin Laden`s demise last year appeared to be able to move about the region and issue provocative audio and video messages with near-impunity.
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.
The drone strike that targeted Awan was one of two such attacks last week, in what US sources indicated was a resumption of the US drone campaign following the eight-week pause. 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 January 12.