New Reports Say Al Qaeda Leader Killed in Recent Drone Strike

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The Pakistani Taliban’s top leader may have once again outlived rumors about his death.

Yesterday we speculated that the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan, which had been “on hold” for 55 days amidst deteriorating U.S.-Pakistan relations, was resumed earlier this month to go after Hakimullah Mehsud, the notorious leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who claimed responsibility for the December 2009 attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan that killed seven Americans.

During the pause, which stemmed from the fallout of two NATO airstrikes in November that killed 26 Pakistani soldiers, a U.S. official told The Long War Journal that there was “hesitation to pull the trigger” unless an “extremely high value target pops up.”

Last night, Reuters reported that according to U.S. and Pakistani sources, the high-level target of a Jan. 10 drone strike was Aslam Awan, Al Qaeda’s “external operations planner.” Awan is a Pakistani citizen believed to have lived in Manchester, England for several years, where he worked in a clothing store and allegedly befriended young militants. Authorities say that after returning to Pakistan, Awan sent a letter to a friend in Britain urging him to join the war against American troops in Afghanistan.

A U.S. official told Reuters that Awan was killed in the strike, but Pakistani officials could not confirm his death.

Awan “was working on attacks against the West,” said the U.S. official. “His death reduces Al Qaeda’s thinning bench of another operative devoted to plotting the death of innocent civilians.”

A Pakistani security source based in the border region told Reuters that Awan was “the remaining member of an Al Qaeda cell Pakistani authorities have been trying to roll up since 2008.”

According to a report in The Washington Post on Monday, CIA officials notified Pakistan in advance about the Jan. 10 strike, but “permission was not sought.”

Bonus:

“Covering Obama’s Secret War” — In this June 2011 piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, Tara McKelvey explores the difficulties for journalists in covering the CIA’s covert drone program, which takes place in Pakistan’s hard to access tribal areas where most journalists are forbidden from traveling to independently. She notes that though official U.S. policy is not to comment on the drone program, American officials are “more forthcoming” when high-level targets are killed. But “when the Western media do attempt to cover drone strikes that miss any high-value targets — and which, consequently, no U.S. official is willing to discuss — their stories are thin.”

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