ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The United States appears to have widened drone aircraft attacks against al Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan and may have killed a senior leader of the group, Pakistani and U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
While mostly low-ranking militants from different nationalities have been killed, a senior al Qaeda leader, identified as Shaikh al-Fateh, was believed to have been killed in a similar strike on September 26, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
And in the latest strike on Tuesday, a pilotless drone aircraft targeted a suspected militant hideout in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region near the Afghan border, killing four militants, intelligence officials said.
Including Tuesday’s attack there have been 21 strikes carried out by the remotely piloted drones in September, the highest number in a single month on record.
“We are not surprised at this surge because we knew that as Americans build up their presence in Afghanistan, they will intensify pressure on the militants on both sides of the border and these attacks are part of the same strategy,” a senior security official told Reuters.
“It appears that they have lowered their threshold and are hitting every militant irrespective of his ranking in al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani network,” he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama ordered in an extra 30,000 troops for Afghanistan late last year, the last units of which arrived this month.
Most recent drone strikes in Pakistan targeted the Haqqani faction. Named after veteran mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, the group closely linked to al Qaeda is now led by his son Siraj.
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It is one of the most effective Afghan factions fighting U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, and has also been described as a strategic asset for U.S. ally Pakistan, which wants leverage in Afghanistan to counter India’s influence there.
A cousin of Siraj is believed to have been killed in one of the strikes, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
U.S. officials say drones are valuable weapons which have killed high-profile Taliban and al Qaeda figures in an area in northwest Pakistan described as a global hub for militants.
“Our operational tempo has been up for a while now, we have good information driving it, and — given the stakes involved — we hope to keep the pressure on as long as we can,” said a U.S. official who asked not to be named.
“The mix of threats isn’t new - sometimes it’s groups like the Haqqanis, and sometimes it’s al-Qaeda and the Pakistani or Afghan Taliban. They’re all deadly.”
Many al Qaeda members and Taliban fled to northwestern Pakistan’s ungoverned ethnic Pashtun belt after U.S.-led soldiers ousted Afghanistan’s Taliban government in 2001. From their sanctuaries there, the militants have orchestrated insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Most of the recent strikes took place in North Waziristan, the only one of seven Pakistani tribal regions where the army has not yet launched any major operation against the militants, despite U.S. pressure to do so.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and Kamran Haider in Islamabad; Editing Chris Allbritton and Louise Ireland