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Reuters January 18, 2006

US targeted-killings of al Qaeda suspects rising

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence has increased its use of pilotless drone aircraft to target al Qaeda suspects along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border despite questions about the tactic's effectiveness, intelligence experts say.

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Daniel Benjamin
President Pervez Musharraf
Drones armed with Hellfire missiles and controlled by the CIA have been deployed at least five times since the September 11 attacks in deadly airstrikes against al Qaeda suspects in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan, according to experts and media reports.

Three of the five incidents have occurred in the past eight months in Pakistan, including a January 13 attack that killed at least 18 people while targeting al Qaeda second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, in the remote Bajaur tribal region.

"Three in just slightly more than six months, versus two in the previous four years, has the makings of a trend," said John Pike, an intelligence specialist with GlobalSecurity.org.

"Looks like a possible cause for slight optimism," he added. "Or maybe we are killing a lot of innocent bystanders, and with the local reaction to Friday's hit, maybe we are recruiting evildoers faster than we are blowing them up."

The U.S. attack enraged many Pakistanis and sparked protests. The government of President Pervez Musharraf lodged a protest with U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker at the weekend.

Pakistani officials said Zawahri, the intended target, was not at the site despite U.S. expectations.

The CIA declined to comment. But a U.S. official played down any suggestion that Predator missile attacks were becoming a preferred tactic against al Qaeda.

"It's a question of when the intelligence comes together, when the intelligence is good enough," said the official, who asked not to be identified because drone operations are classified.

Friday's attack was the latest in a recent series of controversies to provoke global criticism of U.S. policies in its declared war on terrorism, following reports of CIA torture of detainees, secret CIA prisons in Europe and a domestic spying program that critics regard as illegal.

ZAWAHRI ASSOCIATES THOUGHT KILLED

But days later, U.S. and Pakistani officials said there was growing evidence that several of Zawahri's al Qaeda associates were killed in the attack.

U.S. sources said Washington would not have undertaken the airstrike without an OK from Pakistani officials, while experts dismissed Pakistan's angry public response.

"The protests were entirely to be expected," said Daniel Benjamin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The Pakistanis know the U.S., if it gets high-quality intelligence, is going to act."

Some interpreted Musharraf's reaction as a sign he was on board with the U.S. strategy. His initial response was only a passing reference to the airstrike during a speech near Islamabad.

"It's a sign he's willing to allow this to happen, and happen again," said Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution.

Experts say the use of Predator drones by U.S. authorities including the military has grown exponentially since the start of the war in Afghanistan in late 2001.

Air Force drones have been credited with successes against insurgents in Iraq. Last September, a drone tracked and killed 11 insurgents who had attacked a U.S. base in Iraq.

But CIA Predators, which each carry two antitank missiles and can maintain video surveillance for 24-hours, have concentrated on the rugged terrain of South Asia where U.S. intelligence agents or special operations forces would likely encounter heavy armed resistance.

Current and former intelligence officials said Predator air strikes are usually supported by guidance from spies or the monitoring of the suspects' cellular and satellite phones, and are often coordinated with the U.S. military.

"It's a cleaner shot. There's a political price to be paid whenever you put boots on the ground. But this way there are no U.S. casualties," said a former intelligence official.


Copyright 2006, Reuters Limited