Death from the Skies: An Overview of the CIA’s Drone Campaign in Pakistan – Part One

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 29

Baitullah Mahsud's house after the August 2009 drone strike that killed the Pakistani Taliban leader (above) and the image of a CIA Drone (below)

In the spring of 2004 the CIA began its most extensive targeted assassination campaign since the Vietnam War by launching dozens of unmanned aerial drones into the inaccessible tribal regions of Pakistan to hunt and kill Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. Since then, more than six hundred people have died in these unpredictable aerial strikes that have killed both high value terrorist targets and innocent civilians. Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban leadership have been reeling from the deaths of their operatives even as the Pakistani public has commenced an outcry against this violation of their sovereignty and the deaths of civilian bystanders. This report will provide an outline of this murky drone war with the aim of shedding light on its tactical successes, collateral damage fallout, overall historical trajectories, and the secret deals between the Pakistani leadership and the White House that made the campaign possible.

Background to the Aerial Offensive

The primary weapon used in the aerial campaign, the MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), had its debut as an unmanned spy plane in 1995 and was used in the campaigns against the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo. While the original version of the Predator had the ability to loiter over the enemy, sending live video links back to its pilots operating from trailers at Creech Airbase, Nevada or CIA headquarters in Langley Virginia, it had no weapons systems at the time. As the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center picked up increasing “chatter” from al-Qaeda in early 2001, however, it began to explore the possibility of arming the Predator to hunt Bin Laden. In February 2001 the Air Force succeeded in mounting a laser designator to the Predator’s nose and adapting its wings to fire AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The Predator’s deadly laser-guided missiles were reconfigured to penetrate mud walled compounds and SUVs and destroy them.

The armed version of the Predator saw considerable action during 2001-2002’s Operation Enduring Freedom. For example, it was used to fire on Taliban who were surrounding a Northern Alliance commander named Abdul Haq, used again to kill al-Qaeda’s number three, Muhammad Atef, and to assist U.S. troops in Operation Anaconda. It was also used in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the pro-Taliban Hezb-i Islami warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

As the Taliban subsequently retreated and regrouped in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), U.S. commanders in Afghanistan became increasingly frustrated by the enemy’s ability to launch cross-border raids from these untamed tribal regions. It also became obvious that al-Qaeda had found sanctuary in FATA with such Pakistani-based Taliban commanders as Maulana Nazir, Jalaludin Haqqani and the especially bold militant leader, Nek Muhammad. In FATA, al-Qaeda operatives plotted further terrorist attacks such as the 2006 plot to blow up planes flying from Heathrow Airport (AFP, September 8).

By 2002 the CIA was using Predator drones to monitor more than 150 al-Qaeda training facilities and Taliban bases in Pakistan’s FATA. At the time the press reported that the spy drones operating in Afghanistan were flying from a Pakistani base in Jacobabad in western Pakistan (New York Times, November 6, 2002; News International [Islamabad], October 27, 2008).

Then Nek Muhammad, who just two months before had vowed to continue his support of al-Qaeda and jihad against the United States, was killed on June 18, 2004 in a mysterious explosion. At the time Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that witnesses had seen a spy drone flying overhead minutes before the missile attack. But in the same article a Pakistani general rejected the claim and insisted that Pakistani forces had carried out the attack (Dawn [Karachi], June 19, 2004). Clearly the Pakistanis did not want the negative public relations fallout that would come from a public acknowledgement of the fact that a foreign power was acting in its own interests to kill Pakistani citizens on Pakistani soil.

There were no further strikes in 2004, but in May 2005 the CIA launched two aerial drone strikes, this time against Al-Qaeda targets. The first killed a high ranking Yemeni explosives expert named Haitham al Yemeni; the second killed Al-Qaeda’s number three leader, Abu Hamza Rabia (Arab News, May 15, 2005; Indian Express, December 5, 2005;, December 5, 2005).  Both were killed in the tribal agency of North Waziristan. The Pakistani government once again denied that the attacks were carried out by the Americans, but local villagers found pieces of Hellfire missiles at the sites of the attacks.

Thus far the drone strikes were relatively “clean” in regards to unintentional civilian deaths, but the next strike was not. On January 13, 2006 several drones firing up to ten missiles destroyed three homes thought to be housing Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (al-Qaeda’s number two) in the village of Damadola in the tribal agency of Bajaur. Eighteen people, including numerous women and children, were killed in the strike, but al-Zawahari was not there. This bungled attack caused thousands to protest across Pakistan and led to official condemnation of the attack by furious Pakistani officials. Perhaps as a result of the disastrous public relations fallout, it was not until October 30, 2006 that a Predator again launched a strike. This time it was on a madrassa just north of Damadola in the village of Chenagai. This massive strike killed Mullah Liaquat, a Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM) commander who had given sanctuary to Dr. al-Zawahiri, together with as many as 80 of his followers (The News [Islamabad], October 31, 2006). Thousands of local tribesmen protested the strike and the Taliban responded by targeting a Pakistani military training facility in Punjab with a suicide bomb that killed forty-five soldiers.

The CIA followed up this attack by launching five strikes on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in 2007, predominantly in North Waziristan. At the time leaflets began to appear in the tribal agencies warning local tribesmen in Pashto that they would be bombed if they harbored al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

In 2008 the aerial campaign stepped up considerably, and between 33 and 36 attacks were recorded. The pace of the attacks picked up notably in August 2008 after the Bush administration made a unilateral decision to carry out attacks without seeking Pakistani permission first. [1] This diminished the risk of the Taliban or al-Qaeda being tipped off by sympathizers in the Pakistani military, as had happened on several occasions. The number of UAV strikes in Pakistan this year has already exceeded last year’s total.

The vast majority of UAV strikes have been directed at North and South Waziristan, but there have also been a few strikes in the agencies of Bajaur, Kurram and Orakzai, as well as three strikes in Bannu. The strikes in Bannu are important in that this province is located in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), not FATA, and thus represents an escalation of the drone campaign. In the spring of 2009 there was talk of President Obama extending the campaign to Taliban hideouts in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, but this has not happened so far (ANI, March 20; Times [London], May 19).

The CIA’s ability to hit targets in Pakistan increased in 2007 with the introduction of a much improved drone known as the MQ-9 Reaper. The Reaper has a much larger engine, allowing it to travel three times the speed of the Predator and carry fifteen times as much armament. This ordnance includes GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided bombs and Sidewinder missiles. There are currently 195 Predators and 28 Reapers in the Air Force’s UAV fleet.

In late May it was reported that the Predators and Reapers were being aided by secret electronic transmitter chips placed near targets by tribesmen working for bounties (Guardian, May 31).  South Waziristan Taliban leader Mullah Nazir, a frequent target of drone strikes, claimed that the “SIM-card transmitters” were actually planted by agents of the ISI (Al-Sahab, March 2009). This might account for the drones’ success in taking out dozens of high value al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. It is the undoubted tactical success of the drones that have made them America’s greatest asset in killing those who are deemed terrorists.

Drone Successes in Killing Taliban and al-Qaeda Targets

It is clear from the success rate in killing high value targets that the CIA has excellent intelligence resources in the tribal areas. These locals have tracked the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership, often for money or out of distaste for the extremists who have beheaded many moderate maliks (Pashtun tribal heads). In addition to killing over a dozen mid-level Taliban leaders, the strikes have taken out ten of al-Qaeda’s top twenty leaders.

The list of high value al-Qaeda targets assassinated in Pakistan is impressive and includes:

• Sa’ad Bin Laden, Osama Bin Laden’s third son who was involved in al-Qaeda attacks in North Africa.

• Abu Laith al-Libi, the al-Qaeda number three who was responsible for a suicide bombing at Bagram Airbase that targeted Vice President Dick Cheney.

• Osama al-Kini, a Kenyan national and al-Qaeda’s external operations chief, who was wanted for the 1998 bombings against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar as-Salaam.

• Khalid Habib, the commander of the Lashkar al-Zil or the Shadow Army, al-Qaeda’s fighting force.

• Abu Khabab al-Masri, the chief of al-Qaeda’s weapons of mass destruction program.

• Rashid Rauf, the suspected mastermind of the 2006 Heathrow airliner plot who had escaped from a Pakistani jail the previous year.

• The drones’ greatest success was the August 2009 killing of Baitullah Mahsud, the former head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Pakistan’s most wanted man. Baitullah was responsible for numerous suicide bombing outrages and was accused in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

This list represents one of America’s greatest successes in the war on terror. The unpredictable attacks on convoys, hujras (guest houses), compounds, training camps and madrassas have wreaked havoc in the Taliban and al-Qaeda ranks. As a result, al-Qaeda members have been forced to dismantle their training camps in favor of hidden classrooms; they no longer communicate using cell phones for fear of being tracked; they have been forced to replace trusted veterans who have been killed with less experienced operatives; and they have launched what has been described as a “witch-hunt”, killing real or perceived spies and traitors. According to Mullah Nazir:

All the spies that we have caught turned out to be employees of Pakistan. The location-tracking SIMs that they use had been provided by Pakistan… The spyware and intelligence is fully associated with the Army. A couple of days ago, an American CIA officer confessed that Pakistan’s airbases are being used for these attacks and that Pakistan itself is involved in them… We are taking measures to catch spies. We do not spare those who are proven guilty… but only after acquiring genuine evidence. This sedition has been pioneered by the government of Pakistan. They have put men into deceit by making them do their dirty work for them, and they do it for the return of a few rupees (Al-Sahab, March, 2009).

U.S. officials are of course thrilled by the success. According to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, "These attacks have produced the broadest, deepest and most rapid reduction in al-Qaeda senior leadership that we’ve seen in several years” (NPR, February 3).

Such success has come at a high political price in the form of hundreds of civilian bystanders who have been killed in the strikes. The strikes may have turned many Pakistanis into enemies and might thus represent a strategic defeat in the greatest battle in this front-line country, the battle for the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people.


1. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Drone War,” New Republic, June 3, 2009, pp. 22-25.