Center for Strategic Communication

The US launched a drone strike at a seminary in Pakistan’s settled district of Hangu, killing six people in what appears to have been an attempt to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, the operations commander of the Taliban and al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. The strike is just the fourth outside of Pakistan’s tribal areas since the program began in 2004, and the first since March 2009.

The CIA-operated, remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers fired three missiles at a seminary in the Tal area of Hangu district today, according to Dawn. Siraj Haqqani was spotted at the seminary just two days ago, Reuters reported.

It is not clear how many of those killed in today’s strike are civilians, or jihadists or supporters affiliated with the Taliban. Dawn identified the six killed as “Kaleemullah, Abdul Rehman, Mufti Hamidullah Haqqani, Maulvi Ahmed Jan, Abdullah and Gul Marjan.” Jan, Haqqani, and Rehman are said to be “key leaders” in the Haqqani network; Jan was described as an aide to Siraj as well as a key financier.

The strike in Hangu took place just 11 days after Siraj’s brother, Nasiruddin, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Islamabad. No group has claimed credit for killing Nasiruddin.

US drones rarely stray outside of tribal areas

The location of the drone attack, outside of the tribal areas, is an indication that the CIA was hunting for a high value target. US targeting rarely strays outside of the tribal areas.

Today’s strike is just the fourth by the US outside of Pakistan’s tribal areas since the program began in 2004, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. The other three airstrikes took place in the district of Bannu. The last strike to take place outside of the tribal areas occurred in March 2009; two al Qaeda operatives were reported to have been killed in Bannu’s Jani Khel area of the district.

The vast majority of the US drone strikes have taken place in the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan. Of the 352 strikes since 2004, 251 have hit targets in North Waziristan, and 83 have hit targets in South Waziristan. There have been three strikes in Bajaur, two in Arakzai, four in Kurram, and five in Khyber.

Today’s strike is also the first reported in Pakistan since Nov. 1, when the drones killed Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, in an attack in the Miramshah area of North Waziristan.

The drone strikes are controversial; in October, groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International formally accused the US of indiscriminately killing civilians in strikes in both Pakistan and Yemen. But at the end of October, Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence released a report stating that 67 civilians have been killed in drone strikes since the beginning of 2009, and claimed that no civilians have been killed since the beginning of 2012.

The Long War Journal has recorded, based on Pakistani press reports, that at least 2,079 jihadists from al Qaeda, the Taliban, and a host of terror groups operating in North and South Waziristan have been killed in strikes since the beginning of 2009, including some of al Qaeda’s top leaders. There have also been 105 reported civilian deaths in drone strikes in Pakistan since the beginning of 2009, with 18 civilians killed since the beginning of 2012. Civilian casualties are difficult to assess as the strikes take place in areas under Taliban control; the figure may be higher than 105.

The US has launched 26 drone strikes in Pakistan so far this year, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. The number of strikes in Pakistan has decreased since a peak in 2010, when 117 such attacks were recorded. In 2011, 64 strikes were launched in Pakistan, and in 2012 there were 46 strikes.

The US has targeted al Qaeda’s top leaders and its external operations network, as well as the assortment of Taliban and Pakistani jihadist groups operating in the region. The strikes have been confined mostly to North and South Waziristan; 332 of the 351 strikes recorded since 2004, or 95%, have taken place in the two tribal agencies. But al Qaeda and allied groups are known to have an extensive network throughout all of Pakistan.

Pakistani government denounces strike

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official statement denouncing today’s strike in Hangu.

“The Government of Pakistan strongly condemns the US drone strike …” the ministry said in a statement that was released on its website. “These strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. There is an across the board consensus in Pakistan that these drone strikes must end.”

The Haqqanis are considered “good Taliban” by the Pakistani military establishment as they do not carry out attacks inside Pakistan. But the Haqqanis are closely tied to al Qaeda and a host of jihadist groups operating in the region, and conduct attacks on US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government also denounced the drone strike that killed Hakeemullah, who as the emir of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan was responsible for the killing of thousands of Pakistanis.