Two missiles destroyed a militant hideout and killed an al Qaeda commander today in one of the deepest U.S. strikes into Pakistan, underscoring the lethal and effective link between intelligence and technology that is helping the United States wage a covert war against militants.
The missile strike on the edge of the village of Bannu in Pakistani's volatile Northwest Frontier province was at least the 24th since early August and the first outside of Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. It killed Abdullah al Azam al-Saudi, a local al Qaeda leader, current and former Pakistani intelligence officials tell ABC News.
Not only was the strike one of the deepest inside Pakistan since missile attacks began here in 2001, but it was incredibly accurate, killing at least five foreign fighters, but leaving unscathed homes around the target.
While top Pakistani officials publicly and privately protest the strikes, U.S. officials argue that they are essential. Planners say the strikes, in which missiles are launched from unmanned drone aircraft, have severely disrupted militant operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The strikes have become much more accurate, residents of the area and Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC News, because of a stronger cadre of on-the-ground informants as well as new technology linking the informants, the drones and the targets together in a fashion more accurate than ever before.
Current and former Pakistani intelligence agents say residents of the area who are helping the United States have access to what locals call "pathris," literally "small things" -- referred to by one agent as a "gadget" -- that can be thrown into homes and used as targeting signals. Military officials declined to comment further on whether the devices map Global Positioning System coordinates, provide an RF signal or use some combination of these or other targeting technologies.
"The attacks have become so precise. In a village, if they want to hit a house in the middle of the village and it's surrounded by other houses, the missile would come and hit that one house only," a resident of North Waziristan, who says he has witnessed numerous missile strikes, told ABC News.
"The American intelligence has improved. I'm told that they have a small computer chip they give their own people to throw that into a house," said Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, a former intelligence agent and secretary of the tribal areas. "People are sleeping outside the houses, in case somebody has thrown this pathri inside. It's created fear in the area."
U.S. and Pakistani officials insist there has been no deal made by the two governments to allow the drone attacks inside Pakistani territory, despite reports to the contrary.
"No," Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani said when asked by ABC News whether there was a private go-ahead given by his government. "Not to our knowledge. Not in the knowledge of the foreign office or the army. … They all promised for the sovereignty, the respect for sovereignty and integrity for Pakistan."
A senior U.S. official also denied there had been a deal, saying, "People are making too much out of too little."
But there is little doubt the United States believes the drone attacks are working, and the pace of drone attacks has been stepped up. Until August, there had been at least seven drone attacks. Since August, there have been at least 24.