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.
Lethal Strikes Start With Small Packages
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.
Keeping al Qaeda Guessing
"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.
CIA director Michael Hayden, speaking last week in Washington, declared that "every major terrorist threat that my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas."
Without acknowledging the use of drones in Pakistan, he lauded steps his agency had taken against al Qaeda.
"In the past year alone, a number of senior al Qaeda leaders who have sought refuge in the tribal areas have died, either by violence or natural causes," Hayden said. "Those losses are significant. These men were decision-makers, commanders, experienced and committed fighters at the center of planning attacks, not only in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but against Europe and the United States."
He said: "By making a safe haven feel less safe, we keep al Qaeda guessing. We make them doubt their allies, question their methods, their plans, even their priorities. Most importantly, we force them to spend more time and resources on self-preservation. And that distracts them, at least partially and at least for a time, from laying the groundwork for the next attack."
Taliban Takes Bloody Revenge
The Taliban have responded to the improved accuracy of the strikes with brutality. Militants have targeted people labeled American spies more than ever before, sometimes even assassinating them in public.
In the most recent case, two bodies were dumped on the side of the road in Ghulam Khan early this month with notes pinned to their chests. They read, "If someone spies for America they will also suffer like this," villagers told local journalists.
Pakistani officials have been inviting visiting U.S. intelligence officials to share both the information and technology the Americans are now using, insisting the Pakistanis could wage the same fight as the Americans are now.
"We have the ability, we have the will. We don't have the capacity," Gilani told ABC News when asked why Pakistan wasn't capturing senior militants. "Maybe they have some credible, actionable information, but at the same time, we haven't seen as yet."
Sharing its technology and informants is not a step the United States appears willing to take.
Pakistani officials here also argue the drone attacks hurt their efforts to curb militancy by increasing anti-Americanism and driving otherwise anti-Taliban residents to the militants.
"If there is a predator hit… that distract[s] the attention. And at the same time it is counterproductive that, again, the militants, and the tribes, they get together against those things," Gilani said. "The anti-American sentiments, then they grow and that is bad for the country."
Shah, the former intelligence agent, offered this assessment of the attacks. He says the new technology can be used to settle personal scores, helping drive up civilian casualties.
"There is much more accuracy, despite the fact that these devices are being used by the local tribesmen to eliminate their enemies," he said.
But Shah insists the local population on the whole will not openly oppose U.S. airstrikes if there are few civilian casualties and the target is a foreign militant, as it was today.
"Most of the population is a sort of hostage, and they know that these people have made our life miserable. They say -- if there's a correct target -- good riddance."