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Increased U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan killing few high-value militants
The data about the drone strikes provide a blurry picture at best, because of the reliance on Pakistani media reports and anonymous accounts from U.S. government sources. There are also varying terms used to describe high-value targets, with no precise definitions.
Even so, the data suggest that the ratio of senior terrorism suspects being killed is declining at a substantial rate. The New America Foundation recently concluded that 12 "militant leaders" were killed by drone strikes in 2010, compared with 10 in 2008. The number of strikes soared over that period, from 33 to 118.
The National Counterterrorism Center, which tracks terrorist leaders who are captured or killed, counts two suspects on U.S. most-wanted lists who died in drone strikes last year. They are Sheik Saeed al-Masri, al-Qaeda's No. 3, and Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali, who was indicted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa before serving as al-Qaeda's chief of paramilitary operations in Afghanistan.
According to the NCTC, two senior operatives also were killed in drone strikes in each of the preceding years.
When the Predator was first armed, it was seen as a weapon uniquely suited to hunt the highest of high-value targets, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. For years, the program was relatively small in scale, with intermittent strikes.
U.S. officials cite multiple reasons for the change in scope, including a proliferation in the number of drones and CIA informants providing intelligence on potential targets. The unmanned aircraft have not gotten the agency any closer to bin Laden but are regarded as the most important tool for keeping pressure on al-Qaeda's middle and upper ranks.
Officials cite other factors as well, including a shift in CIA targeting procedures, moving beyond the pursuit of specific individuals to militants who meet secret criteria the agency refers to as "pattern of life."
In its early years, the drone campaign was mainly focused on finding and killing militants whose names appeared on a list maintained by the CIA's Counterterrorist Center. But since 2008, the agency has increasingly fired missiles when it sees certain "signatures," such as travel in or out of a known al-Qaeda compound or possession of explosives.
"It's like watching 'The Sopranos': You know what's going on in the Bada Bing," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, referring to the fictional New Jersey strip club used for Mafia meetings in the HBO television series.
Finally, CIA drone strikes that used to focus almost exclusively on al-Qaeda are increasingly spread across an array of militant groups, including Taliban networks responsible for plots against targets in the United States as well as attacks on troops in Afghanistan.
In recent weeks, the drone campaign has fallen strangely silent. The last reported strike occurred Jan. 23 south of the Pakistani city of Miram Shah, marking the longest pause in the program since vast areas of Pakistan were affected by floods last year. Speculation in that country has centered on the possibility that the CIA is holding fire until a U.S. security contractor accused of fatally shooting two Pakistani men last month is released from a jail in Lahore.
U.S. officials deny that has been a factor and describe the lull as a seasonal slowdown in a program expected to resume its accelerated pace.