MELISSA BLOCK, host:
If Baitullah Mehsud is, in fact, dead, he's just the latest Taliban or al-Qaida leader to have been targeted and killed. Over the last year, the CIA has sharply escalated its use of drones, which are unmanned aircraft armed with hellfire missiles.
NPR's Tom Gjelten joins us now to talk about how these sorts of missions work.
TOM GJELTEN: Hi, Melissa.
BLOCK: And there's this odd thing here. We hear quite frequently about CIA drones strikes, but the CIA doesn't officially acknowledge them, right?
GJELTEN: Publicly, U.S. intelligence officials won't discuss them. Privately, they're actually quite proud of them. They boast about how successful they've been; something like a dozen relatively prominent al-Qaida and Taliban leaders killed in the last 12 months alone. And the use of these drones in that period has sharply increased. The tally so far this year is 32 drone attacks. That's already as many as were carried out all last year.
In fact, President Obama was briefed on this drone campaign as soon as he took office within a day or two of his inauguration. And he is said to have given a big green light to the campaign.
But the new element here is that within the last few months, these drones have been going after Baitullah Mehsud personally. Previously, al-Qaida leaders were the main target. But according to one tally I saw today, close to half of the most recent drone strikes have specifically targeted Mehsud and his followers.
BLOCK: And why is that? Why would he have become the main target here?
GJELTEN: Well, three reasons, Melissa. One: a lot of the senior al-Qaida figures in Pakistan had already been taken out. Obviously, not Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but others had been. Second: Mehsud was increasingly seen actually as a threat to Western interests, not just Pakistani interests.
He had a network of followers in Europe. He actually, in March, actually threatened an attack on Washington that he said would amaze the world. Probably an empty threat, but once you make a threat like that, you shouldn't find yourself being targeted by the CIA.
BLOCK: Gets your attention.
What do you know about the Pakistani's role in this operation?
GJELTEN: Well, the other reason that Mehsud became targeted here is that the Pakistani security forces really wanted to get him. He'd come to be seen as, Philip said, as the main threat against the Pakistani state. Pakistani support for these drone strikes is very important. By targeting Mehsud, the United States was able to get more Pakistani cooperation.
We don't know exactly what happened in this case. But basically with these drone strikes, generally, you need two types of intelligence. There is the technical side: electronic intercepts of what these guys are doing, surveillance, and eavesdropping. But then you need the human intelligence on the ground of who has seen these guys, where are they. That has come from the Pakistani side.
And one other thing, Melissa. This happened in the context in the aftermath of a big Pakistani ground operation, sent a lot of forces into that area where Mehsud was operating. Apparently, they were able to get a lot of intelligence on him at that time as a result of that sweep.
One interesting element here, Melissa. One senior intelligence official told our colleague, Dina Temple-Raston, that after this air strike, Mehsud's Taliban followers set up a cordon around the house for 36 hours. Now, that's quite unlikely to have happened if it was just his father-in-law being killed.
BLOCK: Okay. We heard a moment ago in Philip Reeves' story, Pakistani journalist Ismail Khan saying that the killing of Mehsud would have, they hoped, a stabilizing effect in Pakistan. Talk a bit about that. What might the affect be?
GJELTEN: Well, you know, one really interesting effect, if it happens, would be that there could be more support in Pakistan for these drone attacks. I think it's fair to say, as Philip suggested, that no one, there's no one in Pakistan that the people there would rather see killed than Baitullah Mehsud. He's been blamed for so many vile things that have happened in Pakistan.
So if a CIA drone is seen as having taken him out, then maybe there will be more support in Pakistan for these attacks in the future. That would be a very important development from the U.S. point of view.
BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Tom Gjelten, thanks so much.
GJELTEN: Thank you, Melissa.
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