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A U.S. Drone Strike Killed An Al-Qaeda Leader Today. How Often Does That Happen?

Earlier today, officials in Pakistan announced that a U.S. drone strike had killed Badar Mansoor, one of the highest-ranking al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Mansoor, who allegedly organized several suicide attacks, as well as an assault in Lahore that killed nearly 100 people in 2010, joins the ranks of other high-profile militants, such as Anwar al-Awlaki and Ilyas Kashmiri, who have been killed by drones. Where does this strike fit in the broader scope of America’s drone missions in Pakistan?

Data from the New America Foundation shows that drone strikes, which became much more common after President Obama took office, may be on the wane. From 2004 to 2007, there were perhaps 103 total militant deaths caused by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. There number was surpassed in 2008 alone (165), and in 2010 drones killed as many as 939 militants in Pakistan. But in 2011, that number fell sharply, to an estimated range of 362 to 500 deaths. 2010 was also the peak year for militant leader deaths by drone strikes in Pakistan—an estimated twelve were killed that year, as opposed to six last year. That small number isn’t a mistake. As the database’s authors noted late last year, strikes that kill leaders are distinctly uncommon. “On average,” they wrote, “only one out of every seven U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan kills a militant leader.” The rest are low-level fighters and, sometimes, civilians. In fact, their conclusion suggests that this event was something of a rarity: “Less than two percent of those killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have been described in reliable press accounts as leaders of al Qaeda or allied groups.”