On Jan. 14 at 8:12 p.m., Khushal Khan's wife got a call on her cell phone.
“Your son has been martyred,” the voice said at the other end of the line. The man then hung up.
The end for Khan's youngest son, Aslam Awan, came when a drone piloted remotely from the United States fired a missile at a house along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Awan was among four people killed, U.S. officials said this week, describing Awan as an “external operations planner” for al-Qaida. British authorities say he was a member of a militant cell in northern England who had fought in Afghanistan.
The Jan. 10 strike in the militant stronghold of North Waziristan that killed Awan was a victory for the CIA-led drone program at time when relations between Washington and Islamabad are very strained, in part by the missile strikes. It was one of the first drone attacks after a hiatus of some six weeks following a friendly fire incident in which U.S. forces killed 24 Pakistani border troops, nearly leading to a severing of ties with Islamabad.
The drone attacks generate anti-American sentiment inside Pakistan, but have been credited with significantly weakening al-Qaida in one of its global hubs.
For his family, the call came as a final curt word about the fate of a son they had heard little from in over a year.
Awan grew up in the northwestern Pakistani town of Abbottabad, a few kilometers away from the house where Osama bin Laden was slain. His father worked in a bank in Britain in the 70s and then in Abbottabad until he retired a few years ago. His four other sons remain in Britain, where they have prospered — one is a surgeon, another is a doctor, the third an engineer and the fourth is a banker.
It seems doubtful Awan had any contact with bin Laden in the town. But Awan's background here reinforces a striking association between this well-ordered, wealthy Pakistani army town and al-Qaida militants, which began before bin Laden was killed here in May last year when a team of American commandos flew in from Afghanistan.
Now 75 and recovering from a heart operation, Khushal Khan answered questions Saturday from an Associated Press reporter in the garden of his house, making the most of some winter sun. He defended his son's memory against charges of militancy.
“I don't believe this is true, my son was not indulging in these things,” he said. “It can't be correct.”
Khan said Awan followed his brothers' footsteps and went to Britain in 2002 on a student visa.
Awan lived in Manchester for four years, during which time he joined a militant cell that aimed to bring Muslims to Pakistan for militant training, according to prosecutors at the time and a British media report. He told his father he was studying at Manchester University, but it's unclear whether he ever graduated.
The cell was headed by a British al-Qaida commander called Rangzieb Ahmed who was captured in Pakistan in 2006 and sent for trial in Britain, where he was sentenced to life in prison for directing terrorism, according to Britain's Daily Telegraph.
A letter he wrote a to a longtime friend and fellow Pakistani, Abdul Rahman, rhapsodized over the “fragrance of blood” from the battlefield of jihad and his commitment to militancy, according to prosecutors in the trial of Rahman, who was sentenced to six years in jail in 2007 for spreading terrorist propaganda in Manchester. It apparently referred to a stint fighting jihad in Afghanistan, but when that occurred is not known.
The judge said then Awan was believed to have left England for Afghanistan.
“Awan was very well connected to known extremists in the UK. It highlights that the threat is still there,” said Valentina Soria, a terrorism researcher at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. “This group were not just wannabes, they were active and with links to al-Qaida central.”
There are thought to be about 900,000 Pakistani Muslims in England — many of them living in London and in northern cities. British authorities have said nearly all the plots and attacks on British soil have some connection to Pakistan.
Awan returned to Abbottabad in 2007, around the time that bin Laden was settling in to his large house, though that doesn't mean Awan was in touch with him or any of his couriers. U.S. officials have previously said the al-Qaida leader was cut off from the rest of his network and wasn't meeting other militants for security reasons.
Awan began to associate with Sipah-e-Sahaba, an extremist group that has a political wing as well links to al-Qaida, according to a police officer in the town who knows the family. The officer didn't give his name because he didn't want to be seen as adding to Khan's pain.
Khan said he last saw his son or heard his voice in 2010, when Awan asked for funds to build a house and they fought over the fact he wasn't working.
“That was the point when I had to forcefully ask him to go out to earn some money,” he said. “But my words hurt him, and he left home with only the clothes he was wearing.”
Khan said he initially feared his son had been kidnapped when he didn't return or contact him. But after a few months, Awan called his wife and told her he was in Miran Shah, the largest town in North Waziristan. He said he was running a general store and dealing in second-hand clothes.
Local intelligence officials said Awan was known by the nom de guerre Abdullah Khurasani, and was highly prized in al-Qaida circles because of his education, computer skills and foreign contacts.
Al-Qaida, Taliban and other militants from around the world congregate for training and networking in North Waziristan, and Miran Shah is a key logistical base. The town is too dangerous for reporters to visit, but locals who have traveled there say hundreds of Pakistan and foreign militants live there openly, unmolested other than by the U.S. missile attacks on its outskirts. The Pakistani army says it doesn't have enough resources to launch an operation in the region.
The missile strike program began in earnest in 2009 and has been stepped up by the Obama administration.
Abbottabad is home to the Pakistan army's top military academy and hundreds of officers and soldiers live in what is one of the country's more secure towns. The fact that bin Laden hid there for so long in plain sight triggered intense international suspicions that the military was sheltering him.
Al-Qaida's No. 3, Abu Faraj al-Libi, lived in Abbottabad before his arrest in 2005 elsewhere in northwest Pakistan, American and Pakistani officials have said. Five months prior to the bin Laden raid, Indonesian al-Qaida operative Umar Patek was arrested in the town following the arrest of an al-Qaida courier who worked at the post office.
U.S. officials have said Patek's arrest in Abbottabad was a coincidence.
Brummitt reported from Islamabad. Associated Press reporters Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Ishtiaq Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this story.