Over the past decade U.S. drone strikes have killed between 1,800 and 3,100 people in Pakistan, along with hundreds more in drone attacks in Yemen and Somalia, as a result of the United States' efforts to combat al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The rise in strikes since the beginning of the Obama administration, and the growing stridency of questions surrounding the legal, moral, and practical efficacy of the program, have led to a lively debate among the commentariat. This debate is indeed important, but it is also crucial to understand how the drone program has affected the jihadis, and how jihadis have deployed the issue of drones in their propaganda. This is a necessary part of gaining a wider understanding of whether the program is a worthwhile endeavor.
Surprisingly, one does not see much discussion of drones by al-Qaeda Central (AQC), or by the Taliban (though it is possible that individuals in these groups are talking more about this in face-to-face encounters than online). Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), on the other hand, has exploited the drone issue extensively in the newsletter put out by their front group, Ansar al-Shari'ah (AS). As a result, question of whether drones are drawing more individuals into the arms of AQAP has been raised frequently in the past year.
In the documents collected by Navy SEALs during their raid of Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan last May, bin Laden nicknamed Pakistan's tribal areas the "circle of espionage" for the network of spies that helps identify targets and place tracking devices for the strikes. The issue of spies has become so prevalent that Abu Yahya al-Libi wrote a book in 2009 regarding rulings on how they should be treated and prosecuted once captured.
The fear of infiltrators has created an atmosphere of paranoia within the jihadi movement, and has led many of al-Qaeda's operatives in the Pakistani tribal areas to move to more urban areas like Karachi. In one of bin Laden's Abbottabad documents, he advises the "brothers" with "media exposure" to move "away from aircraft photography and bombardment." Bin Laden also suggested that individuals flee to Afghanistan's Kunar province, where he thought they would be safer from the spy networks that have supported the drone campaign.
In the same document that bin Laden suggested his associates move, he also warned that even if one is in a safer place, one should still be cognizant that spies are lurking. The drone danger has also forced the Taliban to think twice about which journalists they meet with. A local Taliban leader remarked to Pakistani journalist Pir Zubair Shah: "You never know who is a reporter and who is a spy." But even if drone strikes provoke a higher level of distrust of outsiders (which itself is a normal characteristic of a terrorist or insurgent group), it does not appear to have hindered the Taliban's ability to project power into Afghanistan over the past few years. Many individuals look to the Taliban's shadow shari'ah courts for solving disputes, and the Taliban has been collecting taxes at the local level.
Frequent drone strikes in northwest Pakistan have also degraded al-Qaeda's ability to train individuals over long periods of time. In the past, AQC could spend a month (if not longer) training an operative in bomb making. In some cases, such training lasts as little as a few days now. Abbreviated training is less effective. Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, received five days of training in the tribal areas with AQC's affiliate the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This lack of training proved decisive when Shahzad's bomb malfunctioned and he was spotted acting suspiciously.
Similarly, AQAP has been forced to change the locations of their training camps. The move to more mountainous areas like Ibb and al-Daleh provinces came about because AQAP was exposed to airstrikes when they had been training in Radaa directorate. Like the Taliban, however, AQAP has still been able to plot large-scale attacks against the West - even if they have failed - as well as occupy towns locally. And although there have yet to be any extensive academic studies on the wider effects of the drones in Yemen, Patrick B. Johnston and Anoop Sarbahi concluded in a working paper that the drones in Pakistan have actually decreased suicide attacks across the country.
Although AQC and the Taliban have been under severe drone pressure for the past several years, they have said little about the strikes in the propaganda they release. When eulogizing Abu al-Layth al-Libi in 2008 after he was killed in a drone attack, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid described the drones as cowardly, since the United States did not confront him on the battlefield, but rather in a manner of "treachery and betrayal." More recently, Ayman al-Zawahiri called in a message directed toward Pakistanis in March for them to rise up against the government and "compel them to stop drone strikes."
Unlike AQC and the Taliban, AQAP has only seen frequent drone attacks for the past year and a half, but AQAP has exploited the issue extensively in their media work. (It should be noted that the United States has also used cruise missiles in attacking AQAP and al-Shabab operatives. There have been claims that what have been reported as Yemeni airstrikes have really been drones, and vice versa). AQAP has been especially active in highlighting the achievements of its counter-spy networks. In February 2012, AQAP sentenced three spies - two Yemenis and a Saudi - to death in a shari'ah court in Ja'ar. They had allegedly been placing tracking devices on cars for drone targeting. One of the individuals was killed in Azzan by way of crucifixion while another was shot at point blank range in Shabwa as a circle of men cheered. The execution was shown in a video as part of AS' "Eyes on the Event" series. This was not only a message to the locals to deter them from becoming spies, but also a way for AQAP to show the United States and Saudi Arabia that they were bringing the war back to them.
In addition to highlighting civilian casualties and showing pictures of dead children, AQAP has used critical analysis of the drone program from individuals in the West to gain sympathy for their plight. In issue nineteen of Ansar al-Shari'ah's newsletter they write an exposé on Obama's "crusade." In it, AS points out the "signature strike" policy, which allows the United States to target individuals based on behavioral patterns without actually identifying the individual: "Hellfire missiles ... troll the skies of Yemen to kill ... in cold blood and without accountability, as usual!" In the past, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen has pointed out that signature strikes pose the danger of targeting and killing individuals that are not members of or associated with AQAP. In issue three of the newsletter, AS also questions the United States' commitment to the rule of law in light of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son Abdul Rahman in a U.S. drone strike "without charging them [Anwar and his son] with a single crime."
Some analysts believe there could be blowback from the drone program from AQAP, which might be encouraged to plan a revenge attack on the United States. AQAP hinted at this in the eulogy for Fahd al-Quso, who was killed in a drone strike in May this year: "war between us is not over and the days are pregnant [and] will give birth to something new."
While the militant response to drone strikes in Yemen remains to be seen, there is scant evidence that drones strikes have been mobilizing AQC to conduct attacks in response. After Faisal Shahzad's Times Square plot failed, he told investigators that one of his primary motivations had been the increased pace of drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal belt. Al-Qaeda leader Ilyas Kashmiri was also reportedly frustrated over the drone strikes in the tribal areas, leading him to plan an attack on the CEO of Lockheed Martin, according to the testimony of prior associate David Headley, a key operative in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But besides Shahzad's failed attack and Kashmiri's aspirational plan drone strikes do not appear to be the primary reason why al-Qaeda, its branches, and its affiliates are plotting attacks against the United States.
During the Obama administration, drone strikes have taken out many top al-Qaeda, AQAP, and Taliban leaders, and killed hundreds of mid-level fighters. The losses have pushed these militant groups to establish counter-spy networks, as well as beef up their operational security. Al-Qaeda Central's ability to operate in Pakistan has been severely degraded. At the same time, the drone campaign does not appear to have had an appreciable impact on AQAP or the Taliban - both still show the ability to plan attacks against the United States (either into Afghanistan for the Taliban or against the American homeland for AQAP) and still have influence in their local areas of operation. Defeating these groups with drones is unlikely, but the strikes have at the very least created a nuisance for the militants, as well as prevented more invasive military action that might have otherwise occurred. There are still lingering questions on whether or not the drones have played a significant role in radicalizing a new generation of fighters, but understanding how the drones are affecting and changing these groups can provide new perspective on a vexing challenge.
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
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The reported killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi in a U.S. drone strike on the morning of June 4 in the town of Mir Ali, North Waziristan, if confirmed, is a significant loss for Al-Qaeda Central (AQC), and comes at a tumultuous time for the militant organization. U.S. government officials announced a day after the missile strike that Abu Yahya, whose real name is Hasan Muhammad Qa'id, had been killed, though official confirmation has not yet come from AQC itself. Within the organization Abu Yahya served as its chief juridical voice, whose job was to justify, support, and defend its ideological positions. He was also at the forefront of the global jihadi movement as one of the juridical and ideological architects of AQC's positions, particularly vis-à-vis the Pakistani government and military. Abu Yahya's influence extends to AQC's regional affiliates such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Al-Shabab in Somalia. The United Nations Security Council noted in September 2011 when it added him to its sanctions list that he was also a key strategist and field commander for AQC in Afghanistan. His loss would be a significant blow to both AQC and the wider transnational jihadi current.
Leadership decapitation, which includes both the arrest and death of terrorist leaders, has become a major component of U.S. counterterrorism policy since 9/11. In the five months since Osama bin Laden's death on May 2, 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the Unites States has successfully carried out several leadership strikes against high-level al-Qaeda operatives. Most recently, Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric linked to a number of terrorist plots in the West, was killed in Yemen on September 30, 2011 by a Hellfire missile fired from an American drone. In addition to his suspected position of leadership within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Awlaki's online lectures and teachings provided an important inspirational role to would-be militants in the West. It was his ability to inspire and motivate attackers that made Awlaki's death particularly important to many Western analysts and policymakers.
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The ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has led tostock-taking of the attacks and their legacy. Even after ten years, debates remain fierce about the scope of thethreat, and the proper nature of any response.
Making sense of the aftermath of 9/11, the subject of JasonBurke's The 9/11 Wars, is amonumental task -- but Burke is up to the job. The 9/11 Wars is insightful, thorough, and at times fascinating. Burkebrings the reader from villages in Afghanistan and Iraq to slums in London andFrance, offering individual portraits of combatants and those overrun by warwhile also weaving in government policies and scholarly research to portray thebroader context. The resulting tapestry leaves the reader more informed, thoughoften appalled by policymakers' ignorance and furious when well-intentionedpolicies backfire.
Burke himself is well-qualified for his ambitious task. Aveteran reporter for The Guardian andThe Observer, he has writtenextensively on al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The 9/11 Wars draws on a wide range of sources and, in contrast tothe works of many journalists, is meticulously documented.
Burke's work is a book big in scope and, weighing in at a hefty752 pages, in substance. Such size is understandable. As he points out, theconflicts associated with 9/11's aftermath are not one but many, and each onehas its own intricacies. Burke is at hisbest giving ground truth to the war on terrorism. He claims his book is aboutpeople, not politicians, and for the most part he stays true to his promise.
The United States and al-Qaeda, Burke contends, repeatedlymisunderstood the complexity of the societies in which they waged their wars. Whetherit was trying to impose Western concepts of women's rights on villages inAfghanistan or viewing the Kurdistan-based terrorist group Ansar al-Islam asfriendly to Saddam Hussein's regime (when it was in fact hostile to the former),the United States frequently was its own worst enemy. Nor do U.S. allies farebetter. Indeed, after the July 2005terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, the discourse in Europe on terrorism becameparticularly absurd. Muslimorganizations had embraced a crude anti-Americanism and made claims that they werereceiving Nazi-like treatment from European governments, while nativistscaricatured Muslims as brutal rapists.
Al-Qaeda, however, fares even worse in Burke's telling. It wasoften disorganized and fractious, held together by personal links rather thanfirm institutional ties. Attacks oncivilians turned locals against al-Qaeda in places like Jordan and Indonesia,squandering the goodwill its fighters had gained from their battles againstU.S. soldiers. Striking at Americans inIraq was seen as heroic, Burke points out, "But when the violence came home itprovoked a very different reaction. Thesight of blood on one's own streets, the dismembered bodies of one's owncompatriots, the grieving parents who could have been one's own ... turnedentire populations away from violence." As they lost popularity, the terroristsrelied more on coercion -- and in so doing made themselves even lesspopular.
Burke's fundamental argument is a simple one: the local isthe enemy of the global. For the United States, this meant that grandiosemissions to transform the Arab world into a mirror image of Western democracyled to insurgency and scorn. For al-Qaeda, attempts to impose an Islamic stateran into stiff opposition from nationalists, practitioners of more traditionalforms of Islam, tribal leaders, and others with a stake in their long-establishedways of life. In the battle against al-Qaeda, "Bloody-minded localparticularism" is America's greatest ally.
Burke at times offers guarded praise for U.S. and alliedpolicies after 2006. The new U.S. counter-insurgency manual, for example,stresses cultural sensitivities and local concerns as a way to win the war,while Burke describes how deradicalization programs in Europe and the MiddleEast offer a softer, but in his view often more effective, form ofcounter-terrorism.
Al-Qaeda, in contrast, remains under siege. To secure aplace to hide its leaders, the group often must avoid training, planning, andrecruiting on a large scale. Conditions forwould-be fighters hiding out in the tribal parts of Pakistan are much worsethan they were before 9/11 under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Burke relates howone Belgian recruit who got malaria was "left in the corner" and "given a jabevery few days by a kid who was the little brother of the local doctor." Even al-Qaeda'smany affiliates, which offer some bench strength to the group, often do notheed the central leadership, or frequently they lack popularity themselves. Asa result, the much-vaunted "network of networks," he argues, is "battered anddisjointed."
Pakistan, which Burke correctly identifies as the mostimportant theater in the 9/11 wars, comes off the most poorly (thoughAfghanistan is a close second). Use of jihadist proxies has long been part ofPakistan's overall strategy, and the Pakistani security establishment remainscommitted to them, even after 9/11 and subsequent violence in Pakistan showedthat the militants were off the leash. Sadly, Burke finds that in this dividedcountry there is more unity than ever on one issue: that the United States and its allies arepart of an anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim conspiracy.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of The 9/11 Wars -- one common to many accounts of counter-terrorism-- is that it misses much of the day-to-day of intelligence gathering andpolice work against suspected jihadists around the world. The CIA is blastedfor its "extensive [program] of kidnapping suspects overseas, illegaldetention, collusion and direct participation in torture." However, thenear-constant, and largely successful, intelligence effort against al-Qaedagets little attention. In countries as far apart (politically as well asgeographically) as Sweden, Malaysia, Morocco, and Russia, security serviceshunt suspected jihadists with U.S. support and guidance. Such behind-the-scenesarrests rarely make good stories, but they put pressure on al-Qaeda and itsallies worldwide, making it far harder for the organization to communicate,plan, and conduct attacks. Indeed, the biggest threats emanate from where counter-terrorismcooperation is poor due to the host country's support for jihadists (Pakistan)or lack of governance (such as in Somalia or Yemen).
In its attempt to be comprehensive, the book at times offerstoo much detail. The story of the U.S. fiasco in Iraq has been told, and toldwell, in other books, and another detailed repetition won't offer most readerstoo much (though the additional attention on the followers of radical Shi'acleric Moqtada al-Sadr is most welcome, as their role in the Iraq conflict isoften poorly understood). While the ups and downs of terrorism andcounterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan are less-known, some of thematerial could be condensed, as the reader may get bogged down in each twistand turn and lose sight of the bigger picture.
The 9/11 Wars wentto press as the Arab Spring broke out and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden waskilled, so understandably Burke doesn't have much to add on thesetransformative events beyond the most general analysis. Such events, however,are in keeping with Burke's theme that local politics and the aspirations ofordinary people shape the battlefield, and that the most profound events areoften the least expected.
Burke ends, appropriately, on a sober and grim note: thebody counts. As he points out, there is no clear winner of the 9/11 wars, but"losers are not hard to identify." Thetens of thousands dead from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan arelikely to be joined by tens of thousands more in the next decade. New theaters,ranging from Yemen to Nigeria, may also become enflamed. Stopping theconflagration is beyond the skill and means of even the best of leaders, but ifthey avoid the mistakes Burke identifies, they can better shield their owncitizens and avoid adding fuel to the fire.
Daniel Byman is theauthor of A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of IsraeliCounterterrorism. He is a professor atGeorgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center atBrookings.
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In the aftermath of the U.S. military's killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last month, analysts and presumably Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) are heavily engaged in discussions about possible successors to the Saudi militant as the new public face of the transnational jihadi trend, with sources reporting recently that Egyptian Saif al-Adel had been named the group's "interim" leader. Yet the intense focus on who will be the "new bin Laden" glosses over the important fact that al-Qaeda has over the past several years developed a charismatic and influential cadre of scholar-ideologues who play a major role in legitimating the group's campaign of violence and calling on Muslims to join or support it, a role made more important by the confusion that has resulted in jihadi circles from bin Laden's death.
In late January, Osama bin Laden released an audiotape praising the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009. "The message delivered to you through the plane of the heroic warrior Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a confirmation of the previous messages sent by the heroes of [September] 11th," he said.
While the tape was proof that Al Qaeda's leader was still alive, it also raised the question of whether he's now only an irrelevant militant seeking to associate himself with even failed attacks originated by groups he doesn't control. After all, the organization behind the botched bombing was Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, headquartered in Yemen, thousands of miles from bin Laden's presumed base on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Bin Laden's irrelevance seemed further confirmed in June, when CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC News that Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan is now "relatively small...I think at most we're looking at maybe 50 to 100."
For some, these small numbers suggest that bin Laden's organization is fading away, and that the war against it is largely won. But the fact is that Al Qaeda has always been a small organization. According to the FBI, there were only 200 sworn members at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and the group has always seen itself primarily as an ideological and military vanguard seeking to influence and train other jihadist groups.
To read the rest of this article, visit Newsweek, where this was originally published.
Peter Bergen, the editor of the AfPak Channel, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and at New York University's Center on Law and Security, and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader. He is a national security analyst for CNN.
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