Drones and the Death of Al Qaeda’s No. 3


4_61_Yazid_Mustafa_Abu.jpgA couple of friends and I recently participated in a study group session discussing Afghanistan and Pakistan with former Afghanistan-deployed US foreign service officer and former Marine Matthew Hoh. In passing he posed the question “What’s the most dangerous job in the Middle East?”
Hoh’s answer: “Being the Number 3 leader in al-Qaeda.”
Now al-Qaeda has announced that its No. 3 leader, Said al-Masri, has been killed, most likely by a drone attack. I have the same concerns that General Stanley McChrystal has about drone attacks — they kill too many innocent people.
But when a senior member of al Qaeda is struck, one could arguably count this as a big plus in the use of drones.
To some degree, even those who have the greatest doubts about America’s current military deployment to Afghanistan probably understand that any real exit strategy must be accompanied by the death or capture of al-Qaeda’s No. 1 & No. 2, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In an email exchange with Matthew Hoh about his prescience about al-Qaeda’s No. 3, he sent me the following sobering, and definitively contrarian discussion points about both the death of al-Masri and of the efficacy of drones:
From Matthew Hoh:

~ I agree with Steve that we should be focused on al-Qaeda and its associated movements (with more emphasis on its associated movements), as that is who poses an actual threat to the US and its interests (although by no means is this an existential threat).
~ While al-Masri seems to be a senior member of AQ, having gotten in on the ground floor with OBL in Afghanistan and with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood dating to Sadat’s assassination and so ties to al-Zawahiri, he was identified by AQ as being their operational leader in Afghanistan.
With less than 100 AQ members in Afghanistan (my belief is it is a good deal fewer) and with their operations limited to joint suicide attacks with the Haqqani network on targets in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan, attacks that are counter-productive as they distance the Haqqani Taliban sect and AQ from the Afghan people, was al-Masri that important of a target and was he really the #3 guy for the organization if he was solely focused on Afghan operations which are pretty limited and fairly inconsequential?
No doubt he was important due to his seniority and, for our collective thoughts and emotions, his ties to the 9/11 operation, but does this really change anything?
~ Al-Masri was supposedly killed ten days ago (May 22 according to a Pak intel source). He’s already been replaced and it doesn’t appear his death has any effect on AQ or TB operations in eastern Afghanistan. We didn’t even know he was dead until AQ told us. If he was important, either because of command of operations or because of his figurative leadership, I don’t believe AQ would have announced his death until his replacement was fully in control and operations had resumed.
If killing these guys had the effect it does in Tom Clancy novels or the TV show “24” on a terrorist organization’s operations, then we would have “won” this thing several years ago.
~ The fact that we didn’t announce his death when it occurred or shortly after (which we have done on other occasions) begs the question: was he the actual target or was this luck (luck, or what used to be called Fortune, always having a preeminent role in warfare)? At the very least, it demonstrates that we don’t have the human intelligence assets to conduct post-strike assessments and questions our pre-strike intelligence and targeting.
~ Supposedly we killed 5 women and 2 children. No dispute from the US on that; and while it is war and civilians will be killed, attempts to regain our moral authority on the world stage, let alone in Pakistan (and not just the tribal areas) take a step back every time women and children are killed.
Similarly, how the US looks hypocritical and petty when it decries the Iranian elections as fraudulent, but then backs the Afghan elections with not just diplomatic support, but with 30,000 more troops and billions more US dollars; the US loses popular support, trust and opinion when women and children are killed by machines (that we deny exist or provide no comment on) and has a hard time arguing against as criminal the actions of the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and AQ-AM.
~ While the drones are terrific pieces of technological weaponry, providing a wonderful tactical advantage, they by themselves are by no means capable of providing strategic success. The Ft. Hood attack and attempted Christmas Day and Times Square attacks, how were they affected by the drone strikes?
If anything, the drone strikes seem to be the recruitment tool that leads these individuals to AQ (I think we are seeing much more passive recruitment efforts by AQ, recruits come to them, they don’t have to actively recruit).
Not saying we shouldn’t conduct such operations and go after AQ leadership (I’m still upset we have not killed bin-Laden and Zawahiri), but we shouldn’t think that such tactical operations will bring us “victory” over AQ and terrorism.
~ Additionally, much like our response in the Gulf to protect the shoreline by deploying surface booms to combat a subsurface spill, are we mis-identfying and mis-interpreting the threat, and how it exists and operates, and engaging in strategy and operations that are dictated and defined by the tools we have at hand rather than by a proper and actual understanding of the total nature and essence of the enemy?

Sobering, smart analysis.
— Steve Clemons


11 comments on “Drones and the Death of Al Qaeda’s No. 3

  1. Don Bacon says:

    One example is a former aide to bin Laden. Rather than stringing him up by his thumbs, the smart interrogator, after reading him Miranda, learned that the detainee didn’t like OBL’s targeting of civilians so the interrogator used that fact to encourage the detainee to talk, which he fully did.
    If one approaches these people with only blind hatred of course the results won’t be as good, particularly when Hellfire explosive missiles are used on the target and his family. The guy will just be replaced, no intelligence will be gathered and many more resisters will have been recruited. Stupid.


  2. Don Bacon says:

    Actually, experience has shown that a) (done intelligently) is very useful. Experienced intelligence operatives prefer the friendly approach to interrogation over torture because it gets results, and of course assassination brings no intelligence at all and is totally counter-productive for several reasons.
    Terrorism is a crime and is best addressed with smart intelligence-gathering and policing.
    Retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington’s time in Vietnam was captured well in his book Silence was a Weapon also published under the title Stalking the Vietcong. He ran a secret interrogation operation on an island off the coast of Panama after the invasion of Panama, where, he says, much was learned about Noriega’s relations with Cuba and the PLO. He ran a similar secret operation after the 1991 Gulf War. In 2004, he was asked to look into U.S. intelligence operations in Iraq and produced a scathing report.
    Last November, Herrington gave a speech at Fort Leavenworth, sponsored by the CGSC Foundation, in which he explored how U.S. interrogation operations went badly off track after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, becoming both abusive and counterproductive.
    “There was no room on our team for charlatans who believed in sleep deprivation, inducing hypothermia, stress positions, face slapping, forced nudity, water boarding, blaring heavy metal music, or other amateurish, ineffective and ethically flawed tricks.”


  3. nadine says:

    “The new NSS talks about “intelligence and law enforcement that can unravel plots, strengthen justice systems, and work seamlessly with other countries” . . .”We will strengthen international norms”. . .”promote our values”. . .”shape an international system”. . .”strengthening international institutions”. . .”cooperate on issues of bilateral and global concern”. . .”our commitment to an international order based upon rights and responsibilities”. . .”enforcement of international law”.
    And a national assassination policy fits into this strategy — how? ” (Don Bacon)
    It doesn’t. That’s just what happens when leftist pipe-dreams run up against reality. We used to try to capture guys like Said al Masri and get intelligence from them. But Obama spent too much time denouncing rendition and every method of interrogation, so now we are left with only two choices for Al Qaeda higher ups: a)read them their Miranda rights and supply them with a free lawyer, or b) kill them and their families with predator drones.
    Since a) is pretty damn useless, b) is now the normal course of action. Of course we don’t get any intelligence this way, which might, just might, have something to do with the increasing frequency of terrorist attacks in the US. Obama has just enough sense of self-preservation left not to chose c) stop fighting al Qaeda and let them do what they like. If we get another 9/11, he will be blamed.
    I agree with you, it’s nuts. But that’s what happens when all your theories are devised in ivory towers and have no relation to reality.


  4. Don Bacon says:

    The new NSS talks about “intelligence and law enforcement that can unravel plots, strengthen justice systems, and work seamlessly with other countries” . . .”We will strengthen international norms”. . .”promote our values”. . .”shape an international system”. . .”strengthening international institutions”. . .”cooperate on issues of bilateral and global concern”. . .”our commitment to an international order based upon rights and responsibilities”. . .”enforcement of international law”.
    And a national assassination policy fits into this strategy — how?
    The countries where Al Qaeda maintains a presence reportedly include Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Xinjiang in China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Mindanao in the Philippines, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Dagestan, Jammu and Kashmri, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Azerbaijan, Eritrea, Uganda, Ethiopia, as also in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
    I say go for it — numbers one through three in all countries. Heck, four and five also while we’re at it. Also their family members. The US had a policy of 29 to one in Iraq, before requesting approval from higher authority. Twenty-nine collateral to one enemy was acceptable. Of course the 29 were automatically “suspected militants”, even if they were infants, which they often were.
    Marc Garlasco, who once worked on targeting at the Pentagon (and recently resigned from Human Rights Watch!), explained the calculus of civilian deaths in high value targeting to the television news program 60 Minutes this way, “Our number was 30. So, for example, Saddam Hussein. If you’re gonna kill up to 29 people in a strike against Saddam Hussein, that’s not a problem. But once you hit that number 30, we actually had to go to either President Bush, or Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.” (I wonder if they fudged the numbers. Nah.)
    What’s the policy now?
    So the US has blowback. As Pat Buchanan said: “They’re over here because we’re over there.”


  5. PissedOffAmerican says:

    The news reports say that Said al-Masri was killed “along with the members of his family”.
    So, uh, how’d we profit? We killed one boogie man in the act of undoubtedly CREATING many more. Do we really think that “collatoral damage” endears us to the Muslim community?


  6. hidden moon says:

    Speaking of killing. . .
    “Is BP trying to cap the Gulf oil well, or keep it flowing?”
    Monday, May 31, 2010
    by Mike Adams, the Health Ranger
    Editor of NaturalNews.com
    (NaturalNews) Today, I spent my time interviewing people on the Gulf Coast from Mississippi to Louisiana. Several of those interviews were conducted on camera, and you’ll be seeing those videos as early as tomorrow here on NaturalNews.
    Interestingly, it turns out that a lot of the people living on the Gulf Coast have a history of working with oil companies — and even on oil rigs. I spoke to several people who have a work history with BP, and two of them told me they are certain that British Petroleum is NOT trying to stop the oil coming out of the well. What they are trying to do, I was told, is SAVE the oil well so that they can capture the oil and sell it.
    This claim stands in direct contradiction to what BP says. The company insists it’s trying to stop the flow of oil from the well. But if you look at BP’s actions, what they’re really trying to do is siphon off the gushing oil where it can be pumped to a tanker ship and sold as crude. It is a simple matter, by the way, for oil companies to separate water from oil. They do it all the time in oil fields all across America. So if they can siphon off the oil from the Deepwater Horizon well — even if it’s mixed with water — they can sell it for potentially billions of dollars.
    It raises the question: Is the economic promise of captured oil causing BP to avoid using its best effort to cap the well?
    Tapping, not capping
    Notice that the new device they’re lowering onto the well is designed not to close it off but to pump the oil to an awaiting ship. This is a plan to “capture” the oil, not to seal off the well.
    The mainstream media hasn’t picked up on this yet, by the way. To my knowledge, no one is yet reporting this story that BP may have never had any intention of actually capping the deep sea well.
    We already know BP has been extremely dishonest with the media about this entire situation. By distorting the truth and lying to the public, BP has lost all credibility with almost everyone (Governors, Senators, journalists, etc.). So how can we trust that BP is actually trying to cap this well when there’s so much money to be made from allowing it to keep spilling oil that can soon be captured?
    In other words, it’s in BP’s financial interests to avoid capping the well and claim the well can’t be capped when, in reality, what they may be trying to do is buy more time until they can lower a “capture containment device” onto the well head that can direct all the outflowing crude oil to BP’s awaiting tanker ships.
    In talking to the people face to face here on Gulf Coast, I learned that Gulf Coast people don’t trust BP, and they don’t trust the company’s intentions. Today was the first I had heard of the BP agenda to “keep the well flowing” yet suddenly this theory makes sense. BP, after all, went through all the trouble and expense to drill the well. Why wouldn’t they want to cash in on the crude oil coming out of it?
    To collapse the well and plug it for good would destroy BP’s chance to siphon off oil and sell it for profit (until at least August, when the pressure relief wells are expected to be completed). And that is perhaps the single most important reason why oil is still flowing out of that well right now.
    As one person I interviewed today put it, “Why should a British petroleum company care about what happens to America’s shores?” After all, the financial payoffs to the businesses hurt by the spill may pale in comparison to the billions of dollars in profit to be had from tapping — not capping — the well and turning crude oil into raw cash.
    There will be more to this story. Let’s see if the mainstream media picks up on this angle.
    By the way, I don’t yet have conclusive proof that BP’s intentions are to avoid capping this well. It’s just a working theory based on people I’ve talked to here on the Gulf Coast who appear to know what they’re talking about. BP would obviously deny this, but then again BP has denied many things that we know to be true (like the fact that the beach cleanup crews specifically cleaned the beach on Grand Isle before Obama showed up, then left promptly as soon as he left).
    If you haven’t yet, check out my CounterThink Cartoon on the BP oil spill at http://www.CounterThink.com
    Also, watch for video interviews with the people on the Gulf Coast. We’ll be publishing them here on NaturalNews starting as early as tomorrow.
    I’m headed to New Orleans tomorrow to check out the local scene there and see what else I can find out by talking to the locals on the front lines.


  7. DonS says:

    Drones. Peach fuzz computer jockeys playing kill the brown guys. Make no mistake, this sterilized warfare, while it keeps the US personnel ‘killed’ headlines down, and avoids having to steam roll Pakistan’s sovereignty to some extent has “made in America” stamped all over it. Great say the Bat Guano wannabes. . . until the next retaliatory ‘terror’ attack.
    Let’s go back to the basic question: why are we wasting billions fighting in places that only insure greater insecurity for the US?


  8. Roaring Infidel says:

    Nothing ‘smart’ about that ‘analysis.’
    I’ll just reply to two points, the one about drones not doing anything about the christmas bomber and such – who the %&## said they would? Nobody declared drones the winners of the ‘war on terror’ or anything like that. Stupid straw man argument.
    And secondly, how does the US gain ‘moral authority’ with the muslims that support or don’t seem to care about the taliban? yes, let’s make sure pakistanis, those wonderful people and supporters of the savagery of the taliban, know the US isn’t as barbaric as the animals its fighting.
    How about Obama give another speech to the muslim world, and tell them how ashamed of themselves they should be for having the US do the work that muslims should do in afghanistan. Of course, the AQ and Taliban loving portions of the muslim ummah are not a tiny tiny tiny minority like liberals believe.
    Obama definitely should stop the drone attacks. He should govern like a ‘progressive’ and not pretend to be otherwise, show the country what the left stands for. Blogger Wright on the NY Times posted an entry aruging not just gainst drone attacks – as the humanist left has been blogging for a while, such ‘criminality’ breaks their heart but not muslim criminality – but he actually said that killing awlaki would ‘revive’ him like jesus would, in digital form, and create more angry followers. That’s right folks, liberals don’t want to kill terrorists because ti would piss other terrorists/muslims off. That same logic would extend to bin laden.
    So go ahead president Obama, show america some of that ’empathy’ you talk about , and say you will live by american values and not kill bin laden. There’s a values argument, better explain that to americans than having many sleepless nights agonizing over having ordered the killing of bin laden, mr. president. And there’s that lefty wingut rationality wright explained, see, it would just make more people angry. It worked in WWII, the US won by not pissing off nazis and japanese imperialists, instead hiding in a closet praying for peace.


  9. Don Bacon says:

    The US has “killed” so many numbers one, two, and three, which are often renounced, that nobody can keep count. And so what. Did the US suffer when Generals Abizaid, Sanchez and McKiernan were replaced? No, the US got better generals, the story goes. Isn’t it so with US enemies? Don’t they get more capable people, people who are smart nenough to avoid drones? Plus, they have a popular movement while the US has but mercenaries. Advantage them.


  10. rc says:

    Now how many Americans will die or be seriously maimed in pay back?


  11. Dan Kervick says:

    “Now al-Qaeda has announced that its No. 3 leader, Said al-Masri, has been killed, most likely by a drone attack.”
    How does “Al-Qaeda” make such announcements? Does the message go out on official Al-Qaeda stationary? Do they hold a weekly webinar? Who posts the announcement? Number 4? Number 5? Q? Agent 99? Does the SITE Intelligence Group, which I understand now charges for its services, know the secret Al Qaeda password?


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