Friday, August 30, 2013

Today in Manhunting History -- August 30, 1993: The Raid on Lig Ligato House

At three AM, August 30, 1993, a dozen blacked-out helicopters rose from the tarmac at Mogadishu Airport, formed up, and then clattered over to the target, the nearby Lig Ligato house of Via Lenin. The birds pulled up one by one, hovering in loose formation above and around the sleeping compound before commandos swathed in black fast-roped down to the ground. While Ranger security team sealed off the objective, Delta operators stormed the house and plasticuffed all eight occupants. They did not find Muhammad Fara Aideed, as hoped, but discovered cash, khat, and evidence of a black-market operation. It was a textbook lightning strike.

When the Task Force returned from the mission, before they had even finished shedding their gear, they were astonished to see themselves on CNN in footage shot from afar with an infrared camera. It turned out the house was a part of the UN Development Program, and their plasticuffed prisoners were members of the UN mission and their Somali assistants. Subsequent newspaper reports portrayed the Task Force as Keystone Cops. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell recalled that he was so angry that "I had to screw myself off the ceiling," and MG Garrison reportedly received a brutal tongue-lashing from CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Hoar.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Today in Manhunting History -- August 29, 1993: Aideed Draws First Blood

Just as Phase Two of Task Force Ranger's "Operation Gothic Serpent" was set to begin, at 10PM on August 29 the ground at the Mogadishu airport shook with a dull thud. A 30-minute Somali mortar attack consisting of nine rounds wounded five Task Force soldiers. Major General Garrison feared that if the Task Force did not respond, then his highly trained SOF units might lapse into the same bunker mentality that plagued UN forces. He vowed "to kick somebody's ass" and, chewing his cigar, walked into the Joint Operations Center (JOC). "McKnight, tell me where the last place was we saw this sombitch."

LTC Danny McKnight -- commander of the 3-75th Ranger battalion and Task Force Ranger's intelligence chief -- responded that it was at a house near the center of the city. "That's our target," Garrison said. "I don't care if Aideed's there or not. . . . [Get] the men ready."

A little over an hour later, Garrison stood before the assembled task force in front of the JOC. Arms crossed, cigar jutting from his mouth, he spoke with a distinctive Texas twang: "Now, some of you have never been mortared before," he said casually. "I just wanted to tell you that if one of them piddly-ass mortars lands in your pocket, it's probably going to hurt. If it doesn't land in your pocket, you don't have to worry about piddly-ass mortars."

The tension broken, Garrison declared: "Now we're gonna go in there tonight and let 'em know we're here. And I have confidence in every one of you. So let's get it on and go do it."

Muhammad Farah Aideed had drawn first blood, but Task Force Ranger was about to begin its hunt for the warlord.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Kill Bashar!

With U.S. military action (of some sort) against Syria imminent, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal offers a simple suggestion:

Should President Obama decide to order a military strike against Syria, his main order of business must be to kill Bashar Assad. Also, Bashar's brother and principal henchman, Maher. Also, everyone else in the Assad family with a claim on political power. Also, all of the political symbols of the Assad family's power, including all of their official or unofficial residences. The use of chemical weapons against one's own citizens plumbs depths of barbarity matched in recent history only by Saddam Hussein. A civilized world cannot tolerate it. It must demonstrate that the penalty for it will be acutely personal and inescapably fatal. . . .

On Monday John Kerry spoke with remarkable passion about the "moral obscenity" of using chemical weapons, and about the need to enforce "accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people." Amen, Mr. Secretary, especially considering that you used to be Bashar's best friend in Washington. . . .

Yes, a Tomahawk aimed at Assad could miss, just as the missiles aimed at Saddam did. But there's also a chance it could hit and hasten the end of the civil war. And there's both a moral and deterrent value in putting Bashar and Maher on the same list that once contained the names of bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.

As Glenn Reynolds likes to say, read the whole thing.

In Wanted Dead or Alive, I argued that one of the reasons strategic manhunts will continue to tempt U.S. policymakers is that:
Targeting leadership is arguably more defensible morally than is causing the widespread death of innocent civilians and soldiers and the destruction that inevitably accompany modern armed conflict. Or as Ralph Peters asks: "Why is it acceptable to slaughter -- and I use that word advisedly -- the commanded masses but not to mortally punish the guiltiest individual, the commander, a man stained with the blood of his own people as well as that of his neighbors?
Or as the Washington Post editorialized regarding the NATO intervention in Libya, "Thousands of civilians have been killed, and more are dying every day. . . . Targeting Mr. Gaddafi may be the quickest way -- and maybe the only way -- to stop this carnage."

Will the optometrist turned tyrant be the target of American missile strikes?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Today in Manhunting History -- August 27, 1993: Task Force Ranger Arrives

On August 27, six massive C-5B Galaxy jet transports arrived at Mogadishu airport. The men that stepped off these planes comprised the “best of the best, the very sharp tip of the spear” of American military might. The Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) included 130 operators from Delta’s Squadron C; Bravo Company, 3-75th Ranger Regiment; and 16 helicopters from 1st Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), the legendary “Night Stalkers.” These elite warriors would be led by the JSOC deployable headquarters element under MG Garrison, “the picture of American military machismo” with a 9-mm Baretta strapped to his chest and a half-lit cigar perpetually jutting out of a corner of his mouth.

With orders to capture Aideed, Garrison divided “Operation Gothic Serpent” – as the mission was designated – into three phases. The first phase was the deployment of the Task Force and making it operational. Phase Two would concentrate exclusively on locating and capturing Aideed. If this objective appeared futile, then Garrison would initiate Phase Three, which would target the warlord’s command structure and force Aideed in to the open in order to control his forces.

Garrison believed the key to capturing Aideed was “current actionable intelligence” provided by human intelligence (HUMINT). Yet when Garrison checked the local intelligence trail upon arrival, there were no leads. The Intelligence Support Activity (Delta’s special intelligence cell) and the CIA had lost track of the warlord, who had not been seen since July. Moreover, within days of Task Force Ranger’s arrival, the top Somali CIA informant was mortally wounded in a game of Russian Roulette. The original plan had called for the spy – a minor warlord loosely affiliated with Aideed – to present the SNA chief with an elegant hand-carved cane with a homing beacon embedded in the head. The plan seemed foolproof, until Lieutenant Colonel Danny McKnight – commander of the 3-75th Ranger battalion and Task Force Ranger’s intelligence chief – burst into Garrison’s headquarters at the Mogadishu airport on their first day and exclaimed: “Main source shot in the head. He’s not dead yet, but we’re fucked!”

Garrison responded philosophically, quoting the opening lines of Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir: Man proposes and God disposes.

Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in Somalia

Friday, August 23, 2013

Today in Manhunting History -- August 23, 1993: Major General Garrison Arrives

August 23, 1993, was an overcast day when the plane touched down at Mogadishu Airport. Yet when the U.S. Army officers stepped off the chartered Boeing 737, they were greeted by a blast of intense humidity. The air was filled with the suffocating stench of burning garbage, rotting ocean waste, and the sweat of the more than one million souls who dwelled in the Somali capital. Decrepit Soviet transport aircraft left from the 1960s sat rusting on the tarmac. Sloping upward beyond the airport’s perimeter, the officers could see Mogadishu devastated “like Stalingrad after the battle.” The city’s streets were cratered and strewn with debris, its buildings were either bullet-ridden or collapsed.

Among the officers disembarking was a tall, muscular lieutenant colonel (LTC) with a gray crew cut wearing desert fatigues. To the casual observer, he was just another replacement officer for the U.S. Forces Somalia staff. Yet in reality, Major General (MG) William F. Garrison was America’s most accomplished commando. A veteran Green Beret with two tours in Vietnam – including participation in the Phoenix program – Garrison had run covert operations all over the world for 25 years, including a four-year stint as commander of the Delta Force.  He was the youngest man in U.S. Army history to hold the ranks of Colonel, Brigadier General, and Major General.  Now leading the Joint Special Operations Command, Garrison was travelling incognito in hopes of surprising the man he had been sent half way around the world to capture: the Somali warlord General Mohammed Farrah Aideed.
Major General William Garrison

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Today in Manhunting History -- August 22, 1993: The Deployment of Task Force Ranger

On August 19 and 22, IEDs implanted by Muhammed Farah Aideed's Somali National Alliance wounded 10 more soldiers.  This time Jonathan Howe’s pleas finally won out, and while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, President Clinton agreed to deploy what would become known as “Task Force Ranger.”

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Today in Manhunting History -- August 20, 1998: Operation Infinite Reach

Within days of the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the CIA received a report that senior leaders of terrorist groups linked to Osama bin Laden had been summoned to a meeting on August 20 at the Zawhar Kili camp complex in eastern Afghanistan. The intelligence indicated that bin Laden himself would be present. George Tenet called this information “a godsend. . . . We were accustomed to getting intelligence about where bin Laden had been. This was a rarity: intelligence predicting where he was going to be.” The principals quickly reached a consensus on attacking the gathering, with the objective of killing bin Laden.

On August 20, 1998, two old classmates from the Combined and General Staff College reunited for dinner in Islamabad, Pakistan. Both officers had come a long way since graduating from Fort Leavenworth: the guest, Air Force General Joseph Ralston, was now Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second highest ranking officer in the U.S. military. His host, General Jehangir Karamat, had risen to become the Pakistani Army’s Chief of Staff. They reminisced over a dinner of chicken tikka, and as the meal was winding down, General Ralston looked at his watch. At approximately 9:50PM, as he prepared to leave, Ralston said, By the way, General Karamat, at this moment missiles are coming over your airspace. He assured his host that they were U.S. cruise missiles en route to targets in Afghanistan rather than an Indian attack against Pakistan’s nuclear sites. Karamat was visibly unhappy, but understood Ralston’s need for discretion.

The two classmates shook hands. Ralston thanked Karamat for his hospitality, and departed for the Islamabad airport.
General Joseph Ralston, the Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was chosen to inform the Pakistanis of the missile strike against Bin Laden.

As Ralston and Karamat dined, five Navy destroyers lined up in the Arabian Sea and began spinning Tomahawk cruise missiles in their launch tubes. At about 10PM local time, 75 missiles, each costing about $750,000, slammed into Zawhar Kili’s rock gorges. The secret attack, code-named Operation Infinite Reach, killed at least 21 Pakistani jihadist volunteers, and wounded dozens more.

Half-a-world away, on Martha’s Vineyard, a solemn Bill Clinton announced the military strikes to the media assembled there. Clinton quickly flew back to the White House, where he addressed the nation from the Oval Office. “Our target was terror,” Clinton explained,

our mission was clear – to strike at the network of radical groups affiliated with and funded by Osama bin Laden. . . . They have made the United States their adversary precisely because of what we stand for and what we stand against. . . . And so this morning, based on the unanimous recommendation of my national security team, I ordered our armed forces to take action to counter an imminent threat from the bin Laden network.

Ironically, many of these same themes – “war on a noun,” the idea that al Qaeda hated us for our values, and the doctrine of pre-emption – would be ridiculed when adopted by President Bush three years later.

The next day a radio broadcast emanated from somewhere in Afghanistan. “By the grace of Allah,” bin Laden’s voice announced, “I am alive!”* Although al Qaeda’s camps suffered extensive damage, bin Laden himself was unscathed.

A satellite image of Zawhar Kili

*The CIA later reported to Clinton that it had received information that bin Laden had been at Zawhar Kili, but had left several hours before the strikes.  Yet according to al Qaeda sources, bin Laden was hundreds of miles away when the U.S. cruise missiles struck his camps.  According to his bodyguard Abu Jandal, bin Laden and his bodyguards were driving through Vardak province en route to Zawhar Kili when they stopped at a crossroads.  “Where do you think, my friends, we should go?” bin Laden asked.  “Khost or Kabul?”  Abu Jandal and the others said they would rather go to Kabul where they could visit friends.  “With G-d’s help, let us go to Kabul,” bin Laden decreed.
      In reality, Abu Jandal’s account is likely a cover story to protect al Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan’s intelligence service, whom other al Qaeda sources say warned bin Laden about the imminent attack.  There are at least three ways the Pakistanis could have known an attack was coming.  180 American diplomats were withdrawn from Islamabad, and all foreigners were evacuated from Kabul in the days before the attack.  Additionally, the Pakistani navy in the northern Arabian Sea likely noticed the U.S. naval activity prior to the attack and reported it back to the ISI.

Iraq Wants U.S. Drones; Iran and Deer Trail, CO . . . Not so Much

Over the weekend, Bloomberg reported that al-Qa'ida terror attacks have gotten so bad in Iraq (roughly 30/month over the past 90 days, with more than 3,000 killed) that Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the government in Baghdad is seeking U.S. advisers, air surveillance, or even drone strikes to help them combat AQI/ISIL.

Conversely, over the border, the acting commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Basij militia has announced that the paramilitary units plan to teach drone-hunting to high school students. The AP notes that Gen. Ali Fazli did not elaborate how they would hunt the drones, but that the plan suggests students will be taught how to track and bring down UAVs by hacking their computer systems.

Alternatively, the Iranians could take a page from the good people of Deer Trail, Colorado, population 600, which two weeks ago voted on an ordnance permitting the issuance of "drone hunting" licenses. "If you don't want it to go down, don't fly it in the town," a resident told CBS. At least 157 people signed up in advance to pay the $25 fee for the honor of keeping the skies of Deer Trail UAV-free the old fashioned way . . . with shotguns (and presumably from the back of a pickup with a case of beer, which to be honest, sounds kind of fun!)

Alas, the vote apparently was tied, thereby stalling the measure so that Deer Trail will continue to remain an unattractive sanctuary for al-Qai'da for the time being.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Gulf Cartel Leader Captured (with Zetas Update)

The Associated Press reports that the Mexican army captured Mario Armando Ramirez Trevino, one of the contenders to lead the Gulf Cartel, in northeast Mexico near the Texas border Saturday. Although there are no details on the operation yet, or possible U.S. support, Ramirez is wanted on federal drug charges and the State Department had offered a $5 million reward for Ramirez's capture.
Gulf Cartel leader Mario Armando Ramirez Trevino, captured Saturday near the Texas border.
There has been no analysis yet (at least that I've seen) regarding how his capture will affect the Gulf Cartel. The drug empire has been weakened significantly over the past decade due to the 2003 capture of its former boss, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, and the defection and increasingly brutal competition with their former security wing, the Zetas. The cartel's previous top boss, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, was arrested last September.

Incidentally, at Foreign, Dwight Dyer and Daniel Sachs provide a good analysis of the strategic consequences of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales' capture last month. Although the Zetas have traditionally relied upon a decentralized organizational structure (think more starfish than spider) that appears to negate a counter-strategy of leadership decapitation, the lack of a clear leader might also result in intra-gang competition. Like al-Qa'ida and its devolution into various affiliates, this prevents them from acting in a coordinated and strategic fashion (especially given that all of the Zetas' original leaders have been killed or captured), but means this instability may lead to increased violence at the local level. Dyer and Sachs argue that although "the arrest of Trevino may prove a devastating blow for the Zetas in Mexico," they are threatening to expand into parts of Central America that are not as well organized to fight them as are Mexican forces near the U.S. border.

The War on Terror Online (Continued)

Two months ago I linked to a collection of articles that looked at U.S. intelligence efforts to hack into and sabotage al-Qa'ida's online magazine, the debates over whether or not to shut down various terror groups' Twitter feeds, and an interview with former al-Shabaab propagandist (and Twitter aficionado) Omar Hammani.

Two interesting articles followed up on some of these topics last week. In, J.M. Berger has a fascinating (albeit slightly disturbing) look at how Twitter's algorithm's for recommending accounts to follow inadvertently facilitates jihadist recruitment by exposing potential extremists to more feeds they may not have previously been aware of (i.e. "If you like Ayman al-Zawahiri, you might also want to follow . . . "). Although it is possible that in time this function could be used to direct potential recruits towards dissenting Islamists, in the near term Twitter is "making extremist ideologies more accessible than ever before."

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported on how al-Qa'ida operatives have been using secretive chat rooms and encrypted Internet message boards for planning and operational communications. The article goes into some detail as to the likely means used to evade U.S. surveillance technology. While interesting, I always have mixed feelings about this sort of reporting. On the one hand, it provides a potential source of intelligence for al-Qa'ida as to our means and methods of interception. For example, a recent profile of AQAP leader (and new al-Qa'ida general manager) Nasser al Wuhayshi stated "At the request of its sources, The Daily Beast is withholding details about the technology al Qaeda used to conduct the conference call." That's great, except obviously al-Qa'ida knows what technology it used, and therefore knows it is compromised! Unless U.S. intelligence agencies actually planted an informant on the jihadist forum in question, such reporting harms our ability to monitor their networks and disrupt future operations.

On the other hand, the disruption of this particular plot likely will force the terrorists to find new means of communication. Depending on how long this takes, it buys time to either attrit their leadership through kinetic operations or disrupt their network through other means. Of course, this only works if one assumes we will be able to crack that technology as well, which once illustrates the importance of developing human intelligence that can access these communications regardless of the technology used.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Boko Haram's Number Two Killed?

Yesterday Nigeria's Ministry of Defense announced that Nigerian soldiers had killed Momodu Bama, second-in-command of the Islamist terror group that has attacked schools, markets, and both Christian and Muslim worshippers, and has killed thousands in the past two years (including 44 in an attack on a mosque on Sunday).

This development is separate from yesterday's announcement that two Boko Haram leaders were killed in a four-hour gun battle with Nigerian forces in northeast Adamawa State. (The two had been captured a week earlier, and reportedly died when showing army officers their hideout, when the firefight erupted. Not surprisingly, this has given rise to suspicions of an extra-judicial killing).

As Reuters reports, "The military has announced the killing of senior members of the sect before, notably a spokesman called Abu Qaqa, only for a person using the same name to say he had not been killed," hence the question mark in this post's title.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

President Obama Played Cards During Abbottabad Raid . . .

. . . according to his "body man," Reggie Love.
"Most people were like down in the Situation Room and [President Obama] was like, 'I'm not going to be down there, I can't watch this entire thing.' We must have played 15 games of spades."
Given how long the raid took from takeoff in Afghanistan to completion, and how stressful the wait must have been, this isn't necessarily a damning revelation. But it is interesting that this only came out now, whereas during the 2012 campaign the President's proxies made it seem as if Obama had personally parachuted into Pakistan himself to kill Osama bin Laden.

"Hurry up, I've got a poker game to get back to!"

WaPo on Al-Qa'ida's Expansion in Syria

On Monday Liz Sly of The Washington Post reported on AQI/The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's "surge" into neighboring Syria, where it is expanding into territory seized by other rebel groups and carving out sanctuaries.

The article generally echoes Anne Barnard and Eric Schimitt's New York Times' piece I linked to previously, with three interesting additional pieces of information.

First, Sly cites an anonymous Lebanese security official's estimate that at least 17,000 foreigners have joined rebel forces in Syria. This is less than the 130,000 claimed by Ibrahim Talib of the Center for Strategic Studies in Damascus, but still more than the U.S. counterterrorism officials' estimates of 6,000 cited by Barnard and Schmitt. By comparison, it is estimated that there were never more than 2,000 "Afghan Arabs" fighting the Soviets in the 1980s at any one time, although Ahmed Rashid estimates in his book Taliban that the total number who fought at some point in Afghanistan was 35,000.

Given Syria's strategic location, and the fact that the Syrian civil war does not appear likely to end anytime soon, Sly quotes terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman as saying: "There are a lot of reasons to worry that Syria will emerge as an even more powerful variant of what Afghanistan was more than 30 years." Similarly, Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation notes that one reason for the ISIL's resurgence is that there are no U.S. forces hunting them down, hence "They can plan better and discipline better, and that is dangerous." Ap Apparently, neither of them read Paul Pillar's assurance that it really doesn't matter if Syria becomes an al-Qa'ida haven.

Finally, Sly notes both ISIL's brutality and their determination not to make the same mistakes in alienating the local population that turned Iraq's tribes against them. She notes that as a part of their "hearts and minds" campaign they distributed toys, including Teletubbies, at a gathering in Aleppo to mark the Eid al-Fitr. No word as to whether this included any Tinky-Winky dolls, or whether those were taken away to have a stone wall toppled on top of them.

Apparently the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant does not have a strong sense of irony.

"We Got the Operational Guys We Were After"

ABC News reports that an American drone strike has killed four suspected al-Qa'ida operatives associated with the threat that prompted the closing of U.S. embassies in the Middle East and North Africa.

U.S. officials said they believed the original threat was a possible vehicle-borne bombing attack against the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a, which remains the only embassy still closed.

The U.S. official who was ABC's source said there currently was no information to substantiate the claim that AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri had been wounded in a recent drone strike, although the AP reported that there have been nine drone strikes in Yemen since July 27 that have killed 38 suspected militants.

Today in Manhunting History -- August 14, 1998: Targeting Bin Laden for the First Time

On Friday, August 14, 1998, a week after the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, CIA Director George Tenet delivered to the NSC the CIA’s formal judgment that Osama bin Laden was responsible. Tenet began his presentation of the CIA and FBI’s investigation by stating: “This one is a slam dunk, Mr. President,” a phrase he would infamously repeat nearly five years later to a different president. Although the embassy attacks clearly constituted an act of war against sovereign U.S. territory, there was no serious discussion of a broad U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

Within days of the attacks the CIA received a report that senior leaders of terrorist groups linked to bin Laden had been summoned to a meeting on August 20 at the Zawhar Kili camp complex roughly seven miles south of Khost in eastern Afghanistan. The intelligence indicated that bin Laden himself would be present. Tenet called this information “a godsend. . . . We were accustomed to getting intelligence about where bin Laden had been. This was a rarity: intelligence predicting where he was going to be.” The principals quickly reached a consensus on attacking the gathering, with the objective of killing Osama bin Laden.

Former CIA Director George Tenet

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Catching Up With . . . Joseph Kony

Okay, not really, as unlike Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, nobody has any clue where the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army is right now.

However, on Friday a bipartisan group of 23 senators urged President Obama to continue the manhunt for the fugitive war criminal/child kidnapper/slaver/elephant poacher.

In April Ugandan and U.S. Special Operations Forces suspended the hunt for Kony was suspended because rebel leaders who had seized power in the Central African Republic were refusing to cooperate with Ugandan troops pursuing the fugitive warlord in that country. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter held closed door meetings with Ugandan Army officials in Kampala two weeks ago, and the Ugandan People's Defense Force is in talks with the CAR government to resume the hunt.

Given the DepSec Carter trip, and the fact that Samantha Power chose Invisible Children (the group responsible for the #Kony2012 campaign that went viral)'s Leadership Summit to make her first speech since being confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, it is doubtful the Obama administration is actually considering ending the U.S. advisory mission.

Because you have to be a really bad guy to get bipartisan agreement on anything these days!

Catching Up With . . . Seif al-Islam Gaddafi

When last we checked in on Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, son and once heir apparent of the Libyan dictator, he had been captured after a firefight in Southern Libya while trying to flee to Niger on November 19, 2011. He was subsequently flown to the town of Zintan in the western Mountains of Libya to be detained until he could be tried either by the International Criminal Court in The Hague or by the new Libyan government in Tripoli.
Seif al-Islam after his capture in November 2011.
So whatever happened to Seif al-Islam? Not much, apparently. As Reuters reported two weeks ago, he is still being held in Zintan by local forces who insist he must be tried in Libya, but don't trust the central government to do the job. Zintan's leaders say that if the Tripoli government isn't able to fix the security problems in the capital and fix its "corruption", they will bring Gaddafi to trial themselves before a revolutionary court. Until then, Seif al-Islam is "just like any other prisoner," with air conditioning, a television, time for reading, and time spent "outside in the sun."

Christian Caryl's piece in on the dispute is also worth the read, and provides some more details about his capture by a Zintani militia.

Yusuf Islam: Touring Brazil in November 2013
Seif al-Islam: No current plans to travel

AQAP Bombmaker Asiri Wounded in Drone Strike?

The Washington Free Beacon (citing a Yemeni news outlet) is reporting that Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the AQAP bombmaker who has been called the most dangerous man in the world, was wounded in a recent drone strike in Yemen:

A Saudi national known to be a key al Qaeda bomb maker was wounded during a U.S.-led drone strike in Yemen, according to a Yemeni news report.

Ibrahim al Asiri, the bomb maker, was targeted during a missile strike launched from a U.S.-operated armed drone in southern Yemen that killed two other al Qaeda terrorists, the online Yemeni news outlet Al Watan reported Sunday.

A U.S. official had no public comment but urged caution regarding claims that al Asiri was dead.

The drone attack took place in Yemen’s southernmost Lahij Governorate that borders the Gulf of Aden. Covert, U.S. military-operated drones carried out the strike. The United States operates a drone base located in southern Saudi Arabia.
There have been nine drone strikes in Yemen since July 27, which according to the AP, have killed 38 suspected militants.

This is very good news, if true, but should be taken with a grain of salt, as the Drone Wars abound with premature reports about the demise of targeted individuals, and Asiri himself was reported to have been killed before in 2011, only to emerge unscathed.

Stay tuned . . . 

Has the U.S. finally hit the "Most Dangerous Man in the World"?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Is Syria an Extremist Haven or Not?

On Friday, Anne Barnard and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reported that "As foreign fighters pour into Syria at an increasing clip, extremist groups are carving out pockets of territory that are becoming havens for Islamist militants, posing what United States and Western intelligence officials say may be developing into one of the biggest terrorist threats in the world today." The counterterrorism officials cited on background say that say there are more than 6,000 foreigners fighting in Syria [Note: Two weeks ago I cited an article in the Atlantic that claimed there were 130,000 foreign jihadists in Syria. That number seemed high at the time, and the lower, more recent number is likely more credible] and that these jihadists are streaming into Syria in even greater numbers than went into Iraq at the height of that insurgency.

So this is a significant problem, right?

Not necessarily, says former CIA officer and current Georgetown/Brookings Institution scholar Paul Pillar, in a response in The National Interest. Pillar argues that physical safe havens are overrated, claiming "a patch of physical real estate has not proven to be one of the more important variables determining the degree" of threat a terrorist group poses. He then goes on to specifically question what practical good any U.S. intervention in Syria would have. And finally, he concludes by arguing against the kinetic element to the U.S. War on Terror, saying that we should shift this effort over to local proxies. Instead, we should focus on working to weaken the extremists' narrative . . . specifically, by forcing Israel to make a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Let's briefly take these points on one-by-one. First, I get what Pillar is trying to say about the fungibility of safe havens (i.e. if we drive them out of Afghanistan, they move to Iraq; if we drive them from Iraq, they move to Yemen, etc) and the globalization of terrorism. But to date, all of the significant, high-casualty terrorist attacks in the West involved either travel and training by the jihadist operatives to an al-Qa'ida or similar extremist-controlled safe haven such as the terror training camps in Afghanistan that were instrumental to the planning/training for the 9/11 attacks. The most dangerous plots in the intervening decade have involved training in Pakistan's tribal areas, or the construction of explosive devices/distribution of propaganda from AQAP's sanctuary in Yemen. Although it is true that eliminating one sanctuary does not preclude the establishment of another somewhere else, the senior leaders and experienced bomb makers we worry most about have been proven less effective if they are constantly on the run from one safe haven to another.

Pillar does raise some important points regarding whether a limited U.S. intervention can be strategically effective, and if, in fact, we wouldn't be better off with Assad in power rather than any ungovernable mess that might result from the fall of the Alawite-Ba'athist regime in Syria. As Barnard and Schmitt note, many of the Free Syrian Army leaders have, out of necessity, had to fight alongside with many of the al-Qa'ida affiliated groups we fear in Syria. Thus, there is no assurance that weapons delivered intending to help the "good" rebels won't end up in the wrong hands.

But this furthers a point I've made several times before, which is that the Obama administration's strategic paralysis at the front-end of the conflict has drastically constrained our strategic options so that there are few, if any, good options left. As Barnard and Schmitt note:
It was fear of militants coming to dominate the opposition that caused the United States and its Western allies to hold off providing lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, at least until now. But as a result, counterterrorism analysts say, they lost a chance to influence the battle in Syria. Even Congressional supporters of the CIA's covert program to arm moderate elements of the Syrian opposition fear the delivery of weapons, set to begin this month, will be too little, too late.
Pillar may be right that there is no good option on Syria at this point, but recent history shows that leaving a conflict to sort itself out (i.e. Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal) poses its own risks.

I also agree with Pillar regarding the importance of shifting a significant portion of the fight against al-Qa'ida's affiliates to local proxy forces, with U.S. drone strikes or SOF raids only being used on rare occasions against strategic jihadist leaders. However, one of the great paradoxes of the War on Terror has been that by empowering local leaders to fight al-Qa'ida or other militants within their borders through training, arms sales, and intelligence support, it also becomes more difficult to get them to enact the political/economic reforms Pillar believes are necessary to mitigate the "exploitable grievances in a target population" that give rise to jihadist groups. It is easy to say we should chose strategies designed to eliminate local grievances, it is much harder to walk the policy/cultural tightrope to effect these changes in a government fighting for its survival and that we have agreed is critical to our fight against al-Qa'ida.

Which brings us to Pillar's last point. I appeared on a panel with Paul back in 2011, and during a breakout session we got into a heated exchange over his insistence that the way to defeat al-Qa'ida was to force Israel to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians because it is "the most salient issue to people across the Middle East." I challenged him to name a single time an Israeli concession (i.e. withdrawal from Sinai, withdrawal from southern Lebanon, withdrawal from Gaza, etc.) that had been met with a significant uptick in acceptance of Israel's right to exist in the Middle East. He couldn't. I asked whether Salafist jihadism had been stronger in the Middle East before or after Camp David, before or after Oslo, before or after Ehud Barak's offer at Taba in January 2001. I also disputed whether the Arab intellectuals he talks to at international conferences are necessarily representative of the demographic that volunteers to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, or now Syria, none of which had anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is not to say that the Israelis will not have to make serious concessions if/when the Palestinian leadership is ready to negotiate and enforce a genuine final status agreement leading to a Palestinian state (that is a whole other topic outside the sphere of this blog . . . ). Yet even if Israel were to concede on every point of contention (i.e. accept the 1949 borders, grant full right of return for all the descendants of Palestinian refugees into Israel-proper), I believe it is naive to think that people who believe the slaughter of thousands of Afghans, Iraqis, Arab Shi'a, and other Arab/Muslim civilian victims of al-Qa'ida-affiliated attacks are Koranically justified won't find some other grievance to justify murder on behalf of their utopian vision of a global caliphate. Unlike Pillar, I believe the jihadists and their supporters would be more inclined to see this as a reason to redouble their efforts than as a reason to stand down.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Two Views on Al-Qa'ida: Reidel and Tankel

In the wake of the recent global terror alert and subsequent closure of U.S. embassies, there has been an understandable flood of pieces analyzing the "state of al-Qa'ida."

Alas, I've been too busy on other projects to link to all of them, but two pieces that merit particular consideration are Bruce Reidel's "The Coming of Al Qaeda 3.0" in the Daily Beast and Stephen Tankel's "Not Another al-Qaeda Article" at War On the Rocks. Both are intelligent and thoughtful, but offer slightly contrasting outlooks on the nature and severity of the challenge al-Qa'ida's various affiliates pose.

Both authors agree that al-Qa'ida (in one form or another) is not going to be defeated anytime soon. Tankel writes: "Jihadist violence will be a feature of the security landscape for the foreseeable future," and Reidel similarly laments: "After 15 years, there is no end in sight to al Qaeda. And the new generation -- AQ 3.0 -- may be with us for years to come."

Where they differ, however, is how significant a threat this new reality poses to U.S. national security. Whereas Tankel notes that "there are rising threats to regional stability [and] U.S. interests" due to the diffusion/decentralization of power to al-Qa'ida's regional affiliates, their rise "does not pose an existential threat to the U.S." Reidel is more circumspect, cautioning: "The new generation of al Qaeda . . . is more focused on the nearby enemy close to home than the faraway enemy in America and Europe. For now at least." [Emphasis added].

I think Tankel is correct to note that making foreign policy wholly subordinate to CT policy is foolish as it risks reinforcing the local conditions that spawn extremism. But to say "We need to realign resources away from targeting al-Qaeda to focus more on broader political and security phenomena" oversimplifies the deep structural problems that many of these countries face (as if we could wave a magic wand and make Yemen economically viable, much less prosperous) as well as the fact that even many middle-to-upper class Muslims truly, deeply believe in the Salafist ideology that is both attractively utopian in its ends (i.e. doing Allah's will by creating a strictly Islamist Caliphate) and desperately nihilistic in its means (i.e. murdering anybody who is perceived as preventing this vision, including the rationalization for killing innocent bystanders).

Unfortunately, I'm afraid Reidel is more realistic in predicting that "The coup in Egypt and the chaotic aftermath of the Arab awakening is only going to add more militants to this army of radicals" by "fueling more anger and frustration in the Islamic world." Yes, these jihadists will concentrate on local conflicts in the near-term that will not directly threaten the U.S. homeland or merit large-scale intervention. But I fear that minimizing the potential of these regional conflicts to serve as incubators for a more direct threat will lead to a repeat of America's counterterrorism miasma in the 1990s, where we mistakenly had a "Vegas strategy" for jihadism: What happens in Afghanistan stays in Afghanistan. That, obviously, turned out to be tragically wrong.

The challenge for the next generation of policymakers will be how to support a wide variety of allies in judiciously conducting these local fights against what Tankel correctly calls "the variegated nature of the jihadist movement," before the threat becomes global.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Today in Manhunting History -- August 8, 1993: Enter the IED

In response to the UNOSOM II attacks on Mohammed Farah Aideed, his Somali National Alliance escalated the violence against the international peacekeepers. On August 8, four American military policemen were killed when their Humvee was destroyed by a remotely detonated antitank mine similar to the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that became ubiquitous in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade later. Again, Jonathan Howe asked for a strike team to snatch Aideed. Although Howe had stridently opposed a similar operation against Noriega during the Reagan administration, his obsession led one aide of Defense Secretary Les Aspin to observe Howe had “adopted Aideed as his Great White Whale,” and Howe’s nickname in Washington became “Jonathan Ahab.” Again, CENTCOM commander General Joseph Hoar did not endorse Howe’s request for Delta Force, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell also expressed reservations regarding the aggressive pursuit of the SNA.

The remains of the Humvee destroyed by the Somali mine, which killed Sgt. Ronald N. Richerson, Sgt. Christopher K. Hilgert, Spec. Keith D. Pearson, and Spec. Mark E. Gutting.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Today in Manhunting History -- August 7, 1998: The African Embassy Bombings

On August 7, President Bill Clinton was awakened at 5:35 AM by a phone call from his National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, who informed him of the near-simultaneous bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attack in Nairobi killed 12 Americans and 201 others, almost all Kenyan staff at the embassy. The death toll would have been even worse but for the courageous actions of the security guards who denied the terrorists access to the embassy’s garage. As it was, nearly 5,000 Kenyans were injured as the blast demolished the secretarial college next to the embassy. Four minutes later, a second bomb exploded outside the embassy in Dar es Salaam, killing eleven people and injuring eighty-five. The blast was so powerful that the body of the suicide bomber driving the van was split in half, his torso still clutching the steering wheel in both hands as it hit the embassy building.

The determination was quickly made that al-Qa'ida was behind the attacks, which led to the official beginning of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Monday, August 5, 2013

John Kerry: "The Drone War is Ending"; Rest of U.S. Government: "Um . . . No, It Isn't, Actually"

Last Thursday Secretary of State John Kerry declared in an interview on Pakistani TV that the Drone War "will end as we have eliminated most of the threat." He added "The President has a very real timeline and we hope it's going to be very, very soon."

Of course, that same day at least three suspected al-Qa'ida militants were killed in east Yemen in a drone strike, the third such strike in Yemen in the past week. On Saturday at least four AQAP members were killed in a drone strike in Abyan province, and on Tuesday three more were killed.

Maybe Secretary Kerry was narrowly referring to Pakistan, right? Well, on Wednesday Reuters reported that a drone strike there had killed three al-Qa'ida operatives who ran a training camp in Afghanistan, and the day earlier another drone strike had killed six militants in North Waziristan.

Consequently, just hours after Secretary Kerry's interview, the State Department issued a statement directly contradicting him, saying there was no definite timetable to end the targeted killing program in Pakistan, and that "In no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool to fight a threat if it arises."

Friday, August 2, 2013

"Lone Survivor" Trailer Released

Okay, I'm still not technically proficient enough to figure out how to upload the video myself, but here is the trailer for "Lone Survivor" -- Marcus Luttrell's memoir of a 2005 Navy SEAL capture/kill mission in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, gone badly wrong -- on YouTube.

Forget the various controversies about Luttrell's account of Operation Red Wings.* Forget the fact that for some inexplicable reason Marky Mark plays a SOF guy in just about every movie nowadays and everybody seems okay with this.

Let's just all agree right here and now that based on the trailer, the movie looks very, very bad ass! (Bonus points for casting Eric Bana, a.k.a. Sgt. Hoot** in "Black Hawk Down" as a SEAL commander. If ever there were an actor born to play a special operator . . . ).

* Yeah, yeah, yeah, I linked to a Wikipedia page. But: a) I don't have time to link to the various sources that claim Luttrell exaggerated details of the firefight that killed his teammates, b) this is the rare Wikipedia entry that fairly summarizes the controversy; and c) even if his team did engage a smaller force, it doesn't detract from Lt. Mike Murphy's heroism, nor Luttrell's, so why pile on with multiple links?

** Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know "SGT Hoot" was a composite character, and that the movie version of "Black Hawk Down" took a lot of liberties with the facts of the battle. But his character was still bad ass, as I imagine he will be in this movie as well. Just don't make me watch The Incredible Hulk again, though.

U.S. to Shut Down Embassies Around the World on Sunday

But don't worry, al-Qa'ida is still totally on the ropes you know . . .

Where Will al-Qa'ida Emerge Next?

With a great deal of attention being paid to the resurgence of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, and the rise to prominence of al-Qa'ida affiliates in Syria, it is worth asking what other geographic areas may be ripe for al-Qa'ida expansion.

In the piece I cited earlier this week, Bruce Reidel writes: "The al Qaeda group has also begun spreading its influence into Lebanon as well. One well-informed observer reports that “from Tripoli to Akkar, and from Sidon to the heart of Beirut, black Salafi-jihadi flags and banners have been spotted in increasing numbers, a picture unseen before in Lebanon’s history.” Jamie Dettmer follows up on the spread of al-Qa'ida activities in Lebanon in this piece from Monday's Daily Beast.

Another possibility suggested by Sara Sorcher in the National Journal is the Sinai Peninsula. She writes: "Islamist militants are making their home in the rough terrain stippled with caves, launching near-daily attacks on Egypt's military and its police." Aviv Oreg, the former chief of the Israeli military intelligence's global jihad desk, calls that tough terrain "the Tora Bora of the Sinai Peninsula," and Sorcher puts the number of militants operating in the region at 2,000. (By comparison, it is believed that 4,000 Arabs total participated in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s).

It is always possible that journalists are jumping the gun by trying to declare a region "the next big thing" for al-Qa'ida before everyone else. (I remember attending a conference in 2004 when a reporter from The New Republic argued that the United States had to intervene in Sierra Leone before it became a sanctuary for al-Qa'ida). But this also may illustrate that there a frightening number of ungoverned, or weekly governed territories in the world where the terrorist network can dig in and exploit a local vacuum.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Propaganda Wars

Two pieces relating to the effort to fight the War on Terror online:

Will McCants reports in Foreign on the efforts of some "cyber jihadists" to counter the State Departments counter-propaganda office by either wrecking their Twitter feed or those of any Arabs who follow State's Digital Outreach Team. To date, the effort has failed, although it still remains unclear how effective the DOT effort has been since its founding in 2011, although as McCants suggests, if the jihadists are worried about it, perhaps it is doing something right.

On the other hand, the Defense Department's efforts to combat jihadists through strategic communications faces a different foe . . . the U.S. Senate. According to the Military Times, the Senate Armed Services Committee has voted to approve Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI)'s measure to eliminate the $19.7 million in funding for the Pentagon's Trans Regional Web Initiative (TRWI), which is run by U.S. Special Operations Command. The SASC "believes that the costs to operate the websites developed under TRWI are excessive. The effectiveness of the websites is questionable and the performance metrics do not justify the expense." The defense authorization bill will go before the full Senate sometime after August recess.

Even if these programs were working brilliantly, metrics is always a problem when trying to assess strategic communications, as it is difficult to measure how many dogs do not bark. I'd be curious to ask Senator Levin or the other committee members who support the defunding of TRWI what they propose as an alternative for countering online recruitment of terrorists during the floor debates, or whether the entire effort is folly if success can't be quantified.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Guantanamo, and Fifty Shades of Gray

Reuters reports that al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri slammed U.S. treatment of hunger striking inmates at Guantanamo Bay and vowed to "free all our prisoners."

Perhaps Zawahiri is feeling a little cocky given the successful jail break in Iraq, and a similar mass escape in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan yesterday that freed 250 Pakistani Taliban prisoners.

Or perhaps Zawahiri has been asked to get his comrades out in time for next year's movie version of female-friendly soft-porn/S&M novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which is allegedly the most requested book by the camp's high-value detainees, even more so than the Koran.* (This takes the concept of "make love not war" to a whole new level, I suppose).

Note: This nugget is according to Congressman Jim Moran, so take it with the appropriate-sized grain of salt.

The War of Ideas is hell, but somebody has to fight it!

Al Qa'ida on the Ropes or Reborn?

Two weeks ago, separate from his piece declaring al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula on the ropes, Peter Bergen wrote that although the Benghazi consulate attack and the Boston Marathon bombing "were victories for 'Binladenism,' the ideological movement that al Qaeda has spawned," al Qaeda itself "is going the way of the VHS tape." Citing the lack of a successful attack in the West since the London underground bombings in July 2005 and the attrition of al-Qa'ida core's leadership due to kinetic CT operations, "Al Qaeda 'Central,' . . . remains on life support."

On Friday Bruce Reidel argued that the jailbreaks in Iraq and the massive influx of jihadists into Syria (and possibly Lebanon) indicates al-Qa'ida's influence is on the rise. Reidel argues that "Syria has become what Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq were to earlier generations of jihadists: the epicenter of global jihad," and Ibrahim Talib of the Center for Strategic Studies in Damascus says there are more than 130,000 foreign jihadists currently fighting in Syria. Even if this number is questionable, if it is even half that, the comparison to Afghanistan in the 1980s and what emerged from that war is sobering. (Reidel also makes an excellent point that the regeneration of al-Qa'ida in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal demonstrates the significant danger of the "zero option" the Obama administration has floated for post-2014 Afghanistan).

So who is correct, Bergen or Reidel? Well, both, but Reidel's argument is more pertinent. Whereas Bergen is correct that the al-Qa'ida leadership as it existed on September 2010 has been decimated, it would be dangerous to conclude the War on Terror is over as well. (Stephen Hayes in the Weekly Standard, citing Thomas Jocelyn, suggests the attempt to the conflate the two is a brazenly political move by the Obama administration, but I'll let others decide for themselves the merit of that argument).

Bergen is correct that al-Qa'ida's affiliates haven't struck the west, but the key word may be YET. The network that Bergen calls al-Qa'ida was just a former bunch of ex-jihadists who'd fought in Afghanistan making anti-American declarations in 1998 until they launched the African embassy bombings. This isn't to say it is inevitable that these affiliates will  try to attack the U.S. homeland, only that once upon a time terrorism experts didn't belive al-Qa'ida Core could/would attack us and consequently underrated the organization as a threat with tragic consequences.

If Reidel is correct, even if by some miracle Syria sorts itself out in a way not wholly damaging to U.S. strategic interests, there will be a massive number of combat hardened young men who've sworn loyalty to al-Qa'ida to consider. Again, this isn't to say that direct military intervention is the answer. I think Jocelyn is correct when he notes: "The right course for combating al Qaeda’s aggression, including the appropriate uses of American military force, should be a matter of debate." However, triumphalism about the defeat of al-Qa'ida Core could blunt such a debate and risk a return to a pre-9/11 complacency.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Al-Qa'ida to Target U.S. Allies in Iraq?

In yesterday's Daily Beast, Eli Lake reports on one possible result of al-Qa'ida in Iraq's daring jailbreak from Abu Ghraib that I hadn't considered. Specifically, Lake writes that the Sunni tribal leaders who revolted against al-Qa'ida in 2006 now fear they will now face mass retribution from the jihadists they helped U.S. and Iraqi forces capture during the Anbar Awakening and subsequent Surge in 2007. 

This is a sobering thought, especially the lesson other potential indigenous forces the US wants to use as proxies against al-Qa'ida affiliates may draw from it: if they side against the jihadists, the United States will eventually abandon them just as they did by withdrawing completely from Iraq in 2011 whereas the terrorists will remain. The "decade of war" may have ended for us (likely only in the short-term, however), but it certainly hasn't for al-Qa'ida, and it is our putative allies who will suffer the terrible costs of our irresolution.

Also, Lake quotes an unnamed intelligence analyst who is much more pessimistic about the ability of the U.S. intelligence community to assist the Iraqis in locating the escaped fugitives than DOD spokesman George Little. "We just lost track of everyone we didn't kill who was in al Qaeda during the surge," one U.S. intelligence analyst said. "We don't have the analysts or the human source networks to track these guys." Lake's source added that most of the Iraq analysts have been reassigned to other areas since the US withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Al-Qa'ida's Ice Cream Social

Forget the heart eating, priest beheading, and book burning.

If you really want to understand the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, you should know that they also sponsor ice cream eating contests for children.

This news comes via a Washington Post report on the al-Qa'ida affiliate's attempt to soften its image and gain more popular support in its struggle against the Assad regime (and every other rebel group in Syria). 

On the one hand, this ranks right up there with Michael Moore's attempt to summarize Saddam Hussein's rule of Iraq through images of a kite festival in his odious Fahrenheit 911. On the hand, however, this is of a piece with previous anecdotes suggesting the ISIL has learned some lessons about the second-order effects of harrassing residents for not adhering to strict Islamic codes. (See previous stories about ISIL's complaint department, and their attempt at stewardship of Syrian resources). That brutality is what backfired on them in Iraq and led to the Anbar Awakening. If so, they may prove more formidable than previous iterations of al-Qa'ida, a scary thought to be sure.

Jihad with a cherry on top, courtesy of al-Qa'ida's Syrian affiliate. (Just don't give them a hard time about the lack of sprinkles . . . )

Friday, July 26, 2013

New Report on Civilian Drone Casualties

Speaking of the New America Foundation, Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland report on a leaked internal Pakistani government document on civilian casualties from drone strikes which concludes they are much lower than has often been claimed in Pakistan (i.e. Interior Minister Rehman Malik's claim that 80% of people killed in drone strikes were civilians) but higher than the Obama administration has claimed (i.e. John Brennan's absurd claim in 2011 that "there hasn't been a single collateral death" from drone strikes).

Interestingly, the report finds that the civilian casualty rate has declined over time as both the technology and intelligence-gathering/analysis behind drone strikes has improved. Whereas civilians made up about 20% of the death toll from 2006 to 2009, in 2012 civilians represented only 2% of the total deaths, and thus far in 2013 only one civilian has been confirmed killed.

If accurate, these findings suggest three conclusions:
  1. The rhetoric against drone strikes outstrips the reality;
  2. Drone strikes have steadily declined from 2010 to the present due to greater discrimination in targeting rather than to public or diplomatic pressure (contra the AP story cited below); and
  3. Drone strikes continue to have positive strategic utility (i.e. they kill more terrorists than they create) if signature strikes and "double-tap" strikes are removed from the equation, and if the public diplomacy of drone strikes could be better managed (i.e. don't let Pakistani Islamists like Maulana Sami ul-Haq, leader of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Islam party, claim that drones kill "dozens of innocent people daily" without a response).

The End of Signature Strikes?

The Associated Press, citing statistics from the New America Foundation, reports that "the United States has drastically scaled back the number of drone attacks against militants in Pakistan." Specifically, the CIA is limiting strikes "to high-value targets and dropping the practice of so-called "signature strikes", and has only conducted 16 drone strikes in Pakistan so far in 2013, compared to 122 in all of 2010, 73 in 2011, and 48 in 2012.

The anonymous officials the AP spoke to say this drop is because the CIA was "feeling the drone program may be under threat from public scrutiny" and "as a concession to the Pakistani army." But they also say that the reduced tempo is the result of "concern that civilian casualties were breeding more militants."

If this reduction stems from a sense that we are creating more terrorists than we are killing through drone strikes, however, this suggests the drop in attacks results more from a strategic calculation than in response to external criticism, as the AP's headline suggests. If criticism from Congress or Pakistan alone were the cause of the drop, then how would one explain the consistent drop since 2010?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Al-Qa'ida in Yemen - Up or Down?

Following on the heels of the announcement of the death al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)'s second-in-command Said al-Shihri, Peter Bergen wrote on that "Shihri's death in the U.S. drone strike is part of [a] larger story of AQAP decline over the past two year."

Bergen goes on to argue that the jihadist group lost all the territorial gains it made during the confusion sewed by Yemen's Arab Spring uprising in 2011, that Shihri was one of more than 30 al-Qa'ida leaders/senior operatives killed by U.S. drone strikes in Yemen in the past three years, and "despite its focus on attacking U.S. targets, AQAP has not tried to attack one since its October 2010 attempt to plant bombs hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes destined for the United States." He discounts last year's AQAP plot to detonate an underwear bomb on a plane bound for the United States because the operative designated to carry out the attack was working for British and Saudi intelligence.

Because success or failure in counterterrorism is inherently a binary proposition in which infrequent, low probability events still have devastating consequences. Thus, saying a terrorist group is "on the ropes" as Bergen proposes is always an iffy proposition, since it only takes one successful attack to propel them back to the ranks of a significant threat. Bergen is certainly correct that AQAP has declined from its highwater mark two years ago when then-head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter, told the House Homeland Security Committee that AQAP was "probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland." But why doesn't the Boston Marathon bombing represent an AQAP operation given that the Tsarnaevs drew their inspiration and technical know-how from Inspire, the group's propaganda materials, which was their intent in publishing the bombmaking recipes/diagrams? And what if AQAP had decided to use another operative besides the mole to conduct the 2012 airplane bombing?

Regarding that intercepted plot, the head of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, John Pistole, provided new details regarding the bomb at the Aspen Security Forum last week. Perhaps more important than the technical details of the explosive device was Pistole's revelation that Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, the feared-AQAP bomb maker behind the 2009 Underwear Bomber and the printer cartridge bombs, "has unfortunately trained others" in making bombs sophisticated enough to avoid detection.

Pistole describes Asiri as "out greatest threat," and Bergen that as long as he remains at large AQAP is a threat. Until Asiri and his proteges are apprehended or killed, I think it would be foolish to let up in our efforts to combat AQAP.

Update: Although the Yememi government has generally been a reliable ally in the fight against AQAP, news that they released a journalist accused of collaborating with al-Qa'ida isn't a reassuring sign.

AQAP master-bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, called by some "the most dangerous man in the world."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Al-Qa'ida Gaining Strength in Syria?

Yes, according to David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who over the weekend told the Aspen Security Forum: "It is very clear over the last two years they have grown in size, grown in capability and ruthlessly grown in effectiveness. Their ability to take the fight to the regime and Hezbollah in a very direct way has been, among those groups, the most effect."

Shedd said at least 1,200 rebel factions have been identified in Syria, and that the U.S. ability to distinguish "good guys" from "bad guys" inside Syria was limited.

An example of these fissures and the confusion they spawn was demonstrated last week in Ras al-Ain. On Thursday it was reported that Kurdish militias had seized control of the Syrian town on the Turkish border, and that fighting between them and Islamist fighters from the al-Nusra Front over control of the areas oil fields has erupted. At first, one might be inclined to simply say:
Kurds = Good
But Ras al-Ain was captured by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party with links to the Kuridstan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has committed numerous terrorist attacks in its fight autonomy in Turkey. Although we love the Iraqi Kurds, U.S. policy has generally tended towards:
PKK Kurds = Bad
And given that the violence on the border -- to include two RPGs from Syria striking a border post on the Turkish side of the frontier -- threatens to provoke Turkish intervention, we are left with:
PYD = ???, but 
PYD > al-Nusra Front, Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, etc.

U.S. Helping Manhunt in Iraq?

Is the U.S. helping the hunt for the hundreds of escaped al'Qa'ida members currently on the loose in Iraq after Sunday night's jailbreak?

Yes, according to Pentagon press secretary George Little, although he wouldn't say how, only saying DOD counterterrorism officials are "monitoring the situation and are maintaining close ties with their counterparts in Baghdad," and that U.S. troops are definitely not engaging in any "direct military involvement" with Iraqi forces.

Soooo . . . what's the over/under on how many al-Qa'ida in Iraq emirs we can catch strictly through drone surveillance, SIGINT, and processing HUMINT provided by the Iraqis in our analytic databases? (I'm not being cynical, here, I swear. If not for the potentially high stakes of so many trained terrorists on the loose, this would be a really interesting experiment in coordinating our remote assets with an indigenous proxy force for manhunting purposes).

But don't worry, because Little added that a small influx of AQI gunmen into Syria is "not necessarily going to tip the balance" of power in Syria's ongoing civil war.

Phew! (Okay, now I am being cynical . . . )

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Al Qa'ida's Great Escape

This is bad.

On Monday, the Iraqi Interior Ministry announced that hundreds of al-Qa'ida in Iraq operatives were sprung from Abu Ghraib in a major assault on the prison. The attack was initiated by suicide bombers who breached the prison gates, followed by sustained suppressive fire by mortars and RPGs as assault squads wearing suicide vests stormed the prison and freed the inmates. Ten policemen and four militants were killed in the raid, and combined with a second, unsuccessful attack on Taji prison north of Baghdad, at least 26 members of the security forces total were killed. Iraqi parliamentarian Hakim al-Zamili told Reuters, "The number of escaped inmates has reached 500, most of them were convicted senior members of al-Qa'ida and had received death sentences."

So remember all that success JSOC had decapitating AQI through targeted raids during the Surge? Never mind, its back to square one.

More than 2,700 Iraqis have already been killed in suicide bombings this year, and AQI may have just further increased its strength by 25% in one fell swoop. Alternatively, they may redeploy these experienced jihadists to Syria now that they are the Islamic State of Iraq and Lebanon, further complicating an already wicked problem.

But, hey, at least by failing to negotiate a SOFA, handing over the prisons holding al-Qa'ida emirs captured by U.S. forces, and pulling all troops from Iraq, we ended the war in Iraq!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Today in Manhunting History -- July 22, 2003: The Demise of Uday and Qusay Hussein

At 10AM on July 22, the doorbell to Nawaf al-Zaydan Mohammed’s house in the Falah district of Mosul rang. Outside, amongst the tall, Greek-style columns were 20 operators from Task Force 20. Reinforcing them were some 200 soldiers from the 326th Engineer Battalion and the 3-502nd Infantry of the 101st Air Assault Division under Brigadier General Frank Helmick. The 101st had established support-by-fire positions on the south and northeast sides of the huge stone and concrete house, with additional troops in blocking positions on the road parallel to the house. Mohammed – who three days earlier had approached U.S. forces and told them Uday and Qusay were staying at his house – answered the door and then, as arranged, fled with his son. An interpreter with a bullhorn called out for Uday and Qusay to surrender, and at 1010 Task Force 20 stormed the house.

As the commandos climbed the stairs, they received intense small arms fire from behind a barricade on the house’s second floor. Three Task Force operators were wounded, as well as one soldier in the street. The commandos withdrew, and the 101st opened up with vehicle mounted .50 caliber machine guns. Yet when the operators attempted to storm the house again, they were repelled by AK-47 fire. At 1045 the 101st fired AT-4s and Mark 19 automatic grenade launchers, but the house had two-foot thick concrete walls and bulletproof windows – reinforced with mattresses used as sandbags – and the light anti-tank rockets and 40mm high explosive grenades failed to penetrate the structure or stop the return fire coming from the house.

Troops from the 101st firing on the Hussein brothers position in Nazil Mohammed's house.
 Although only four men defended the house – Uday, Qusay, a bodyguard, and Qusay’s son Mustafa – the commanders on the ground decided against simply laying siege to the house as U.S. forces had done with the Papal Nunciature in Panama City during the hunt for Manuel Noriega in 1990. Because of the house’s prepared fortifications, commanders feared it might also have an escape tunnel to nearby buildings allowing Uday and Qusay to escape. Moreover, the brothers had spent much of the firefight frantically calling for reinforcements. Consequently, a prolonged siege might have given insurgents time to assemble and surround the 200 troops surrounding the house, trapping U.S. forces in an ambush similar to Mogadishu in 1993. As it became clear that Uday and Qusay were not going to let themselves be taken alive, U.S. forces evacuated the residents from nearby houses and escalated their attack.

At 1100 a pair of Kiowa Warrior helicopters flew southeast to northwest, firing their .50 caliber machine guns and 2.75 inch rockets at the target. Around noon, Task Force 20 tried to move in and seize the objective, but once again were forced back. The 101st fired more .50 cal and Mark 19s, and 15 minutes later launched a barrage of 18 HMMWV-mounted TOW wire-guided antitank missiles, enough to knock out a company of tanks. BG Helmick had communicated by radio with the 101st’s commander, then-Major General David Petraeus, and they decided to “put TOW missiles right into the window” of the house in order to shock the inhabitants and to damage the building structurally so that it was unfeasible to fight in.” Fired from 200 meters away, they were guided through the windows from which the blocking force had drawn fire, and knocked holes through the mansion’s walls.

At about 1320, Task Force 20 made a final assault on the house. Blasted furniture lay everywhere, and the walls were pockmarked and gouged by the intense American barrage. Although two of the defenders had survived the volley of TOW missiles, there was no movement upstairs. Uday had barricaded himself in a bathroom, clinging to a briefcase full of condoms, Viagra, and cologne. The operators forced entry with an explosive charge and killed the notorious psychopath with aimed shots to the head. Mustafa, firing from under a bed, was killed in the same way.

Although Iraqis celebrated in the streets at the news of the Hussein brothers’ demise, their killing did not significantly affect the growing Sunni insurgency. It also did not bring U.S. forces any closer to capturing their father as Saddam appeared to have completely separated himself from the Ba’ath Party leaders who comprised the deck of cards. Consequently, U.S. forces began to shift the focus of their seizure operations from concentrating on HVTs to Saddam’s “enbablers.”
The bodies of the Hussein brothers were eventually shown on Iraqi television to head off conspiracy theories that they had not actually been killed.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Today in Manhunting History -- July 19, 2003: The Tip that Doomed the Hussein Brothers

On July 19, U.S. forces received a tip that Uday and Qusay were hiding in the northern city of Mosul. The informant failed a polygraph test, however, causing U.S. military officials to dismiss the tipster. But intelligence units soon picked up signal intercepts suggesting the possible presence of HVTs in the same location in Mosul that the source had identified. Just as they began investigating this lead, an Iraqi businessman named Nawaf al-Zaydan Mohammed approached U.S. forces and told them the brothers were staying at his house in Mosul’s Falah district. The Americans told him to go back to the house, act normally, and wait for U.S. troops to arrive . . .  

Saddam and sons (Uday on the left, Qusay on the right) sometime before Operation Iraqi Freedom.