Thursday, April 26, 2012

U.S. Drones Can Now Kill Joe Schmoe Militants in Yemen

Noah Shachtman

In September, American-born militant Anwar al-Awlaki and his son were killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. In the seven months since, the al-Qaida affiliate there has only grown in power, influence, and lethality. The American solution? Authorize more drone attacks — and not just against well-known extremists like Awlaki, but against faceless, nameless low-level terrorists, as well.

A relentless campaign of unmanned airstrikes has significantly weakened al-Qaida’s central leadership in Pakistan, American policymakers say. There, militants were chosen for robotic elimination based solely on their intelligence “signatures” — their behavior, as captured by wiretaps, overhead surveillance, and local informants. A similar approach might not work in this case, however. “Every Yemeni is armed,” one unnamed U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal. “So how can they differentiate between suspected militants and armed Yemenis?”

What’s more, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — the Yemeni affiliate of the terror collective — “is joined at the hip” with an insurgency largely focused on toppling the local government, another official told the Washington Post last week. So there’s a very real risk of America being “perceived as taking sides in a civil war.”

The Yemeni drone campaign — actually, two separate efforts run by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command — will still be more tightly restricted than the Pakistan drone war at its peak. Potential targets need to be seen or heard doing something that indicates that they are plotting against the West, or are high up in the militant hierarchy.

“You don’t necessarily need to know the guy’s name. You don’t have to have a 10-sheet dossier on him. But you have to know the activities this person has been engaged in,” a U.S. official tells the Journal.

Gregory Johnson, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University, believes these “signature” strikes — “or something an awful lot like them” — have actually been going on for a quite a while in Yemen. There have been 13 attacks in Yemen in 2012, according the Long War Journal. Many of them have hit lower-level militants, not top terror names. This authorization only makes targeting killings legally and bureaucratically kosher.

But the despite the increased pace of strikes — those 13 attacks are more than there were in all of 2011 — al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula isn’t exactly begging for mercy. In fact, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan last week called it the terror group’s “most active operational franchise.”

All of which leads Micah Zenko at the Council of Foreign Relations to wonder where this drone campaign is going. “By any common-sense definition, these vast targeted killings should be characterized as America’s Third War since 9/11,” he writes. “Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan — where government agencies acted according to articulated strategies, congressional hearings and press conferences provided some oversight, and timelines explicitly stated when the U.S. combat role would end—the Third War is Orwellian in its lack of cogent strategy, transparency, and end date.”

“Since these attacks are covert, the administration will offer no public defense,” he adds. But “it begs [CIA director David] Petraeus’ haunting question at the onset of the Iraq war in 2003: “Tell me how this ends?”

Help Us Transmit This Story

  Add to Your Blogger Account
  Put it On Facebook
  Tweet this post
  Print it from your printer
  Email and a collection of other outlets
  Try even more services

No comments:

Post a Comment