Sunday, November 15, 2009

Drones Gone Wild! III

Three weeks ago today, Taliban leaders were meeting in a safe house in the Pakistani village of Chohetra, close to the Afghan border.

The village is the home of Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, alias Commander Faqir, the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

They should have been fairly safe from attack. But Great Satan had another of those drones gone wild! sweetly loitering about the AO, circling the village, a tiny, tiny dot in the sky.

Halfway through the meeting, two Hellfire missiles destroyed the Taliban hideout, killing 24 people and wounding 12 more. Faqir was said to have left the house a few minutes earlier. But there was little doubt that a number of Taliban leaders were killed, some from Afghanistan.

The Predator attacks are controversial, but they are getting increasingly close to the senior leadership of both the Taliban and al Qa’eda. Commander Faqir can have no doubt by now that he is in the sights of the US drones.

The Predator MQ9, with its deadly armoury of two Hellfire anti-tank missiles, is known as the Reaper, for good reason. The use of the Reaper is an extension of a well-tried US special operations technique known to its proponents as “taking down the mountain”, used to hunt such figures as Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drugs baron, and the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

It combines the collection of extensive intelligence with an operation to hunt the target’s associates, removing them one by one, forcing the main target on the run and out into the open, where he can be targeted. It has already been used against one senior al Qa’eda leader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al Qa’eda in Iraq, killed by the US in June 2006.

The process is designed to “decapitate” al Qa’eda and its allies. It is known that it is having a devastating effect on the insurgents from the testimony of David Rohde, a New York Times journalist who was taken prisoner by the Taliban, and was with them during an attack.

Rohde escaped in June and, last month, described how the Predator strikes “created a paranoia among the Taliban. They believed that local informants guided the missiles. Innocent civilians were rounded up, accused of working as American spies and then executed”.

There are problems with these attacks. The first concerns the number of civilian deaths. The most authoritative assessment of the attacks, by the New America Foundation, estimates that about one third of more than 1,000 people killed were civilians, fuelling anti-western feeling inside Pakistan.

The second is the dubious legality of the attacks under international law. To justify killing an enemy in a military operation, it is necessary to be under threat from that enemy. Critics say the US airman operating the Predator remotely from an operations room in the Nevada desert is scarcely under threat from the Taliban or al Qa’eda.

What cannot be disputed is that the attacks have been effective. If a third of those killed are civilians then around 700 were militants. But it is not the deaths of the ordinary militants that are important. Even before the most recent attacks, the past few months had seen Hellfire missiles fired from the Predators kill a number of figures close to al Qa’eda leader, Osama bin Laden. They included the leaders of the two Uzbek groups allied to al Qa’eda.

Given the Pakistani army’s current operations against the Taliban in north-western Pakistan, the last few months have also seen successful attacks on Ilyas Kashmiri, al Qa’eda’s chief of paramilitary operations in the region, and Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

Baitullah’s death, in August, may have been a turning point in the way in which the Predator campaign is perceived in Pakistan. It was greeted ecstatically by the Pakistani press, in stark contrast to the reaction to previous attacks in which civilians died.

Combined with the Pakistani offensive, the attacks have led some al Qa’eda followers to desert the Pakistani-based leadership, dispersing to Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

“There are indications that some al Qa’eda terrorists are starting to see the tribal areas of Pakistan as a tough place to be in,” one US counter-terrorism official said recently. ”

Western intelligence agencies believe that the al Qa’eda leadership’s power is on the wane, with the exodus of members from Pakistan growing and only the most obvious sign of the problems it faces.

When al Qa’eda first came to prominence in September 2001, with its devastating attacks on the United States, it was seen as having a potency no other Islamist militant group had enjoyed.

Already allied to the Taliban and to Egyptian Islamic Jihad, through bin Laden’s closest ally, the group’s chief theorist, Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qa’eda found a queue of Islamist insurgency and militant groups wanting to declare themselves part of bin Laden’s organisation.

But being part of a franchise is only attractive if it is a successful operation, and while there were a series of successful attacks on the West in the five years following the September 11 attacks – most notably the Bali bombing in October 2002, the Madrid bombings in March 2004, and the London bombings in July 2005 – the successful attacks have begun to dry up.

While there is a very strong argument that the Iraq invasion let bin Laden off the hook, the fact that he has yet to be captured or killed, is of only symbolic importance. He appears increasingly impotent, even offering the US a “long-term truce” in January 2006.

The most recent attacks have been two bombings by al Qa’eda in the Islamic Maghreb, which killed 33 people in Algiers in April 2007 and a bomb attack on the Danish embassy in Islamabad in June last year, which killed six Pakistanis.

The main feature of both attacks was that the only people killed were Muslims, raising serious questions about the capability of an organisation that claims to be fighting an “Islamic jihad”, a factor that has led former allies of bin Laden, not just to drop their affiliation with al Qa’eda, but to criticise.

In May 2007, Sayyid Imam al Sharif, better known as Dr Fadl, a former member of the al Qa’eda leadership, attacked its tactics of mass slaughter, arguing that this inevitably led to the deaths of innocents, and was therefore un-Islamic.

He was particularly critical of the way in which Muslims lived freely within western societies, then attacked the very people who had given them shelter. Fadl’s attack was dismissed by his fellow Egyptian, and former fellow student, al Zawahiri, as having been written while Fadl was in prison in Egypt.

But last week saw a fresh attack, this time not from just one man, but from a complete militant movement previously aligned to al Qa’eda. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), issued a new religious document denouncing the tactics used by al Qa’eda as illegal under Islamic law. The 417-page “Corrective Studies” was a result of more than two years of consultation with respected religious Muslim scholars and its conclusions are similar to those articulated by Fadl.

“Jihad has ethics and morals because it is for God,” the LIFG’s new code states. “That means it is forbidden to kill women, children, elderly people, priests, messengers, traders and the like. Betrayal is prohibited and it is vital to keep promises and treat prisoners of war in a good way. Standing by those ethics is what distinguishes Muslims’ jihad from the wars of other nations.”

Nomad Benotman, a former LIFG leader, told the television network CNN that, before the September 11 attacks, he had tried to persuade bin Laden not to attack the US because any gains would be outweighed by the inevitable retribution. He said he told al Zawahiri that al Qa’eda’s tactics were “crazy”.

What effect Benotman or Fadl and their arguments will have is unclear, but they seem bound to eat into the number of recruits al Qa’eda can call upon.

With his lieutenants being systematically removed by the Predator attacks, the Pakistani army closing in around them, a growing exodus of his supporters from the tribal areas to east Africa or Yemen, and denunciation of his tactics by an increasing number of former allies, bin Laden and al Qa’eda are in trouble.

The movement is not dead yet. It may still lash out, like a wounded animal hemmed in by its pursuers, but it is almost certainly now in its dying throes.

Submitted by Michael Smith defence correspondent of the Sunday Times and author of Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America’s Most Secret Special Operations Team

Pic "Drones Gone Wild! III"


Debbie said...

I mentioned the LIFG’s new code, not sure how much good it will do, if any. I haven't heard much about it in the big media, not even on Fox, just a mention here and there. I think word needs to spread on the internet which is where the evildoers dwell.

Deborah F. Hamilton
Right Truth

Steve Harkonnen said...

I don't know.

I find it difficult to "agree" or "support" what's going on in Afghanistan on a day by day basis. I hear we're actually paying elements of Taliban not to fight us and with that money they're merely purchasing more arms.

Further, we're dragging ourselves deeper into a 35 yo civil war that technically we have nothing to do with.

maxxdog said...

Invade their countries
Kill their leaders
Convert them to Christianity.
It still makes sense.

Al Quaeda is a head on the snake known as Islam. It's been what, about 1400 years this cult has been dealing death and mayhem?