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The Mainstreaming of the Drone Critique

11:32 am in Uncategorized by Philippe Duhart

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

A predator drone.

Predator drone. Photo by Jim Sher.

The argument that drone strikes may be counterproductive is nothing new. Left critics of the Obama Administration have been consistently making this argument for the last few years, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill foremost among them. But, something seems to have occurred over the last few weeks: the mainstream media appears to have begun questioning the utility and consequences of these attacks.

The New York Times published an important and widely-discussed article on the Administration’s “kill list.” The story reiterates much of what leftist critics have been saying about Obama’s drone doctrine, particularly about the post-mortem identification of who is and who is not a “militant.”

The Washington Post — in my view, one of the most egregiously militaristic of the “respectable” media — has thrown its hat into the ring over the last week with two important articles, taking a hard look at the potentially radicalizing effects drone attacks are having in Yemen.

Khaled Abdullah reports that the attacks may be strengthening Islamist groups in tribal regions that have become “ground zero” for drone attacks:

Awlak tribesmen are businessmen, lawmakers and politicians. But the strikes have pushed more of them to join the militants or to provide AQAP with safe haven in their areas, said tribal leaders and Yemeni officials.

“The Americans are targeting the sons of the Awlak,” Aidaroos said. “I would fight even the devil to exact revenge for my nephew.”

In early March, U.S. missiles struck in Bayda province, 100 miles south of Sanaa, killing at least 30 suspected militants, according to Yemeni security officials. But in interviews, human rights activists and victims’ relatives said many of the dead were civilians, not fighters.

Villagers were too afraid to go to the area. Al-Qaeda militants took advantage and offered to bury the villagers’ relatives. “That made people even more grateful and appreciative of al-Qaeda,” said Barakani, the businessman. “Afterwards, al-Qaeda told the people, ‘We will take revenge on your behalf.’ ”

As the story clearly indicates, if jihadist organizations are growing in strength in Yemen, their ideology has little to do with. Neither sharia nor establishing the global caliphate, but rather the desire for justice and revenge is fueling the growth of the Islamist insurgency in Yemen.

The Post followed this up yesterday with a look inside the Administration’s rationale behind drone strikes in Yemen:

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The Decapitation Thesis: Does Killing Insurgent Leaders Work?

1:34 pm in Uncategorized by Philippe Duhart

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

Osama Bin Laden - Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons.

Osama Bin Laden - Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes a specialized community debates a topic that the general public considers a no-brainer. For example, the “decapitation thesis”: Is the assassination of “terrorist leaders” effective? Does it result in less violence and the demise of insurgent groups? “Duh,” says the man on the street, “Why are my tax dollars funding your research?”

Robin Wilcox, a senior fellow at the London-based Henry Jackson Society weighs in on the decapitation debate in the Los Angeles Times arguing that the assassination of al Qaeda leaders has been a good thing:

Bin Laden is simply not replaceable. The idea that Obama made a strategic misstep by killing a man responsible for the death of thousands of U.S. citizens and committed to killing thousands more is absurd. Rather than making him a martyr, Bin Laden’s killing demonstrated that he was, like the rest of us, mortal. And it warned terrorists everywhere that targeting U.S. citizens will bring retribution.

The killing of Awlaki, an American citizen, further illustrates why targeting certain Al Qaeda leaders is an excellent strategy. Operationally, Awlaki was not a huge loss to Al Qaeda. He had no military reputation to speak of. But he was an eloquent English-speaking lecturer, able to effectively reach out to Western Muslims and urge them to attack their homelands. He provided theological justification for jihad to the failed Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and he was in direct email contact with the Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. There is no Awlaki replacement within Al Qaeda’s ranks. His death in September 2011 has, at least for now, limited the group’s ability to get persuasive messages out to Western Muslims.

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The al Qaeda numbers game in Yemen

2:11 am in Uncategorized by Philippe Duhart

Last month I wrote about the counterterrorism community’s penchant for over-counting the number of al Qaeda militants in the world, by taking too seriously the supposed “links” and “mergers” between al Qaeda and local insurgencies, particularly in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and Mali. (This game was perfected during the Iraq War.)

Two soldiers in Yemen, one standing, one squatting with a gun.

Soldiers in Yemen. Photo by Franco Pecchio.

This game is bound up with a pressing issue in the War on Terror: Is the U.S. creating more terrorists through heavy-handed counterterrorist measures? Answering this question brings us to a problem of counting.

Micha Zenka examines this issue in relation to drone attacks in Yemen.He notes that prior to the escalation of the drone campaign, the Administration’s counterterrorism tzar John Brennan argued that there were “several hundred” al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Since then, this number has apparently grown to “more than a thousand,” according to Mr. Brennan. Judging by these statements, Zenka (somewhat ironically) argues that the drone strategy has clearly backfired.

There’s always a problem with government attempts to count al Qaeda. Simply put, no one outside of the “organization” (to whatever extent it even exists as an organization) knows how many members are out there, especially in Yemen. According to The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill, this extends to those actually fighting militants in Yemen:

Moreover, just who exactly these militants were who overtook Zinjibar is a matter of some dispute. According to the Yemeni government, they were operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group Washington has identified as the single most dangerous terrorist threat facing the United States. But the militants who took the city did not claim to be from AQAP. Instead, they announced themselves as a new group, Ansar al Sharia, or Supporters of Sharia. Senior Yemeni officials told me that Ansar al Sharia is simply a front for Al Qaeda. They point out that the first known public reference to the group was made a month before the attack on Zinjibar by AQAP’s top cleric, Adil al-Abab. “The name Ansar al Sharia is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of Allah,” he said, adding that the new name was intended to put the focus on the message of the group so as to avoid being bogged down with the baggage of the Al Qaeda brand. Whether Ansar al Sharia had more independent origins or it’s merely a product of AQAP’s crude rebranding campaign, as Abab claims, the group’s significance would soon extend well beyond Al Qaeda’s historically limited spheres of influence in Yemen while simultaneously popularizing some of AQAP’s core tenets…

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