It’s OK to Kill Senior al Qaeda Members in Pakistan

This week’s CT Twitter debate shifted from whether we should be using drones to counter AQAP in Yemen to whether we should kill al Qaeda Central’s leaders at all.  @zackbeauchamp kicked it off by posing to the Twitter crowd their opinions on @allthingsCT’s argument that the U.S. should not have killed Abu Yahya al-Libi (AQ’s most recently deceased #2) this past week because he was a moderating force against young upstart AQ members wanting to really get their violent jihad going.  Read Leah’s argument here for the full text and here is a short quote from the post.

 I wonder if those who think this is a victory (and those supporting the strategy of extrajudicial killings more generally) have given ample thought to the fact that he along with others who have been assassinated were actually a moderating force within a far more virulent current that has taken hold in the milieu….. What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions.  Attacks  have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately. Just take a look at AQ’s history and its documents and this is blatantly clear.

Leah advocates a criminal justice approach as the solution to stop the upcoming violence of young AQ boys and describes the culling of elephants in the South Africa for her approach.

 A culling program was implemented to kill off all the older generation elephants owing to overcrowding. Juveniles were spared. However, without the presence of the older elephants they then proceeded to go on rampages, killing other animals and causing such havoc that the rangers thought they’d have to cull them too.

Will McCants already discussed why al-Libi was not a moderate and Will, @brianfishman and Daveed Garstein-Ross noted how al Qaeda in Iraq counters the notion that senior AQ can actually moderate the violence of young upstarts, especially that of affiliates. I’m not trying to pile on Leah, but I was queried to weigh in on the debate and here are some of my issues with this argument. I’ve decided to leave out some others as this post has gotten a bit long:

  • Don’t make global CT tougher than it is: I gather from Leah’s argument that the U.S. should stratify its capturing/killing of AQ leaders by age and affinity for violence.  Global counterterrorism against AQ has been hard enough over the past decade.  We’ve wasted incredible resources trying to indirectly influence AQ through convoluted methods only to find out a decade later the best way to defeat al Qaeda is to just go kill al Qaeda members. I believe the idea of precisely timing the killing/capturing of AQ leaders to optimally control a terror groups’ violence levels is far beyond reach. How about this framework instead:

1- Try to capture AQ guys. If you can’t capture AQ guys then,

2- Kill AQ guys, and in the process make all efforts,

a- Not to kill innocent civilians, and

b- Undermine your nation’s values.

  • An idealistic counterterrorism approach (criminal justice only) for a non-existent terrorism environment – I am with Leah that in an ideal world, it would be great to capture, convict and imprison terrorists. This approach only works when there are effective criminal justice methods for implementing it.  AQ leaders intentionally operate in safe havens that make this idealist approach infeasible.  No Pakistani authorities exist to accomplish a criminal justice approach for the U.S. and when we’ve tried to do it on our own (renditions, GITMO, trying in U.S. courts, tribunals) it’s been a disaster.  If we can capture someone like al-Libi great, but in reality we can’t.  In the meantime, we shouldn’t hesitate in killing AQ leaders plotting and executing attacks against the U.S.
  • Al Qaeda terrorists may be animals but they’re not elephants.  The wildlife examples can be helpful at times but this one is wrongly applied.  I’m a fan of some biological analysis applications in CT such as Ant Colony Optimization models for understanding foreign fighter recruitment, but this elephant example doesn’t work for me.  In South Africa, they were not trying to rid themselves of all elephants.  The U.S. is trying to rid the world of all terrorists. While this ultimate objective may not be achievable, it is entirely different from thinning herds.
  • Al-Libi didn’t moderate the Khorasan Unit – Leah argues that al-Libi would be a moderating force against more violent young AQ members.  However, U.S. drone strikes brought the Taliban and Haqqani Network to create Lashgar-e-Khorasan (aka Khorasan Unit) in North Waziristan to hunt down spies believed to be spotting for U.S. drones.  The Khorasan Unit used extreme violence and tactics on local villagers further alienating their local base of popular support; ultimately playing into the hands of the Pakistani government and indirectly the U.S.  So where was Libi the moderator?  If he had such a powerful control on AQ and their closest allies, TTP and the Haqqani’s, why didn’t he help hold back the violence occurring right under his nose?
  • So we should allow Libi to moderate young guy violence in preparation for a larger, strategic attack?: This may be my biggest complaint.  While young AQ violence is also not good, AQ upstarts tend to execute poorly conceived plots that undermine the organization’s popular support.  By keeping Libi around to contain this wild violence, we are helping AQ build strategic plots of more devastating consequence.  So why should we give Libi time to coach the young AQ guys?
  • Libi and AQ Central have limited to no control over AQ locally or globally – My suspicion, and what is not noted in Leah’s argument, is that Libi’s influence was confined to AQ’s relative level of influence and more specifically to Bin Laden himself.  AQ has influence when it has clout.  When does AQ have clout; when Bin Laden and company are: 1) executing spectacular attacks on the West, 2) when they are respected for their actions, 3) when they dish out resources and 4) when they have sustained communications with their operatives and affiliates.  Since 2005 (1-Attack pace), AQ Central produced no attacks on the West and was being outpaced in their violence by affiliates (AQ in Iraq, AQAP, Shabaab).  With each year, their influence declined as new members were more inspired by affiliate action than old dog inaction.  Next (2-Respect), affiliates linked to AQ began committing atrocities against civilians which steadily reduced the local and global support for AQ Central. With each passing year and increasing drone strikes (4-Communication), OBL and AQ Central retained less control on AQ operatives and affiliates as their communication lines became what I refer to as a “Digital Pony Express” where couriers carry thumb drives relaying messages at a turnaround pace of about 2-3 weeks.  This slow commo loop lead AQ operatives and affiliates to begin operating more independently – ignoring or forgetting folks like Libi making pronouncements at a distance.  Finally (3-Resources), OBL was killed and Libi’s authority diminished over night.  Many operatives that once received resources and support from AQ Central and in turn followed OBL’s rules, no longer cared to listen to underlings like Libi.  With a dying AQ in Pakistan, Libi’s influence probably stretched not much further than the walls of the hut he was hiding in and I strongly doubt he would have been able to moderate much of anything in the future, especially outside of Pakistan.  See here for some more perspective.
  • Different Means, Often Same Outcome – The criminal justice approach suggested by Leah often creates the same phenomena she cautions against in the drone-targeting scenario.  Law enforcement cases routinely use Enterprise Investigative approaches to dismantle criminal herds (gangs, narcotics rings, organized crime groups) through RICO statues, which allow for elimination of whole criminal enterprises from top leader to low level soldier.  The vacuum created by these arrests routinely results in spikes of violence as competing and rising criminal groups compete for new turf and operational space.   For fans of The Wire (like me), you’ll note this scenario from the rise of Marlo in the absence of Avon (Season 3). The point: criminal justice approaches often result in the same negative side effects of leadership decapitation by drones.
  • Moderating violent AQ behavior takes more than religious notes.  Lastly, I’m not convinced that AQ members and affiliates particularly like Libi and without OBL around, I think they might definitely quit listening to Libi.  See this brief interlude from what is believed to be some North African AQ member writing back to AQ Central in early 2007 (SOCOM-2012-0000011); when Libi likely still had some clout.  Appears they needed Libi to write some rules/religious justifications.  My interpretation: they’ll listen to Libi because they have to, but they like Ahmad much better.  So do we really think they are listening to Libi a year after OBL’s death?  Is AQAP in southern Yemen listening? Shabaab listening to Libi?  AQIM in the Sahel listening to Libi?  I doubt it.

[have] al-Libi, senior LIFG religious scholar and member of al-Qa’ida’s Shari’ah Committee) write to the brothers, and he should never tire of writing and pressuring them; also have Ahmad ((‘Abd-al-’Azim)) write, as he is very influential with them and they admire him a lot.

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