Zubaydah’s Diaries: Insights into al Qaeda pre-9/11

In the years after 9/11, one of the central al Qaeda figures discussed in the open media has been Abu Zubaydah; a man often times referred to as al Qaeda’s #3.  Zubaydah’s fame in the media came first from his spectacular capture in Pakistan and then from his water boarding.  Last week, al Jazeera released an unclassified but leaked diary of Zubaydah’s which detailed bits and pieces of his thoughts in the years prior to and immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Before diving to deep, I remind everyone to take Zubaydah’s diary notes with a grain of salt.  First, by many accounts, Zubaydah apparently is a bit crazy.  In the diary, he writes entries to an alias known as “Hani 2″ which may be his other personality although we don’t know for sure.  Second, Zubaydah seems to be as surprised by the 9/11/2001 attacks as anyone else.  Third, huge time gaps exist in the diary leaving much context to be desired.  We don’t know why he stops or starts writing, what is being left out, what is deliberately being falsified, etc.

The original diary is available somewhere on the Internet and  a good summary article can be found here at al Jazeera America’s website.

From the al Jazeera article here are some interesting things that were discussed.

  • Zubaydah maybe didn’t know he was in al Qaeda until the media informed him? Huh? – According to the diary, Zubaydah may have tried to cover his tracks right before his capture, suggesting he wasn’t part of al Qaeda.  Or maybe he was surprised to find out he was the heir to Bin Laden? Never considering himself part of al Qaeda, but instead the leader of his own team. This is doubtful (BS I think) based on the Ressam investigation. Check out this quote from the article:

Perhaps mindful of the growing danger that his diaries could be seized, he writes in a Feb. 4, 2002, entry, “For five years [the media] has been attempting to connect me to anything, and the matter is growing bigger, until they lately said that I am the heir of Bin Laden for the leadership of the Al-Qaeda Organization. I hope they know that I am not even a member of Al-Qaeda, so how can I become their leader?”… In a later entry he complains, “The Pakistani newspapers are saying that I’m in Peshawar, trying to reorganize Al-Qa’ida Organization, for war against the Americans, and that I am the heir of Bin Ladin, and Time [magazine] is saying that I know the Organization and those collaborating with the Organization more than Bin Ladin himself … I wish they know that I am not with Al-Qa’ida, to begin with, and that I am with them in ideology and body.”…Regardless of whether he had sworn an oath of loyalty to bin Laden — which would make him a member of Al-Qaeda — Abu Zubaydah was clearly a trusted and very senior operative in the broader movement that had Al-Qaeda at the center. He was, as he said, “with them in ideology and body.”

  • Zubaydah’s camp in Peshawar got shutdown by the Taliban in 1999 as part of what appears may have been a Bin Laden consolidation of power.  Al Jazeera notes:

In 1999, Abu Zubaydah was residing at a guesthouse in Peshawar associated with the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, his mujahedeen alma mater, to which he had returned in an administrative capacity….But the following year, the Taliban ordered the camp shut down because its emir had refused to hand it over to bin Laden. Not all the like-minded foreign fighters in Afghanistan before 9/11 were directly answerable to bin Laden, even some of those who shared his broad goals…..His appeals to bin Laden to reopen Khaldan fell on deaf ears. Bin Laden and the Taliban declined to reopen the camp.

  • In many ways, I get the sense from the article that Zubaydah thought of Bin Laden as a bit of a rival, and seemingly dependent at times on Bin Laden for receiving funding.

“It’s different when you’re the one calling the shots than being a wheel that’s moving mechanically with other wheels as part of a specific machine,” he complains in another diary entry written on the same day. At times, he seemed to regard bin Laden more as a competitor than a mentor. Abu Zubaydah writes that more jihad volunteers chose to train at Khaldan than at the full-fledged Al-Qaeda military camps bin Laden operated.”

Zubaydah continues and demonstrates, as Gregory Johnsen noted in his book on AQAP, that what separated Bin Laden from others was his money.  Bin Laden, like any other business, grew al Qaeda in scale because he had the resources to propel them forward.

“The resources are shrinking … We must have a secure financial source, so it will not come to an end (the camp),” he writes on July 14, 1996. About a year later, he writes that bin Laden has stepped in and offered assistance. “Bin Laden re-submitted his offer of unity to us and the brothers inside requested me to deliberate the issue,” he writes in Volume 4 on Aug. 13, 1997.

  •  Amongst al Qaeda’s chaos, was Zubaydah trying to build his own all star team?  See this concluding quote from Zubaydah:

To that end, Abu Zubaydah was building in Pakistan an ark of sorts, assembling the most skilled explosives experts and others in the movement capable of teaching the vital skills necessary to regenerate the movement.

“I took them with me, from the flood, one or two individuals from each military science, just like Noah … two pairs from each … An instructor or two from each military subject, they are the nucleus of my future work, and I am starting from zero … I am preparing a safe location for us, so that we can start.”

zubaydah pics

Countering the Violent Extremism of Fickled Fighters

Today, I wanted to follow up with respect to my post a few days back on terrorist motivation and recruitment and relate it to my earlier discussion of Hanif, the AQ foreign fighter from Pakistan, who recently relayed news of al Qaeda’s struggles in Pakistan.  I closed the last post stating:

Before choosing a CVE approach, a community/government/nation must first determine which type of extremist they want to counter.  If this assessment isn’t done, one will find a CVE approach, for example, where a government seeks to counter the the extremist narrative in an attempt to deter young people from joining al Qaeda, only later to find out that recruits weren’t particularly knowledgeable of AQ’s ideology, joined for the adventure, and enjoy group membership more than radical sermons.

I’ve often heard that the U.S. should place top priority on countering AQ’s message in order to prevent young boys from being radicalized and recruited overseas.  While this may be important in certain cases, I’d like to return to the case of Hanif, the source for Newsweek’s article “Al Qaeda on the Ropes: One Fighter’s Inside Story”.  Hanif, lacking an al Qaeda cell to join, recently decided to join the Haqqani Network:

Hanif says he spent the next five months with the Haqqanis and took part in several cross-border raids into Afghanistan—“picnics,” his fellow fighters called them. “We’d cross the border on operations of one, two, or three days; make short, sharp attacks; and then return,” he says. “Crossing into Afghanistan is easier than ever. There’s no one to stop us.” When Haqqani fighters run into Pakistani troops, they just keep going, Hanif says; they’re never challenged. “I think there’s an understanding,” he says.

Hanif compares his time with AQ and the Haqqani Network where he says:

the network’s fighters are brave, but they’re not as disciplined and pious as al Qaeda fighters were. “Fifty percent of these young mujahedin are looking for something to do,” Hanif says. “They’re not really fighting for Islam.” Even so, he likes their fighting spirit. “They may be careless and not religiously motivated, but they are good jihadis.”

Hanif does note that his religious beliefs are important but not decisive in his terrorist participation.

He isn’t sure what he’ll do next. At present he’s taking time off from the war, staying with relatives in Afghanistan. He says he’s still determined to rid Afghanistan of Americans and foreign influence and to reestablish Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Islamic Emirate, although he’s disappointed that al Qaeda can no longer help him achieve those goals. He stays in touch with his parents by phone, and they keep urging him to return home to Karachi, get married, and perhaps go into business. Hanif hates the idea. To do so, he says, would be a betrayal of his political and religious beliefs. Still, he says, he’s thinking of going home—just for a little while.

So, how does the U.S. do CVE to disrupt the violence of Hanif and his comrades?  Counter al Qaeda’s narrative?

It seems like his ideological justifications for fighting in Afghanistan change frequently while his violence remains constant.

What about community engagement with elders and parents? 

His parents only appear to have a minor influence on his decision.

I don’t have an answer for what the right CVE package is for young Pakistani recruits but I do wonder what combination of CVE actions will be most fruitful for keeping young boys from seeking adventure in Pakistan’s frontier.

Rory Stewart’s Afghanistan TED Talk

I’ve been taking a face-first beat down from a guy named Murphy lately (translation= busy yet achieving little).  However, I did get some time during an airplane flight to watch Rory Stewart’s recent TED talk and wanted to pass it on to those that might be interested.

Rory’s tales of personal adventure in Afghanistan (The Places in Between) and Iraq (Prince of the Marshes) gave me an excellent and contrasting perspective during my transition from government service.

As a student of security and development, I find Stewart’s presentation and perspective enlightening in an era dominated by advocates of counterinsurgency doctrine.  I strongly doubted in 2007 that a COIN surge in AFPAK would achieve the intended results.  I doubted even further that the costs of COIN were in line with the gains that could be achieved.

Stewart’s question is “why are we still in Afghanistan?”.  He makes some interesting points on how we arrived in our tenth year in Afghanistan.  His discussion illustrates why Western dynamics led to our arrival in Afghanistan, our shortcomings in achieving our goals, the logic behind our persistence to stay in Afghanistan and why the West has a hard time letting go. I highly recommend everyone watch Rory Stewart’s discussion and take note of his points on strategic interests and the challenges of policy implementation.

The only part I didn’t like of Stewart’s discussion is his repeated quoting of each military and political leader advocating their year in Afghanistan as “decisive” (Minute 8:40 ish).  Stewart did this to entertain his audience and I respect the need for this dynamic in punchy TED talks.  However, Stewart should recognize from his experience that leadership is about inspiring subordinates as much as managing processes.  Does Stewart really think a senior policy leader would best serve his organization and subordinates by saying, “Yeah, this year in Afghanistan isn’t really important, I think my year in command will be particularly inconsequential, Iraq has sapped our resources, in fact, I’m not sure this is worth our effort.  Everyone take Friday off, you know what, take half of Thursday off too, Let’s just drag our feet through this year and hand off our problems to our replacements in 12 months.”  Come on Stewart, I like you, I realize you need to play to your audience but be careful, as your fame grows, you will likely find yourself saying things you’ll be called to answer for later when things don’t progress as you predicted.

UBL’s death & the Afghanistan mission; Poll Results #5

Immediately following UBL’s death, media pundits begin assessing the implications on the U.S. & NATO mission in Afghanistan.  With the U.S. slated to begin a draw down at the end of summer 2011 and NATO allies aggressively looking for an exit sign, UBL’s death again raised the questions: “Why are we in Afghanistan?” and “How much longer will we be there?”

The Post UBL Poll asked the following question during the week immediately following UBL’s death:

What will be the chief consequence of UBL’s death for the U.S. and its Western allies?

140 respondents answered this question with surprisingly uniform distribution of votes across all professional categories and question responses.

  • Most voters (44%) thought UBL’s death would result in no significant change in U.S. & NATO operations.
  • Many (36%) thought public pressure would force the withdrawal of Western partners from Afghanistan.
  • Few (20%) thought UBL’s death would shift the strategy from counterinsurgency (COIN) focus in Afghanistan to a regional counterterrorism (CT) focus in AFPAK.
  • Military voters were the only sub-group that thought somewhat differently than the overall crowd.  Most military voters believe UBL’s death will lead to the exit of their NATO partners.  (47% for Military compared to 37% for the crowd as a whole)

As for me, I chose a “shift to counterterrorism operations (Biden Plan).”  NATO partners have already determined they are leaving.  Amidst the Afghan ‘Surge’/COIN struggles we have stopped dreaming of a functioning Afghan democracy.  Several American advisers in Afghanistan have gone so far as to endorse reinforcing tribal leadership structures to ensure local level stability rather than pursuing the COIN objective of functioning representative government.

I believe UBL’s death leads to an enduring U.S. counterterrorism presence that will go on long after 2014 and likely for most of our lifetimes.  A counterterrorism approach advocated by many more than two years ago.  More to follow reference Afghanistan…(but if you want my stance, see this from 2007)

Here are two charts, the first shows the raw vote totals of all 140 respondents.  The second pie chart shows the breakdown of 28 voters declaring ‘Government-Military’ as their professional group.

 

Poll: What will terrorism be post-Bin Laden?

I NEED YOUR HELP, AGAIN!

Today is a great day in the history of the United States.  Usama Bin Laden’s death marks a significant victory against al Qaeda and I have great admiration for the military forces that accomplished such a daring raid.

Many of you provided me a great favor last week as I initiated a crowdsourcing poll trying to anticipate AQ’s future strategy.  Your response to this poll was outstanding and far beyond my expectations. The initial results are quite revealing and provide great insight into today’s developments. In January, the first crowdsourcing poll (the predecessor to last week’s) asked the following question:

What will be the chief consequence of Usama Bin Laden’s (UBL) death for the global jihadi movement?

Based on today’s events, I’m relaunching this poll at SelectedWisdom.com and asking again for your help in anticipating the ramifications of Bin Laden’s death.  I ask again for your help in two ways:

1)    If you have the time, I ask you to visit the following link and vote as we collectively try to develop a new counterterrorism strategy to exploit this recent success. I deliberately made this poll shorter than last week’s poll so it should take only 2-3 minutes.

Click Here to Vote

2) Please forward this link along to anyone you know that is interested or knowledgeable in the issues of terrorism. Anyone is welcome; students, government, private sector, military, etc.

Here is a link that you can copy and paste:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/aqafterbinladen

The results of last week’s poll combined with this new poll provide us a unique opportunity to evaluate how we think about terrorism and counterterrorism and help us develop a strategy to carry the battle against extremism to new heights.  I will work to rapidly publish the results of this poll so all can benefit from our collective insights when thinking through our near-term and long-term policy options.

Thank you again for your support, your votes and your time.  Please forward away.  It takes a crowd to do crowdsourcing.

“Does Bin Laden Matter?” Poll Results; Part #2

Returning to the UBL poll, here are the side-by-side results of question #2, “What will be the chief consequence of UBL’s death for the U.S. & its Western allies?”.  As mentioned in previous posts, the initial justification for entering Afghanistan in 2001 was the destruction of al Qaeda and killing or capture of its leader; UBL.  The below chart shows the open poll results (from this website, 27 voters) and compares it with the internal poll results (CT experts I queried, 21 voters).  Again, there is likely some duplication of respondents who answered both polls.

To my surprise, most respondents in both polls selected “Status Quo-No Change.”  A slightly larger percentage of respondents to the internal poll (CT Experts) selected “Refocus on Counterterrorism Operations (Biden plan).”

Again, I wanted to further examine internal poll respondents opinions based on their current professional duties.  Unlike in question #1, academics selected the “Status Quo- No Change” option at a much higher level than other categories of respondents (7 of 9 academics chose this option).  Why might academics think UBL’s death would be less significant for the U.S. and its allies than other groups?  I’m not sure.  It could just be a coincidence since this is a rather small sample size.

For question #2, I disagreed with the majority in both polls.  My decision teetered between “Refocus on CT” and “Withdrawal of NATO”.  I definitely think UBL’s death will sharply decrease American and Western support for the Afghanistan campaign.  However, I think all NATO elements have already decided to significantly decrease their Afghanistan commitments in the next two years.  Ultimately, I think UBL’s death will bring a rapid shift in U.S. focus on counterterrorism operations vice counterinsurgency/nation building efforts.  Even if UBL is still at large this time next year (2012), I think the U.S. will begin slowly transitioning to a more CT than COIN focus.

Thoughts against Zawahiri’s ascension, post-UBL

In response to the Bin Laden poll analysis, I received an excellent comment from K.Jackson supporting Zawahiri’s takeover of AQ should UBL die.  This is an excellent post and the points are well thought out.

I don’t doubt that UBL will designate Zawahiri as the new AQ leader.  My reasons for Zawahiri not ascending (or ascending briefly only to be turned over to the Pakistani government or served up to American targeting)  have to do with actors outside AQ.  Here are my basic points:

1) Resources

I’m sure UBL is a great ideological figure and his words inspire, etc.  However, UBL’s greatest strength in AQ (since its inception) is distributing money and providing an architecture (The Base) from which to pursue global jihad.  I refer back to page 197 of The Looming Tower where Larry Wright discusses how, “the camaraderie that sustained the men of al-Qaeda rested on the financial security that bin Laden provided,”  In the beginning, UBL used his own wealth to support AQ.  Today, UBL’s presence in AQ brings donations from the Gulf, fund transfers from affiliates like AQIM who divert kidnapping revenues (seen reports to this but can’t confirm it), and the benevolence of the Haqqani network.  We should also remember that Zawahiri came to UBL because of his resources.  When UBL dies, Zawahiri may take control but he will not be able to secure these three resource pipelines.

2. Safe Haven

UBL and AQ depend on the Haqqani network (and maybe the Pakistani ISI to a certain extent) for safe haven. The Haqqani’s extended protection to UBL as a guest, but will this continue for Zawahiri?  I don’t know.  I think it’s a critical question.  UBL receives safe haven because he also drops a nice bit of funding to the Haqqani’s.  If UBL were to pass, what incentive does the Haqqani network have to provide protection to Zawahiri?  Zawahiri can’t provide resources to the same degree as UBL.  Zawahiri does have ideology on his side and a common hatred for the Western invaders in Afghanistan.  But, would the Haqqani’s trade a stake in an Afghan power sharing arrangement in order to protect Zawahiri?  I think not.  I believe the Haqqani’s will instead prefer an AQ leader from Saudi that can guarantee future funding or one from Pakistan that can maintain ISI relations and focus on local insurgencies as much as global jihad.

3.  Promotion is not so straight forward

After I read Kevin’s arguments about following the amir’s wishes, I referred back to the The Looming Tower and the beginnings of AQ.  I found chapter 6 (The Base) a refreshing reminder of how AQ was formed and Azzam was trumped.  AQ’s formation does not support the argument that the amir’s word will hold under all circumstances.  UBL’s rise occurred through coalition building with the Egyptians, Saudi resource assurances and the political demonizing of Azzam.  The repeated deaths of AQ #2’s has result in straight forward promotions of #3 to #2.  However, the death of #1 (UBL) will not be that straight forward. I imagine there will be many that believe they should be the new #1.

4. Young upstarts

Ten years of AQ recruitment and operations resulted in new upstarts climbing the ranks.  I doubt these upstarts respect the natural order of AQ ascension the way the elders do.  Atran noted these fears reference Taliban upstart groups not pursuing the wishes of elders.  When UBL was young, he didn’t follow the rules either.

I thank Kevin for a great post and I very well could be wrong on all four factors I mention above.  I’d enjoy any other thoughts people have on these dynamics.

As the U.S. draws down in 2011, I think navigating through these dynamics will be extremely important for determining the best way to counter AQ in the near future.

‘Bin Laden’ Poll Analysis: Part 1b

UBL’s death would potentially bring many outcomes including some of the fourteen choices identified in poll question 1.  I found it hard to choose just one result from the fourteen choices.  “Other AQ member in AF/Pak becomes new leader of AQ Central” ended up being my selection.  This was a tough decision but here was my logic in relation to the other choices.

1.  Zawahiri is ‘no fun’

Zawahiri might make a good “#2”, but I’m not sure other AQ members, the Taliban or the Haqqani network will let him ascend.  I’m uncertain why exactly.  However, I get the feeling that Zawahiri is always trying to outshine Bin Laden, lacks Bin Laden’s charisma, and finds it hard to make friends amongst other AQ members.  Zawahiri is also from the North African (EIJ) strain of AQ.  Despite his legacy with the group, I think AQ Central will turn to someone from the Gulf or Central/South Asia to take the reins.  Zawahiri may be talented from a terrorist sense but he has a 1990’s Al Gore feel to him and thus I believe will never rise above #2.  This poses another question, if Zawahiri were not to assume the top job post-Bin Laden, would this fracture AQ’s base of North African support? Would there be damaged relations between AQIM and AQ Central?  Would love to hear opinions in this!

[poll id="8"]

2.  Haqqani protection won’t extend forever to Zawahiri

My guess is the Haqqani network will not provide protection for a Zawahiri-led AQ post-Bin Laden.  While the Pashtunwali code for protecting guests has served Bin Laden well, I suspect that his death will bring the end of what has been an amazing level of Haqqani support.  I also estimate that the Haqqani’s would not like to see Zawahiri emerge as the new leader of AQ Central, instead preferring someone with local interests (AF/PAK) of equal or greater priority than global jihad.  Will the Haqqani’s support an AQ led by Zawahiri?  Would love to hear opinions on this!

[poll id="7"]

3. New AQ leader needs to be AF/PAK capable

To maintain safe haven in Pakistan, AQ Central must maintain Haqqani support, placate ISI members, retain AQ group initiative, and sustain global funding.  To accomplish these four things, a current AQ member from AF/PAK other than Zawahiri will emerge to lead AQ Central.  I do not believe Zawahiri will be able to do these four things post-Bin Laden.  A Gulf Arab or South Asian AQ leader will have an easier time gaining local support, sustaining resource flows from donors and illicit networks, and cooperating with the ISI.

4.  AQ Central shifts focus

Sustaining local support for AQ in AF/PAK will require AQ Central to focus on ‘near enemies’ as much as ‘far enemies’.  Bin Laden’s death and the emergence of an AF/PAK centric AQ leader will bring renewed focus on central/south Asian insurgencies.  AQ Central will not forget the need to attack the far enemy, but their base of popular support and wealth of recruits post-Bin Laden will come from countries in the larger AF/PAK region more than abroad.

So, ultimately I chose “Other AQ member in AF/PAK becomes new leader” but I could have easily picked three or four other choices.  I’ll add more to this with the results of questions two and three in the coming days.  In the meantime, I’d enjoy any thoughts on what I missed.

“Does Bin Laden Matter?” Poll Results; Part #1

I selected the 2011 Bin Laden prediction for two reasons: 1) a really smart person I know brought it up a couple years back and I found no one had a good answer to what would happen post-Bin Laden and 2) there remains a certain undertone within US policy that the Afghanistan conflict’s ultimate goal is getting Bin Laden and subsequently eliminating AQ Central’s AF/PAK safe haven.

The Afghanistan invasion originally pursued one central objective: destroy al Qaeda and its leader Usama Bin Laden.  Bin Laden’s escape to Pakistan resulted in the Afghanistan campaign morphing into a perennial low intensity battle with countryside tribesmen and a nation-building quagmire in Kabul.  Almost ten years later, these two drifting sub-objectives have distracted the U.S. from its original ambitions resulting in my question embedded in a prophecy: does Bin Laden really matter anymore?  The answer to this question, I believe, informs current U.S. policy decisions on the future direction of counterterrorism.

To answer the “does Bin Laden matter?” issue, I posed three questions in two different polls.  The poll placed with the initial “Does Bin Laden Matter?” post queried readers of this blog to provide their opinions (open poll).  I then posed the same questions to a select group of terrorism/counterterrorism experts I know and respect to gauge their reactions to the same set of three questions (internal poll).  The following several posts will recap the results of these two polls and provide further discussion for dissecting the appropriate direction of future U.S. policy in AF/PAK and globally with regard to terrorism.

Today’s post shows the open poll (placed on this website, 32 voters) and compares it with the internal poll (CT experts I queried, 20 voters).  Here is the side by side comparison of these two groups for question #1 from the “Does Bin Laden Matter?” post.  Of the fourteen options offered respondents, only seven options were chosen in either poll.   Note, there is likely duplication of the respondents at times as some that responded to my internal poll also responded to the open poll.

In both polls, a large number of respondents believe Bin Laden’s death will have no significant impact on AQ and the larger jihadi movement.  Meanwhile, the two groups of respondents disagreed considerably over Zawahiri’s future.  A large portion of the readers on this blog (open poll) believed Zawahiri would replace Bin Laden.  The internal poll (expert group) saw Zawahiri as far less significant instead believing a new AF/PAK based member of AQ will emerge as the leader.  For the internal poll, both Bin Laden and Zawahiri appear to be irrelevant for the future of AQ.  Yet, our strategy against AQ focuses considerably on capturing or killing these two individuals.  I’ll return to this key point after I publish the results of the next two poll questions.

I also wanted to examine the expert group and see if experts from different points of view see the Bin Laden question differently.  I coded the experts surveyed based on their current job responsibilities in government, military, academia, law enforcement or the private sector.  Many have served in one or more of these sectors so I coded them based solely on their current responsibilities.  It’s not perfect, but here are the results.  Overall, the results appear fairly even across all sectors surveyed.

Recent AQ Foreign Fighter Recruitment, Part 3

Continuing from posts #1 and #2 reference the Newsweek article “Inside Al Qaeda”, this article demonstrates how drones have disrupted AQ operations in Pakistan.  Hanif, the young Pakistani AQ recruit, explains in detail how the increasing intensity of the drone program disrupted their training and planning.

“The sound of the drones in the sky is so incessant you stop noticing it, like the buzzing of insects, Hanif says. “You don’t see or hear anything before the missile’s impact.” He says the aftermath of a drone attack can be particularly hard.”

The article later continues noting…

“in the past year, he estimates, drones have killed some 80 Qaeda members, many of them senior commanders.  (That figure sounds compatible with the number offered by a Pakistani intelligence source, who tells Newsweek he believes some 120 Qaeda militants have been eliminated by drones in the past two years.) Now the fighters have grown more careful even when visiting the bazaars in Miran Shah, the war-battered capital of North Waziristan.”

Hanif notes later that,

“Our leaders are afraid of spies,” Hanif says. A year ago the militants became convinced that CIA proxies were tagging their cars with magnetic locator devices, to guide Hellfire missiles to their target.”

Hanif’s account shows that the U.S. has made significant advances in counterterrorism.  The drone program has achieved far more against AQ (and Taliban) operations in Pakistan than any counterinsurgency effort on either side of the AFPAK border.  Drones have:

  1. Disrupted AQ’s strategic planning by eliminating AQ leaders or isolating them in protective positions.
  2. Caused AQ to exhaust additional resources to maintain operational security.
  3. Largely eliminated large-scale conventional training venues.  Hanif used to train formally at camps, but now he and his fellow recruits are confined to rooms in shacks.
  4. Forced AQ to use less experienced and poorly trained individuals.  These new recruits are less likely to be successful operationally and will also be unlikely to carry out terrorism for future generations.

I return to this article and the drone discussion as we once again reevaluate our Afghanistan strategy and our overall counterterrorism strategy.  Despite the fears of COIN advocates, the drone program has disrupted AQ operations and not caused the massive civilian populace backlash they forewarned.  The drone program unfortunately causes some civilian casualties during its operations.  However, I estimate the scale of civilian casualties from drones is likely equal to or less than the number of civilian casualties created through our COIN approach.