CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes wasn’t in Sana’a to chat. Part of America’s surge into Yemen, Kappes had been deployed in December to fine-tune the CIA’s assassination program. No ordinary visit, Kappes’ message was that the drones are coming.
On December 24th, one day before the failed Christmas bombing, a senior group of al-Qaeda operatives gathered in the mountains of Shabwa Governorate. Among them sat Naser al-Wahishi, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and his Saudi Deputy Saeed al-Shihri.
A salivating America guided Yemeni warplanes on their bombing run, but somehow al-Wahishi and al-Shihri managed to escape (al-Shihri was captured on January 19th by Yemeni forces). Drones were spotted by locals, supposedly unarmed but who truly knows. And most importantly US born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who also attended the meeting, left with al-Wahishi and al-Shihri before the strike.
We now know President Obama signed off on his death personally.
Both the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) keep assassination lists of several dozen “High Value Targets.” Two months ago al-Awlaki was added to the CIA’s list after reconsideration over the Fort Hood shooting; the JSOC list, which includes three Americans, added al-Awlaki in late December.
But the scary part, reports Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times, is that, “From beginning to end, the CIA's process for carrying out Predator strikes is remarkably self-contained. The CIA is given extensive latitude to execute the program, and generally does not need White House approval when adding names to the target list... The only exception, officials said, would be when the name is a U.S. citizen's.”
Glenn Greenwald of Salon and James Joyner of Outside the Beltway were two of a small collection of analysts examining the topic at length. As a constitutional lawyer we can’t fault Greenwald for staying at the surface. Joyner, as a defense analyst, has less excuse. Yet no report we’ve read descended to counterinsurgency depth.
We don’t really care, temporarily speaking, about the legal status of assassinating US citizens, where the line of war is drawn (because there is no line), fair trials, or morals. Assassinating al-Awlaki, if they get him, would be excellent counter-terrorism and alarming COIN.
America’s choice lies in the trail of officials sent through Yemen: head of the JSOC Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, White House counterterrorism adviser John O Brennan, and General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command (CENTCOM). Including Kappes, only Petraeus operates under the cloak of counterinsurgency.
Likely considering a real solution too costly and demanding, Obama has decided on counter-terrorism to contain Yemen’s unrest in the northwest, south, and southeast. But he could end up multiplying the virus.
As reported two weeks ago Dr. Nasser al-Awlaki attempted to shout through the commotion of Abdulmutallab by tapping into CNN. Nasser spoke with urgency, stressing that his son could be killed at any moment. Now we have a fuller explanation why he said - he knows his son has been green-lit.
“If they give me time I can have some contact with my son, but the problem is they are not giving me time,” he said on January 11th. “I will do my best to convince my son to do this [surrender], to come back, but they are not giving me time, they want to kill my son. How can the American government kill one of their own citizens? This is a legal issue that needs to be answered.”
Ironically, the embodiment of counterinsurgency also fell into the legal trap.
Nasser, a former agriculture minister and president of Sana’a university, is a powerful man with a powerful tribe, and doesn’t seem like someone to mess with in an anti-America country. Shortly after Nasser spoke the bulk of his tribe spoke up to defend al-Awlaki.
Nasser’s cousin happens to be a chief in the Awlaki tribe, Sheik Saleh Farid, who told the AP, “He is very active as a preacher, including on the Internet. But he has nothing to do with al-Qaida... anyone who is scared, who is forced to, will go with the devil if he has to.”
“I know him very well, he's like one of my own sons,” Farid said. He warned America and Yemen not to kill al-Awlaki and promised, "I can convince him to come live with me."
Realize that Obama on down signed off on Anwar’s death. And why? First for revenge over Fort Hood.
"If an American is stupid enough to make cause with terrorists abroad,” warned another U.S. official, “to frequent their camps and take part in their plans, he or she can't expect their citizenship to work as a magic shield. If you join the enemy, you join your fate to his."
Then one less radical preacher, whose head, while influencing many of America’s enemies, couldn’t regenerate fast enough.
"Awlaki's interested in operations outside of Yemen, and he's trying to recruit more extremists, including Westerners," said one counter-terrorism official. "His knowledge of Western culture and language makes him valuable to (the offshoot) al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. Taking him off the street would deal a blow to the group."
While his life is unique, al-Awlaki’s death would only serve to motivate others like him - and all that this “victory” costs is one tribe. Now visualize al-Awlaki being targeted while living Sheik Farid. Sounds like a stupid price to us.
Problematically an alternative solution is elusive. If killing al-Awlaki isn’t the answer then capturing him is the next option in line. Farid will have none of this either though, saying, "The Yemenis know they have nothing on him. It's the Americans who want him in jail.”
al-Awlaki has refused Yemen’s repeated attempts to relocate him to Sana’a for observation. At best he can be placed under the government’s protection in his village and overseen by his tribe. Both al-Awlaki’s father and tribal leader warn against using force, a sign of probable retaliation, and offer to negotiate between him and the government. America and Yemen would be wise to pursue political over military engagement to the limit.
US officials may believe they understand the situation, but signing off on al-Awlaki suggests the reverse. Dangerous he may be, this target cannot hastily be dispatched without severe repercussions. This isn’t a counter-terrorism bite but a counterinsurgency virus. Obama needs some better advice.
An even deeper trench remains though.
Why, if killing al-Awlaki could set off a national chain reaction, does Obama and the Pentagon want al-Awlaki dead and quickly? They won’t be able to get any information from him that way, speaking from a military standpoint, and the assassination would be a political disaster. Possible US intervention is a foregone conclusion.
The cherry on top could be al-Awlaki's YouTube sermon, “Allah is preparing us for victory,” posted in early 2007: "Palestine is what gave to shahada (martyrdom) the importance that it has today. The concept of shahada and istishhad (seeking martyrdom in jihad) started in Palestine.”
Erasing linkage - cultural elimination - doesn't qualify as counterinsurgency either.