Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Drone Strikes in Yemen, AQAP, Kissinger on Africa

by Micah Zenko
August 9, 2013

A military police trooper checks a car at a checkpoint in Sanaa A military police trooper checks a car at a checkpoint in Sanaa, Yemen, on August 6, 2013. The United States told its citizens to leave the country and ordered the evacuation of non-essential government staff out of Sanaa because of a terror threat (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters).

Maria Abi-Habib, Margaret Coker, and Siobhan Gorman, Yemen Steps Back From Terror-Plot Claims, Highlighting U.S.’s Challenge, The Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2013.

Estimates vary about the number of hard-core al Qaeda members in Yemen. Yemeni officials say the number is in the low hundreds. Regional intelligence agencies have published lists showing the most dangerous al Qaeda operatives number in the dozens.

(3PA: In 2010, the Department of State estimated that the number of AQAP members was “several hundred.” By 2011, the estimate rose to “a few thousand,” but decreased in 2012 to “close to one thousand.” Who knows.)


Greg Miller, Anne Gearan and Sudarsan Raghavan, Obama administration authorized recent drone strikes in Yemen, Washington Post, August 7, 2013.

Officials said Tuesday there is no indication that senior al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen have been killed in the drone strikes. “It’s too early to tell whether we’ve actually disrupted anything,” a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The official described the renewed air assault as part of a coordinated response to intelligence that has alarmed counterterrorism officials but lacks specific details about what al-Qaeda may target or when. “What the U.S. government is trying to do here is to buy time,” the official added…

The burst of drone activity provides new insight into the Obama administration’s approach to counterterrorism operations. U.S. officials said the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which operate parallel drone campaigns in Yemen, have refrained from launching missiles for several months in part because of more restrictive targeting guidelines imposed by President Obama this year. Those new rules, however, allow for strikes to resume in response to an elevated threat. “They have been holding fire,” said a U.S. official with access to information about the al-Qaeda threat and the drone campaign. But intercepted communications between al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is believed to be in Pakistan, and his counterpart in Yemen, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, have raised concern that the network is preparing an assault on Western targets.

(3PA: In May 2012, I wrote: “AQAP’s expansion should throw serious doubt on the efficacy of the Obama administration’s current strategy, and on the logic of dropping even more bombs and deploying more special operations forces.”)


Yalda Hakim, “Why Drone Attacks in Yemen are Like ‘Trying to Hit a Ghost’,” BBC News, August 7, 2013.

Yemen’s government says all means are necessary to root out al-Qaeda, even if the US drone strikes are rallying support for the militant group.

I’ve heard this argument, there might be some truth to it,” said Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi. ”But if your targets are al-Qaeda leaders and if they are endangering the security of your country, there’s no alternative.”

And it seems there is no alternative for Mr Bagash or Mr al-Sabooly. They must go about their daily lives in southern Yemen as the US tries to target the al-Qaeda militants in their midst. ”We have been living in constant fear, fear from the drone strikes, and fear from the air strikes,” said Mr Bagash. ”You never know when your house will be hit.”


Deputy Defense Secretary: Spending Must Be ‘Driven By Strategy’, PBS Newshour, August 6, 2013.

RAY SUAREZ: Before we talk dollars and cents, earlier in the program, we talked about the closure of foreign missions, the evacuation of American personnel. We have been pounding — the United States has been pounding al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula from the air for years. How come they’re still so able to launch attacks against American interests and assets?

ASHTON CARTER: Well, we have been pounding them for years.


Kenneth Roth, The War Against al-Qaeda is Over, Washington Post, August 4, 2013.

The al-Qaeda threat to the United States, while still real, no longer meets those standards. At most, al-Qaeda these days can mount sporadic, isolated attacks, carried out by autonomous or loosely affiliated cells. Some attacks may cause considerable loss of life, but they are nothing like the military operations that define an armed conflict under international law.

Admitting that the contest with al-Qaeda is no longer a war does not mean that the United States is defenseless or even that lethal force is forbidden. In the absence of war, U.S. conduct is governed by international human rights law, which favors arrest and prosecution but still permits lethal force, if necessary, to stop an imminent threat to life…

Plenty of governments are eager for excuses to summarily kill their enemies, however tenuously defined — even those living in the United States. The U.S. government has also committed abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. The Obama administration should rethink its overly elastic definition of war on al-Qaeda and call an end to it.


David E. Sanger, A Washington Riddle: What is “Top Secret”?, The New York Times, August 3, 2013.

A more serious problem erupts when classification collides with other American interests. Consider the least covert secret program in the American arsenal: drones. Every drone attack in Pakistan and Yemen made the local news, and Twitter, in hours. Often those reports were accompanied by huge exaggerations about civilian casualties. But the American ambassador in Pakistan was forced to let those claims go unanswered, because the program was classified. “We did far more damage to our national security pretending we knew nothing,” one senior American official said in frustration, “than if we had owned up to them and said, ‘Here’s a list of terrorists we just put out of action.’ ”

Now, after years of investigative news reports, President Obama has begun talking about the program publicly. But he has steadfastly refused to show an equal willingness to justify America’s use of cyberweapons. That has many government officials and corporate executives worried because there are no global rules defining legitimate and illegitimate cyberattacks.


Unclassified: Kissinger Telecon with Win Lord at 11:25 a.m., U.S. Department of State, September 20, 1975.

KISSINGER: Are you redoing the African thing.

WINSTON LORD: Yes. We had versions which is in the front office and we are redoing it some more. You can look at what you have of for what is in the typewriter now. It will not be tremendously different. We gave you a draft about two days which was bounced back.

K: It was not much.

L: We don’t have much of a policy.

K: What would be a policy?

L: That it is, I think, it is sober, restrained…

K: I don’t mind giving them what our intentions are. It is not always possible to do a hell of a lot.

L: Right. It is our lowest priority, but it cannot say that. But it is a fact of life.

K: We can say something about forthcoming aspirations.

L: You mean for development.

K: Right.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Johny O'Conner

    Did Henry Kissinger authorise the Hakimullah DRONE strike in Pakistan yesterday, via a conference call to Northrop Grumman who now administer & contract most of the global ‘common airspace’ UAV strike-force?
    NG just won themselves a $5,000,000 bounty which was on Hakimullah’s head. That could go nicely into the Northrop Grumman Xmas Bonus pot?!
    Does Henry, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and wanted War-Criminal have now even newer friends at Northrop Grumman?

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