The death in a U.S. drone attack of al Qaida’s Yemen-based second in command, coupled with the possible killing of a top extremist in Libya in a similar strike, has added fresh fuel to the debate among U.S. officials and terrorism experts about the impact of the targeted killings of extremist leaders.
U.S. officials and some private analysts contend that the tactic deals serious blows to terrorist groups like al Qaida by eliminating seasoned leaders with extensive operational experience, skills and networks, disrupting plots and eroding the morale of their followers.
“Any time a senior or experienced AQ leader is taken off the battlefield, there’s also a loss of knowledge – and potentially tradecraft – even if you can replace someone quickly,” said a U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly. “Each leader or extremist brings with them a unique skill set or perspective, so in many cases it’s not a one-to-one replacement.”
Others, however, argue that while the targeting of al Qaida commanders has had significant impact, particularly on the group’s Pakistan-based core leadership, the tactics won’t lead to the group’s defeat, especially as its affiliates now are waging major insurgencies in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa and have expanded to the Indian subcontinent.
“The airstrikes have been effective at degrading al Qaida’s leadership and disrupting operations short term,” said Katherine Zimmerman, an expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy institute. “But they are not a tactic to defeat an insurgency, and that’s the war that al Qaida is fighting today.”
Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the network’s Yemen-based branch, confirmed in a video posted Tuesday on the Internet that its leader, Nasir al Wuhayshi, and two associates died in a U.S. drone strike that local media said occurred Friday night in the Yemeni port town of al Mukallah.
In addition to being the head of AQAP, Wuhayshi was the No. 2 in al Qaida’s global network and was widely considered the heir apparent to Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian who became leader of the network after Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. special operations raid on May 2, 2011, in Pakistan.
Wuhayshi’s death came three days before U.S. aircraft targeted a leading Algerian extremist linked to al Qaida in a hideout in Ajdabiya, near the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
U.S. officials said they had indications that Mokhtar Belmokhtar had been killed. But an Islamist militant group, Ansar al Shariah, denied he was dead, posting on social media on Tuesday the names of the seven extremists it said were killed. Belmokhtar’s name was not on the list.
The nearly 10-minute video confirming Wuhayshi’s death featured Khalid bin Umar Batarfi, a senior Saudi member of AQAP, the group Wuhayshi, 38, led after the merger in 2009 of al Qaida’s Yemeni and Saudi branches.
Batarfi contended that the loss of Wuhayshi would have no impact, confirmed that he’d already been replaced by another top commander, Qasm al Rimi, and warned that the group remained intent on striking American and allied targets.
“You may prolong the war as much as you like, for we are its people. We were born in it. We shall die in it,” Batarfi said in Arabic, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors extremists’ online activities. “To the caretaker of disbelief, America, Allah has left for you those who shall blacken your faces, embitter your living and make you taste the bitterness of war and the taste of defeat.”
But U.S. officials and some experts said that Wuhayshi’s death would disrupt the group’s ability to plot new international terrorist attacks, which AQAP has sought to stage by trying to plant bombs disguised as toner cartridges on U.S.-bound aircraft and inspiring extremists to take action through online propaganda
Wuhayshi’s “death strikes a major blow to AQAP, al Qaida’s most dangerous affiliate, and to al Qaida more broadly,” Ned Prince, a National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement issued Tuesday that didn’t directly claim U.S. responsibility for the attack. There was no NSC statement, however, confirming Belmokhtar’s death.
More broadly, U.S. officials and some experts pointed out that continuing to target extremist leaders – the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command have been staging drone strikes for years against AQAP – keeps terrorist groups off balance in places like Yemen, where a civil war has left the country divided between warring factions, with no central authority.
“What you have to look at in these targeted killings is a strategy of attrition. Don’t expect that killing any one of these guys will be a kind of silver bullet,” said Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a policy institute. “If you take out the most capable leaders, the guys who replace them may be less capable, less experienced, less trained, less dedicated.”
Others experts pointed out that civilians have died in U.S. drones strikes, and in a tribal society like Yemen, those deaths have helped AQAP recruit new fighters.
Moreover, they say, the targeted killings of terrorist leaders should only be one tool in a much broader strategy required to defeat an extremist organization. Such approaches include strangling terrorists’ finances and recruits and helping governments train counterterrorism forces and provide jobs and education to people who might otherwise be radicalized.
“Counterterrorism operations of the type reported to have taken place (against Wuhayshi) must always be considered as only one element in a multipronged approach that includes building capacities of local and regional authorities, countering the flow of resources to terrorists and working with partners in the Islamic world to defeat the ideology that attracts new recruits,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
That approach, however, isn’t feasible in war-wracked Yemen, Somalia or Syria, where the al Qaida branch, the Nusra Front, is at the forefront of the Islamist groups fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The Nusra Front “is one of the most powerful rebel groups on the ground,” said Zimmerman. “It is going to be one of the hardest to defeat because it has carefully integrated itself into the Syrian opposition.”