In The Hunt For Al-Qaida, Drone Program Expands

Sep 26, 2011
Originally published on September 26, 2011 3:45 pm

The Obama administration is expanding its controversial drone program to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

The Washington Post first reported last week that the administration was setting up secret bases for the unmanned aircraft all over the region. U.S. officials say the drone surveillance will allow them to keep watch on terrorists in Yemen and Somalia. The question is whether the program will eventually go a step further and include armed drones to kill terrorists before they strike.

The decision to expand the drone program is the clearest sign yet that the Obama administration is shifting its focus from al-Qaida's core group to the affiliates it has spawned over the past 10 years.

From The Core To The Periphery

Until now, drones have largely been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan. The military basically ran the drone program in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the CIA took aim at terrorists in Pakistan and occasionally in Yemen.

The CIA has run operations in Yemen trying to hunt down leaders of al-Qaida's arm there, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

That was the group that allegedly sent a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab onto a U.S. airliner with explosives in his underwear. The bomb failed to ignite properly, and Abdulmutallab will be tried next month. AQAP has also taken responsibility for a bomb plot that was supposed to blow up cargo planes over the U.S. last Thanksgiving. That plot was foiled, too.

"In some respects, in the United States we're a victim of our own counterterrorism success," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University. "We've been so effective at weakening al-Qaida's core that the threat has now migrated to the periphery — and it isn't surprising that as it has migrated to the periphery we would adopt the same tactics that we used in South Asia to address that threat."

In other words, the drone attacks in Pakistan have been so effective in attacking al-Qaida's core leadership, the U.S. is going to try the same tactic elsewhere — where the threat from al-Qaida is growing, specifically in Yemen and Somalia.

Concerns About Blowback

That's what worries Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. Expanding the drone program, he says, could have some blowback and play into al-Qaida's hands by providing more fodder for their recruitment efforts.

"I worry that the expansion of drone strikes outside the South Asian context is going to have unintended repercussions," he says. "We've reduced the ability of al-Qaida to do major attacks, but I think we've increased their ability to inspire folks in the West to take up arms on their behalf."

Georgetown's Hoffman agrees. "This, I think, is one of the problems of just having a kinetic outlook in countering terrorism," he says. "You are solving the supply problem, in other words, the supply of terrorist leaders, but you are doing nothing to interdict the demand side. In other words, the flow of recruits and supporters into the movement that constantly enables the movement to regroup, reorganize and regenerate itself."

Over the past two years, drones have been responsible for the deaths of most of al-Qaida's top leaders and nearly all of its midlevel operatives.

Even before the death of Osama bin Laden in May, officials were trumpeting the effectiveness of the drone program against al-Qaida's core leadership. Now, the U.S. and Pakistan have a short list of members in al-Qaida's core operation that they say, if captured or killed, could lead to the collapse of the core group.

Evolving Threats

The concern is that the U.S. could increasingly see a different type of attack — like the failed Times Square car bombing in May 2010.

That plot was essentially the work of one man, a Pakistani-American named Faisal Shahzad. He traveled to Pakistan to learn how to make a bomb. He spent a week at a Pakistani Taliban training camp and then returned to the U.S. But there is one detail from the case that often is overlooked: He told investigators that the drone attacks in Pakistan were a huge motivation in his decision to lash out at the U.S.

The question now is whether expanding the drone attacks will inspire others like Faisal Shahzad — not just young men from Pakistan, but now young men and women from Yemen and Somalia and other places the drones are flying.

"You cannot defeat al-Qaida's ideology while we are directly engaged in military action in many places around the world, because that is going to feed al-Qaida's ability to recruit in other locations," says Fishman. "You can't defeat ideology with a missile in Pakistan. You can't defeat ideology with a missile in Yemen or Somalia either."

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And we begin this hour with an effort by the Obama administration to expand the military's controversial drone program. The U.S. is setting up secret bases for the unmanned aircraft in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Officials say they want to keep watch on terrorists in Yemen and Somalia, and maybe even use armed drones to kill them before they can strike. Drones have been effective in killing much of al-Qaida's core leadership in Pakistan.

But as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, the decision to rely on drones elsewhere in the world brings new problems.

DINA TEMPLE: The decision to expand the drone program is the clearest sign yet that the Obama administration is more concerned about al-Qaida's affiliates than its core founders.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: In some respects, we're, in the United States, a victim of our own counterterrorism success.

That's Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University.

We've been so effective at weakening al-Qaida's core that the threat has now migrated to the periphery. And it wasn't surprising that as it migrates the periphery, we would adopt the same tactics that we've used in South Asia to address that threat.

TEMPLE: In other words, the drone attacks in Pakistan have been so effective at attacking al-Qaida's core leadership, the U.S. is going to try the same tactic elsewhere, where the threat from al-Qaida is greater.

BRIAN FISHMAN: My name is Brian Fishman. I'm a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation and a fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

TEMPLE: Fishman says that this new broader drone program could have some blowback.

FISHMAN: I worry that the expansion of drone strikes outside of the South Asian context is going to have unintended repercussions. We've reduced the ability of al-Qaida to do major attacks, but I think we've increased their ability to inspire folks in the West to take up arms on their behalf.

HOFFMAN: This is, I think, one of the problems of just having a kinetic outlook in countering terrorism.

TEMPLE: Again, that was Georgetown's Bruce Hoffman. He says those kinetic operations, like killing al-Qaida's founders and leaders, address only part of the challenge.

HOFFMAN: You're solving the supply problem. In other words, the supply of terrorist leaders, but you're doing nothing to interdict the demand side. In other words, the flow of recruits and supporters into the movement that constantly enables the movement to regroup, reorganize and regenerate itself.

TEMPLE: Over the past two years, drones have been responsible for the death of most of al-Qaida's top leaders and nearly all of its midlevel operatives. That's the good news. The bad news is that we could end up seeing more of a different kind of attack, something we saw just last year. You'll probably remember this case.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: New developments in the Time Square car bomb investigation. Police have new clues as they...

TEMPLE: The Time Square bombing of May 2010 was essentially the work of one man, a Pakistani-American named Faisal Shahzad. Shahzad traveled to Pakistan to get the training he needed to attack the U.S. And here's one detail from the case that is sometimes overlooked. He told investigators that the drone attacks in Pakistan were a huge motivation for his car bombing attempt. The question now is whether expanding the drone attacks will inspire others like Faisal Shahzad, not just from Pakistan, but now from Yemen and Somalia and other places the drones are used.

Again, Brian Fishman.

FISHMAN: You cannot defeat al-Qaida's ideology while we are directly engaged in military action in many places around the world, because that is going to feed al-Qaida's ability to recruit in other locations.

TEMPLE: So you can't defeat an ideology with a missile.

FISHMAN: And you can't defeat ideology with a missile in Pakistan. You can't defeat an ideology with a missile in Yemen or Somalia.

TEMPLE: Still, while the U.S. tries to figure out how to tailor its counterterrorism strategy to target al-Qaida around the world, drones might be the best they can do for now.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.