The Threat From Al Qaeda


Speaking of the CIA, the piece today in the Washington Post about the agency ramping up its operations in Yemen is curious for a few reasons. The lead seems to be sort of buried:

Indeed, officials said it was largely because al-Qaeda has been decimated by Predator strikes in Pakistan that the franchise in Yemen has emerged as a more potent threat.

This is an interesting statement. If this is true, it's a major development. The CIA has, by administration estimates, killed 200 or so Pakistan Taliban and Al Qaeda members in the past few years. But there is not a consensus in the intelligence community about whether these strikes have been at all effective in contributing to Pakistan's stability or in deradicalizing Taliban cells. Indeed, there is a core conflict between the Predator program, which military intelligence officials believe continues to radicalize young Muslim men in the tribal regions of the country even as it kills potential terrorists, and the administration's regional strategy, which seeks to engage Afghans and legitimize Pakistan's civilian government.

Further, there's a difference between killing Al Qaeda leaders and degrading their networks; the latter involves targeting safe houses, facilitators of communications, low-level well as strategic communication...something that special forces tend to do better than the CIA. Weirdly, the predator strikes might have curtailed the ability of Al Qaeda in Pakistan to plan attacks against the West while providing sustenance to the Taliban's efforts to retrench an insurgency in parts of Afghanistan and elsewhere. If you're sympathetic to Al Qaeda, you won't go to Pakistan anymore.

Indeed, one effect of the CIA's lawn-mowing of the Al Qaeda leadership has been a shift of training and communication and propaganda personnel to the Horn of Africa.  For two years, the Joint Special Operations Command has operated a joint task force to combat precisely the threat that the CIA seems to be now identifying.  More than 100 U.S. soldiers are working with Yemeni officials (and occasionally, without them) to identify and neutralize threats.  (The U.S's first drone strike in Pakistan killed a U.S. citizen in 2002.)

For the CIA, the article seems to imply that Yemen rise as a concern is largely because of the relative, though caveated, marginal decline of Pakistan as a concern.  Is Yemen considered an even greater threat than it was on December 26, 2009, the day after a Yemeni-trained terrorist tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit?

So here's a question: who is more responsible for the changing nature of the threat? The CIA's drone kills, or the revolution in military intelligence practices that the Joint Special Operations Command put into practice beginning in about 2005?

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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