Cowards’ war in Yemen
The CIA doesn't know if it got its al-Qaeda man - because it wasn't there.
If you are a suspected al-Qaeda operative, summary ‘justice’ can come like a bolt from the blue.
On the morning of 4 November 2002, an unmanned Predator drone operating from an altitude of up to 25,000 feet, picked up a nondescript utility vehicle on a monitor and tracked it as it sped along a highway towards the city of Marib in northern Yemen. CIA operators of the unmanned aircraft, working from a ground station hundreds of miles away, and basing their action on Yemeni ‘intelligence’, then aimed and guided a Hellfire missile to the target. The missile blew up the vehicle, throwing debris and body parts around the surrounding area.
At no risk to life or limb the USA claims to have achieved a major victory in the ‘war against terror’. One of the occupants of the vehicle is alleged to have been Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harthi. Al-Harthi has a lengthy charge-sheet, including allegations that he was ‘perhaps’ one of the top dozen or so figures in the worldwide al-Qaeda network, was a former body guard of Osama bin Laden, was the senior al-Qaeda operative in Yemen, one of the suspected planners behind the terrorist attack on the US warship Cole two years ago, in which 17 American sailors died and also possibly behind the 7 October 2002 bombing of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.
Yet for a figure of such alleged importance it seems strange that the USA would act in the way it did. Blowing people up is not the best way of making sure that the CIA did ‘get their man’. There are contradictory reports about the bombing. Some papers cite Yemeni sources saying that the vehicle was destroyed and the other passengers (except al-Harthi) were burned beyond recognition. This was apparently confirmed by a passing tribesman who saw Harthi’s body in the car and identified him, stating with (surprising) confidence that ‘I know him like I know myself’.
A different story was portrayed by CNN, quoting Walid Al-Saqqaf, managing editor of the Yemen Times, as stating that al-Harthi could only be identified by a mark on his leg, blown off in the blast. So it seems possible that we, and the US special forces, may never know if al-Harthi was actually in the vehicle.
There is also room for suspicion as to whether the five other occupants of the vehicle, swiftly declared to be ‘low-level’ al-Qaeda operatives and guilty-as-charged, were identified at all – considering that their bodies were so badly burned as to be unrecognisable. It would seem unwise to rely solely on US ‘intelligence’ prior to the missile assault, considering the numerous occasions in Afghanistan and Kosovo where this type of identification information has proved to be the product of manipulation, misunderstanding or wishful thinking.
Of greater importance, even if the CIA vigilantes did get their man, there is little way of knowing to what extent he was in fact responsible for the crimes of which he was accused. Inevitably, after the event the US government is talking up the benefits of having the al-Qaeda suspect out of the picture. US defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated that putting al-Harthi ‘out of business’ was a ‘very good thing’. US President George W Bush greeted the news asserting: ‘The only way to treat them is [for] what they are – international killers.’
The summary execution without trial of terrorist suspects is not only a flagrant breach of international law and accepted human rights norms, it also does not help in building up information about the actions and future plans of the al-Qaeda organisation. Intelligence is widely accepted to be one of the weaker planks in the ‘war against terrorism’, yet the US forces passed up a prime opportunity to get information from one of the few leading al-Qaeda suspects whose location was actually known. In fact, his movements appear to have been tracked for a number of months.
While the US talks tough in the UN Security Council and develops new national security strategies based on unilateral powers of pre-emptive war-making, the actions on the ground are those of a power unwilling to commit itself – even when it is clearly in its vital security interests. Summary justice delivered by CIA-operated unmanned drones from 25,000 feet seems to illustrate the problems of the USA’s reluctance to take risks in the course of the ‘war against terror’.
Relying on robotic technology to take out suspects, while the operators sit in the safety of a US army compound hundreds of miles away, smacks of cowardice rather than conviction.
The reason for this unwillingness to confront the ‘enemy’ in person appears to lie in concerns over US casualties. A few gun-toting tribesmen are enough to deter the US special forces from entering the poor villages in Yemen’s Marib province where it is alleged al-Qaeda suspects, such as al-Harthi, have sought sanctuary. US instructors had trained Yemeni forces to fight the ‘war against terror’ on their behalf, but this failed spectacularly in December 2001 when local tribesmen defeated them in a shoot-out, allowing al-Qaeda suspects to escape. But US commanders’ reluctance to put their troops in harm’s way is not specific to the Yemen.
In Afghanistan, there was the same reliance on ‘local forces’ when there was any risk of casualties. Despite the rhetoric about ‘nation-building’ and new Marshall Plans, the US has been reluctant to enforce the writ of the internationally installed Karzai government outside the capital Kabul. International policy institutes negatively describe the Afghanistan mission as making a ‘light-footprint’ compared to the confident attempts at state-building in the less risky environments of Kosovo or Bosnia (1).
For many commentators, the CIA attack in Yemen signals a more aggressive phase in America’s war against terrorism. The Guardian editorialises that Bush is ‘living his presidency like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’, with the entire world becoming a Wild West shooting-range (2). But anti-terrorist strategy based on minimising risks is a far cry from the confident superiority of the Wild West hero. Rather than Jack Ryan, the nearest comparison would be the feckless bounty-hunter who would prefer to shoot his quarry in the back rather than face them off in a show-down.
Even if al-Harthi was killed, and if the allegations made to justify his murder were true, it is clear that the USA would have had much more to gain by attempting to capture him alive. It is hard to see how such a risk-adverse US approach can be maintained if the war against terror is to proceed.
If the CIA and US special forces are unwilling to take the risks involved in capturing an al-Qaeda suspect travelling in a single vehicle along an isolated road in the Yemeni desert, then Saddam Hussein may have little to fear.
David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:
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War against what?, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Tiptoeing through Afghanistan: the Future of UN State-building, Simon Chesterman, New York: International Peace Academy, September 2002
(2) ‘Drones of Death’, Editorial, Guardian, 6 November 2002
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