by Austin Bay
November 6, 2002
Al Qaeda's zealots never thought they'd be fighting Americanrobots -- and losing.
America's "Predator" drone aircraft is a robot of sorts, anunmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with an extremely small radar and politicalsignature. This past week, a Hellfire missile launched from a CIA-operatedPredator hit a car on a road in Yemen's Marib province and killed sixsuspected Al Qaeda members. U.S. sources identified Qaed Senyan al-Harthi asone of the dead. Allegedly, al-Harthi orchestrated the October 2000 attackon the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. Seventeen American sailors died.One source says al-Harthi also acted as "communications coordinator" for the9-11 attacks. In other words, he linked the terror cells whose hijackedplanes struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
The Hellfire was originally designed for launch from ahelicopter, with Soviet armor the quarry. A Hellfire savages heavy tanks. Asa result, a Toyota truck, a Mercedes or a house, or a foxhole, or a ratholedoesn't give an Al Qaeda jihadi much protection.
Sophisticated technology, like the Predator, is part of asymmetric power's answer to asymmetric warfare. A common fret among the manyuninformed critics of America's counter-terror war is that "asymmetricattacks," like those on 9-11, can't be foiled and, moreover, theperpetrators can't be found. The whine is, "The world's too big."
To be sure, combating global terror is a huge, difficult, bloodytask, like fighting Nazis and Japan's bushido-fired warlords. Hitler, Tojoand bin Laden all made the mistake of underestimating U.S. capabilities, asdo current domestic doubters.
Al Qaeda's terrorists thought they could hide en masse inAfghanistan. They were wrong. We can debate the success of the battle ofTora Bora, but for the first time in 25 years, Kabul has no curfew. AlQaeda's latest gambit is to lie low in Earth's alleys and dark corners. Allpolitics is local? American counter-terror warfare can be extraordinarilylocal. The United States is demonstrating even isolated, tribal localeswhere everyone's a cousin aren't hermetic. Al Qaeda pledged a global battlewithout borders, and it's getting one. The Predator attack shows that U.S.counter-terror intelligence has improved. Satellites, UAVs and othercutting-edge technologies extend U.S. military presence in ways bin Ladenfailed to anticipate. Hellfire's laser-light can illuminate a terrorist'sdarkest corner.
This isn't the first time a Predator has blasted Al Qaeda. CIAused the Predator in Afghanistan. This is, however, the first knowncounter-strike -- by Predator or any U.S. forces -- against Al Qaeda outsideof Afghanistan.
The terrorists have made Yemen a battlefield. While the Coleattack sticks in American minds, a month ago a terrorist boat attacked aFrench oil tanker off Yemen.
But the United States isn't operating unilaterally in Yemen. ThePredator attack illustrates the kind of high quality, though quiet,cooperation America is receiving from nations around the globe. Yemeniforces have been looking for Al Qaeda operatives for several months. TheYemeni government permits CIA operations. This kind of State Departmentdiplomatic success doesn't draw loud touts -- which is one reason it'ssuccessful.
A counter-terror war necessarily plays out in cruel shadows,where targets may be poorly defined and mistakes a certainty. It's a graywar, always on a slope toward darkness. The Predator attack in Yemen vergeson assassination, echoing the U.S. Army Air Corps ambush of Japanese Adm.Isoroku Yamamoto in 1943. US P-38s flew 415 miles to intercept a bombercarrying Yamamoto. Intercepting bombers is a military mission, but killingYamamoto -- the architect of Pearl Harbor -- was the goal.
Technically, al-Harthi died in an air attack. His convoy cancertainly be construed as a "command and control center," but that becomes aword game. The United States bans political assassinations, but the U.N.charter permits military defense against attack. Al Qaeda wages a warwithout limits. Its operatives define themselves as holy warriors. EveryAmerican, in Al Qaeda's war doctrine, is a permissible target. Al Qaeda'sown decentralized organization is part of its offensive and defensivestrategy. Individual Al Qaeda members -- its suicidal terrorists -- areindeed its military weapons. Bin Laden praised his "asymmetric" warriors of9-11 for their "unstoppable" dedication.
But now a fearful symmetry appears. CIA's robots are morerelentless than bin Laden's most committed zealots.