by Austin Bay
November 6, 2002
Al Qaeda's zealots never thought they'd be fighting American
robots -- and losing.
America's "Predator" drone aircraft is a robot of sorts, an
unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with an extremely small radar and political
signature. This past week, a Hellfire missile launched from a CIA-operated
Predator hit a car on a road in Yemen's Marib province and killed six
suspected Al Qaeda members. U.S. sources identified Qaed Senyan al-Harthi as
one of the dead. Allegedly, al-Harthi orchestrated the October 2000 attack
on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. Seventeen American sailors died.
One source says al-Harthi also acted as "communications coordinator" for the
9-11 attacks. In other words, he linked the terror cells whose hijacked
planes struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
The Hellfire was originally designed for launch from a
helicopter, with Soviet armor the quarry. A Hellfire savages heavy tanks. As
a result, a Toyota truck, a Mercedes or a house, or a foxhole, or a rathole
doesn't give an Al Qaeda jihadi much protection.
Sophisticated technology, like the Predator, is part of a
symmetric power's answer to asymmetric warfare. A common fret among the many
uninformed critics of America's counter-terror war is that "asymmetric
attacks," like those on 9-11, can't be foiled and, moreover, the
perpetrators can't be found. The whine is, "The world's too big."
To be sure, combating global terror is a huge, difficult, bloody
task, like fighting Nazis and Japan's bushido-fired warlords. Hitler, Tojo
and bin Laden all made the mistake of underestimating U.S. capabilities, as
do current domestic doubters.
Al Qaeda's terrorists thought they could hide en masse in
Afghanistan. They were wrong. We can debate the success of the battle of
Tora Bora, but for the first time in 25 years, Kabul has no curfew. Al
Qaeda's latest gambit is to lie low in Earth's alleys and dark corners. All
politics is local? American counter-terror warfare can be extraordinarily
local. The United States is demonstrating even isolated, tribal locales
where everyone's a cousin aren't hermetic. Al Qaeda pledged a global battle
without borders, and it's getting one. The Predator attack shows that U.S.
counter-terror intelligence has improved. Satellites, UAVs and other
cutting-edge technologies extend U.S. military presence in ways bin Laden
failed to anticipate. Hellfire's laser-light can illuminate a terrorist's
This isn't the first time a Predator has blasted Al Qaeda. CIA
used the Predator in Afghanistan. This is, however, the first known
counter-strike -- by Predator or any U.S. forces -- against Al Qaeda outside
The terrorists have made Yemen a battlefield. While the Cole
attack sticks in American minds, a month ago a terrorist boat attacked a
French oil tanker off Yemen.
But the United States isn't operating unilaterally in Yemen. The
Predator attack illustrates the kind of high quality, though quiet,
cooperation America is receiving from nations around the globe. Yemeni
forces have been looking for Al Qaeda operatives for several months. The
Yemeni government permits CIA operations. This kind of State Department
diplomatic success doesn't draw loud touts -- which is one reason it's
A counter-terror war necessarily plays out in cruel shadows,
where targets may be poorly defined and mistakes a certainty. It's a gray
war, always on a slope toward darkness. The Predator attack in Yemen verges
on 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 bomber
carrying Yamamoto. Intercepting bombers is a military mission, but killing
Yamamoto -- the architect of Pearl Harbor -- was the goal.
Technically, al-Harthi died in an air attack. His convoy can
certainly be construed as a "command and control center," but that becomes a
word game. The United States bans political assassinations, but the U.N.
charter permits military defense against attack. Al Qaeda wages a war
without limits. Its operatives define themselves as holy warriors. Every
American, in Al Qaeda's war doctrine, is a permissible target. Al Qaeda's
own decentralized organization is part of its offensive and defensive
strategy. Individual Al Qaeda members -- its suicidal terrorists -- are
indeed its military weapons. Bin Laden praised his "asymmetric" warriors of
9-11 for their "unstoppable" dedication.
But now a fearful symmetry appears. CIA's robots are more
relentless than bin Laden's most committed zealots.