Leadership: Fear At The Top

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October 12, 2012: Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban leaders are really, really eager to halt the American UAV campaign against them. So far, nothing has worked. But there is hope. That's because for over two years now the Islamic radicals have been running a propaganda campaign that attempts to halt the American use of UAVs, firing Hellfire missiles, to kill Taliban and al Qaeda leaders by claiming that most of the casualties are innocent civilians. This effort is based on pushing civilian casualty statistics that cannot be checked, much less documented, as well as insisting that many more missiles have been fired, that missed their target, and killed civilians instead. The propaganda claims that each missile killed fifteen civilians and that less than ten percent of the missiles actually hit Taliban or terrorists. While both of these claims are unlikely based on known performance of Hellfires, there is no way to verify the Taliban claims.

Many Pakistanis will believe this stuff, as will many foreigners, simply on ideological grounds. Some Pakistani politicians have demanded that the government do something to halt these attacks, which many Pakistanis see as a violation of their sovereignty. But the last thing the Pakistani government wants is a halt to these UAV operations. That's because the missiles kill many terrorists who have killed, or are planning to kill, Pakistani politicians. It's an open secret that the government even allowed the UAVs to operate from Pakistani air bases.

Since this "decapitation" (killing key terrorists) program began in 2008, over a thousand terrorists, including several dozen senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, and over a hundred mid-level ones, have died from the UAV missile attacks. There have actually been few civilian deaths, as the UAVs stalk their targets and seek to catch them while travelling, or otherwise away from civilians. Journalists visiting the sites of these attacks later find few locals claiming a lot of civilian casualties and even less evidence.

While the terrorist groups are concerned about the losses, especially among the leadership, what alarms them the most is how frequently the American UAVs are finding their key people. The real problem the terrorists have is that someone is ratting them out. Someone, or something, is helping the Americans find the terrorist leaders. It wasn't always that way. In 2007, there were only five UAV attacks, compared to three in 2006, one in 2005, and one in 2004. Back then it wasn't just the lack of identified targets that kept the UAVs away but fewer UAVs and Pakistani resistance to American UAVs making attacks inside Pakistan (even though the targets were terrorists attacking Pakistanis, including senior leaders). By 2008, the Pakistani leaders changed their minds, largely because the Pakistani Taliban were taking control of large areas in the tribal territories and Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda were going after senior Pakistani politicians and military leaders.

This Hellfire campaign is hitting al Qaeda at the very top, although less than a quarter of the attacks have struck at the most senior leaders. But that means most of the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan has been killed or badly wounded in the last three years. Perhaps even greater damage has been done to the terrorist middle management. These are old and experienced lieutenants, as well as young up-and-comers. They are the glue that holds al Qaeda and the Taliban together. Their loss is one reason why it's easier to get more information on where leaders are and why rank-and-file al Qaeda and Taliban are less effective as a result. The U.S., and Pakistan, has collected a lot of information from terrorists about how damaging the UAV attacks have been.

It's not just the terrorist leaders who are opposed to these tactics (of hitting the senior enemy leadership via "decapitation" attacks). All leaders, be they elected or otherwise, are uneasy about such operations. It's rather personal and brings the war closer to the top people than they would like. While Islamic terrorist leaders are enthusiastic about suicide bombings and suicidal attacks in general, they pay a lot of attention to safety for themselves and their immediate family. Their sons are rarely used as suicide bomber. Moreover, it is demoralizing to their followers if they see the boss and his bodyguards get blown to pieces by an American missile. 

While killing the enemy leader has long been seen as an ideal way to end a battle or war, in practice the senior leaders tended to avoid killing each other. This has become something of an unofficial and unspoken arrangement that has been breached by this UAV campaign. But as the Israelis demonstrated a decade ago, the best way to weaken or end a terror campaign is to go for the leadership. While this sort of thing disrupts the organizations losing their senior people, it also sends a message that being at the head of a terrorist group is, shall we say, terrifying.

 

 


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