On Point

Al Qaeda Fighting American Robots

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 darkest corner.

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 of Afghanistan.

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 successful.

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.

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