The Obama administration has reportedly launched two drone strikes in Yemen and news stories indicate that the principal target was Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the al Qaeda master bomb-maker behind the failed Christmas Day 2009 airliner attack as well as other failed attacks — including the foiled plot in 2012 to bring down a US bound airliner that had been apparently timed for the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death.
It is still unclear if they got al-Asiri, but if they did it would be a tragedy not a triumph.
No one is weeping for a dead terrorist, mind you. If dead, al-Asiri got the justice he deserved. But if a drone strike has indeed vaporized this ingenious terrorist intent on attacking the United States, it has also vaporized all the vital intelligence inside his brain.
We need that intelligence to keep the country safe.
Last May, following the disruption of the 2012 airliner attack, I published a column in the Washington Post entitled “Mr. President, please don’t kill this terrorist.” Rather than killing al-Asiri, I argued, we ought to capture him alive and interrogate him.
So what has been lost if al-Asiri has indeed been killed? Plenty. Here’s just some of what al-Asiri could have told US intelligence officials if captured alive for questioning:
- “Who’s who”— al-Asiri could identify the couriers, financiers, operators, commanders, supporters and facilitators who make the AQAP network run, as well as the phone numbers, e-mail addresses and kunyas (or code names) they use so that we can track them down
- “What’s where” — he could tell us the locations of AQAP safe houses, arms caches and training camps, as well as the ports of entry the terrorists use to move in and out of Yemen
- “What’s what” — he could tell us about AQAP’s organizational structure, its hierarchy, its personnel strength, its view of how the battle is going and the state of the organization’s morale
- “What’s next” — he could tell us the plots AQAP has set in motion and the operatives he has trained and deployed to carry them out
This last bit of information is critically important. According to CNN, “senior American officials say [al-Asiri] has also trained others in al Qaeda in advanced bomb-making, so his techniques may survive should he be killed in a drone strike.”
In other words, taking him out does not remove the threat al-Asiri poses — because his protégés will carry on his work. Capturing him alive, by contrast, could lead us to those protégés and so we can eliminate the threat they pose as well.
Capturing him alive would also preserve the valuable “pocket litter” he possesses that could provide key leads. According to former CIA counterterrorism chief Jose Rodriguez, author of the new book Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, “Al-Asiri’s capture could yield intelligence from phones, computers, paper records and fingerprints, which would help locate bombs he has created, bombers he has dispatched, new bombmakers he has trained and potential targets he had identified.”
If al-Asiri has in fact been killed by a drone, all this vital intelligence has been destroyed.
This is the problem with the Obama drone campaign. The president kills almost every high-value terrorist he locates. This is perfectly legal, but strategically insane — because in the process he is blowing up the very intelligence we need to protect the country.
So killing al-Asiri may feel good, but it may also help al Qaeda preserve its secrets and carry out the next attack.
Follow AEIdeas on Twitter at @AEIdeas.