Tag Archives: Osama bin Laden

Targeted Killings and Super-empowered Individuals

Radical cleric and U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, seen here in a video posted on radical websites, was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Friday.

The killing of U.S. citizen and radical Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki by a CIA drone strike in Yemen on Friday has rekindled a debate about the legality, morality, and practical wisdom of targeted killings as a method of fighting terrorism.  For an overview of the major arguments on both sides, see this Council on Foreign Relations debate and these pro and con articles from the National Review.  As the National Review debate makes clear, concerns about targeted killings cross the political spectrum.  Although many of the opponents of targeted killings are on the political left, conservative Kevin Williamson takes issue with the policy in his article  “Assassin-in-Chief”:

“It is impossible to imagine that the United States would accept that the King of Sweden or the Grand Duke of Luxembourg has the legitimate right to conduct assassinations in the United States on the theory that we might be harboring enemies who wish them ill; to say the words is to appreciate their inherent preposterousness. But our own president is empowered to target our own citizens, wherever they may be found, without even so much as congressional oversight.”

Beyond these important debates on the legality, ethics, and effectiveness of targeted killings, it is worth noting that the growing attractiveness and prevalence of such tactics in the 21st century may be an indirect consequence of globalization and the rise of what Thomas Friedman has called “super-empowered individuals.”  Globalization has decentralized power, eroded the authority of states, and empowered non-state actors (including individuals) through the availability of technologies including email, the internet, and even potentially weapons of mass destruction.  In the prologue to his book Longitudes and Attitudes Friedman says:

“Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in the late 1990s. After he organized the bombing of two American embassies in Africa, the U.S. Air Force retaliated with a cruise missile attack on his bases in Afghanistan as though he were another nation-state. Think about that: on one day in 1998, the United States fired 75 cruise missiles at bin Laden. The United States fired 75 cruise missiles, at $1 million apiece, at a person! That was the first battle in history between a superpower and a super-empowered angry man. September 11 was just the second such battle.”

As with bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki exploited modern information technology to communicate with, coordinate, and inspire followers worldwide.  Both of these super-empowered individuals provoked the wrath of a superpower and were recently killed by that state’s military efforts.

Are these recent targeted killings a glimpse of the future of warfare in an age of globalization?  Can they be justified in under international and U.S. law?  What are the broader implications, both positive and negative, of the rise of super-empowered individuals?

Pakistan–Friend or Foe?

Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan's Army Chief

Two troubling pieces of news today highlight America’s frayed relationship with Pakistan and add to the growing questions about whether Pakistan can truly be viewed as America’s ally in the Global War on Terror.

News item #1: a Pew Research Center poll was released showing how the Pakistani public views America, President Obama, and Osama bin Laden, among other issues.  Some of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective):

* only 10% of Pakistanis approve of the U.S. raid that killed Bin Laden

* only 12% have a favorable view of America

* a mere 8% have confidence in President Obama

* 79% say the military is having a good influence on the country

* only 14% believe President Asif Ali Zardari is having a good influence

If there is any good news from the American perspective from this poll, it is that only 12% of the public has a favorable view of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  The fact that the military is the most popular institution in Pakistan highlights the powerful role played by the military in Pakistani politics (recall that it was only in 2008 that General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, relinquished control to civilian authorities).  In a democracy, which Pakistan aspires to be, elected civilian officials must control the military, but Pakistan has little tradition of civilian control.  You can view the full poll here.

News item #2: a senior Pakistani army officer was detained on suspicion of ties to militant groups.  Brigadier Ali Khan was reportedly linked to Hizb-ul-Tahrir, a radical Islamist group which distributed pamphlets in military encampments after the raid on Bin Laden’s compound calling for officers to establish an Islamic caliphate.  “A copy of the pamphlet, posted on Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s Web site in English, claims that the United States is behind attacks blamed on Islamist militants in Pakistan, and calls on the ‘military leadership to mobilize to protect the Muslims from further harm at the hands of the Americans.'”

This news comes on the heels of a string of troubling reports, from Pakistan’s arrest of five informants who helped the CIA locate Bin Laden, to a rumor that Pakistan has “lost the the paperwork that would explain how a compound was bought and built in Abbotabad to house Osama Bin Laden for over five years,” to the apparent “tipping off” of Pakistani militants that U.S. raids were coming.  The latter disclosure “prompted senior members of Congress on Sunday to accuse Pakistan of playing a double game by aiding the United States on some counterterrorism operations while also maintaining ties to violent, extremist organizations operating from its territory.”  As a result of this “double game,” the most serious (though often unstated) concern of many U.S. officials is the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

What do you think?  Can Pakistan legitimately be called an ally or partner of the U.S. in the War on Terror?  Should the U.S. stop giving $2 billion in aid annually to a government that doesn’t have our best interests at heart, or is this fragile “partnership” actually much better than the alternative, as many experts believe?

Does Bin Laden’s Death Vindicate Bush-Era Harsh Interrogation Techniques?

The killing of Osama bin Laden has revived a debate over the usefulness and morality of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a euphemism for torture according to critics) employed by the George W. Bush administration to extract information from suspected terrorists.  Several Bush administration officials and conservative commentators have claimed that the enhanced techniques, such as waterboarding, produced the vital intelligence that led the U.S.to bin Laden’s hideout.  Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, entitled “The Waterboarding Trail to Bin Laden,” makes this case.  Mukasey argues that coercive interrogations, though used very infrequently, led to the capture of top Al-Qaeda operatives including Ramzi bin al Shibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who were themselves subjected to these techniques and gave crucial information about bin Laden’s couriers—information that helped the U.S. track and kill the elusive bin Laden.  Upon taking office, President Obama discontinued the CIA program of harsh interrogations, a decision Mukasey suggests will harm U.S. security: “But policies put in place by the very administration that presided over this splendid success promise fewer such successes in the future. Those policies make it unlikely that we’ll be able to get information from those whose identities are disclosed by the material seized from bin Laden. The administration also hounds our intelligence gatherers in ways that can only demoralize them.”   

Opponents of Bush-era interrogation practices immediately fired back, contending there is little evidence that torture led to bin Laden, and pointing to the lengthy gap between the use of these techniques and the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound.  Adam Serwer of the Plum Line argues along these lines: “The pro-torture argument ignores the obvious — that if torture was so effective, bin Laden would have been dead long ago. Bin Laden was found through years of painstaking intelligence gathering, not through the barbarous methods supported by many Bush apologists.”  Former interrogator Matthew Alexander joins many critics (including Senator John McCain) in arguing that torture is not only immoral but practically it does more harm than good: it prompts detainees to fabricate information to stop the pain, it puts U.S. soldiers at risk, it harms America’s image overseas, and it serves as a potent recruiting tool for America’s enemies, including Al Qaeda. 

As is often the case, the answer to the question of whether enhanced interrogation techniques were pivotal in this case lies somewhere in between the stark narratives provided by either of these camps.  It appears that some of the intelligence that ultimately led to bin Laden did come from detainees who were subjected to these techniques (CIA Director Leon Panetta conceded as much in an interview with NBC news) but a great deal of additional intelligence gathering and analysis was required before the mission could be launched.  As National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor put it in a NY Times interview, “The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003…It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

Should these facts prompt President Obama to reconsider his rejection of his predecessor’s interrogation policies?  Is Obama putting America at risk by leaving a potentially important tool in the War on Terror in the toolbox?  Or does the use of this tool actually harm America’s interests, undermine its values, and make us more like our enemies?

Bin Laden and the War on Terror

Perhaps not surprisingly, the blogosphere has been dominated by discussion of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces operating in Pakistan. While the mission itself was clouded in secrecy, perhaps the most detailed description was offered by Marc Ambinder at the National Journal.

The news prompted spontaneous gatherings outside the White House in Washington DC and at the World Trade Center site in New York City. It also prompted Peter Beinart to assert “The War on Terror is over.”

But as several bloggers have been quick to point out, Beinart’s assertion may be a bit premature. As Daniel Drezner points out, bin Laden’s role in al Qaeda had been minimized. Although he continued to serve as its figurehead leader, bin Laden had little role in the organization’s operational side. Al Qaeda itself had long been fractured into separate commands, each operating essentially as franchises of the larger organization. Operations in Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere will therefore not be affected by bin Laden’s death.

The real question that bin Laden’s death does raise, however, centers on US-Pakistan relations. A number of bloggers, including David Rothkopf, Julian Borger, and Stephen Walt all note that given bin Laden’s location it is improbable in the least to think that he was not receiving support from elements within the Pakistani government. What this means for the future of US-Pakistani relations remains unclear. The United States, however, continues to need Pakistan’s assistance in the war on terror. Al Qaeda may not be the threat it once was, but terrorists nevertheless continue to be key actors on the global stage.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

A suicide bomb attack in Iran killed several senior commanders of the country’s elite Revolutionary Guard and at least twenty tribal leaders in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. The bombing was the first major terrorist attack in Iran in more than twenty years, and represents a major public relations blow for the Iranian government. A group known as Jundallah claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Iranian government has also attempted to place blame on the British government for the attack, claiming that Britain has an “overt and hidden hand in terrorist attack against Iran.” Juddallah is a Pakistan-based radical Sunni group campaigning for independence for ethnic Baluchis in Iran.

In an unrelated development, the Russian government indicated it would be willing to impose sanctions on Iran if the Iranian government fails to implement promises it made to the international community regarding its nuclear program. This represents a significant hardening of the Russian position on Iran, which it had previously dismissed as “unproductive.”

In news from outside Iran in the last week:

1. The United Nations-backed panel investigating elections in Afghanistan appears poised to overturn August election results. The panel is recommending that a number of suspicious ballots be thrown out, thus necessitating a runoff election between incumbent president Hamid Karzai and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The United States is attempting to resolve the growing political crisis, which threatens to complicate President Barack Obama’s decision on whether or not to expand the U.S. troop presence in the country.

2. Fights between rival drug gangs rocked Rio de Janeiro over the weekend, only one week after the city was named host of the 2016 summer Olympics. At least fourteen people were killed in the violence, and a police helicopter was shot down as members of the Comando Vermelho, Rio’s largest gang, and its rival, Amigos dos Amigos, fought in the favelas that surround the city. The state governor, Sergio Cabral, informed the International Olympic Committee of the events, noting, “We told the OIC this is not a simple matter, and they know this, and we want to arrive in 201 with Rio in peace before, during, and after the games.”

3. The Pakistani government launched a new offensive against Taliban strongholds in the South Waziristan region. The new offensive comes after two weeks in which the Taliban had engaged in a series of attacks against the Pakistani government and military. The Pakistani government believes that the Taliban may have as many as 10,000 militant fighters assembled in the region, which is also believed to be the hiding location for Osama bin Laden.

4. In a dramatic regional contrast, citizens in Botswana are expected to hand the government if Ian Khama a victory in Friday’s elections, while the government of neighboring Zimbabwe is struggling to address the continuing political instability there. Botswana is widely viewed as a success story in Southern Africa, due in part to its political stability and part to its vast diamond wealth.  But as global diamond prices fall, the economy of Botswana may begin to struggle. The government faces a severe budget shortfall, due primarily to a dramatic decline in diamond prices, necessitating a $1.5 billion loan from the African Development Bank.

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai threatened to “disengage” from working with President Robert Mugabe. The two have been part of a power sharing arrangement since Febraury, but Tsvangarai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been marginalized from real political power.

5. The United States budget deficit has reached a record level of $1.4 trillion for the last fiscal year, as the government expanded spending significantly in order to address the global economic downturn. The deficit was approximately 10 percent of gross domestic product, but was $162 billion less than the administration forecast in August. Tax revenue fell by more than 16 percent as a result of the economic downturn, but spending increased by more than 18 percent.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It was a busy week for the Obama administration, as the president made the rounds. On Wednesday, President Obama met with King Abudllah of Saudi Arabia to discuss the “strategic relationship” between the two countries.  On Thursday, the President followed up on a campaign promise, delivering a major foreign policy speech in Cairo, Egypt, where he outlined his vision for Middle East peace. In typical Obama fashion, the speech was balanced and generally well-received. (The video footage of the speech is available on the White House blog). In the speech, he reiterated U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute, called on Israel to cease all settlement expansion in the West Bank, and called on Palestinians to renounce the use of violence. Demonstrating a cultural and technical sophistication, the White House ensured the speech was simultaneously available through Facebook and other social networking sites in English, Arabic, Urdu, and Turkish. On Friday, the President visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. And on Saturday, Obama participated in the 65th anniversary celebration of the D-Day landings before meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.

A busy week for the president, but here are five stories you might have missed if you were only watching his travels:

1. A new audio tape was released by Osama bin Laden, denouncing Obama’s policies as a mere continuation of the previous administration and warning the United States to prepare for war. According to many analysts, the release of the audio tape signals a growing concern from al Qaeda about Obama’s policies. Al Qaeda fears that Obama may be successful in reaching out to moderate Arab states, weakening support for the brand of radical Islam preached by al Qaeda.

2. Elections for the European Parliament took place last week. Although results are still being tabulated, the low level of voter turnout is expected to benefit smaller fringe parties, particularly those on the far right. In the Netherlands, unofficial results indicate that the Party for Freedom will become the second-largest Dutch party in European Parliament, capturing 4 of the country’s 25 seats. The party campaigned on a platform opposing immigration and Turkish ascension to the E.U. In the United Kingdom, voters are expected to hand the ruling Labour party a stinging defeat, with a real possibility that the party may place third in European elections. Similarly, in Ireland, the ruling centrist Fianna Fáil is expected to place second behind its center-right rival Fine Gael

3. The results of Iranian presidential election scheduled for Friday could hinge on…wait for it…the results of Saturday’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and North Korea. In order to qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa, Iran must win its three remaining matches: the first against North Korea on Saturday, then against the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, and finally against South Korea on June 17. A loss either of the pre-election matches could produce a sharp backlash against President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, particularly among the 60 percent of Iran’s citizens under 30—a group already inclined to support his rival, Mir-Hossein Moussavi.

4. In a dramatic sign of just how bad the global economic downturn has become, the government of Botswana was forced to turn to the African Development Bank last week for a record $1.5 billion loan. Botswana has long been heralded as one of Africa’s strongest and best-managed economies. Its president, Ian Khama, has a reputation as a reformer and statesman. But even he has been humbled by the problems faced by the economy of Botswana, which depends on diamonds for 80 percent of its foreign exchange earnings and about 30 percent of its gross domestic product. And as the price of diamonds has collapsed, the country has found itself increasingly facing economic difficulties.

5. On Friday, clashes between police and indigenous Amazonian protestors in Peru claimed more than 30 lives. Peru’s President, Alan Garcia, urged calm, but both sides appear to be escalating a standoff which has been ongoing for two months. At issue are indigenous land right claims, which they feel the government has abrogated in order to attract more foreign investment.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The G20 (which actually has 22 states attending this year) met this weekend in London. The ongoing economic crisis, of course, dominated discussions. The meeting produced a communiqué in which the states commit themselves to restoring financial growth and strengthening the global financial system. Discussions were dominated by several important divisions between the member states, particularly between the developed and developing countries (largely over reform of the International Monetary Fund) and between the United States and Europe (over the urgency and scope of economic stimulus efforts). In the end, the only real, concrete policy initiative was the agreement to enlarge the membership of the Financial Stability Forum to include all G20 members. Created in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the FSF monitors the global financial system and coordinates policies between the international financial institutions.

In news from outside the G20 meeting:

1. On Friday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed concern over the mounting U.S. deficit and the future stability of the U.S. economy. The Chinese government currently holds an estimated 70 percent of its $2 trillion foreign exchange reserve in dollar-denominated assets and is the single-largest buyer of U.S. Treasury Bills. A decline in the value of the U.S. dollar therefore threatens China’s massive reserves. But while the Premier is pressuring the U.S. to ensure the stability of its currency, Luo Ping, the director general of the Chinese Banking Regulatory Commission, reassured the U.S. government (and dollar markets more generally), that the investment in the dollar remains the “only option” for Chinese foreign reserve holdings.

2. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, fresh off her trip to the Middle East and Europe, will be visiting Mexico later this month to discuss the crisis resulting from the growth of drug cartels in the country. The U.S. and Mexico already have an ongoing anti-drug effort (currently valued at approximately $750 million). However, the effort has not been successful in curbing the growing influence of the cartels, and many observers fear that Mexico may fall to the cartels. The situation in Mexico has become so stark in recent weeks that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory, and the U.S. Joint Forces Command has begun gaming exercises based on the assumption that Mexico could undergo a “rapid and sudden collapse.”

3. The deepening political crisis in Pakistan continues. Over the last week, the government has increased its crackdown on opposition party members, which they accuse of attempting to undermine Pakistan’s fragile parliamentary democracy. A series of nationwide protests led by many of the country’s lawyers has been demanding the “restoration of democracy and the rule of law.” On Sunday, the government placed Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, under house arrest and attempted to block protests in Islamabad, the country’s capital.

4. On Tuesday, Madagascar’s the army gave the country’s president, Marc Ravalomanana, a 72-hour ultimatum to resolve the ongoing crisis or resign from office. Madagascar has been suffering from an economic malaise due the collapse of the vanilla market, Madagascar’s main export. While the country has begun to attract foreign investment, Madagascar remains incredibly poor, with a GDP per capita of just $330, and inequality between rich and poor remains very high. Ravalomanana remains defiant. On Saturday, he addressed his supporters to say he would not be resigning.

5. In a new statement released on Saturday, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden warned Arab leaders against cooperating with the West and renewed calls for his followers to prepare for jihad. Bin Laden singled out Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, as countries headed by leaders that “have plotted with the Zionist-crusader coalition against our (Muslim) people.” Bin Laden also made reference to the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, describing it as a “holocaust.”