Hunting al Qaeda

By October 16, 2011 No Comments

2011 looks like a winning season in the hunt for the principal members of al Qaeda. Consider the following:

  • Osama bin Laden was knocked off in early May in his compound in Pakistan in the raid by US Navy Seals.
  • Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (al Qaeda’s East African commander and military head of el Shabaab) on June 7th in an encounter at a checkpoint.
  • Atiyah Abd al-Rahman: A Libyan who was AQ’s most recent operations chief was reportedly killed in a drone strike in Waziristan in Pakistan on August 27th.
  • Abu Hafs al Shahri (al Qaeda’s commander in Pakistan’s two Waziristan provinces) was killed in a drone strike on September 15th.
  • Anwar al-Awlaki, the main facilitator for ‘Home Growns’ and for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was killed by a Predator Drone in late September.

Five key deaths in as many months are good news, but this is no reason to relax. In essence, any counter-terror campaign is an exercise in attrition.

Terrorist groups will keep forming cells and developing people with experience in leadership, operational planning, recruiting and technical skills like bomb-making. If they produce such people faster than the authorities can arrest or kill them, or force them into hiding, then the terrorists are winning. If the reverse occurs, then the authorities are winning.

The process is seldom swift. The IRA were the foremost experts on bomb design in the terrorist world in the early 1980s, with such masterpieces as the 1984 Brighton Hotel bombing . A decade of determined counter-terror effort later and they were mostly reduced to pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails in London. The British held a number of advantages in that decade such as good intelligence, cooperation with Ireland, and an increasingly fatigued Catholic population in Ulster; all of which allowed the British to get on top of the IRA in the attritional struggle.

Al Qaeda had the better part of a decade to gel together and had considerable advantages during the 1990s. The hunt for some of its members is likely to go on for a long time. This is the track record of targeted US killings of senior al Qaeda members so far:

  1. Khalid Habib was a rising star within al Qaeda because of his great experience in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq. A Predator got him in his Toyota SUV in South Waziristan in October 2008. A highly experienced terrorist, it is still unclear whether he was a Moroccan or Egyptian.
  2. Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi was hit by a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone in November 2002. He was believed to be the senior al Qaeda leader in Yemen; and was killed in a remote corner of that country. Five other al Qaeda members were with him in his SUV when it was destroyed, including Kamal Derwish, an American citizen also known as Ahmed Hijaz, who may have helped recruit the Lackawanna Six.
  3. Usama al-Kini, a Kenyan on the FBI’s most wanted list was wanted for the bombing of the Mariott hotel in Islamabad. The CIA Drone Program celebrated New Year’s Day 2009 with a Predator strike on an al Qaeda safe house in South Waziristan. The same missile attack also accounted for Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan, his Kenyan lieutenant.
  4. Abu Laith al-Libi, one al-Qaeda’s most senior figures and on the U.S.’s Afghanistan ‘wanted list’, was killed in January 2008 by a Predator drone in Pakistan. Apparently a Libyan, he was killed along with four other AQ members. Canadians may recall he was a friend of the Khadr family.
  5. Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan was the Kenyan leader of al Qaeda in Somalia, and was wanted for his part in the African Embassy bombings as well as the 2002 Mombasa attacks in Kenya, when he was intercepted in Southern Somalia in September 2009. US Navy Seals shot up his vehicle from two helicopters.
  6. Abu Khabab al Masri (aka Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar), was the Egyptian head of al Qaeda’s chemical and biological weapons programs and had also trained Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui while heading a major AQ training facility in Afghanistan. He was killed with five other AQ members in a Predator attack on a house in South Waziristan in July 2008.
  7. Baitulloah Mehsud was killed by a Hellfire missile from a Predator in August 2009 along with his aide, seven bodyguards, his wife and her parents in South Waziristan. Mehsud had assembled several Taliban factions into Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan; which had some 5,000 gunmen and may have been responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto along with dozens of suicide bombings.
  8. Abu Hamza Rabia an Egyptian was reportedly the third in command of al Qaeda when he was killed with four of his bodyguards and two others in a Predator attack in a house in North Waziristan in December 2005.
  9. Rashid Rauf, the British and Pakistani architect of the 2006 plot to down a number of airliners more or less simultaneously, was reported killed by a US Predator drone attack on a Taliban compound in North Waziristan in November 2008.
  10. Nek Muhammed Wazir was a charismatic Taliban commander and a facilitator for al Qaeda (and various other groups within the AQ network). He was operating out of a haven carved out of South Waziristan when a Predator Drone got him with a Hellfire missile in June 2004 along with five of his subordinates.
  11. Mustafa Ahmed Muhammad Uthman Abu al-Yazid (also known as Saeed al-Masri) was an Egyptian and early member of al Qaeda. He was killed in May 2010 by a Predator Drone Strike in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. At one point, he handled al Qaeda’s finances but at the time of his death he was a commander of their forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  12. Haitham al-Yemeni was an al Qaeda explosives expert from Yemen. At the time he was killed by a Predator Drone in North Waziristan in March 2005, it was thought he was being promoted and was about to go into hiding.
  13. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq, was killed in June 2006 along with his lieutenant and spiritual adviser Sheik Abd-Al-Rahman, two of the latter’s family members, and four bodyguards. Two smart bombs were dropped on what they fondly thought of as their safe house.

The American targeted killings of key AQ personnel take a lot of work. The targets have to be identified by name and then by appearance and searching for them can take years. Once located, it may take a while to track them and determine the best time for a successful attack. In a Hollywood thriller, the whole process might look like a matter of hours or days. In reality it takes far longer.

There are critics of the US who believe that somehow these figures should have been arrested and subjected to a criminal trial. However, these critics need to take several factors into account. The Yemeni interior, Somalia, and Pakistani tribal areas like Waziristan are outside of the control of any competent legal authority. Moreover, commando raids are far more sophisticated and dangerous operations than having a Predator flying at 30,000 feet under remote control. The rough spots in the well-planned and rehearsed Osama bin Laden raid show how difficult commando operations can be.

The people who were killed were not so much fugitives from justice as they were actively involved in planning further attacks. Police seldom subdue and arrest suspects with a loaded guns in their hands, they shoot them to prevent harm to themselves or the public. The use of Predators with Hellfire missiles is the same dynamic writ large.

The process and system to hunt down and destroy these figures took years to establish, but it looks like it is finally taking full effect now. Consider the following:


Still, this is not the time for the personnel in this program to rest on their laurels. There are a number of identified senior members of al Qaeda who have so far escaped any kind of justice. They include;

  1. Saif al-Adel: An Egyptian, once in charge of Osama bin Laden’s security, he was jailed by Iran in 2003 and may be at large now.
  2. Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (numerous aliases): An Egyptian who was involved in the East Africa Embassy bombings and sat on the AQ Sura Council, he is currently believed to be under house arrest in Iran.
  3. Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali: Egyptian member of AQ wanted for his role in the African Embassy bombings; reportedly killed in a US airstrike in northern Pakistan in 2010 but this is unconfirmed.
  4. Jamal Ahmad Mohammed al Badawi: A Yemeni involved in the attack on the USS Cole who is in Yemeni custody (from which he has escaped twice before) and the US really wants to apprehend him.
  5. Abdel Droukdel (aka Abou Mossab Abdel Wadoud): A link between AQ and the old Algerian GIA, now the head of the AQ franchise al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
  6. Jaber A. Elbaneh: An American and member of the Lackawanna Six; currently in prison in Yemen.
  7. Adam Yahiye Gadhan: A convert to Islam and a US citizen (with a treason trial waiting if taken alive). Not an inner member of al Qaeda but an occasional propagandist.
  8. Khalid al Habib: An alias (as is Khalid al Harbi) for the Moroccan commander of AQ forces inside Afghanistan.
  9. Mustafa Hamid: Previously a liaison between AQ and the Iranians; jailed by the Iranians in 2003, he may be at large now.
  10. Isnilon Totoni Hapilon: An Abu Sayyaf leader involved in kidnapping and murder, he is currently on what passes for medical leave, whereabouts unknown.
  11. Ali Saed Bin Ali El-Hoorie: Involved in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia.
  12. Hamza al-Jawfi: A Gulf Arab, probably AQ’s current head of external operations – although he has been reported killed by a Predator strike in both May 2010 and 2011.
  13. Saad bin Laden: Osama bin Laden’s adult son and aide, possibly killed by an American Hellfire missile in 2009.
  14. Abu Yahya al-Libi (aka Hasan Qayid and Yunis al-Sahrawi): A Libyan who has emerged as a leading AQ theologian and spokesman. He escaped from the Bagram Detention facility in July 2005.
  15. Abu Khalil al-Madani: Probably a Saudi and on the AQ Sura Council since 2008.
  16. Ahmed Ibrahim al-Mughassil: Involved in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.
  17. Midhat Mursi: Egyptian explosives expert who also was heavily involved in AQ chemical and biological weapons experiments.
  18. Abdelkarim Hussein Mohamed al-Nasser: Involved in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and linked to the Saudi Shiite Group Saudi Hizbollah.
  19. Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso (numerous aliases): Veteran bomb-maker with much experience, now believed hiding out with AQAP in the Yemeni interior.
  20. Matiur Rehman: A Pakistani militant and AQ planning chief and bomb designer.
  21. Nazih Abdul –Hamed Nabi-al Ruqai’: (aka Anas al-Liby and other names): Wanted for the East Africa Embassy bombings and reputed to be one of al Qaeda’s computer experts; current whereabouts unknown.
  22. Adnan el Shukrijumah: A Saudi who lived in Canada and the US for over 15 years, he was reported to have become chief of AQ’s External Operations Council in August 2010, which places him in charge of attacks outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  23. Nasser Abdul Karim al-Wuhayshi: A former aide to Osama bin Laden and now the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
  24. Ibrahim Salihh Mohammed al-Yacoub: Involved in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.
  25. Abdul Rahman Yasin: An American of Iraqi descent, he was one of the AQ bomb-builders for 1993 WTC Attack. He has been missing since being jailed by Saddam Hussein in 2002
  26. Ayman al Zawahri: An Egyptian, deputy to Osama bin Laden, and now the current leader of AQ.

With this much work still ahead of them, there is only one thing that needs to be said to the US Targeted Killing program: Good luck and happy hunting.