Study Shows US Government's Drone Killing Strategy Is Having Zero Impact On Al-Qaeda Attack Numbers

from the counterterrorism-that-counters-nothing dept

As everyone with an interest in a healthy surveillance state will tell you, we’ve never been less safe from terrorism than we are now. While a lot of this carries an undercurrent of self-interest, there is some evidence out there that indicates the US government’s policies aren’t exactly making us any new friends.

The controversial extrajudicial killing program utilizing weaponized drones has been a particular point of contention. For one thing, the American public has yet to be let in on the government’s legal rationale for acting as judge, jury and executioner of US citizens suspected of terrorist activity. This undisclosed reasoning has been perpetually on the verge of release for years now. Of course, when (and if) it’s ever handed over to the public domain, it will very likely be redacted to the point of abstraction, rendering it mostly useless.

This largely apocryphal document is only part of the problem. The other issue is the targets of the administration’s “targeted killing” program. As Zack Beauchamp at Vox points out, the government’s strategy doesn’t seem to be making any headway towards mitigating the al-Qaeda threat. (via Slashdot)

The basic premise of the Obama Administration’s drone program is that decapitation, the killing of a terrorist organization’s top leadership, works. Killing al-Qaeda’s leadership should, in theory, limit the organization’s ability to plot attacks on the US and its allies.

But what if that’s not true? That’s the core finding of a just-published study in the prestigious journal International Security. In it, Georgia Tech professor Jenna Jordan takes a look at the history of targeting terrorist leaders and draws lessons for the fight against al-Qaeda. According to Jordan, believing that targeted killing can actually weaken al-Qaeda means assuming al-Qaeda depends on a group of charismatic leaders. But that’s wrong, and that mistaken assumption has led the Obama Administration to pursue a strategy centered on targeting al-Qaeda’s leadership with drones when it’d really be better to cut down on targeted killings altogether.

Without a doubt, simply pursuing this program has done little to engender goodwill in countries deemed terroristic enough to warrant extrajudicial killings. The point has been made previously that these death-from-above attacks may be doing more harm than good by pushing on-the-fence individuals towards anti-American sentiments and actions. That the government remains largely silent on the collateral damage hasn’t helped.

But Jordan’s report goes deeper, suggesting the “cut the head off” approach doesn’t work against a largely decentralized opponent. Rather than throw underlings into disarray, the death of a top-level terrorist simply results in swift reshuffling of the organizational chart. Underneath it all, al-Qaeda appears to function more like a business bogged down in bureaucracy, rather than an efficient killing machine spurred into action by a small group of charismatic leaders.

al-Qaeda has bylaws defining “the group’s goals, principles, voting laws, processes for airing grievances, the importance of reports, details on organizational structure, members’ duties, leadership responsibilities, financial policies, budgetary requirements, and policies for different committees.”

US government assessments and declassified al-Qaeda documents show that these bylaws actually matter. al-Qaeda central in Pakistan exercises some real control over its affiliate groups in other places targeted by drone strikes like Yemen and Somalia. Moreover, those groups have their own internal hierarchies and rules. This is all strong evidence that the group is run bureaucratically, which makes it more able to absorb the loss of individual senior leaders.

An AP report noted this peculiar allegiance to the minutia of bureaucracy in a report late last year. Tracking of organizational expenditures by al-Qaeda operatives borders on the obsessive. The “company motto” may invoke jihad and Allah, but inside the walls, the holy war is fought with ledger books and well-documented petty cash dispersals.

In more than 100 receipts left in a building occupied by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in Timbuktu earlier this year, the extremists assiduously tracked their cash flow, recording purchases as small as a single light bulb. The often tiny amounts are carefully written out in pencil and colored pen on scraps of paper and Post-it notes: The equivalent of $1.80 for a bar of soap; $8 for a packet of macaroni; $14 for a tube of super glue. All the documents were authenticated by experts…

From the get-go, bin Laden was obsessed with enforcing corporate management techniques on his more than 500 employees, according to al-Qaida expert Lawrence Wright, author of a well-known history of the terror group. Workers had to submit forms in triplicate for even the smallest purchases — the same requirement bin Laden later imposed on the first al-Qaida recruits, he said.

As Jordan’s stats note, there’s no correlation between confirmed “decapitations” and worldwide al-Qaeda attacks. If her data is correct, the government’s belief in targeted killing is based more on faith than on any observable impact. That this is partially managed by the same people who claim thirteen years-worth of pervasive surveillance failing to blunt the terrorist threat is evidence that more spying is needed is also a problem. This means any attempts to scale back the killings will be greeted with grave concerns about the growing al-Qaeda threat.

Rolling back a useless program — especially one that contributes to radicalization — would be a good idea, but the ability to sell (and buy into) fear makes this almost an impossibility. No one wants to be the person who signed off on scaling back a very visible (but mostly symbolic, it would appear) counterterrorism program when the next attack hits. No politician or government agency official wants to be scapegoated for reining anything in, no matter how reasonable the decision. So, we’ll most likely be left in a state of fear-induced paralysis, allowing al-Qaeda to improve its efficiency and recovery time.

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Comments on “Study Shows US Government's Drone Killing Strategy Is Having Zero Impact On Al-Qaeda Attack Numbers”

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53 Comments
Michaelsays:

That explains it

The often tiny amounts are carefully written out in pencil and colored pen on scraps of paper and Post-it notes: The equivalent of $1.80 for a bar of soap; $8 for a packet of macaroni; $14 for a tube of super glue

Holy crap. If I had to track my expenses down to this level of detail, I would volunteer to be a suicide bomber too.

Plus – if a bar of soap is $1.80, how big is that $14 tube of super glue?

Anonymoussays:

Drone Killing Strategy Is Drone Killing Strategy Is Having Zero Impact On Al-Qaeda Attack Numbers

While it may be “having zero impact on Al-Qaeda attack numbers”, I’m sure it’s great fun anyways. Hey, anyone wanna go play “bug splat” for a while? It’s a like a video game that you get paid to play. What could be better?

Anonymoussays:

Drone Killing Strategy Is Having Zero Impact On Al-Qaeda Attack Numbers

While it may be “having zero impact on Al-Qaeda attack numbers”, I’m sure it’s great fun anyways.

Hey, anyone wanna go play “bug splat” for a while? It’s a like a video game that you get paid to play. What could be better?

Anonymoussays:

Herein lies the problem...

The “cut off the head” strategy is an effective strategy to deal with a CONVENTIONAL enemy which is the exact opposite of what they are dealing with and why it isn’t working. This is the problem with allowing carrier military generals to be in charge of this sort of stuff. They are a hammer looking for a nail.

Furthermore, they may be getting closer to finding the real terrorists causing damage to the US. Strange the description of Al Qaida and how it operates sound remarkably similar to that of a major corporation, to which I say… Your getting warmer. Stay with that train of thought and follow it to it’s logical conclusion. Then target your efforts there.

Dark Helmetsays:

Writing for the minority

The post, and the study it’s based upon, relies on a couple of logical assumptions that I don’t think are actually true. For instance:

1. “For one thing, the American public has yet to be let in on the government’s legal rationale for acting as judge, jury and executioner of US citizens suspected of terrorist activity.” – The percentage of drone strikes that have hit American citizens is so small as to be negligible. That isn’t to say the question isn’t important and that Obama must answer for his killing Americans, it’s just that it has no place in a conversation about the overall drone strike policy. It statistically might as well NOT be happening.

2. “The basic premise of the Obama Administration’s drone program is that decapitation, the killing of a terrorist organization’s top leadership, works. Killing al-Qaeda’s leadership should, in theory, limit the organization’s ability to plot attacks on the US and its allies.” – That MUST be a joke. The whole point of the cell terrorism operation is that it can operate without leadership directive of terror actions. Is this study REALLY suggesting the American defense department is somehow unaware of this? No, the answer to this absurd fallacy is addressed below….

3. “According to Jordan, believing that targeted killing can actually weaken al-Qaeda means assuming al-Qaeda depends on a group of charismatic leaders. But that’s wrong.” – What fresh bullshit is THIS? al-Qaeda, and most other terrorist groups, do not rely on charismatic leaders for operational planning and orders, but they sure as SHIT rely on them for the most important part of their operations: money-gathering. On top of that, each of these leaders takes on something of a rallying point, where bin Laden was supposed to be the final Imam, for instance, and every instance where we put those fantasies to a deathly rest is a strike at the enemy’s morale.

4. “Without a doubt, simply pursuing this program has done little to engender goodwill in countries deemed terroristic enough to warrant extrajudicial killings.” – And? Who cares? The idea that we have to win the hearts and minds of groups of people who are either actively plotting against Americans or harbor those people is silly. You’ll NEVER appease the terrorists without giving up our ideals and those harboring them aren’t allies. Why are we concerned with their opinion of us? I’d be more interested in beginning to see jihadi groups and those harboring worrying about what WE think of THEM….

5. “That the government remains largely silent on the collateral damage hasn’t helped.” – Nor, mind you, has the terrorist groups’ lack of explanation on why they so often hide among those that would end up being collateral damage. This shit is messy and we make mistakes. The amount of those mistakes are amplified by the actions of the enemy. Why are we looking to blame ourselves first for this?

Put another way, if terrorists were hiding a WMD cache inside a nunnery that had befriended them, are we advocating that we spare the terrorists and forsake the lives of Americans to avoid hurting any nuns that aren’t directly involved in terrorism? Please….

6. “But Jordan’s report goes deeper, suggesting the “cut the head off” approach doesn’t work against a largely decentralized opponent. Rather than throw underlings into disarray, the death of a top-level terrorist simply results in swift reshuffling of the organizational chart.” – Yes, the enemy doesn’t immediately concede defeat. So what? Please tell me this study isn’t really suggesting the death of bin-Laden didn’t have a destabilizing and monetary effect on al-Qaida, because that would be FOOLISH. Actual al-Qaida is a shadow of its former self because the targeted strikes worked beautifully.

7. “As Jordan’s stats note, there’s no correlation between confirmed “decapitations” and worldwide al-Qaeda attacks.” – You’re looking at the wrong correlation. If I whack a hornets nest out of a tree, sure the hornets may attack even more than they had before. But the nest is gone and the long-term ability for attack is reduced. The effectiveness of programs like this is measured in decades, not years. What you want to know is that each decade enjoys a safer environment from these groups than the last. I’ll note that nothing similar to 9/11 has occurred since that terrible day and few attacks on American interests overseas have even come close to 9/11 in size and scope. The Benghazi attack is a wonderful example. For all of the silly conservative hand-wringing over it, it was ultimately of no consequence.

8. “especially one that contributes to radicalization” – We MUST stop it with this stuff. You cannot appease the radicalized. It won’t work, unless you’re willing to give up free speech over cartoons in Europe, admit fault for being invited to have an airbase on “holy” land, and hand over a democratic pacific island nation to terrorists just because. Stop trying to play nice with these people; it won’t work.

It’s far beyond time that Americans get a little stuffy about their rights, their freedoms, and their government. There’s quite a lot to work on, and there may be aspects of the drone program that need to be altered, but that doesn’t mean scrapping the program entirely, nor does it mean targeted killings of radicalized jihadists doesn’t work or isn’t necessary.

And for the love of all that is holy, stop blaming yourself for the fact that a bunch of radical jihadi maniacs with no interest in your freedom or your life don’t like you. That doesn’t matter in the least.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Writing for the minority

  1. “The percentage of drone strikes that have hit American citizens is so small as to be negligible. … It statistically might as well NOT be happening.”

    What a defense:
    “Yer honor, I admit that I may have killed few people. But, when you consider all the the people I’ve come across that I didn’t kill, the number that I may have killed is so small as to be negligible. It statistically might as well have NOT not happened. Therefore, it has no place in a conversation about my overall future.”

    2. “The basic premise of the Obama Administration’s drone program is that decapitation, the killing of a terrorist organization’s top leadership, works. Killing al-Qaeda’s leadership should, in theory, limit the organization’s ability to plot attacks on the US and its allies.” – That MUST be a joke.

    But you know how jokes are when they’ve been told over and over and over too many times. They just quit being funny.

    3. “…every instance where we put those fantasies to a deathly rest is a strike at the enemy’s morale.”

    Oh yeah, they’ve been totally demoralized.
    Not.

    4. “I’d be more interested in beginning to see jihadi groups and those harboring worrying about what WE think of THEM….”

    I think we already let them know what we thought of them a long time ago. That’s what turned them against us in the first place. But too late to change course now, right? Carry on!

    5. “This shit is messy and we make mistakes. The amount of those mistakes are amplified by the actions of the enemy. Why are we looking to blame ourselves first for this?”

    Yeah, there’s plenty of open desert they could go stand in and then message us the coordinates of so that we could more easily hit them. Why they won’t do it I just don’t understand.

    And, as for any nuns that might befriend our enemies, well, “my enemy’s friend is my enemy”, huh? I wonder what a splat looks like under a habit.

    6. “Actual al-Qaida is a shadow of its former self because the targeted strikes worked beautifully.”

    Al-Queda? Who’s that? Oh yeah, wasn’t the group we eliminated so many years ago? Yeah, that must be it. Man, the way we got rid of them, I’d forgotten that they even existed.

    7. You’re looking at the wrong correlation. … I’ll note that nothing similar to 9/11 has occurred since that terrible day …”

    Yeah, but you know why? Because I cast a magic protective spell. Did it work? I’ll note that nothing similar to 9/11 has occurred since. There’s your proof. By the way, I’ve also got spray cans of tiger repellent for sale if anyone wants to buy some. I’ve not been attacked by a single tiger since I’ve been using it. Get yours now, before it’s all gone!

    8. “Stop trying to play nice with these people; it won’t work.”

    Wait, isn’t that what “radicalizers” are saying about the US? Gee, I wonder where they got that?

    “And for the love of all that is holy, stop blaming yourself for the fact that a bunch of radical jihadi maniacs with no interest in your freedom or your life don’t like you. That doesn’t matter in the least.”

    Yeah, just ignore those people over there. They’ll go away. And if they don’t, a little genocide should take of it, huh?

Joesays:

Re: Re: Writing for the minority

Read the article? The whole point is that they’re as bureaucratic as the German SS was.
#3: Well, power vacuum comes to mind.
#4: Hmm, so be sure to make SURE they’re our enemies? Err, OK…
#8: Yeah, problem is that appeasement never works for militants but if you’re creating more, they’ll never get outlived and replaced by less radical youth. There was some quote that paraphrased, goes something like: “”often the way an idea becomes accepted is not from good arguments but that naysayers grow old and die” Sorry, I can’t remember the name and exact words of it, but that’s pretty close to it’s meaning.

BigKeithOsays:

Re: Re: Writing for the minority

Normally I agree with what you write but this is just batshit crazy. I’m not an American, I cannot understand how Americans seem to think blowing shit up all around the world is effective. Aren’t you doing the same thing as the terrorists? Its okay because ‘Merica!!

Try not being the dicks of the world for a change, that might work.

Pragmaticsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Writing for the minority

“I cannot understand how Americans seem to think blowing shit up all around the world is effective. Aren’t you doing the same thing as the terrorists? Its okay because ‘Merica!!

Effectiveness has nothing to do with it. This is good old fashioned racist fun disguised as protecting the homeland.

soillodgesays:

Re: Re: Writing for the minority

?The percentage of drone strikes that have hit American citizens is so small as to be negligible.?

It is concerning because it sets a scary precedent. ?American Citizen?, should be enough for a drone strike to be questioned. Not calling into account your supposed affiliations, your feelings on religion. The gathering of unreliable metadata. Blowing up the location of your phone and not an actual identifiable target. Not to mention collateral damage. There are a hundred ways this operation can evolve unchecked into you getting blown up in front of your house because they saw you wearing a Muslimgauze t-shirt on Facebook.

?The idea that we have to win the hearts and minds of groups of people who are either actively plotting against Americans or harbor those people is silly.?

It is not a question of winning them over. It is a question of not exacerbating an already horrible situation. You can never defeat an enemy if your actions only serve to create more enemies. You drone strike a person of interest, or even still drone strike the phone of a POI, who happens to be carried by an aunt who is taking the POI kids to school. Now you potentially have made an enemy of everyone at that school, in the village/town. In that region. You kill one target, and create hundreds more that will begin to hate you. Especially if you hide or obscure the fact that it even happened. I am not saying Americans need to be likable- let’s just begin with not having everyone hate us.

?Nor, mind you, has the terrorist groups’ lack of explanation on why they so often hide among those that would end up being collateral damage.?

We sure like to talk about how we are better than them, or how we have things like freedom that they hate. Shouldn’t we take the higher road and act like how we want to be treated? If we employ the same tactics as those we condemn. How are we any better at all?

Anonymous Howardsays:

Re: Re: Writing for the minority

Others rebuffed your crazy shit already.
I’d like to add two more things:

1.
The percentage of drone strikes that have hit American citizens is so small as to be negligible
The percentage of American citizens hit by terrorists is also negligible.
I’m curious if you’d feel the same if the negligible collateral damage included your parents/mate/children.

2.
American citizens. So it is OK to kill sovereign nations citizens? Following your logic, AQ is doing the same to the USA:
1. extrajudicial killing
2. of foreign citizens
3. without declaring war
4. using HE weapons
5. disregarding collateral damage

So tell me, what part doesn’t match the USA as much as the AQ?

Richardsays:

Re: Re: The Cynical Misanthrope in Me

But they continue these policies anyway as part of a self-fufilling prophecy so they can strip our rights even further.

No – they continue those policies because there is always a salesman whispering in their ears. Just about all of these policies involve the government buying some kit – the stripping of rights is not intended – it is the accidental result of reckless pusuit of profit. Eisenhower once warned about the military industrial complex. It didn’t go away – it just sells smaller less expensive pieces of kit these days – but the markups – and hence the profits – remain huge.

Anonymoussays:

The War on Terror is turning into the War on Drugs. We all know how ineffective and disastrous the War on Drugs has been.

The problem with both of these wars is that the US government is targeting the symptoms, drug gangs and radical Islams, instead of targeting the root cause of these symptoms.

By treating the root causes of these symptoms, both of these so called wars can be won. Attacking only the symptoms, will end in the same never ending bloody war that the War on Drugs has turned into. Which I personally believe is what the US government really wants to happen.

What are the root causes of these wars?

#1. Bad government policies.
#2. Bad economic policies, leading to wealth gaps, extreme poverty and and unemployment.
#3. Expensive higher education, leading to an uneducated work force.
#4. Lack of skilled trades schools for those more suited to trades work.

Those are just a few of the most important challenges we need to address in order to actually win these never ending wars. I could go into more details, especially about #1 being the root cause for almost everything that’s wrong in this world. Lobbyists, greed, corruption, minority rules, etc… but I won’t bore you because there’s a strong probability nothing will change in this world. Due to those in power being perfectly happy with the status quo.

So when you look around and don’t like what you see happening in this world, and are wondering who to blame. Look no further than the persons currently in office. It’s their policies who have lead entire nations to their current situation.

Anonymoussays:

Of Course it works, and why would a Georgia Tech professor know if it does or does not work.

The distributed cells have leaders, and you are going to have the ‘best’ person as the leader, take out that ‘best’ person, and second best takes his place. That is a positive effect.

Is the person taking the place of the person killed going to be as ‘bold’ as his predecessor? I don’t think so. Being cells or not, it still has a clear hierarchical structure, with the best at the top, take away the top and second best has to take his place.

yes, right some university prof. is really going to know better !!

Richardsays:

Re: Re:

The distributed cells have leaders, and you are going to have the ‘best’ person as the leader, take out that ‘best’ person, and second best takes his place. That is a positive effect.

Like when Lenin died and was replaced by Stalin – or when Tiberius died and was replaced by Caligula – or when Mohammed Yusuf (the original Boko Haram leader) was killed by the Nigerian security services and was replaced by Abubakar Shekau.

And you call it a positive????

Udomsays:

All this assumes that the main purpose of the drone strikes is to damage al Qaeda. While they would be happy if these did that, the main goal is to manage public opinion in the US. They must be seen to be doing something, and killing evildoers on the other side of the planet works. Not “getting” someone on these issues would make the administration look weak, and their political opponents would exploit that very effectively.

GEMontsays:

Re: Re:

Not to mention that stopping the drone strikes would seriously interfere with the CIA-NSA friday night kill-pools.

What would all of those highly trained joystick jockeys do if you took away their ever-so-popular weekly computer-kill contests and kill-number gambling pools??

I mean, none of these kids are trained at wet-work anymore, and would be less than useless for field work.

Anonymoussays:

Time For A Trade Agreement

Clearly the solution is to bring back the old light bulb cartels to manipulate pricing. Turn Al Queda against themselves. If your ledger looks like you’re skimming off the top… the bookkeeper’s ak-47 works as well as any drone. If everyone thinks everyone is stealing, the organization implodes on its own. Also, what problems CAN’T be solved by bad trade policy, amirite?

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