Secret US Airstrike in Yemen Mistakenly Kills Deputy Governor

August 15th, 2010 - by admin

Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Robert F. Worth / The New York Times – 2010-08-15 21:54:43

Secret US Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents
Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Robert F. Worth / The New York Times

US ‘Shadow War’ Widens with Secret Assaults in Asia, Africa

WASHINGTON (August 15, 2010) — At first, the news from Yemen on May 25 sounded like a modest victory in the campaign against terrorists: An airstrike had hit a group suspected of being operatives for al-Qaida in the remote desert of Marib province, birthplace of the legendary queen of Sheba.

But the strike, it turned out, had also killed the province’s deputy governor, a respected local leader who Yemeni officials said had been trying to talk al-Qaida members into giving up their fight. Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, accepted responsibility for the death and paid blood money to the offended tribes.

The strike, though, was not the work of Saleh’s decrepit Soviet-era air force. It was a secret mission by the US military, according to American officials, at least the fourth such assault on al-Qaida in the arid mountains and deserts of Yemen since December.

The attack offered a glimpse of the Obama administration’s shadow war against al-Qaida and its allies. In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.

The White House has intensified the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone missile campaign in Pakistan, approved raids against al-Qaida operatives in Somalia and launched clandestine operations from Kenya. The administration has worked with European allies to dismantle terrorist groups in North Africa. And the Pentagon tapped a network of private contractors to gather intelligence about things like militant hideouts in Pakistan.

While the stealth war began in the Bush administration, it has expanded under President Barack Obama, who rose to prominence in part for his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Virtually none of the newly aggressive steps undertaken by the US government have been publicly acknowledged.

In contrast with the troop buildup in Afghanistan, which came after months of robust debate, for example, the US military campaign in Yemen began without notice in December and has never been officially confirmed.

Obama administration officials point to the benefits of bringing the fight against al-Qaida and other militants into the shadows. Afghanistan and Iraq, they said, have sobered American politicians and voters about the staggering costs of big wars that topple governments, require years of occupation and can be a catalyst for further radicalization throughout the Muslim world.

Instead of “the hammer,” in the words of John O. Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, America will rely on the “scalpel.” In a speech in May, Brennan, an architect of the White House strategy, used this analogy while pledging a “multigenerational” campaign against al-Qaida and its extremist affiliates.

Yet such wars come with many risks: the potential for botched operations that fuel anti-American rage; a blurring of the lines between soldiers and spies that could put troops at risk of being denied Geneva Convention protections; a weakening of the congressional oversight system put in place to prevent abuses by America’s secret operatives; and a reliance on authoritarian foreign leaders and surrogates with sometimes murky loyalties.

The May strike in Yemen, for example, provoked a revenge attack on an oil pipeline by local tribesmen and produced a propaganda bonanza for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It also left Saleh privately furious about the death of the provincial official, Jabir al-Shabwani, and scrambling to prevent an anti-American backlash, according to Yemeni officials.

The administration’s demands have accelerated a transformation of the CIA into a paramilitary organization as much as a spying agency, which some critics worry could lower the threshold for future quasi-military operations. In Pakistan’s mountains, the agency had broadened its drone campaign beyond selective strikes against al-Qaida leaders and now regularly obliterates suspected enemy compounds and logistics convoys, just as the military would grind down an enemy force.

For its part, the Pentagon is becoming more like the CIA. Across the Middle East and elsewhere, Special Operations troops under secret “Execute Orders” have conducted spying missions that were once the preserve of civilian intelligence agencies. Such programs typically operate with even less transparency and congressional oversight than traditional covert actions by the CIA.

And, as American counterterrorism operations spread beyond war zones into territory hostile to the military, private contractors have taken on a prominent role, raising concerns that the United States has outsourced some of its most important missions to a sometimes unaccountable private army.

Yemen is a testing ground for the “scalpel” approach Brennan endorses. Some American officials believe that militants in Yemen could now pose an even greater threat than al-Qaida’s leadership in Pakistan.

The officials said that they have benefited from the Yemeni government’s new resolve to fight al-Qaida and that the US strikes had been approved by Yemen’s leaders. The strikes, administration officials say, have killed dozens of militants suspected of plotting future attacks. The Pentagon and the CIA have quietly bulked up the number of their operatives at the embassy in San‘a, the Yemeni capital, over the past year.

“Where we want to get is to much more small scale, preferably locally driven operations,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who serves on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees.

Some security experts draw parallels to the Cold War, when the United States drew heavily on covert operations as it fought a series of proxy battles with the Soviet Union.

And some of the central players of those days have returned to take on supporting roles in the shadow war. Michael G. Vickers, who helped run the CIA’s campaign to funnel guns and money to the Afghanistan mujahedeen in the 1980s, is now the top Pentagon official overseeing Special Operations troops around the globe. Duane R. Clarridge, a profane former CIA officer who ran operations in Central America and was indicted in the Iran-Contra scandal, turned up this year helping run a Pentagon-financed private spying operation in Pakistan.

The initial American strike in Yemen came on Dec. 17, hitting what was believed to be an al-Qaida training camp in Abyan province, in the southern part of the country. The first report from the Yemeni government said that its air force had killed “around 34” al-Qaida fighters there, and that others had been captured elsewhere in coordinated ground operations.

The next day, Obama called Saleh to thank him for his cooperation and pledge continuing American support. Saleh’s approval for the strike — rushed because of intelligence reports that al-Qaida suicide bombers might be headed to San’a — was the culmination of administration efforts to win him over.

The accounts of the US strikes in Yemen, which include many details that have not previously been reported, are based on interviews with American and Yemeni officials who requested anonymity because the military campaign in Yemen is classified, as well as documents from Yemeni investigators.

As word of the Dec. 17 attack filtered out, a very mixed picture emerged. The Yemeni press quickly identified the United States as responsible for the strike. Al-Qaida members seized on video of dead children and joined a protest rally a few days later, broadcast by Al Jazeera, in which a speaker shouldering an AK-47 rifle appealed to Yemeni counterterrorism troops.

“Soldiers, you should know we do not want to fight you,” the al-Qaida operative, standing amid angry Yemenis, declared. “There is no problem between you and us. The problem is between us and America and its agents. Beware taking the side of America!”

A Navy ship offshore had fired the weapon in the attack, a cruise missile loaded with cluster bombs, according to a report by Amnesty International, the use of which was later condemned by human rights groups.

An inquiry by the Yemeni Parliament found that the strike had killed at least 41 members of two families living near the makeshift al-Qaida camp. Three more civilians were killed and nine were wounded four days later when they stepped on unexploded munitions from the strike, the inquiry found.

American officials cited strained resources for decisions about some of the Yemen strikes.

The Yemen operation has raised a broader question: Who should be running the shadow war? White House officials are debating whether the CIA should take over the Yemen campaign as a “covert action,” which would allow the United States to carry out operations even without the approval of Yemen’s government.

By law, covert action programs require presidential authorization and formal notification to the congressional intelligence committees. No such requirements apply to the military’s so-called Special Access Programs, like the Yemen strikes.

Obama administration officials defend their efforts in Yemen. The strikes have been “conducted very methodically,” and claims of innocent civilians being killed are “very much exaggerated,” said a senior counterterrorism official. In Yemen, officials said, there is a dearth of solid intelligence about al-Qaida operations. “It will take time to develop and grow that capability,” the senior official said.

In part, the spotty record of the Yemen airstrikes may derive from another unavoidable risk of the new shadow war: the need to depend on local proxies who may be unreliable or corrupt, or whose agendas differ from that of the United States.

Despite the airstrike campaign, the leadership of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula survives, and there is little sign the group is much weaker.

Attacks by al-Qaida militants in Yemen have picked up again, with several deadly assaults on Yemeni army convoys in recent weeks. As a test case, the strikes have raised the classic trade-off of the post-September 11 era: Do the selective hits make the United States safer by eliminating terrorists? Or do they help the terrorist network frame its violence as a heroic religious struggle against American aggression, recruiting new operatives for the enemy?

Edmund J. Hull, the US ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, cautioned that American policy must not be limited to using force against al-Qaida.

“I think it’s both understandable and defensible for the Obama administration to pursue aggressive counterterrorism operations,” Hull said. But he added: “I’m concerned that counterterrorism is defined as an intelligence and military program. To be successful in the long run, we have to take a far broader approach that emphasizes political, social and economic forces.”

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