Droning on

The war that’s not supposed to exist keeps getting bigger. Noah Schachtman at Wired reports the Obama administration authorized significantly more targeted Predator attacks in 2009 than in George Bush’s last year. Significantly, many of these are east of the Durand line — inside Pakistan itself or in Yemen. Wired wrote, “the Obama administration launched more than 50 reported robotic strikes, killing several hundred people. Compare that to 2008, when there were just 36 drone attacks.”


US strikes in Yemen are not new. Al-Qaeda in Yemen is coming back after a long decline, following a successful drone strike which took out the head of al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2002. Waq al-Waq explains: “A little over seven years ago, an unmanned US drone killed the head of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, and with his death it effectively destroyed al-Qaeda in the country. The organization limped along for another year, but it never represented the same type of threat as it did under al-Harithi.” At the time it was denounced as a “summary execution” that violated human rights.

Signs of a possible al-Qaeda revival in Yemen were noted in March, 2008 by STRATFOR.  “An attack against the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and another strike against a Yemeni government compound elsewhere in the country March 18 appear to have been the work of Yemen’s resurging jihadist insurgency.”  One of its leaders was a man released from Guantanamo prison who claimed he only wanted to return home to return to the family business. The New York Times recently described how one of al-Qaeda’s top leaders in Yemen returned to the business of terror. They let him out.

The emergence of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.

The militant, Said Ali al-Shihri, is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana, in September. He was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before resurfacing with Al Qaeda in Yemen.


While Shihri’s connection to Gitmo have been highlighted by the press, his connections to Iran have received less play except in the Long War Journal. Thomas Jocelyn notes that Shihri was not simply involved in Yemen. Far from being an innocent man eager to return to his family’s carpet business, he was actively involved in fueling jihadi not only in Yemen, but Afghanistan through Iran. He ran transit lines to Afghanistan through Iran for Saudis eager to fight there.

The Long War Journal reviewed thousands of unclassified files released from Guantánamo. The Mashhad-based transit line al Shihri helped run is not the only one al Qaeda operates inside Iran. More than fifty detainees who are either currently held or have been held at Guantánamo are alleged to have had some involvement with Iran. Some of them, like the Taliban’s former governor of the Herat province, were accused of illicit dealings with the Iranian government. The governor, Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, even admitted to setting up at least two meetings between senior Iranian and Taliban officials. At these meetings, Iran and the Taliban, who were one-time enemies, agreed to work together to counter American influence in South and Central Asia.

Dozens of the detainees analyzed by The Long War Journal used al Qaeda’s transit nodes in the Iranian cities of Tayyebat, Zahedan, and Mashhad – all three cities are on Iran’s easternmost border with Afghanistan. Iran’s capital, Tehran, was also identified in the unclassified files as a common transit hub.

These transit hubs were operated by Saudi-based charities that, in reality, acted as fronts for al Qaeda and the Taliban. One of these charities is al Wafa, which has been designated under Executive Order 13224 as a terrorist organization and is briefly mentioned in 9/11 Commission’s report as an al Qaeda front.

Prior to his release, al Shihri was accused of dealing with al Wafa. He had contacts with senior al Wafa officials and one of his aliases and his phone number were “found in the pocket litter of the Karachi, Pakistan manager of” al Wafa. More than 100 Saudis have been repatriated from Guantánamo to Saudi Arabia. In addition to al Shihri, dozens of others are alleged to have worked with al Wafa. Some of them helped run al Wafa’s operations inside Iran and Afghanistan as well. For example, former Guantánamo detainee Abdul Aziz al Matrafi, is alleged to have worked with the Taliban and al Qaeda at the highest levels while running al Wafa’s operations. At Guantánamo, al Matrafi was accused of personally working with both Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.


These deep interconnections are problematic for the Obama administration because it has publicly tried to portray the War on Terror as highly circumscribed by Afghanistan. The failed attack over Detroit and intelligence reports which have forced the closure of the US embassy in Sana to forestall another attack have clearly sent the message that the war isn’t over.  Despite the low-key nature of its expanded Predator strikes, the threats clearly come from an area wider than Afghanistan. The UK’s Daily Telegraph notes the administration’s dilemma. It staked its political fortunes on telling the people that the War on Terror was largely confined or due to fear only to have it metastize all over the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia and over the skies of Detroit.

In his weekly radio address yesterday, President Barack Obama patted himself on the back for having “refocused the fight – bringing to a responsible end the war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks”. …

Complacency, faux moralising and partisan shots at Republicans. It was a neat summary of where Obama is going wrong after the Christmas Day debacle when the Nigerian knicker bomber managed to waltz onto a Detroit-bound flight.

The administration has been increasing its covert Predator strikes even while describing attacks on US targets as the work of “isolated extremists” about which the public “should not jump to conclusions”. This split level approach has created openings which the Republicans, notably former Vice-President Dick Cheney have been eager to exploit. Cheney caustically said that Obama:


“seems to think that if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won’t be at war. He seems to think that if he closes Guantanamo and releases the hardcore al Qaeda-trained terrorists still there, we won’t be at war. Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency — social transformation, the restructuring of American society.”

In reality the War on Terror consists of a network of terrorist organizations and the intelligence agencies of rogue states waging a global war on the West. It’s ideological and financial wellsprings are in the Middle East and South Asia, with significant outliers in Western Europe itself. Like a cancer it momentarily went into remission, at least in certain parts of the world and in certain respects, following the American response after September 11.  But that post 9/11 response, like chemotherapy in cancer patients, had unwelcome side effects. Barack Obama convinced the American electorate to give it up.  In its place he offered a laying of the hands. The outreach speech to the Muslim world, the suggestions that he could achieve a Grand Bargain with Iran, the belief that his very person would attenuate hostility to America were all part of this painless alternative. Nor has he given up his claim. Even intractable Afghanistan, following a Presidential review of his own failing strategy, was scheduled to end in 18 months. All would be well.  But despite these outward shows of confidence, the recent attacks and threats have led some to suspect that the cancer may be back and the Obama administration’s attempts to medicate it with secret Predator pills are bound to return to the public eye. The danger is that the jihad — the one that doesn’t exist — may metastize and become more deadly at precisely the time when the American President is withholding the political medicine necessary to fight it.


So far the administration has relied principally on blaming George W. Bush, who is increasingly revenging himself from the annals of history. Recently Iraq just passed its first month without a single American combat death — not bad for an unwinnable war. But at some point BHO will have to start tackling events themselves. The administration is already beginning to change its tune. The Guardian reports that the administration is now distancing itself from the assertion that Iran is not building a nuclear weapon.

The US believes the official intelligence assessment of Iran’s nuclear programme is wrong and Tehran is working on the design of a nuclear weapon, it was reported today.

Washington is seeking support for new sanctions against Iran at the UN security council following the expiry of a new year deadline, imposed by the US president, Barack Obama, for Tehran to respond to an offer of economic help and improved diplomatic relations in return for curbing its nuclear programme.

Washington is distancing itself from a controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), produced by several US spy agencies in 2007, which suggested Iran had suspended work on weapons design four years earlier.

“Weapons of mass destruction” have now returned full-circle to the Middle East.

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