The assassination of a top Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhou, in the UAE by a team of 11 exemplifies the application of the human hit team. This effort used all the classic elements: fake documents, surveillance teams, a small assasination unit and a quick exit. There is even the suggestion that the Hamas commander may have bee interrogated by his attackers. The blame is being laid at the doorstep of the Israeli secret services simply by process of elimination. After all, who else is in the business of targeting terrorists?
Rivals within the terror community for one. But the United States is also in the business of hitting terrorists on an industrial scale. In terms of sheer efficiency it is hard to beat the “death from above” method of raining down guided missiles from UAVs upon terrorist suspects. There are no lookouts in corridors, no passports to forge, no picking of locks. The bolt comes down right through the ceiling. The London Times says al-Qaeda’s leadership has been decimated by Predator strikes.
Why doesn’t America use skilled humans like the supposed Israeli hit team? For two reasons: somehow, for causes social scientists have yet to explain, using people to kill people creates a public revulsion but blowing them up from a robot circling tens of thousands of feet above is politically acceptable. The second reason for not sending men after men is that the public has a similar revulsion to taking prisoners of whom you demand questions. The prisoners themselves may sue you for failing to Mirandize them. Three Navy SEALS are facing court martial for striking a member of al-Qaeda and cutting his lip. Blowing him to smithreens from above would have been less controversial and so things are done that way. The Alameda County Progressive Examiner say President Obama has ordered more drone hits since taking office than President Bush did in three years.
Marc Thiessen, writing in Foreign Policy says the political convience of assassination by drone has made it the wonder-drug of counterterrorism, so much so that the intelligence dimension of taking prisoners has been all but written off. Thiessen writes:
Today, the Obama administration is no longer attempting to capture men like these alive; it is simply killing them. This may be satisfying, but it comes at a price. With every drone strike that vaporizes a senior al Qaeda leader, actionable intelligence is vaporized along with him. Dead terrorists can’t tell you their plans to strike America.
Dead men tell no tales. But at least they give you no political grief and for many that’s the thing: perhaps the only thing. Of course technology is making attack by robot still easier. In the not so distant future, America will send robot insects after terror suspects. From the point of view of lethality, the assassins of Mahmoud al-Mabhou are anachronisms. From an intelligence point of view, it is the Predator drone which is less than ideal.
Below are two videos demonstrating the two ways of achieving similar but subtly different ends each reflecting the preferences, capabilities and political realities of the societies that undergird them.
Using Men to Hunt Men