The New York Times reports: Late last August, a 40-year-old cleric named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber stood up to deliver a speech denouncing Al Qaeda in a village mosque in far eastern Yemen.
It was a brave gesture by a father of seven who commanded great respect in the community, and it did not go unnoticed. Two days later, three members of Al Qaeda came to the mosque in the tiny village of Khashamir after 9 p.m., saying they merely wanted to talk. Mr. Jaber agreed to meet them, bringing his cousin Waleed Abdullah, a police officer, for protection.
As the five men stood arguing by a cluster of palm trees, a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all, along with a camel that was tied up nearby.
The killing of Mr. Jaber, just the kind of leader most crucial to American efforts to eradicate Al Qaeda, was a reminder of the inherent hazards of the quasi-secret campaign of targeted killings that the United States is waging against suspected militants not just in Yemen but also in Pakistan and Somalia. Individual strikes by the Predator and Reaper drones are almost never discussed publicly by Obama administration officials. But the clandestine war will receive a rare moment of public scrutiny on Thursday, when its chief architect, John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, faces a Senate confirmation hearing as President Obama’s nominee for C.I.A. director.
From his basement office in the White House, Mr. Brennan has served as the principal coordinator of a “kill list” of Qaeda operatives marked for death, overseeing drone strikes by the military and the C.I.A., and advising Mr. Obama on which strikes he should approve.
“He’s probably had more power and influence than anyone in a comparable position in the last 20 years,” said Daniel Benjamin, who recently stepped down as the State Department’s top counterterrorism official and now teaches at Dartmouth. “He’s had enormous sway over the intelligence community. He’s had a profound impact on how the military does counterterrorism.”
Mr. Brennan, a former C.I.A. station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has taken a particular interest in Yemen, sounding early alarms within the administration about the threat developing there, working closely with neighboring Saudi Arabia to gain approval for a secret C.I.A. drone base there that is used for American strikes, and making the impoverished desert nation a test case for American counterterrorism strategy.
In recent years, both C.I.A. and Pentagon counterterrorism officials have pressed for greater freedom to attack suspected militants, and colleagues say Mr. Brennan has often been a restraining voice. The strikes have killed a number of operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s affiliate in Yemen, including Said Ali al-Shihri, a deputy leader of the group, and the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
But they have also claimed civilians like Mr. Jaber and have raised troubling questions that apply to Pakistan and Somalia as well: Could the targeted killing campaign be creating more militants in Yemen than it is killing? And is it in America’s long-term interest to be waging war against a self-renewing insurgency inside a country about which Washington has at best a hazy understanding?
Several former top military and intelligence officials — including Stanley A. McChrystal, the retired general who led the Joint Special Operations Command, which has responsibility for the military’s drone strikes, and Michael V. Hayden, the former C.I.A. director — have raised concerns that the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen are increasingly targeting low-level militants who do not pose a direct threat to the United States.
In an interview with Reuters, General McChrystal said that drones could be a useful tool but were “hated on a visceral level” in some of the places where they were used and contributed to a “perception of American arrogance.” [Continue reading…]