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National Security

Gauging America's Decapitation War Against Terrorism

The dust has settled since America allegedly killed two al-Qaida leaders over the weekend. This is where we stand.

Dan Gilmore · Jun. 18, 2015

According to the accounts, the United States pulled off a remarkable airstrike in Yemen, one of two that week. As Yemen devolved into bloody conflict this spring, U.S. intelligence pulled out of the country. That retreat harms future United States antiterrorism operations in the country.

But without boots on the ground, without working with the Yemeni government, a CIA drone fired and killed Nasir al-Wahishi, al-Qaida’s second in command who also headed the terrorist group’s franchise in Yemen. This is the most significant strike against al-Qaida since we snuffed bin Laden. After the U.S. left the country, the CIA continued to monitor al-Wahishi “through technical means,” Bloomberg reports, and lined up the shot. Al-Qaida was kind enough to let us know that we smoked him.

But as for the United State’s larger goal of stopping terrorism against its citizens, the strike did little. Another leader will rise to take al-Wahishi’s place. Remember: Osama bin Laden was already dead when al-Qaida attacked the Charlie Hebdo office.

Airstrikes aimed at assassinating top terrorist leaders may disrupt the organization for a short time, but airstrikes will neither degrade nor ultimately destroy terrorist organizations. In solely targeting al-Qaida, the Obama administration may be giving the Islamic State just the breathing room needed to grow even faster.

As Washington Post intelligence reporter Greg Miller writes, “[T]he continued spread of al-Qaeda’s ideology and the emergence of brutal new offshoots, including the Islamic State, have underscored the limitations of a U.S. strategy that remains largely reliant on ‘decapitation’ strikes. … Many officials and experts in the U.S. counterterrorism community now see the destruction of al-Qaeda and its progeny as a more distant goal than at any time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”

Assassination might work great if it’s one country fighting another. If a briefcase bomb actually killed Adolf Hitler, then Germany would have lost its charismatic leader. Al-Qaida just temporarily loses the man focusing the group’s hate against the West.

Furthermore, Miller notes that Obama’s strategy could have just helped the Islamic State gain a further foothold in Libya.

Last week, two F-15 fighter jets flying over Libya dropped 500-pound bombs on what U.S. officials allege was Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an al-Qaida-linked jihadist who broke off from the terrorist group, formed his own brigade and attacked an Algerian natural gas plant in 2013, killing 38 hostages.

Belmokhtar’s terrorist group was another with which the Islamic State, looking to further establish itself in Libya, had to contend. Both groups are competing for the same recruits, and currently the Islamic State is winning the propaganda war with its acts of brutality. By taking out the competition, the U.S. opened up Libya for the Islamic State’s jihadi brand.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the strike. Is Belmokhtar dead? No one friendly to the U.S. can check the site for physical evidence, as it’s in hostile territory. But there is a worrying report that the Obama administration is inflating its success.

The Daily Beast alleges that when U.S. bombs rained downed on Belmokhtar, he was in a Libyan farmhouse, talking with members of the Islamic State, talking about how the two groups could cooperate.

“Supposed rival extremists were together when the U.S. tried to take out an infamous jihadi chieftain,” writes the publication. “So just how much are ISIS and al Qaeda really at odds?”

It’s a dramatic story, and one the Beast got from an anonymous “senior administration official.” The story is further collaborated by anonymous “security officials in Libya” and “locals in Ajdabiya.”

Perhaps the Obama administration wanted the public to believe that the two terror groups are collaborating and not at odds with one another. Perhaps it floated the tale using anonymous sources to bolster its “decapitation strikes” in the Middle East. It’s advantageous for the administration for the public to think a strike against al-Qaida is a strike against the beheading, murdering, pillaging barbarians in the Islamic State.

Despite weekend successes like these two strikes, the war against terror has ground to a standstill. The Obama administration is fighting an idea with assassinations. One falls. Another takes his place. Welcome to the long war.

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