The news of al Qaeda number-two Ayman al Zawahiri’s demise by Hellfire missile attack in the village of Damadola, Pakistan on January 13 turned out to be too good to be true. Not that it was not plausible. Taking out terror leaders with pinpoint missile strikes has been one of the great innovations in combating terrorism in recent years, made possible by a combination of advanced weapons technology and a willingness to admit that we are at war, and behave as such. There have been notable successes, such as Israel’s attacks on the Hamas leadership, and our takedown of al Qaeda leader and USS Cole bomber Abu Ali al-Harithi in Yemen in 2002. Yet, in these cases, the information was solid, the targets were out in the open and visible. Not the case at Damadola, where 18 innocent people died. The tragedy illustrates the uncertainty of intelligence: We are at our peril when we consider it more science than art.
Based on what is publicly known, the hit was planned for an Eid ul-Adha feast Zawahiri was supposed to have attended. It is possible that Zawahiri was just lucky that night–he changed his plans at the last minute and no one in our informant network found out in time. This kind of random behavior is a good survival trait in his line of work, though it might be too much luck for Friday the 13th.
There is also the possibility that Zawahiri never intended to show; that what we thought was good intelligence was intentionally leaked by al Qaeda to test our system. They might have believed that one of their communication channels was compromised and sent this information through to see if we reacted. Similar to when we tricked the Japanese into revealing their code for the island of Midway, sending bogus information through a channel we knew they monitored, then watching the results. If this was the case with al Qaeda, our source will probably dry up. But even if they did not suspect they had a problem before, they certainly know they do now.
If the terrorists were really being clever, they gave up a location for the dinner where they knew there would be some people they would just as soon see killed, a win-win for the bad guys. It is not an unusual technique in the counterintelligence game, and we can play it too. I hope that our folks understand that right now the al Qaeda leadership is going to be exceedingly suspicious of everyone in their network and a few well-placed tips might lead to some beneficial cannibalism. The Nazi Abwehr used that technique against Stalin, letting the NKVD intercept disinformation that encouraged the suspicious totalitarian to believe that some of his most capable generals were German agents. He obligingly wiped them out during the Great Terror. Zawahiri and bin Laden are at least as paranoid as Stalin was–shouldn’t they be told that their most-trusted and closest aides and bodyguards are selling them out? Because they are, you know. Sources say.
Since the strike came at three in the morning, presumably the planners assumed the good doctor would spend the night afterwards, or maybe that the feast would still be rolling along. That seems a flawed assumption on its face, since it would not behoove such a wanted terrorist to both dine and sleep in the same relatively public location. However, perhaps the idea was that striking at that hour would minimize the collateral damage, because the more-or-less innocent guests would have gone home by then. In fact, the innocents stayed. The valuable targets were thickest at the height of the feast. If Zawahiri was going to attend he would insist on only trusted cadres showing up, the kind of people who could reasonably be in the target set.
Local clerics Maulvi Faqir Mohammad and Maulvi Liaqat, both wanted for harboring foreign terrorists, are a case in point–they stopped by for the festivities but prudently left just after midnight. One story has it that they returned later to remove the bodies of foreign fighters killed in the attack, so maybe some good was done. But policymakers are fooling themselves if they think they can bomb buildings without knowing for certain who is inside and kill only the bad guys. This incident should be a learning experience. We ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard before ordering these kinds of attacks–it is both practical and proper. Look at the results now. Instead of the president announcing the demise of a leading international terrorist, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Ryan Crocker was called on the carpet. A poll released last month showed that favorable opinion of the United States in the country doubled after the recent earthquake-relief effort, from 23 percent to 46 percent. Will it sink back to where it started? Maybe when dealing with enemies of Zawahiri’s stature the tradeoff seems acceptable, but nothing fails like failure.
By the way, just a thought: Suppose Osama bin Laden is still around and got so resentful of Zawahiri’s recent high-profile videos he found a way to let the information out about where he would be feasting. Gosh, wouldn’t Zawahiri want to get back at him somehow? The ball’s in your court, Doc.
–James S. Robbins is author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point and an NRO Contributor.