Speaking to Americans linked to counter-terrorism policy, I sense an excitement about what they consider a remarkable success against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups located on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, that is, targeting their leaders with drone missiles.
In contrast, those opposed to using drones claim that these attacks are causing the deaths of not only members of al-Qaeda and Salafi jihadist movements but also civilians. These ‘collateral deaths’ are also increasing anger among tribes in the region and consequently turning them into sympathizers, if not actual members, of al-Qaeda and regional allies such as Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan. The CIA disputes that. The CIA asserts that these high-tech drones allow for a high level of accuracy when targeting the enemy. They even have a built-in camera that livestreams video of the attack to Washington or Langley. The CIA has stated that since May 2010 the drones have killed more than 600 militants and not a single non-combatant. Reports suggest that the United States will resort to this tactic to fight militants in Somalia and Yemen.
Laying aside this particular strategic perspective, drones are unlikely to defeat al-Qaeda and affiliated global jihadist movements. Proponents of drone use assert that targeting leaders of militant groups with drones will dismantle the structure of those groups. Israel has used drones with Palestinian militant groups, as did Russia with Chechen insurgents in the mid-1990s.
Since Hamas won the 2006 elections and took control of Gaza, its members have split: Some have formed or joined jihadist groups, while others have started participating in peaceful political processes. Targeting its leaders has had a limited impact on its ability to carry out attacks inside Israel.
Since 2000, or the second year of the war, targeting leaders of the Chechen insurgency became official Russian policy. The Russian government used this policy as a means to counter the Chechen independence movement and discourage the Arab volunteers who came to Chechnya to support the movement, bringing with them their religious ideologies. The Russian government eliminated Arbi Barayev (2001), Salman Raduyev (who died in captivity under mysterious circumstances) (2002), Khattab (with a poisoned letter) (2004), former Chechen interim President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in the Qatari capital, Doha (2004), guerrilla leader Ruslan Gelayev (2004), President Aslan Maskhadov (2005) and Shamil Basayev (2006).
Since then, the Chechen insurgency has spilled over into the neighbouring North Caucasus republic under the umbrella of the Caucasus Islamic State, consisting of a new generation unknown to Russian security services. This strongly suggests that targeting leaders does not dismantle militant groups.
One proof of the relative success of drones is al-Qaeda itself. Since 2008 (the same year the drone programme was accelerated), al-Qaeda switched strategies, and started to rely on creating small safe havens in order to further benefit from the international economic crisis which will prevent the US from fighting al-Qaeda on multiple fronts. However, this strategy makes the organization prone to drone attacks. It’s easier to target operatives in specified geographic spaces.
In the mid-1990s members of the Salafi jihadist movement used to gather in one safe haven (Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban). The camps established in these regions trained operatives who carried out the Riyadh bombings in the mid-1990s, the Mombasa and Dar al-Salaam bombings in 1998, the 2001 bombing of US Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen, and of course, the 9/11 attacks.
Since the United States started the ‘War on Terrorism’, cells based on the Salafi jihadist ideology have started adapting their operations to fit in with local conditions, acting on the instructions of local leaders. This strategy produced confrontations with the Saudi authorities between 2003 and 2006, as well as bombings in Djerba, Bali, Casablanca, Madrid and London. Unlike in the past, the perpetrators of these attacks were not trained in al-Qaeda camps but recruited locally by operatives who were directly linked to al-Qaeda leaders.
One of the most prominent Salafi jihadi strategists and ideologues, Abu Musab al-Suri, described this strategy before his detention in 2005 when he promoted the idea of a ‘system’, not an ‘organization’, meaning that jihadist movements should work without top-down organizational dictates. If al-Qaeda comes under more pressure, it will switch strategies again, which will then make drones irrelevant.
The Arab Spring movements sweeping Arab cities have played a major role in marginalizing al-Qaeda rhetoric and ideology among young frustrated Arab youth, presenting them with a new democratic alternative. Hence, the more important lesson to be learned is that targeting the conditions causing people to join al-Qaeda is more effective in defeating the organization than launching drone attacks.