Air strikes mask U.S. strategic failure against ISIS

Chris Doyle
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If reports are true that separate U.S. attacks have terminated the lives of Nasir Al-Wuhayshi, the number two in al-Qaeda, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, once a senior figure in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, then no doubt there will be a riot of back-slapping going on in the corridors of the Pentagon. No tears should be shed for two men who have inspired and brought about so much suffering. But once the cheers have subsided, a more sober assessment is required.

Have such high-value targeted assassinations worked thus far against both al-Qaeda and its offspring, including ISIS? How quickly do such outfits replace their leadership cadres, and does the killing of established leaders bring about other negative consequences, perhaps even more radical leaders. To what extent are the U.S. and others over reliant on such actions to paper over inadequacies in its overall strategy? Are such hits just short-term highs with the inevitable lows to come?


The U.S. has had a consistent approach of taking out al-Qaeda and ISIS leaders. The story of the hunt for Bin Laden and his ultimate demise is now contested but was always a major goal of U.S. operations. The core al-Qaeda leadership has over the years been decimated by attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Wuhayshi may be the third deputy leader of al-Qaeda to have been killed. This in part explains why so much of al-Qaeda’s leadership fears to surface and why so little is heard from its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

But the organization has not expired and local regional leaderships arose most notably in Iraq, Yemen and in the Maghreb.

Have such high-value targeted assassinations worked thus far against both al-Qaeda and its offspring, including ISIS?

Chris Doyle

One of the primary criticisms is that drone attacks have been far from targeted. According to the human rights group, Reprieve “attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people” as of November 24, 2014. In killing one leader many suffer so is there not a risk of being a recruiting sergeant? President Obama had to apologize for the killing of a U.S. civilian and an Italian civilian. Many were aghast that the President could authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, and what this meant in terms of a constitutional precedent.

Yet as the most recent Pew poll shows, drone strikes are gaining in popularity in the United States with an approval rating of 58%. They are still seen as a low-cost high-gain option. Do not expect any chance in U.S. policy soon, or even after the drone-loving Obama leaves office. I once asked leading Bush-era Neo-Con, John Bolton about drones, and he cooed “they’re wonderful.”

Role of drones

Leaving aside the serious legal and moral concerns, an audit is required about the role of drones and targeted killings in battling jihadist groups and particularly ISIS.

A major concern is that the U.S. is overly dependent on them and other forms of aerial bombardment. Almost a year on from U.S. strikes on ISIS it still has a pretty intact leadership and continues to hold huge amounts of territories and major cities. Local boots on the ground have been in short supply, highlighted by the failure to find enough Iraqis to train, only 7000 as opposed to the target figure of 24,000.

Assassinations in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have escalated clearly with some success. Wuhayshi may be the sixth major AQAP leader killed in suspected U.S. bombings this year. But it did not stop the group from seizing the port of Mukalla and expanding its domain.

The U.S. has little regional support for its actions, a sign of a lack of confidence in Washington’s approach. The U.S. is also in the strange position of deploying drone attacks against AQAP whilst its regional ally, Saudi Arabia is leading a war against the Houthis in Yemen not AQAP. It looks less like a division of labour than a clash of priorities. In Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are supporting armed groups that include Jabhat Al Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, whilst the U.S. has targeted Al Nusra as well as ISIS.


Nevertheless, AQAP’s leadership looks compromised and must be paranoid about having been infiltrated. If so and its leadership is diminished, one consequence could be to allow ISIS in Yemen to take over burnishing its brand and prestige. Another could that that a newer even more radical leadership emerge.

But whilst assassinations against al-Qaeda have had an impact, ISIS has adapted as a very flexible organization that operates quite differently. It expects to have its leadership targeted and it is not clear who in its leadership has been killed. It is far more of a mass movement than al-Qaeda, having an army not just members. Whilst it is easier to join ISIS than al-Qaeda, the leadership has shielded itself very effectively from its lower ranks with a security apparatus built up with the assistance of its former Saddam-era Baathists. Supposedly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was injured in a strike back in March but U.S. officials claimed they did not know he was a casualty. ISIS is more than capable of feeding misleading information into the media to confuse intelligence services.

So far the U.S. and its allies have not impressed with their intelligence efforts, and as in Afghanistan, it appears human intelligence has taken a back seat to technology that worries many in intelligence communities.

Could drone and aerial attacks be used more judicially? Certainly the demise of inspiration and transformational leaders such as the ‘Shaikh of the Slaughterers’, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Anwar al-Awlaki as well as Bin Laden, has impact. But the public relations costs of killing civilians has harmed U.S. standing and support, so are drone attacks overused?

Above all, drone strikes have become a crutch to lean on that delays the root and branch rethink that is so desperately needed if ISIS are to be thwarted.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @DoyleCh.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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