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Despite Apparent Success in Yemen, Risks Remain

The CIA may have killed a major Al Qaeda figure when an unmanned plane incinerated a car, but Arab outrage could well imperil Americans.

November 06, 2002|Greg Miller

WASHINGTON — For years, the debate raged within the CIA: Should the United States hunt down and kill its terrorist foes, or would Israeli-style "targeted killings" only invite retribution and feed an endless cycle of violence?

The debate ended Sunday, current and former intelligence officials say, when the CIA incinerated a carful of alleged Al Qaeda operatives in northern Yemen with a laser-guided Hellfire missile.

"There was discussion about this for years in the CIA," said one former official of the agency who has extensive experience in the Middle East. "The discussion is now over, and the operations have begun."

The risks remain. Even those who applauded Sunday's strike said in interviews Tuesday that it is sure to inflame militant Muslims, including those belonging to the Al Qaeda network, and expose U.S. diplomats and other overseas officials to possible retaliation.

The attack triggered outrage in some quarters of the Arab world and forced U.S. officials into the difficult position of defending a tactic Washington has criticized Israel for using.

But Bush administration officials made it clear that they see those risks and diplomatic discomforts as worth enduring when they are confronted with an opportunity to kill a high-ranking Al Qaeda figure linked to previous attacks and considered likely to be planning more.

In fact, U.S. officials and top Pentagon advisors said Tuesday that Al Qaeda should expect more of the same.

"We've got new authorities, new tools and a new willingness to do it wherever it has to be done," one administration official said.

Neither the CIA nor the White House would publicly confirm the U.S. role in the strike, which is believed to have killed Qaed Sinan Harithi, who is suspected of being involved in the 2000 bombing off Yemen of the U.S. destroyer Cole, an attack in which 17 U.S. sailors died.

But administration officials openly relished what was widely viewed as a significant and symbolic U.S. victory.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz called the strike "a very successful tactical operation."

"We've got to keep the pressure on everywhere we're able to," he said on CNN. "We've got to deny the sanctuaries everywhere we're able to, and we've got to put pressure on every government that is giving these people support to get out of that business."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declined to discuss the attack specifically but said: "The president has talked about a shadowy war where terrorists are going to try to hide .... We're going to be on the lookout for them when they emerge."

Sunday's mission was in keeping with the so-called Bush doctrine, which, among other things, commits the United States to preemptive military strikes in the American-declared war on terrorism.

The attack was carried out by an unmanned CIA surveillance plane armed with laser-guided missiles. The Predator drones had been patrolling Yemen in recent months, tracking the movements of dozens of Al Qaeda figures who have been operating in the country's barren northern territory.

Until Sunday, U.S. strikes on suspected Al Qaeda members had been confined to the war theater in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, the CIA's activities had appeared to consist mainly of assisting in raids and other operations conducted jointly with foreign intelligence services.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher refused to discuss the attack in Yemen and trod carefully around questions of whether U.S. involvement in the strike contradicted long-standing U.S. disapproval of so-called targeted killings.

The State Department has repeatedly criticized Israel for using such tactics against Palestinians. Asked whether the United States had altered its opinion, Boucher replied, "Our policy on targeted killings in the Israeli-Palestinian context has not changed."

He went on to say that the U.S. position reflects concern that such killings harm prospects for peace negotiations. Those reasons, he said, "do not necessarily apply in other circumstances."

Israeli scholars rejected such distinctions and said the strike in Yemen was tantamount to a U.S. endorsement of the Israeli policy of preemptive attacks on militant foes. The U.S. shift, the scholars said, shows that the Bush administration has rejected the long-held American view that refraining from violence offers at least some protection from retaliation.

"Israel knows that it's going to be attacked no matter what it does," said Barry Rubin, head of the Global Research in International Affairs Center. "The U.S. situation has become more like the Israeli situation. It is the impact of Sept. 11."

Current and former intelligence officials said reprisals are possible, if not inevitable.

"Not everybody has been gung-ho about going out and doing this," said the former CIA official, who was previously involved in high-level counter-terrorism missions. "It may be the right policy, but it's not going to be without consequences."

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