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Context of 'May 8, 2005: US Assassinates Al-Qaeda Figure with Predator Drone'

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Following al-Qaeda’s bombing of two US embassies in East Africa, the CIA notices that the Islamic Army of Aden (IAA), an al-Qaeda affiliate, has praised the attack on its website. Also noting Yemeni links to the bombing itself, the CIA turns its attention to the IAA and its leader Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar. The CIA is assisted in this by the local Yemeni authorities. Officials in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a begin to compile a dossier on Almihdhar and his links to the West, including his fundraisers and supporters in Britain. They identify Finsbury Park mosque, run by British intelligence informer Abu Hamza al-Masri, as “crucial” to the IAA’s operations. Almihdhar has a co-operation agreement with Abu Hamza (see (June 1998)) that provides him with money and recruits, and an IAA emissary will allegedly visit London in September (see September 1998). (O'Neill and McGrory 2006, pp. 163-164)

Qaed Senyan al-Harethi.Qaed Senyan al-Harethi. [Source: Yemen Observer]A CIA-operated Predator drone fires a missile that destroys a truck of suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. The target of the attack is Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a top al-Qaeda operative, but five others are also killed, including American citizen Kamal Derwish. (Pincus 11/4/2002; Lumpkin 12/3/2002) Al-Harethi is said to have been involved in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Bush administration officials say Derwish was the ringleader of a sleeper cell in Lackawanna, New York (see September 13, 2002). (Powell and Priest 11/9/2002; Thomas and Hosenball 11/11/2002) A former high-level intelligence officer complains that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants “to take guys out for political effect.” Al-Harethi was being tracked for weeks through his cell phone. (Hersh 12/16/2002) The attack happens one day before mid-term elections in the US. Newsweek will note that timing of the strike “was, at the very least, fortuitous” for the Bush administration. (Thomas and Hosenball 11/11/2002) New Yorker magazine will later report, “The Yemeni government had planned to delay an announcement of the attack until it could issue a joint statement with Washington. When American officials released the story unilaterally, in time for Election Day, the Yemenis were angry and dismayed.” (Hersh 12/16/2002) Initial reports suggest the truck was destroyed by a car bomb. But on November 5, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz will brag about the strike on CNN, thus ruining the cover story and revealing that the truck was destroyed by a US missile (see November 5, 2002). (Thomas and Hosenball 11/11/2002) US intelligence appears to have learned of al-Harethi’s whereabouts after interrogating Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, captured the month before (see Early October 2002).

US intelligence learns through communications intercepts about a meeting of al-Qaeda leaders in Bajaur, in the remote border regions of Pakistan near Afghanistan (one account says the meeting is in nearby North Waziristan instead). Intelligence officials have an “80 percent confidence” that al-Qaeda’s second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri and/or other top al-Qaeda leaders are attending the meeting. One intelligence official involved in the operation says, “This was the best intelligence picture we had ever seen” about a high-value target. (Mazzetti 7/8/2007; Thomas 8/28/2007; Mazetti and Rohde 6/30/2008)
Size of US Force Grows - The original plan calls for cargo planes to carry 30 Navy Seals near the target, then they will use motorized hang gliders to come closer and capture or kill al-Zawahiri. The plan is enthusiastically endorsed by CIA Director Porter Goss and Joint Special Operations Commander Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his assistant Stephen Cambone are uncertain. They increase the size of the force to 150 to take care of contingencies. (Thomas 8/28/2007) One senior intelligence official involved later says for effect, “The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan.” (Mazzetti 7/8/2007)
"Frenzied" Debate - But even as US special forces are boarding C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan, there are “frenzied exchanges between officials at the Pentagon, Central Command, and the CIA about whether the mission was too risky.” Some CIA officials in Washington even try to give orders to execute the raid without informing US Ambassador to Pakistan Ryan Crocker, who apparently is often opposed to such missions. (Mazetti and Rohde 6/30/2008)
Rumsfeld Gives Up Without Asking - Having decided to increase the force, Rumsfeld then decides he couldn’t carry out such a large mission without Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s permission. But with the cargo planes circling and the team waiting for a green light, Rumsfeld decides that Musharraf would not approve. He cancels the mission without actually asking Musharraf about it. It is unclear whether President Bush is informed about the mission. The New York Times will later report that “some top intelligence officials and members of the military’s secret Special Operations units” are frustrated at the decision to cancel the operation, saying the US “missed a significant opportunity to try to capture senior members of al-Qaeda.” (Mazzetti 7/8/2007) It is not clear why the US does not hit the meeting with a missile fired from a Predator drone instead, as they will do to kill an al-Qaeda leader inside Pakistan a couple of months later (see May 8, 2005).

The CIA launches a missile from a remotely piloted Predator drone and kills al-Qaeda leader Haitham al-Yemeni. He is killed in a village in northwest Pakistan near the Afghanistan border. He had been tracked since attending a meeting with other al-Qaeda leaders a few months earlier (see Early 2005). (ABC News 5/13/2005; Mazzetti 7/8/2007) US intelligence officials say they were hoping al-Yemeni would lead them to bin Laden, but after al-Qaeda leader Abu Faraj al-Libbi was captured in early May 2005, they worried al-Yemeni would go into hiding and decided to kill him instead. Officials claim that al-Yemeni was going to replace al-Libbi as al-Qaeda’s operations leader. However, little is known about him (including his real name since al-Yemeni means “from Yemen”), and he is not listed in either the FBI or Pakistani “Most Wanted” list. There are no prior media mentions of his name and no publicly released photographs of him either. (Priest 5/15/2005) One anonymous US intelligence source disputes claims that al-Yemeni was high-ranking. (Ensor 5/14/2005)

The Chenagai madrassa after the Predator strike.The Chenagai madrassa after the Predator strike. [Source: BBC]The US launches a Predator drone missile strike on a madrassa (religious school) in the Bajour district of Pakistan’s tribal region, then Pakistan sends in helicopters to attack the survivors. The aim is to kill al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, but he is not there. Pakistani officials initially claim that a number of al-Qaeda operatives are killed, including Abu Ubaida al-Masri, an operational leader. But the next day they only say that some Taliban members are killed. (Debat 10/30/2006; Debat 10/31/2006) The attack is said to have killed 82, many of them students at the madrassa located in Chenagai, a hamlet of Damadola village, which had been hit by a Predator strike earlier in the year (see January 13, 2006). (Lamb 11/26/2006)

A map of recent Predator strikes in Pakistan’s tribal zones. (1) is the March 16, 2008 attack, (2) is the February 28, 2008 attack, and (3) is the January 29, 2008 attack that killed Abu Laith al-Libi.A map of recent Predator strikes in Pakistan’s tribal zones. (1) is the March 16, 2008 attack, (2) is the February 28, 2008 attack, and (3) is the January 29, 2008 attack that killed Abu Laith al-Libi. [Source: Washington Post]On January 9, 2008, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and CIA Director Michael Hayden visit Pakistan and meet with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Pakistani army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Pakistan agrees to allow the US to increase its use of Predator drones to strike at al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal region. (Schmitt and Sanger 2/22/2008) At least three Predator attacks follow in the next months (see January 29, 2008, February 28, 2008, March 16, 2008) after a year of few or no attacks. Previously, Musharraf had issues with such strikes, but now the US has his unofficial tacit approval. Newsweek reports that the US now has “virtually unrestricted authority to hit targets in the border areas.” The US has pushed for more strikes partly because al-Qaeda has been launching more attacks from the tribal regions. But also, US officials are concerned that Musharraf is losing power and the new leaders will be more hostile to US operations in Pakistan. (Hosenball, Hussain, and Moreau 3/22/2008) Some of the Predator attacks are launched from secret CIA bases near the Pakistani towns of Islamabad and Jacobabad. The bases are first publicly mentioned in February 2008, and next to nothing is known about them. (Schmitt and Sanger 2/22/2008; Wright and Warrick 3/27/2008)

Abu Laith al-Libi.Abu Laith al-Libi. [Source: Associated Press]The US fires a missile from a Predator drone at a house in North Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal region. The missile reportedly kills about 13 people. Some of them are said to be militants, and US officials will later confirm that one of those killed is al-Qaeda leader Abu Laith al-Libi. He is considered a top field commander and a liaison between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. (Hosenball, Hussain, and Moreau 3/22/2008; Wright and Warrick 3/27/2008) He is relatively unknown to the public, but in September 2007, the Washington Post profiled him as about one of a dozen of the most important current al-Qaeda leaders. He also survived a US rocket attack in June 2007. (Whitlock and Ladaa 9/8/2007)

A missile fired from a US Predator drone kills at least 12 people in Pakistan. The missile hits a house in the village of Kaloosha, near the Afghan border. Some suspected militants are reportedly killed, but details are scanty. (BBC 3/16/2008; Wright and Warrick 3/27/2008)

A missile fired from a US Predator drone kills at least 16 people in Pakistan. The missile hits a house in the village of Toog in South Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s tribal region where al-Qaeda leaders are believed to be residing. The house is said to belong to an unnamed militant leader, and several militants are reportedly killed. However, details are scanty. (BBC 3/16/2008; Hosenball, Hussain, and Moreau 3/22/2008)


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