US airstrikes alone cannot defeat al Qaeda


As the Obama administration weighs switching its Afghanistan strategy from one of counterinsurgency and securing the Afghan populace to counterterrorism operations aimed at al Qaeda’s network based in Pakistan, US military and intelligence officials said that while the US air campaign in Pakistan has been effective in taking out nodes and senior al Qaeda leaders, the capacity to cripple the terror network with this tactic alone is limited.

The US has launched 74 airstrikes and ground raids against the Taliban and al Qaeda’s network in Pakistan’s lawless tribal agency since January 2008. During that time, 13 senior al Qaeda leaders and one senior Taliban leader have been killed; eight were killed in 2008 (Abdullah Azzam al Saudi, Abu Zubair al Masri, Abu Jihad al Masri, Khalid Habib, Abu Haris, Abu Khabab al Masri, Abu Sulayman Jazairi, Abu Laith al Libi); and six were killed in 2009 (Ilyas Kashmiri, Najmuddin Jalolov, Mustafa al Jaziri, Baitullah Mehsud, Osama al Kini, and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan). Sixteen other mid-level al Qaeda and Taliban commanders and operatives have been killed since January 2008 [see list of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed since 2004, below].

US intelligence officials have noted that while the attacks have hurt al Qaeda’s operations, particularly the external operations branch, which is aimed at striking the West, al Qaeda’s command is intact, and junior leaders, some who have been waiting in the wings for years, have stepped into new leadership roles.

“Al Qaeda still maintains a deep bench,” a senior official told The Long War Journal. “We’ve hurt them, we’re forcing them to focus more on personal security and leadership succession, but we can’t defeat them like this.”

Numerous al Qaeda operatives, many with a decade or more of experience, wait in the wings to assume leadership roles. Many are based in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Yemen [see list of al Qaeda leaders still active].

Al Qaeda’s strengthening alliances with Pakistani terror groups such as the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and several other groups have increased its access to experienced operatives as well as recruits, an official said. And the strong ties to the Taliban and the Haqqani Network ensure their survival unless these groups are denied terrain.

“Just the alliance with Lashkar-e-Taiba alone ensures al Qaeda has a vast pool of leadership cadre,” the official said.

“Look at Ilyas Kashmiri,” the official continued, referring to the operations commander of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-Islami and the operations chief of Brigade 313 who was killed in a Sept. 14 airstrike. “He had almost two decades of experience, plus his experience as a Pakistani commando. He joined with al Qaeda and was behind some very effective attacks. His understudies are still around; they are dangerous too.”

A senior official warned of overly optimistic reports “that the military strikes have reduced al Qaeda’s core leadership to only a handful of men and diminished its ability to train fighters,” thus forcing the group “to turn to its global affiliates for survival.”

“We’ve heard similar, premature reports of the demise of al Qaeda over the past several years,” the senior official said, “only to be shocked when much of northwestern Pakistan and wide areas of Afghanistan fell under the sway of the Taliban, with the aid of al Qaeda. We won’t beat them unless we hold ground, its that simple.”

“Predator strikes are one tool in the kit to help defeat al Qaeda, but an overreliance on this tool does not make for sound strategy.”

List of primary and secondary al Qaeda, Taliban, and allied terror group leaders killed during US strikes in Pakistan since 2004:

Killed in 2009:

Ilyas Kashmiri

The operations commander of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-Islami and the operations chief of Brigade 313.

Date killed: September 14, 2009

Najmuddin Jalolov

The leader of the Islamic Jihad Group, a breakaway faction of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Najmuddin was closely allied with al Qaeda.

Date killed: September 14, 2009

Maulvi Ismail Khan

A military commander in the Haqqani Network.

Date killed: September 8, 2009

Mustafa al Jaziri

A senior military commander for al Qaeda who sits on al Qaeda’s military shura.

Date killed: September 7, 2009

Baitullah Mehsud

The overall leader of the movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.

August 5, 2009

Kifayatullah Anikhel

A Taliban commander under Baitullah Mehsud.

Date killed: July 7, 2009

Mufti Noor Wali

Suicide bomber trainer for the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Date killed: July 3, 2009

Khwaz Ali Mehsud

A senior deputy to Baitullah Mehsud.

Date killed: June 23, 2009

Abdullah Hamas al Filistini

A senior al Qaeda trainer.

Date killed: April 1, 2009

Osama al Kini (aka Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam)

Al Qaeda’s operations chief for Pakistan who was wanted for the 1998 bombings against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Date killed: January 1, 2009

Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan

A senior aide to Osama al Kini who was wanted for the 1998 bombings against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Date killed: January 1, 2009

Killed in 2008:

Abu Zubair al Masri

Served as an explosive expert for al Qaeda as well as a leader.

Date killed: November 21, 2008

Abdullah Azzam al Saudi

Served as liaison between al Qaeda and the Taliban operating in Pakistan’s northwest. Azzam facilitated al Qaeda’s external operations network. He also served as a recruiter and trainer for al Qaeda.

Date killed: November 19, 2008

Abu Jihad al Masri

The leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group and the chief of al Qaeda’s intelligence branch, and directed al Qaeda’s intelligence shura. He directed al Qaeda’s external operations in Egypt.

Date killed: October 31, 2008

Khalid Habib

The commander of the Lashkar al Zil or the Shadow Army, al Qaeda’s paramilitary forces in Pakistan’s northwest and Afghanistan.

Date killed: October 16, 2008

Abu al Hasan al Rimi

A senior al Qaeda operative.

Date killed: October 2008 – exact date unknown

Abu Ubaidah al Tunisi

An al Qaeda military commander who fought against the Russians in Afghanistan.

Date killed: September 17, 2008

Abu Musa

An al Qaeda operative from Saudi Arabia.

Date killed: September 8, 2008

Abu Qasim

An al Qaeda operative from Egypt.

Date killed: September 8, 2008

Abu Hamza

An explosives expert from Saudi Arabia who served as al Qaeda’s commander in Peshawar.

Date killed: September 8, 2008

Abu Haris

A senior al Qaeda military commander from Syria who led more than 250 Arab and Afghan fighters under the guise of the Jaish al Mahdi in Helmand province. He became al Qaeda’s operations chief in the tribal areas in 2008.

Date killed: September 8, 2008

Abu Wafa al Saudi

An al Qaeda commander and logistician.

Date killed: September 4, 2008

Abdul Rehman

A local Taliban commander in the Wana region in South Waziristan.

Date killed: August 13, 2008

Abu Khabab al Masri

The chief of al Qaeda’s weapons of mass destruction program and a master bomb maker.

Date killed: July 28, 2008

Abu Mohammad Ibrahim bin Abi al Faraj al Masri

A religious leader, close to Abu Khabab al Masri.

Date killed: July 28, 2008

Abdul Wahhab al Masri

A senior aide to Abu Khabab al Masri.

Date killed: July 28, 2008

Abu Islam al Masri

Aide to Abu Khabab al Masri.

Date killed: July 28, 2008

Abu Sulayman Jazairi

The chief of al Qaeda’s external network. Jazairi was a senior trainer, an explosives expert, and an operational commander tasked with planning attacks on the West.

Date killed: March 16, 2008

Dr. Arshad Waheed (aka Sheikh Moaz)

A mid-level al Qaeda leader.

Date killed: May 14, 2008

Abu Laith al Libi

Senior military commander in Afghanistan and the leader of the reformed Brigade 055 in al Qaeda’s paramilitary Shadow Army.

Date killed: January 29, 2008

Killed in 2007:

No senior al Qaeda or Taliban leaders or operatives were reported killed during the strikes in 2007.

Killed in 2006:

Liaquat Hussain

Second-in-command of the Bajaur TNSM.

Date killed: October 30, 2006

Imam Asad

Camp commander for the Black Guard, al Qaeda’s elite bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. Asad was a Chechen with close links to Shamil Basayev.

Date killed: March 1, 2006

Killed in 2005:

Abu Hamza Rabia

Al Qaeda’s operational commander. He was involved with two assassination plots against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Date killed: December 1, 2005

Killed in 2004:

Nek Mohammed

A senior Taliban commander in South Waziristan who had links to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

Date killed: June 18, 2004

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Major Scarlet says:

    i have a suggestion. why don’t we kill the people that are the real problems. you can find them in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria.. among other Middle Eastern destinations. killing foot soldiers is pointless.

  • TimSln says:

    Excellent report and I couldn’t agree more.
    If the Taliban retake Afghanistan, you can bet that al-Qaeda will set up shop again significantly in the country.

  • C-Low says:

    “We won’t beat them unless we hold ground, its that simple.”
    That is a money quote, dam. That quote says to me what we have all seen coming. Unless the Paki gov goes balls deep (with real intention not fake for the money impression) we are going to have to do it. Take and occupy the NW Paki land.
    An idea that is ugly on another level .

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/24/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • The Obama administration’s strategy is beginning to sound a lot like the old Clinton strategy, when the Clinton administration thought that firing a few cruise missiles at al-Qaeda would eliminate the threat. If it didn’t work then, why would it work now? Random attacks by missile-carrying aircraft helps, but it certainly doesn’t defeat the enemy.
    Another thing I don’t quite understand is the current administration toying with the idea of reducing the amount of troops in Afghanistan and just concentrating on Predator and Special Forces attacks on al-Qaeda. But if the Taliban re-take Afghanistan and the Karzai regime falls, where does NATO and the United States withdraw to? Pakistan certainly doesn’t want a large number of our troops based on their soil and if the Taliban win they certainly won’t want us in Afghanistan and will fight to throw us out. So NATO and the United States will either have to leave Afghanistan, thereby eliminating our bases to fight al-Qaeda, or we’ll be forced to fight the Taliban, which is what we are doing now. Am I missing something here?

  • paul says:

    Reading the news re Punjabi terrorist it confirms to me what i have always thourght that Afghanistan is not the Problem Pakistan is and their funders namely Iran,Russia,China and Saudi!
    Why we also pay them billions and know they are two timing us is beyond me!

  • JMG says:

    Folks, the U.S. cannot go to war with Afghanistan (30 million), Pakistan (170 million), Iran (70 million), Syria (20 million), Iraq (25 million), and Saudi Arabia (30 million) all at once. Maybe the Bush administration should have thought about this before lighting the fuse on that powder keg.


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