White House says hostages, including American, killed in counterterrorism operation

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The White House released a statement today saying that two hostages held by al Qaeda were killed in a counterterrorism operation earlier this year. The hostages have been identified as Dr. Warren Weinstein, an American held by al Qaeda since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian held by the terror group since 2012.

The administration says that two other Americans, both of whom served as al Qaeda leaders, were also killed this year. One of the two, Adam Gadahn, had long served as a spokesman for al Qaeda.

The two hostages were killed in January in the “same operation” that led to the death of Ahmed Farouq, who is described as “an American who was an al Qaeda leader” by the White House.

“Analysis of all available information has led the Intelligence Community to judge with high confidence that the operation accidentally killed both hostages,” the White House statement reads. “The operation targeted an al Qaeda-associated compound, where we had no reason to believe either hostage was present, located in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

An al Qaeda leader known as Ahmed Farouq (also spelled Farooq) was killed in US drone strike on Jan. 15. [See LWJ report, US killed AQIS deputy emir, shura member in January drone strikes.]

The Farouq killed on Jan. 15 had not been previously identified as an American, as the White House said today. Al Qaeda identified him as a Pakistani, both publicly and in internal correspondence. Assuming it is the same man, there are several possibilities. It could be the case, for instance, that Farouq was a Pakistani-American. Also, the White House did not specify that Farouq and the hostages were killed in a drone strike, but that is certainly the case.

Assuming that the Ahmed Farouq mentioned by the White House is the same one previously profiled by The Long War Journal, and that has not been confirmed, there is a wealth of information on him.

Correspondence recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound, and released in a Brooklyn terror trial earlier this year, reveals that Farouq was considered an up and coming leader within the organization. In one letter to bin Laden, dated Nov. 23, 2010, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who was then al Qaeda’s general manager, listed a number of “brothers who are prepared for responsibilities in the future.” One of them was a “Pakistani brother named Ahmad Farouq,” who was “in charge of Al Sahab in Urdu.”

Al Sahab is al Qaeda’s Urdu propaganda arm. Indeed, Farouq was featured prominently in As Sahab’s propaganda, including a video marking the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2012. Prior to his death, al Qaeda obscured Farouq’s face from public view in its propaganda productions.

Rahman described Farouq as “a good man,” who “knows Arabic well,” “has good management [skills]” and a “sound mind.” Farouq, Rahman wrote, was “cultured” and “strong-willed.”

“We may invite him to join us in the Shura [consultative] this time, with Allah’s help,” Rahman explained to bin Laden. Rahman’s words indicate just how highly al Qaeda thought of Farouq, as only elite members of the organization are invited to join the shura council.

Farouq went on to become the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), a new al Qaeda branch established by Ayman a Zawahiri in September of last year. AQIS brings together elements of several established jihadist groups under al Qaeda’s umbrella.

Earlier this month, when confirming Farouq’s death, an AQIS spokesman released the image of Farouq seen at the beginning of this article. Al Qaeda has not released a statement regarding Gadahn’s death.

Al Qaeda offered to trade for Weinstein for various concessions

“No words can fully express our regret over this terrible tragedy,” the White House says of the hostages’ deaths.

“Many within our government spent years attempting to locate and free Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto,” the statement reads. “The pain of their deaths will remain with us as we rededicate ourselves to adhering to the most exacting standards in doing all we can to protect the American people.”

Al Qaeda had long sought to trade Weinstein’s freedom for various concessions by the US government, many of which were unreasonable. In December 2011, Ayman al Zawahiri offered to exchange Weinstein for jihadists in US custody. But Zawahiri also demanded that the border between Egypt and Gaza be opened, the US and Israel cease all airstrikes against jihadist positions, the US close Guantanamo and release all its detainees, and that senior terrorists around the globe be released from custody, including those not held by the US. If the US had accepted al Qaeda’s supposed offer, it would have led to numerous high-level terrorists being freed.

In May 2012, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm released its first video of Weinstein, during which he asked President Obama to accept al Qaeda’s demands.

In a video released on Sept. 10, 2012, Zawahiri offered to trade Weinstein for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called “Blind Sheikh,” and Aafia Siddiqui, also known as “Lady Al Qaeda.” Both Rahman and Siddiqui are held in American prisons, after being convicted of various charges. Rahman was convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a foiled plot against New York City landmarks.

In August 2014, al Qaeda released a message directed at Weinstein’s family. “We are not interested in retaining the prisoner in our protection; we are only seeking to exchange him in return for the fulfillment of our demands that we have conveyed,” the message read.

Al Qaeda’s message was released shortly after the Islamic State, its jihadist rival in Iraq and Syria, had beheaded another American, James Foley. Al Qaeda did not threaten to behead Weinstein if its demands were not met. The organization encouraged Weinstein’s family to “pressurize” the American government into bartering for his release.

The message was released by al Qaeda via Twitter. And one tweet featuring the message to Weinstein’s family included the hashtag #JamesFoley, thereby inviting a comparison between Weinstein’s captivity and Foley’s. Al Qaeda has sought to draw a distinction between the way it handles its hostages and the Islamic State’s methods.

Strikes not based on specific intelligence identifying leaders

The White House provides a few clues about how the US government conducts drone strikes, which, again, are not specifically mentioned in its statement. “While both Farouq and Gadahn were al Qaeda members, neither was specifically targeted, and we did not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations,” the statement reads.

The White House says authorities “had no reason to believe either hostage was present” either.

Both statements indicate that the drone strike that led to the hostages’ deaths were not based on specific intelligence indicating who was located inside the compound.

The US government has presumably attempted to track Gadahn for years, and various reports incorrectly claimed that he had been killed in previous airstrikes. Farouq was also rumored to have been killed in drone strikes since 2011, and there has even been confusion over his identity.

But the White House’s statement indicates that the US was not specifically targeting either Gadahn or Farouq, but instead was relying on some other methodology for conducting the airstrikes. That methodology likely identifies key hotspots where al Qaeda leaders are thought to be present.

Unfortunately, two of al Qaeda’s hostages were also co-located with the jihadists.

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

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11 Comments

  • Rosario says:

    Good analysis Thomas, sounds like “signature” drone strikes are back on the menu of counter terrorism options.

    • jay says:

      wrong, they apparently did extensive drone surveillance and had informaton
      an AQ HVT lived at the compound. Media articles say that there was no evidence of hostages or civilians at the compound.

  • Mark says:

    Thomas
    At another websites a person posted the following link to firedog lake.

    “Obama Administration’s Announcement About US Drone Strike Shows It Doesn’t Know Who Drones Are Killing”

    By: Kevin Gosztola Thursday April 23, 2015 3:44 pm

    //dissenter.firedoglake.com/2015/04/23/obama-administrations-announcement-about-us-drone-strike-shows-it-doesnt-know-who-drones-are-killing/

    All the left of center sites are covering itlike Daily Kos, ACLU, Common Dreams and FireDogLake

    “ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer reacted, “These new disclosures raise troubling questions about the reliability of the intelligence that the government is using to justify drone strikes. In each of the operations acknowledged today, the US quite literally didn’t know who it was killing.”

    “Anywhere from 2,400 to 3,949 people have been killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Potentially, over 900 of these deaths were civilians. These deaths are likely a combination of civilians being killed for being wrongly labeled as “associates” of targeted militants and civilians being killed because the US had no idea they were even in the same compound or vehicle attacked.”

    I am not real impressed with the CIA. Nor do I have much sympathy for Alawki in Yemen when he took his 16 year old son with him. In that part of the world 16 is fighting age.

    They are claiming that:

    “Tracking a “militant” “convoy” by drones and helicopter gunships for over 3 hours before “taking the shot”, only to find out on the ground that it was unarmed old men, women and children.” – Jay F.

    I find that unbelievable. I followed the bar charts on civilian and militant deaths n Yemen and Pakistan produced by LWJ. The charts and the articles I quoted do not match.

    Any comment?

  • Stephanie says:

    Very sad to hear about Dr. Weinstein. I had been following the story since it broke in late 2011 and was very troubled by his situation. A sad ending for sure.

    • Arjuna says:

      Particularly troubling, dear Stephanie, since the snakes took money from his family and tried to get more after he was dead. Reminds me of that guy “John” in the Lindbergh kidnapping. Snakes come in many guises.

      No negotiations, no ransoms, no exceptions. Don’t get caught, and really best not to go in the first place. Gem dealer for J.E. Austin in Pakistan=Aid Worker? C’mon USAID. No offense to the poor family, but from the looks of his U.S. digs, he needed money. Pakistan is a bad place to seek your fortune.

  • AndrewC says:

    Don’t want to sound cold, but these hostages knew the risks involved. Taking out Farouq was still worth it, sorry.

  • jayc says:

    Once again, Mr. Joscelyn a well thought out and informative article. Always enjoy reading your analysis.
    Bill, perhaps it may come to pass that the blogger on this website named “Abu Adam” was our good friend Adam Gadahn? Seems that this individual disappeared much the same time as our unfortunate jihadi. Your thoughts please?

  • Gary-539 says:

    I am guessing Daniel Pearl and his family would not agree that AQ treats its hostages much better than IS. No apology for that… just hypocrisy… but hey, maybe even Al Qaeda’s ‘master race’ can learn to treat ‘infidels’ a bit better by not chopping their heads off. Weinstein did live for a few years in captivity.

  • James says:

    Hopefully, if for the very least the sake of closure for his family, AQ will confirm the death of Gadahn.

  • Arjuna says:

    Now that’s some collateral damage I can get behind! So long, Adam. Enjoy your virgins.
    Farouq I don’t even consider a real American… next.
    The underlying problem with slot machine signature strikes and strikes where we ice our own hostages is ground intel, or more specifically the lack thereof. Having such poor HUMINT behind these strikes (a combination of contractor/bounty hunter/noc tagging and Pakistani assets dialing for dollars) means we are never going to hit what we should hit. What if there was a nuke in the basement instead of poor old Weinstein and Lo Porto?
    If the PakMil can operate in Afghanistan as Ghani now permits, why can’t Uncle Sam have a limited right to sniff around the Land of the Pure? Bad diplomacy is why. Sheriff Kerry, you need to ask your Pakistani friends to give up more for those F-16s and Apaches. Stop drinking wine with our enemies in Paris and Lausanne and do some real work.

  • Civdiv says:

    Blah, blah, blah. The drone strikes are very effective and AQ has no answer to them, except in the media and public pressure on ‘humanitarian’ grounds. That is why they are always blathering on about civilian casualties, which I am convinced are a very minor percentage.

    And the Pakis are a very proud nation (they have little to be proud of, the country is a basket case) so the drone strikes are insulting and a reminder they cannot even control their own land. How illogical that the most respected institution in the country is the military who has zero wins in its history.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis