The Obama administration is expanding its controversial drone program to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
The Washington Post first reported last week that the administration was setting up secret bases for the unmanned aircraft all over the region. U.S. officials say the drone surveillance will allow them to keep watch on terrorists in Yemen and Somalia. The question is whether the program will eventually go a step further and include armed drones to kill terrorists before they strike.
The decision to expand the drone program is the clearest sign yet that the Obama administration is shifting its focus from al-Qaida's core group to the affiliates it has spawned over the past 10 years.
From The Core To The Periphery
Until now, drones have largely been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan. The military basically ran the drone program in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the CIA took aim at terrorists in Pakistan and occasionally in Yemen.
The CIA has run operations in Yemen trying to hunt down leaders of al-Qaida's arm there, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
That was the group that allegedly sent a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab onto a U.S. airliner with explosives in his underwear. The bomb failed to ignite properly, and Abdulmutallab will be tried next month. AQAP has also taken responsibility for a bomb plot that was supposed to blow up cargo planes over the U.S. last Thanksgiving. That plot was foiled, too.
"In some respects, in the United States we're a victim of our own counterterrorism success," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University. "We've been so effective at weakening al-Qaida's core that the threat has now migrated to the periphery — and it isn't surprising that as it has migrated to the periphery we would adopt the same tactics that we used in South Asia to address that threat."
In other words, the drone attacks in Pakistan have been so effective in attacking al-Qaida's core leadership, the U.S. is going to try the same tactic elsewhere — where the threat from al-Qaida is growing, specifically in Yemen and Somalia.
Concerns About Blowback
That's what worries Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. Expanding the drone program, he says, could have some blowback and play into al-Qaida's hands by providing more fodder for their recruitment efforts.
"I worry that the expansion of drone strikes outside the South Asian context is going to have unintended repercussions," he says. "We've reduced the ability of al-Qaida to do major attacks, but I think we've increased their ability to inspire folks in the West to take up arms on their behalf."
Georgetown's Hoffman agrees. "This, I think, is one of the problems of just having a kinetic outlook in countering terrorism," he says. "You are solving the supply problem, in other words, the supply of terrorist leaders, but you are doing nothing to interdict the demand side. In other words, the flow of recruits and supporters into the movement that constantly enables the movement to regroup, reorganize and regenerate itself."
Over the past two years, drones have been responsible for the deaths of most of al-Qaida's top leaders and nearly all of its midlevel operatives.
Even before the death of Osama bin Laden in May, officials were trumpeting the effectiveness of the drone program against al-Qaida's core leadership. Now, the U.S. and Pakistan have a short list of members in al-Qaida's core operation that they say, if captured or killed, could lead to the collapse of the core group.
The concern is that the U.S. could increasingly see a different type of attack — like the failed Times Square car bombing in May 2010.
That plot was essentially the work of one man, a Pakistani-American named Faisal Shahzad. He traveled to Pakistan to learn how to make a bomb. He spent a week at a Pakistani Taliban training camp and then returned to the U.S. But there is one detail from the case that often is overlooked: He told investigators that the drone attacks in Pakistan were a huge motivation in his decision to lash out at the U.S.
The question now is whether expanding the drone attacks will inspire others like Faisal Shahzad — not just young men from Pakistan, but now young men and women from Yemen and Somalia and other places the drones are flying.
"You cannot defeat al-Qaida's ideology while we are directly engaged in military action in many places around the world, because that is going to feed al-Qaida's ability to recruit in other locations," says Fishman. "You can't defeat ideology with a missile in Pakistan. You can't defeat ideology with a missile in Yemen or Somalia either."