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Kill lists, Scorecards and the lack of Human Intelligence

Earlier today an anonymous US official confirmed the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi.  Now, I don’t have a lot to say about al-Libi – other than to say wait for an al-Qaeda confirmation before getting too excited – because A.) despite my flirtation with Urdu and Persian I don’t really speak or read any of the languages of Pakistan and Afghanistan B.) I haven’t spent significant time on the ground in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya or Mauritania and C.) I haven’t spend a significant amount of time studying al-Libi or his writings. 

There are plenty of other smarter and better qualified people – such as Will McCants, Brian Fishman, Leah Farrall and so on – to talk about al-Libi and his role in AQ and to speculate on who comes next.  But Monday’s reported drone strike does give me an opportunity to post on something I have been thinking a great deal about recently and that is the idea of keeping score in the war against al-Qaeda.

Keeping score in the war against al-Qaeda and knowing if the US is winning has become something like an obsession within foreign policy circles in the US.  Everyone, it seems, has an opinion, which may be why we on the outside of government are treated, every few months, to some intelligence official claiming al-Qaeda is only a few leaders away from being eradicated. 

Two overlapping barometers, it seems to me, have been used to justify this sort of public chest-thumping.  

1.  Attacks or lack thereof on the US and US interests abroad

2.  Crossing names off the kill list.

I want to focus on the latter, because it is here where I believe the US often makes the mistaken assumption that killing the people on its list is a near perfect correlation to keeping the US safer.

While I think this is a mistake, I understand the temptation.  Imagine, if you will, a list with several names – let’s say, 37 – on it.  These, you are told, are the names of the top leaders in al-Qaeda all of whom are actively plotting to carry out attacks against the US.  The idea, I think, is that if the US could somehow kill all 37 people on this list the threat to the US would be eliminated or nearly eliminated.  

I’m not saying killing these individuals has no relation – just that it isn’t the whole story.  The US only focuses on what it knows, but in a war like this the US doesn’t have perfect knowledge.  This means two things. 

First, sometimes the terrorists the US doesn’t know are more dangerous than the ones it does know.  (This happened in 2006 in Yemen, when the US focused on Jamal al-Badawi and Jabir al-Banna instead of Nasir al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi – the real threats.) 

And second, in the desire to kill everyone of the list – 37, in our fictitious example – the US runs the very real risk of creating more terrorists, who in the long term can not only replace those the US killed but also have the potential to present more of a threat to the US. (Think of how in its desire to destroy AQAP in Yemen since 2009 the US has carried out several missile strikes, which at the very least have contributed to the rapid growth of AQAP as it has more than tripled in size in less than three years.  

The US, as the recent report by Jo Becker and Scott Shane makes clear, is not unaware of a version of this problem:

“One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?” Mr. Daley said, describing the internal discussion. “At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”

The related problems touched on above are one of the major reasons that I think kill lists can lead to mistake conclusions about the threat that al-Qaeda poses. 

There is, unfortunately, no simple solution.  But there is a solution.  And that, I believe is human intelligence.  The less the US has of it, the more it is just guessing and basing its conclusions on crossing names off of a list.  And that is far from an accurate scorecard.   


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