In a commendable start to the new year, the CIA killed two top al Qaeda leaders, Usama al-Kini, chief of al Qaeda operations in Pakistan, and his lieutenant Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan. The two were taken out by an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) patrolling western Pakistan, along with the explosives training center in which they were planning new acts of terror.
The UCAVs have been prodigious hunters of late. Strikes in Pakistan numbered five per year in 2006 and 2007; in 2008 there were close to 40 attacks, the majority in the last four months of the year. Since July 2008 the missile strikes have resulted in the deaths of eight senior al Qaeda leaders, and many other lower ranking terrorists of various stripes.
Some argue that killing terrorist leaders one by one is a useless exercise because there is always another leader waiting in the wings. This argument is flawed on several levels. First, the depth of the terrorist talent pool is open to question. Certainly, the successors to the noted al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi were not of his caliber, most tellingly illustrated by the fact that even counter-terrorism experts do not readily know their names.
Second, taking out senior leaders is highly disruptive to terror organizations. With them goes their unique knowledge of compartmentalized cells and the organization's surreptitious supporters (not to mention hidden bank accounts). The leaders' irreplaceable awareness of the intangibles vanishes, such as knowledge of relationships built up over years, the trusted networks, the covert collaborators, and the many informal agreements known only to the leader that are necessary for terror groups to be effective.
Also, as seen in the cases of Israel and Saudi Arabia, once the leaders of terror groups are targeted with selective assassination, it only takes about three applications of the policy before the leadership goes completely underground. This makes it very difficult to erect the kind of personality cult that empowers these movements.
The UCAVs are deadly but fundamentally humane weapons. Predators, and the new MQ-9 Reapers, deliver precision fires that affect only the targeted person and those in his immediate vicinity. Ground operations to kill or capture terrorists would create many more casualties, including among Americans. And the failure of such operations would impose much higher costs. Moreover, because precision weapons only go where they have been targeted, the terrorists must face the inconvenient truth that their security systems are increasingly being compromised. Perhaps they were sold out by someone in their retinue - a disaffected villager, a rival clan, even a jealous superior - and they have no way of knowing who or why. But the more time they have to spend tracking down the traitors in their midst (real or imagined), the less time they have to plot attacks against the U.S. and its interests.
Most importantly, the ongoing UCAV campaign speaks to the American way of war. The United States has fought best when it has combined its technical innovations, economic might, and intellectual capacity with pitiless determination to root out and destroy our enemies. We have never lost a conflict for lack of strength, only for lack of will. The U.S. would never have been particularly concerned with what the Islamic extremists were up to in the rude hinterlands where they imposed their primeval ideology on an ignorant, ill-fated people. However, in a fit of hubris they declared on us, and attacked our homeland. They chose to become our enemies in an unconventional war. And in order for the U.S. to win such a war, being our enemy has to mean something. To us it means we are committed to finding, capturing or killing all those who would make war on us. To them, it means a life of continual fear, of the certainty that the Americans will not rest until they and their kind are either bludgeoned into submission or eliminated. Those who seek to spread terror have to be shown what real terror is.
The UCAVs are true terror weapons - silent, invisible, unpredictable and effective. They reach down from the skies like the finger of an ancient deity to fell those who have offended their dignity. As the terror leaders crouch in their safe houses and caves, as they transit from location to location stuffed in trunks and wearing the clothing they would normally be forcing on women with whips, they might ponder the passage from the Koran, 13:13: "He hurls the thunderbolts to smite with them whom He wills." Truly, only God determines who will face His wrath; but for the terrorist leadership there is a more certain form of judgment coming soon, courtesy of the United States.