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The United States is on the hunt for Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the al-Qaeda master bombmaker behind the just-thwarted plot to bring down a U.S.-bound jetliner. If previous patterns hold, at some point in the coming weeks or months a drone launched from a secret CIA base will take al-Asiri out — and we will celebrate another “success” in what was once called the war on terror.
Mr. President, don’t do it.
A drone strike would vaporize this ingenious terrorist intent on attacking the United States. But it would also vaporize all the intelligence inside his brain. Our national security would be better served if the United States captured al-Asiri and kept him alive for questioning, so we can find out what he knows.
What would be lost if President Obama chose to kill, rather than capture, al-Asiri? According to former senior intelligence officials involved in terrorist captures, a high-ranking terrorist leader such as al-Asiri could provide us with treasure trove of information on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — the terror network that poses the greatest threat to the homeland today.
Al-Asiri could tell us “who’s who” in the AQAP network — identifying the couriers, financiers, operators, commanders, supporters and facilitators who make the network run, as well as the phone numbers, e-mail addresses and kunyas (or code names) they use so that we can track them down.
“Killing al-Asiri would take down one dangerous terrorist. Capturing him could help us take down his entire network.” — Marc Thiessen
Al-Asiri could also tell us “what’s where” — the locations of AQAP safe houses, arms caches and training camps, as well as the ports of entry the terrorists use to move in and out of Yemen.
He could tell us “what’s what” — AQAP’s organizational structure, its hierarchy, its personnel strength, its view of how the battle is going and the state of the organization’s morale.
And, most importantly, he could tell us “what’s next” — the plots AQAP has set in motion and the operatives he has trained and deployed to carry them out.
This is information we can get nowhere else. The double agent we deployed was able to thwart al-Asiri’s most recent attempted attack, but he likely wouldn’t know if other operations are underway or who is carrying them out. Al-Asiri would.
Not only would taking al-Asiri in alive provide us with vital intelligence, it would help preserve the valuable “pocket litter” he possesses that could provide key leads. According to former CIA counterterrorism chief Jose Rodriguez, author of the new book “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives,” “Al-Asiri’s capture could yield intelligence from phones, computers, paper records and fingerprints, which would help locate bombs he has created, bombers he has dispatched, new bombmakers he has trained and potential targets he had identified.” By contrast, Rodriguez says, “current tactics will leave the place he is standing a smoking hole, killing al-Asiri and whomever else might be nearby, but yield little else of value.”
We saw just how important such intelligence is following the operation against Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In that instance, President Obama made a rare decision against a drone strike and put boots on the ground. While bin Laden was killed in the raid, we recovered a massive cache of computers and hard drives containing hundreds of thousands of pages of al-Qaeda documents that were taken back to CIA headquarters for exploitation. It is no coincidence that the recent uptick in operations targeting al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen began soon after the bin Laden raid. All of that vital intelligence would have been destroyed had the president opted for a drone strike instead of a special operations raid.
Unfortunately, in virtually every case where the Obama administration has located senior al-Qaeda leaders in the past three years, the president has chosen targeted killings over live captures. Killing these terrorists has allowed Obama to avoid confronting the question of what to do with them once they are captured. But there is a lone exception to this rule. In April 2011, the United States captured a senior leader of al-Qaeda’s East African affiliate al-Shabab, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame. He was questioned for more than two months aboard a U.S. Navy ship before being flown to New York for trial on terrorism charges. If Obama is not willing to bring al-Asiri to Guantanamo, there is no reason the United States could not question him aboard a Navy ship as well..
A U.S. official told The Post last week, “The unfortunate reality is that Asiri is not the only one to worry about in AQAP. He appears to be training others so that, if he is taken off the battlefield, his expertise won’t be lost.” That is why it is critical to capture al-Asiri. Taking him alive would be difficult but worth great effort. We need to know who he has trained, where they are and what they are planning.
Killing al-Asiri would take down one dangerous terrorist. Capturing him could help us take down his entire network.
Marc Thiessen is a fellow at AEI.
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