The Hit List

Nine top terrorist leaders Obama has whacked.

630545_120224_OBL.jpg
630545_120224_OBL.jpg

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama didn't sound like the second coming of George W. Bush. But Obama the president has defied critics who claimed he would be soft on terrorism, expanding the CIA's powers and ramping up drone strikes (at least 239 drone strikes were approved in the last three years, according to David Rohde). Far from the squeamish former law professor he was often portrayed as in 2008, Obama has turned out to be commando-in-chief, ordering more targeted killings than any recent president. Here are some of the most high-profile casualties of Obama's tough tactics.

OSAMA BIN LADEN

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama didn’t sound like the second coming of George W. Bush. But Obama the president has defied critics who claimed he would be soft on terrorism, expanding the CIA’s powers and ramping up drone strikes (at least 239 drone strikes were approved in the last three years, according to David Rohde). Far from the squeamish former law professor he was often portrayed as in 2008, Obama has turned out to be commando-in-chief, ordering more targeted killings than any recent president. Here are some of the most high-profile casualties of Obama’s tough tactics.

OSAMA BIN LADEN

Al Qaeda’s late leader, who gained infamy after orchestrating the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, is seen in the image above in Afghanistan. On May 1, 2011, bin Laden was killed in a covert operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, led by the U.S. Navy SEALS. He was quickly replaced by his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Getty Images

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI

An American-born radical and key leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen branch, Awlaki was killed on Sept. 30, 2011, by a drone strike. Fluent in English and Arabic, Awlaki — who was a U.S. target for two years and had survived a previous targeted killing attempt — was a radical Yemeni-American cleric who frequently lectured on violent jihad against the United States.

His lectures, which were widely disseminated online, were linked to more than 12 ongoing terrorism investigations throughout Britain, Canada, and the United States. Awlaki’s killing was controversial, but the Obama administration insists its assassination of a U.S. citizen without trial was legal. As the New York Times reported, “The administration’s secret legal memorandum that opened the door to the killing of Mr. Awlaki found that it would be lawful only if it were not feasible to take him alive, according to people who have read the document.”

Wikicommons

ABU HAFS AL-SHAHRI

A Saudi Arabian national and chief of al Qaeda operations in Pakistan, Shahri was killed in September 2011, reportedly dealing a major blow to the terrorist network in the Pakistani region of Waziristan. Around the time of his death, CIA director David Petraeus told the House Intelligence Committee that al Qaeda was far weaker today than it was 10 years ago, though it still remained a threat. “Heavy losses to al Qaeda’s senior leadership appear to have created an important window of vulnerability” for the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he explained. “Exploiting that window will, however, require a sustained, focused effort.”

AFP/Getty Images

ATIYAH ABD AL-RAHMAN

A CIA-operated drone strike in Pakistan reportedly killed the Libyan-born Rahman, a top operational figure under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahri, on Aug. 22, 2011. The New York Times reported that “American officials described Mr. Rahman’s death as particularly significant as compared with other high-ranking Qaeda operatives who have been killed, because he was one of a new generation of leaders that the network hoped would assume greater control after Bin Laden’s death.”

Wikicommons

ILYAS KASHMIRI

A U.S. drone strike on June 3, 2011 reportedly killed Kashmiri, the commander of the Kashmir-based militant group Harakat-ul Jihad al-Islami and a key al Qaeda operational leader in Pakistan, as he was taking tea in an apple orchard in South Waziristan. Speculation surrounded his death, however, since the strike disfigured its victims beyond recognition and Pakistani intelligence officials had mistakenly pronounced Kashmiri dead in 2009.

Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

BAITULLAH MEHSUD

A U.S. drone strike on Aug. 5, 2009 killed Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, as he was receiving treatment for a kidney illness in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A Foreign Policy profile a month earlier had described Mehsud, who was blamed for the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as “Pakistan’s biggest problem, and the man who has taken his country of 176 million to the center of the West’s war on terror.”

Wikicommons

SALEH ALI SALEH NABHAN

U.S. commandos killed Nabhan on Sept. 14, 2009, in a daylight helicopter raid on a convoy carrying al Qaeda targets in southern Somalia. Nabhan was thought to have orchestrated the bombing of an Israeli hotel and a failed missile strike on an Israeli airliner in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002, in addition to playing a role in the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. At the time, the New York Times interpreted the operation as a shift away from President George W. Bush’s use of cruise missiles and gunships to strike suspected terrorists in Somalia — an effort by the Obama administration to “go to greater lengths to avoid civilian deaths.”

Wikicommons

SAEED AL-MASRI

Masri, al Qaeda’s operational leader in Afghanistan and third-in-command (a shifting position), died in an American missile strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas in May 2010. An American official described Masri, an Egyptian-born militant also known as Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, as al Qaeda’s “chief operating officer, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning,” and “the organization’s prime conduit to bin Laden and Zawahri.” The Sept. 11 Commission had reported that Masri privately argued against the 9/11 attacks “because he feared the U.S. response” to the assault.

As-Sahab 

MOHAMMAD HAQQANI

This son of the al Qaeda-linked and Taliban-allied militant Jalaluddin Haqqani was killed in North Waziristan by a U.S. drone on Feb. 18, 2010, as he visited his older brother Sirajuddin, the apparent target of the strike. In an article for Foreign Policy, Pakistani analyst Imtiaz Gul observed that while U.S. officials had long accused Pakistan of protecting the Haqqani network, which primarily carries out attacks against international forces in Afghanistan, the attack on the Haqqani compound “could be proof that the two allies are increasingly on the same page on this issue.”

Lois Parshley and Uri Friedman are editors at Foreign Policy.

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