New Question About Drone Strike That Killed Missing American

Why did al Qaeda keep two Western hostages in the same compound as a top terrorist leader?


More than three weeks after the White House announced that a U.S. drone strike that killed a high-ranking al Qaeda figure had also taken the lives of two Western hostages, experts are still puzzling over why a senior terrorist was sharing a compound with hostages in the first place.

The answer to that question, which remains unknown, holds significant implications for the prospects of future strikes and hostage-rescue missions. The collocation of a senior al Qaeda figure with the hostages could be a sign, for instance, that the militants are losing basic operational-security skills. That, in turn, could make it easier for the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to target them from the air and the ground. If al Qaeda leaders have taken to using hostages as human shields, on the other hand, the CIA and JSOC will need to take the prospect of accidentally killing a missing Westerner into account as they weigh new strikes against the group.

The hostages — American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto — died Jan. 15 in a drone strike in the South Waziristan agency of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The strike also killed Ahmed Farouq, a dual citizen of the United States and Pakistan who was the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), a new division of the terrorist group that was established in September 2014 when several separate jihadi groups merged. It claimed credit for the assassination of a Pakistani brigadier general and an attack on a Pakistani naval vessel that month.

The CIA, which runs the drone campaign in Pakistan, had not known Farouq specifically was in the compound and instead conducted the strike after other intelligence, including hundreds of hours of overhead surveillance, suggested that a senior militant was at the compound.

“I found it very, very unusual that a senior al Qaeda official was holding these hostages that were killed in the drone strike,” said a former senior intelligence official, reflecting the view of several experts in and out of government who were interviewed for this article. Most requested anonymity to speak about the drone program, which remains classified.

There are several reasons why those occupying leadership positions in al Qaeda would want to separate themselves physically from any hostages the group held, according to these experts.

First, staying in the same compound as the hostages would put leaders at unnecessary risk if the United States found the hostages and launched a special operations raid to free them. In the cold calculus of the terrorist group, it would be better for lower-ranking militants to be killed in such a strike. Second, in the event that al Qaeda made a deal to trade the hostages for cash or prisoners held by the United States or its allies, the former hostages could alert U.S. intelligence officials to the presence of the senior terrorist leaders in the compound — and potentially help identify them. “If you think you’re going to actually successfully trade this hostage for somebody, the last thing you want is for him to potentially be released and go, ‘Oh yeah, I saw this guy and this guy,’” said a former counterterrorism official from President Barack Obama’s administration.

And third, senior al Qaeda leaders typically want no part in the labor-intensive work associated with holding hostages. “There’s a lot that goes into keeping a hostage secure, keeping him under 24-hour surveillance,” said the former Obama administration counterterrorism official. “That’s not something that normally the senior leaders want to have any involvement in.”

Not all experts agreed with this view. The terrorists holding Weinstein and Lo Porto might have viewed their captives as some form of insurance, suggested retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “They may have believed that if the Americans were going to strike, they would never strike their own hostages,” he said. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an al Qaeda expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said, “It makes sense to use hostages basically as human shields.” In other words, he said, al Qaeda might have put the hostages in the same compound as Farouq “precisely because someone of rank was there.”

But a U.S. government official said the theory that al Qaeda was trying to use the hostages as human shields fails to account for the fact that near-continuous surveillance of the compound prior to the strike failed to pick up their presence there. Weinstein and Lo Porto “were so super-hidden that they weren’t even detected,” he said. “Collocating HVTs or senior people with hostages doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” he said, using the acronym for high-value target. “The question is what does it mean.”

The official offered two possible answers to that question. First, drone strikes have so decimated al Qaeda’s upper ranks in recent years that the group’s institutional knowledge of operational-security practices may have been eroded. “They’ve lost a lot of experienced, senior people, and as a whole the group has lost capability,” he said. Second, al Qaeda may have had a misplaced confidence in the security of that particular location. “This was a place that al Qaeda thought was secure,” the official said. “Senior people stayed there.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. government official insisted that the fact Farouq was under the same roof as the hostages doesn’t mean that Farouq wasn’t as senior an al Qaeda figure as the United States has said. “He was the deputy emir of AQIS,” the official said. “He basically ran al Qaeda ops in Pakistan before he got the promotion [to deputy emir], so he is a big dude.”

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Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor

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