Al Qaeda 'to be destroyed' within two years

A top US official says that al Qaeda is on the verge of collapse, after a campaign of targeted bombings from unmanned drones. The tactic has proved effective, but still highly controversial.

For ten years, the destruction of al Qaeda has been the single most important aim of US foreign policy. Two wars have been fought, and billions of dollars spent, in the effort to eradicate the terrorist network once and for all.

Now, according to a recent briefing from the US Department of Defence, that objective may finally be within reach. Nearly half of al Qaeda's senior figures have been killed in recent months. Some terrorist bosses are eliminated as soon as they are promoted, and high profile casualties include two operations directors and the organisation's chief planner.

For those who remain, day-to-day existence has become a nightmare of paranoia and mistrust. Leaders are constantly on the run. The head of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, is too busy just trying to stay alive to plan any terrorist attacks. Within two years, the extremist group that once terrified the world could be reduced to a mere 'propaganda arm'.

How to account for this shift in fortunes? One weapon above all has devastated al Qaeda's ranks and crippled terrorist operations: the Predator drone.

These unmanned aircraft can circle for hours above combat zones, so high as to be invisible from the ground. High-powered cameras scan the terrain below, beaming high-resolution images back to the aircraft's controllers in the USA. When a target is spotted, 'hellfire' missiles under each wing can strike with lethal precision and obliterating power.

For al Qaeda chiefs in Pakistan, the drones are a constant threat. Since 2008, the drone campaign over the country, run by the CIA, has been dramatically stepped up, with strikes reported almost weekly. These relentless attacks, it appears, are now having a real effect.

But there is a price to pay for the drones' tactical successes. Although the targeting is as precise as possible, any attack that involves firing missiles into villages from two miles up is going to involve civilian casualties. Sometimes, these are severe, with women and children frequently among the victims.

Collateral damage

Can these drone attacks be justified? For many citizens of Pakistan, the answer is a vehement 'no'. Images of innocent casualties provoke outrage, and these strikes by a foreign power on Pakistani soil are seen as a gross violation of national sovereignty.

In the US too, there is unease about what is, essentially, a programme of assassination. Victims of drone strikes are given no trial – just killed, almost mechanically, at the touch of a button.

But there is a compelling counter-argument: legal or illegal, moral or immoral, the drone strikes appear to be working. If terrorist attacks have been prevented, are a few innocent lives an acceptable price to pay?

You Decide

  1. Do terrorists deserve a trial?
  2. Should America be allowed to carry out strikes on Pakistani soil? Is it a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and if so, how much does that matter?

Activities

  1. Imagine a case where you could kill a terrorist – and prevent a deadly attack – but at the cost of five innocent lives. You will save 50 lives. What is the right thing to do? Write a brief explanation of your answer.
  2. Prepare and deliver a short speech arguing either for or against the continuation of America's drone attacks.

Some People Say...

“A few innocent lives are a necessary sacrifice for global security.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Tell me more about these drones.
They are essentially just very sophisticated remote control aeroplanes – smaller and cheaper than conventional fighter jets.
Who flies them?
CIA drones are flown by private contractors, operating out of bases in the USA. It's a strange job, dispensing death and destruction from an office in the Midwest before driving home for supper with wife and children.
It sounds unhealthy.
There is something disquieting about weapons that allow people to kill one another from so far away and with such detachment – but in fact, drone operators suffer from surprisingly high levels of combat stress.

Word Watch

Ayman al Zawahiri
Formerly physician to Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri took over the al Qaeda leadership after bin Laden was killed by US special forces in June this year. He has long been regarded as the brains behind al Qaeda, and is the only major al Qaeda figure still at large in Pakistan.
Pakistan
The focus of US counterterrorism activity is the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan. Poor and lawless, the mountainous region has long been a refuge for extremists.
CIA
The Central Intelligence Agency, America's most famous spy agency. The CIA is in charge of drone operations in Pakistan, which are still officially a state secret.

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