Creating Monsters (Dirty Wars, A Review, Part 6)

This is my final report on Jeremy Scahill’s must-read book, Dirty Wars. It covers counter-terrorist operations in Yemen.

Creating Monsters

On March 2002, U.S. federal agents conducted a series of sweeping raids against Muslim businesses and homes. Part of “Operation Green Quest”, they represented a radical type of McCarthyism. And like the infamous witch-hunt led by the Republican Senator, the search yielded little “actionable intelligence”. It did, however, alienate thousands of ordinary Muslims—crowds that would later gather to hear Anwar al-Awlaki speak and denounce the Islamophobia that was sweeping across the newly anointed homeland.

Scahill’s book focuses closely on Anwar’s downward spiral, and includes a lot of interviews with his Yemeni father. A complicated picture emerges of a man that was hounded by the authorities in the U.S. and in Yemen throughout his life, and according to his dad, was likely “framed” for prostitution in at least two separate incidents—eventually being driven out of the country he once loved. Despite his publicity among jihadist groups, and despite being an Internet “superstar” for the magazine Inspire, in October 2009 the CIA admitted that Anwar did not poste a threat to the lives of Americans. But the downward spiral would reach its bleakest not with Anwar, but with his 16-year old son, Abdulrahman Awlaki. Both of these individuals were killed by U.S. drones in covert assassinations. Both of these individuals were U.S. citizens. And neither was charged with committing a crime. Scahill writes that: “The killings of Anwar and Abdulrahman Awlaki represented a watershed moment in modern US history” (p.511).

Both of their lives wound back to Yemen.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh was a wily President, and a master of playing Yemen’s tribes against other. He became leader of the country in 1990, following the unification of the north, which he had ruled since the 1970s, with the Marxist government based in the South. During the CIA-backed Afghan mujahedeen of the 1980s, thousands of Yemenis joined the guerrilla war against the Soviets. A large Islamic jihad thus established itself within Yemen, led by the future al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, of Egypt. For Saleh, these holy warriors proved ideal proxy fighters against Southern secessionists (and also Houthi rebels in the north). All told, throughout the 1990s al-Qaeda consolidated its territorial enclave in the country—strengthened through the “propaganda coup” of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which had docked in Aden; and strengthened by fleeing Afghan fighters that were escaping the U.S.-led intervention.

While Saleh more than tolerated their presence, he simultaneously allied with President Bush as a strategic partner in the global war in terror—granting U.S. forces a counter-terrorism camp in Yemen, and granting them airspace to fly Predators from nearby a Djibouti base, called Camp Lemonnier. The later housed around 900 military and intelligence personnel under the Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), becoming fully operational on December 13, 2002. In July 2006, the U.S. expanded Camp Lemonnier from 88 to 500 acres, with a growing force of 1500 personnel. The U.S. was by now increasing its presence in the region.

The bombing of the USS Cole would eventually catch up with one of its masterminds, Abu Ali al Harithi. His location was discovered in mid 2002. The CIA’s Special Activities Division controlled the Predator drone that killed him, while he was being transported in a convoy. It was the first publicly confirmed targeted killing by the US outside a battlefield since the 1976 ban on assassinations under President Gerald Ford. And it was the beginning of an expansion of military action outside of the stated battlefield of Afghanistan.

But Yemen was not much more than a blip on the Bush administration’s radar. Between 2003 and 2006, all neo-con eyes were focused on the debilitating Iraqi occupation. At the same time, in 2004, the Houthi minority of the north launched a military uprising. In confronting these forces, known as the “six wars”, between 2004-2010, President Saleh recruited both al-Qaeda and Saudi forces. Soliciting jihadists was national policy for the Yemeni government—as was turning a blind eye on their foreign operations. For example, on February 3, 2006, Nasir al Wuhayshi and twenty-two others “escaped” from a maximum-security prison (Wuhayshi was Osama bin Laden’s former secretary and first went to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, fighting in the famed Tora Bora battle). Among those that escaped were several key figures that would go on to form the nexus of the leadership of a new organization, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Three years later, Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, voiced a worry that would soon be shared. On February 25th, 2009, he asserted that while al-Qaeda’s headquarters remained in Pakistan’s tribal areas, “We are concerned about their ability to move around. It’s kind of like toothpaste in a tube” (p. 255). It would fall to General David Patreaus of CENTCOM, and Admiral McRaven of JSOC, to coordinate these mushrooming “small wars” in the dark spaces of the map, particularly in Yemen. The Obama administration thus increased the number of unilateral, covert, and lethal operations run by JSOC.

“While General McChrystal coordinated the escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, General Patreaus would oversee the “small wars” in other areas of CENTCOM, particularly in Yemen, in coordination with McChrystal’s successor at JSOC, Admiral McRaven. Under the task force structure, JSOC was designated as the lead force for covert action inside Yemen” (p.261).

On October 4, 2009, days after Patreaus’ EXORD, McRaven pressed Saleh to let three JSOC drones operate regularly over Yemen, and allow special operations in the country. Two months later, the Yemen front would open up in all its horror—the “opening salvo” in America’s new war, which combined drones, traditional aircraft, and even the U.S. Navy; and was spearheaded by JSOC. The date was December 16, 2009, and the location was al Majalah. Unlike the CIA’s covert action programs, which require formal notification to House and Senate Intelligence Committees, this operation was done under a military “Special Access Program” that gives the armed forces wide latitude to conduct lethal, secret operations with little, if any, Congressional oversight. The strike was targeting three AQAP “high value targets”. But instead of vaporizing the correct target, the Tomahawk missiles killed civilians, largely nomadic Bedouin families.  Controversially, the missiles were equipped with cluster bomblets—a notorious weapon that was met with outrage. Disaster would follow next year. On May 24, 2010, a U.S. missile hit a convoy of vehicles in the Marib Desert. This was not a meeting of AQ operatives, as JSOC and Obama believed, but prominent Yemeni local mediators in the government effort to demilitarize members of AQAP. Among those killed was Jabir al Shabwani, the deputy governor of Marib Province.  After these two strikes, which were a recruitment tool of AQAP, the CIA began agitating to takeover aerial operations from JSOC.

2011 and 2012 saw covert activity in Yemen increase, as the Arab Spring intensified. On May 27, 2011, hundreds of militants claiming to be from “Ansar al Sharia” laid siege to Zinjibar. The fighters were partly a rebranding effort by AQAP, and partly a legitimate “offshoot”. After solidifying their grip, the group began implementing an agenda based on winning “hearts and minds” – repairing roads, restoring electricity, distributing food, security patrols, and manning Sharia courts. AQAP took advantage of the unpopularity of the Yemeni government, and its influence spread throughout the south. The U.S. saw little value in supporting Saleh as his regime crumbled in his final years as President, and so doubled down on airstrikes – constructing a secret air base in Saudi Arabia that was even closer than Djibouti.

And so the Obama administration’s policy of aerial assassinations in Yemen bypassed an established tribal system that could have kept AQAP in check. Instead, it worked to alienate the country’s civilian population, proving a coup for al-Qaeda recruiters. As Scahill writes, “If anything, the US air strikes and support for Saleh-family-run counterterrorism units had increased tribal sympathy for al Qaeda” (p. 465). Even though al-Qaeda was established in Yemen as Obama took office, there was never any discussion of potential blowback from not-so-targeted killings, Tomahawk cruise missiles, cluster bombs, and drone strikes. Colonel Patrick Lang, who spent his entire career in covert operations, said the threat posed by AQAP had been “greatly exaggerated as a threat to the United States”; and despite some threat to life, “None of these people are an existential threat to the United States” (p. 468).

And yet, millions of dollars were spent subduing them from the sky.


The U.S. has often created the monsters it seeks to extinguish from the world. Dirty Wars is littered with examples of what the CIA calls “blowback”. Scahill is succinct with his conclusion: “from my experience in several undeclared war zones across the globe, it seems clear that the United States is helping breed a new generation of enemies in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and throughout the Muslim world” (p. 518).

Drone strikes persist in Yemen, where they are coordinated by both JSOC and the CIA. Spearheaded by Brennan and McRaven, the Obama administration has worked hard to harmonize the once entrenched JSOC-CIA divide and bring all forces together in a unified antiterrorist campaign. This includes assimilating the various departmental “kill lists”. As Scahill reports, “By early 2010, there were at least three entities within the US government that were maintaining kill lists: the National Security Council, which Obama dealt with directly during weekly meetings; the CIA; and the U.S. military” (p.351). Obama personally insisted on signing off on most strikes on “Terror Tuesdays”, during which time suspects would be “nominated” for places on the kill list. This nominations process is an invention of the Obama administration, with the President personally signing off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and on the more risky strikes in Pakistan.

While the CIA has led the charge in Pakistan, the rest of the world now “belongs” to JSOC.

JSOC has won the “war of ideas” within the counter-terrorism community, with its paramilitary-style strategy now central to the administration’s various “small wars”. This could be labelled as the “JSOC-ization” of US counter-terrorism policy. Indeed, Special Forces have maintained their own internal kill list, which is not coordinated with the three primary agencies.

Scahill writes that the kill list is a unique form of “pre-crime” justice, “in which individuals were considered fair game if they met certain life patterns of suspected terrorists. Utilizing signature strikes, it was no longer necessary for targets to have been involved with specific plots or actions against the United States. Their potential to commit future acts could be a justification for killing them” (p.352). This was the case in Pakistan, but Yemen too: “Obama authorized JSOC to hit targets even if the mission planners did not know the identities of those they were bombing. Such strikes were labelled Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes, or TADS” (p.352). Whether CIA signature strike or JSOC TADS, a pre-emptive form of assassination reigns in the world of U.S. counter-terrorism, and the chance of reversing this policy is extremely unlikely:

“But beyond the partisan lens, the policies implemented by the Obama administration will have far-reaching consequences. Future US presidents—Republican or Democratic—will inherit a streamlined process for assassinating enemies of America, perceived or real. They will inherit an executive branch with sweeping powers, rationalized under the banner of national security”. 517

Scahill calls this globalized manhunt a Dirty War on Terror.

But I find the words of Dennis Kucinich, the former U.S. Congressman, to be the most prescient and urgent. Words that only hint at the enormous changes afoot.

“You can’t have one America abroad and another one at home” (p.365).

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Jeremy Scahill, Yemen and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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