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Italy demands explanation in drone death; US strikes have diminished, dispersed al-Qaida's leadership.

Byline: Declan Walsh

LONDON -- Italy said Friday it wanted more information from the United States about how an Italian aid worker was killed in a U.S. drone strike on the Afghan-Pakistan border as officials sought to explain why it took three months to be told about the ''tragic error.''

Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told Italy's Parliament in a hastily scheduled briefing that in an inaccessible war zone, where hostage-taking is frequent, it took that long for U.S. intelligence to verify Giovanni Lo Porto had been killed.

Yet, revelations of new high-level losses among al-Qaida's top leadership in Pakistan's tribal belt have underscored how years of U.S. drone strikes have diminished and dispersed the militant group's upper ranks and forced them to cede prominence and influence to more aggressive offshoots in Yemen and Somalia.

While the CIA drone strike that killed two Western hostages has led to intense criticism of the drone program and potentially a reassessment of it, the U.S. successes over the years in targeting and killing senior al-Qaida operatives in their home base has left the militant group's leadership diminished and facing difficult choices, counterterrorism officials and analysts say.

That process of attrition has been accelerated by the emergence of the Islamic State, whose arresting brutality and superior propaganda have sucked up funding and recruits. In the tribal belt, a Pakistani military drive that started last summer has forced al-Qaida commanders into ever more remote areas like the Shawal Valley, where two of them were killed alongside Warren Weinstein, an American hostage and Italian hostage Lo Porto, on Jan. 15. Even the death of Weinstein, a prized hostage whom al-Qaida had long sought to exchange for prisoners or money, is emblematic of the state of siege. Whereas in Syria, the Islamic State has turned hostage execution into a macabre propaganda spectacle, al-Qaida has seen any dividend from its captives snatched away, albeit inadvertently, by its U.S. foes.

"Core al-Qaida is a rump of its former self,'' said a U.S. counterterrorism official, in an assessment echoed by several European and Pakistani officials.

The Pakistanis estimate that al-Qaida has lost 40 loyalists, of all ranks, to U.S. drone strikes in the past six months -- a higher toll than other sources have tracked but indicative of a broader trend. Now, they say, al-Qaida commanders are moving back to the relative safety, and isolation, of locations they once fled, like the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, and Sudan. Yet militancy experts caution that is too early to sound the death knell for al-Qaida's leaders, for whom patience and adaptability are hallmarks, and who, despite the adversity, remains the principal jihadi group focused on attacking the West.

"People always want to know when the job will be finished,'' said Michael Semple, a militancy expert at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland. "I don't think we can talk about that. They're on the back foot, rather than being eliminated.''

President Barack Obama's disclosure that a U.S. counterterrorism operation killed three Americans and an Italian in January -- the two hostages, and two senior al-Qaida leaders -- offered a rare glimpse into the decade-old shadow war in Pakistan's tribal borderlands, as well as a hint of how difficult it remains to get information about al-Qaida activities there. Although the strikes that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto occurred several months ago, Obama said he could confirm their deaths only recently.

Yet there is little doubt that the swooping valleys and deep forests have become a deadly refuge for al-Qaida's leadership. "The drones have left al-Qaida in tatters,'' said a Pakistani security official in Peshawar, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They are in disarray, trying to reorganize but struggling to find people capable of leading the organization.''

The group had put hope for new leadership on al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, a local franchise begun in September by the al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, ostensibly to counter Islamic State recruitment efforts.

For now, al-Qaida's top leadership will probably be preoccupied with its survival rather than plotting attacks on the West, Semple said.

"They have ways of surviving, and the guys who remain are good,'' he said. "But can they get together to brainstorm attacks on the U.S.? I don't think there are too many meetings.''

More broadly, though, questions about al-Qaida's ability to bounce back are likely to find answers in its rivalry with Islamic State rather than in the valleys of Waziristan. Islamic State has dwarfed al-Qaida's media presence over the past year, through aggressive use of Twitter and a constant stream of news releases.

Then there is the wider question of whether al-Qaida's strength lies in its network, or in the idea that it represents.

"Even if Zawahri has gone silent, the network is not dead,'' Aaron Y. Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute wrote recently. "From the available information, it appears the network may have moved on.''

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.
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Author:Walsh, Declan
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Apr 25, 2015
Words:830
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