John Brennan, newly nominated CIA Director, has earned the epithet of “drone warrior” for preferring remote drone action and small-scale covert operations against Islamist terrorists to conventional military tactics.
Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri has adjusted his strategy to Brennan’s predilection. Outside of Yemen and the turf of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), where he has little influence, he has been busy transferring bases and building networks in places inaccessible to US drones.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources have been reporting this transition since September 11, 2012, after Al Qaeda jihadis from Egypt and Mali joined forces with the Libyan Ansar al-Shariya, to attack the US Consulate in Benghazi and murder US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department official Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Maybe by coincidence, when President Barack Obama announced he had nominated Brennan as the CIA’s next director Monday, Jan. 7, the only known suspect held for the Benghazi murders, Ali Harzi, 26, of Tunisia, was freed by his own government for lack of evidence.
Five months after the attack and President Obama’s vow – “We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice will be done” – none of the attackers has been apprehended and the special joint CIA-FBI team set up to catch the criminals has been shut down.
Furthermore, US officials have played down as of little importance intelligence from the German BND and other European agencies, exposing Al-Zahahiri’s personal hand in planning the Benghazi outrage. He worked through the heads of his new Egyptian networks, Gemal al-Kashef and Sheik Adel Shehato.
Al-Zawahiri transfers his jihadists out of Afghanistan-Pakistan
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources, al-Zawahiri, a competent though cautious tactician, is plotting his next attack on a US target on the basis of his analysis of the Benghazi operation and his observations on the ongoing US intelligence and counterterrorism scene.
He deduced from the operation by US Special Forces to slay his predecessor and partner, Osama bin Laden, in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011, that President Obama and his incoming CIA chief are deeply reluctant to open up broad battlefronts against Al Qaeda. They prefer to confine anti-terrorist operations to swift, sharp blows, preferably by UAV’s or special forces.
Even in Yemen, where the Saudis lead the US war on Al Qaeda, Brennan – for two years until this week the president’s counterterrorism adviser – charted campaigns based on the use of Saudi drones, aircraft or combat helicopters and less on ground action. His accent as CIA chief will be on the traditional intelligence-gathering functions of the agency, which are essential to both aerial and covert operations – and less financially demanding than major battles.
To meet this challenge, the Al Qaeda boss has adopted three counter-tactics:
1. The evacuation of his few remaining commanders and men from areas susceptible to US drone or covert forces assault. So, when the White House in Washington greeted the arrival Friday, Jan. 11, of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai with the news that all US troops would leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014, Al Zawahiri was there before him. He had already transferred his fighting forces from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the three places he believed to be safe from US attack – Egypt, Sinai and Syria.
Al Qaeda moves shop to Egypt, Sinai, Syria
2. In all three places, the al Qaeda boss enjoys close cooperation with local Islamist forces.
Of Egyptian descent himself, Zawahiri chose Gemal al-Kashef and Sheik Adel as his lieutenants and put them through their paces in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
In Sinai, he has found a number of Salafi Bedouin chiefs compatible. They are in revolt both against the Egyptian authorities and their own tribal rulers.
In Syria, he has set up Abu Muhammad al-Julani, as commander of the Jabat al-Nusrah faction fighting with the rebels.
3. Al Zawahiri is careful to stay within the limits of his power and available resources. Unlike his predecessor’s global, strategic horizons, he focuses on specialized tactical strikes against well-defined American targets like the Benghazi consulate, while building niche-like power bases tailored to his capabilities.
Against the drones of Obama and Brennan, the al Qaeda leader is remodeling the special terrorist units, which throughout its war on al Qaeda, mostly defied penetration attempts by US intelligence agencies, and positioning them out of range.
As CIA chief, Brennan may have to expand America’s counter-terror resources from drones and small-scale covert action and come up with novel methods for fighting the tactical battle of wits ahead with Ayman al-Zawahiri.