Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of its “High Value Target” (HVT) assassination programme. The report weighs the pros and cons of killing “insurgent” leaders in assassination plots. After the report was prepared, US drone strike killings rose to an all-time high.
The report discusses assassination operations (by various states) against the Taliban, al-Qa’ida, the FARC, Hizbullah, the PLO, HAMAS, Peru’s Shining Path, the Tamil’s LTTE, the IRA and Algeria’s FLN. Case studies are drawn from Chechnya, Libya, Pakistan and Thailand.
The assessment was prepared by the CIA’s Office of Transnational Issues (OTI). Its role is to provide “the most senior US policymakers, military planners, and law enforcement with analysis, warning, and crisis support”. The report is dated 7 July 2009, six months into Leon Panetta’s term as CIA chief, and not long after CIA analyst John Kiriakou blew the whistle on the torture of CIA detainees. Kiriakou is still in prison for shedding light on the CIA torture programme.
Following the politically embarrassing exposure of the CIA’s torture practices and the growing cost of keeping people in detention indefinitely, the Obama administration faced a crucial choice in its counter-insurgency strategy: should it kill, capture, or do something else entirely?
Perceived benefits of assassinating insurgent leaders
Evidence for successful assassinations is slight. One of the few examples claimed to have had positive results is the assassination of Colombia’s FARC leaders Raul Reyes and Ivan Rios, which is thought to have eroded the coherency of the FARC. Similarly, morale of the rank and file of HAMAS is said to have weakened as a result of the assassination of its founder and co-founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi by Israeli missile attacks in 2004. The CIA report nevertheless pointed out that “HAMAS’ highly disciplined nature, social service network and reserve of respected leaders allowed it to reorganize after the killing…”
The CIA claimed that the paranoia its assassination programme was generating could be helpful: “HVT operations typically force the remaining leaders to increase their security discipline, which may compromise a leader’s effectiveness.” HVT operations had forced Osama bin Laden to stay in hiding, rely on low-tech communications and avoid meeting his subordinates. The CIA considered that this had “affected his ability to command his organization”. Bin Laden was seen to be isolated and out of command. Bin Laden’s assassination in May 2011 occurred as President Obama prepared to run for his second term in office.
The assassination of Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) leader Abu Laith Al-Libi and his deputy in Waziristan in January 2008 by a US missile strike informed the report’s ‘benefits’ analysis. The CIA analysts considered that it resulted in “probably hindering the group’s merger with al-Qa’ida”. The LIFG was dismantled a year after this report was written. Many of its top leaders subsequently became key members of al-Qa’ida. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/05/libyan-islamic-fighting-group-leaders)
CIA’s ‘pruning’ strategy
The secret assessment also goes into what it calls “The Pruning Approach”, where individuals within the insurgency group are selected for killing so as to affect the organization. Rather than killing senior commanders, it is sometimes more effective to kill individuals who are important to core functions. The Pruning Approach, CIA analysts state, can be “used to remove effective mid-level leaders, protect incompetent leaders or restore them to positions of authority, separate insurgent personalities from potential sources of government sponsorship, or protect human sources that are collecting intelligence on networks.”
Taliban egalitarianism to blame for failure of CIA targeted assassination programme
The report acknowledges that the effect of assassinating insurgent groups’ leaders is sometimes lessened by organizations’ command structure and succession planning. This is said to be a problem both in relation to al-Qa’ida in Iraq and to the Taliban.
“The Taliban’s military structure blends a top-down command system with an egalitarian Afghan tribal structure that rules by consensus, making the group more able to withstand HVT operations.” Al-Qa’ida’s less centralized structure meant they were able to “weather leadership losses such as the death of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi.” He was killed by US forces in Iraq in June 2006.
In its key findings, the report warns of the negative consequences of assassinating so-called High Level Targets (HLT), a prediction that has been proven right. “The potential negative effect of HLT operations include increasing the level of insurgent support […], strengthening an armed group’s bonds with the population, radicalizing an insurgent group’s remaining leaders, creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter, and escalating or de-escalating a conflict in ways that favor the insurgents.”
Capturing HVTs instead is not necessarily a desirable option from the CIA’s perspective. Drawing on the CIA-assisted capture of Nelson Mandela and the ANC leader’s 27-year sentence, which he served in an Apartheid prison, the report concludes that: “Capturing leaders may have a limited psychological impact on a group if members believe that captured leaders will eventually return to the group […] or if those leaders are able to maintain their influence while in government custody, as Nelson Mandela did while incarcerated in South Africa. (S//NF)”
Assassinations by drone strike escalated to an all-time high a year after the CIA report was written. According to findings by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 751 people were killed in drone strikes that year, compared with 471 in 2009 and 363 in 2011.
Drawing on the experience of assassination programmes in Thailand, the report warns that High Value Target assassinations “can capture the attention of policymakers and military planners to the extent that a government loses its strategic perspective on the conflict or neglects other key aspects of counterinsurgency”.