The Joys of Airstrikes and Anonymity

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Salon.com

The Joys of Airstrikes and Anonymity

Each time the U.S. bombs a new location in the Muslim world, the same pattern emerges.  First, officials from the U.S. or allied governments run to their favorite media outlet to claim -- anonymously -- that some big, bad, notorious, "top" Al Qaeda leader "may have been" or "likely was" killed in the strike, and this constitutes a "stinging" or "devastating" blow against the Terrorist group.  These compliant media outlets then sensationalistically trumpet that claim as the dominant theme of their "reporting" on the attack, drowning out every other issue. 

As a result, and by design, there is never any debate or discussion over the propriety or wisdom of these strikes.  After all, what sane, rational, Serious person would possibly question a bombing raid or missile strike that "likely" killed a murderous, top Al Qaeda fighter and struck a "devastating blow" to that group's operationg abilities?   Having the story shaped this way also ensures that there is virtually no attention paid to the resulting civilian casualties (i.e., the slaughter of innocent people); most Americans, especially journalists, have been trained to ignore such deaths as nothing more than justifiable "collateral damage," especially when a murderous, top Al Qaeda fighter was killed by the bombs (besides, as Alan Dershowitz once explained, "civilians" in close enough proximity to a Top Terrorist themselves may very well bear some degree of culpability).  The adolescent We-Got-the-Bad-Guy! headline also ensures there is no attention paid to the radicalizing effect of these civilian deaths and our attacks for that country and in the region.

Yet over and over and over, it turns out that these anonymous government assertions -- trumpeted by our mindless media -- are completely false.  The Big Bad Guy allegedly killed in the strike ends up nowhere near the bombs and missiles.  Sometimes, the very same Big Bad Guy can be used to justify different strikes over the course of many years (we know we said we killed him four times before, but this time we're pretty sure we got him), or he can turn up alive when it's time to re-trumpet the Al Qaeda threat (we said before we killed him in that devastating airstrike, but actually he's alive and more dangerous than ever!!).  Just like the "we killed 30 extremists" claim or the "we got Al Qaeda's Number 3" boast, this is propaganda in its purest form, disseminated jointly by the U.S. Government and American media, and it happens over and over, compelling a rational person to conclude that it's clearly intentional by both parties.

In the last week alone, this pattern just asserted itself -- twice -- with regard to the air strikes in Yemen.  The first set of strikes, it was immediately leaked, was allegedly aimed at "the presumed leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, Qaaim al-Raymi," yet it turned out he was not among the dozens of people killed, though "U.S. officials believe one of his top deputies [unnamed] may have been killed."  Then, after a second set of strikes on Thursday, it was claimed that "a Yemeni air raid may have killed the top two leaders of al Qaeda's regional branch," and an American Muslim preacher linked to Nidal Hasan, "the man who shot dead 13 people at a U.S. army base [Anwar al-Awlaki] may also have died."  

But while ABC News had identified "the presumed leader of al Qaeda in Yemen" as "Qaaim al-Raymi" when he was the target of last week's strikes, Reuters decided that the "top two leaders of al Qaeda's regional branch" were completely different people -- "Nasser al-Wahayshi, the Yemeni leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and his Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shehri" -- and then excitedly announced that they "may have been killed" by this week's air strikes.  Whoever we claim we kill is the "key leader of Al Qaeda's operations"-- and it can change from day to day.  And now, it turns out, the "radical cleric" who reportedly spoke at length with the accused Fort Hood shooter and thus packs the most emotional punch for Americans is not dead at all, but "is alive and well following reports he may have been killed in a Yemeni airstrike against suspected al-Qaida hideouts."

Just watch how this obvious propaganda tactic works again and again:

Last week's Yemen strike - ABC News, December 18, 2009:

 

The presumed leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, Qaaim al-Raymi, has frequently appeared on internet videos, . . . Qaaim al-Raymi was considered a prime target of the attack Thursday but was reported to have escaped the attack. However, U.S. officials believe one of his top deputies may have been killed.

This week's air strikes in Yemen, Reuters, December 24, 2009:

 

A Yemeni air raid may have killed the top two leaders of al Qaeda's regional branch on Thursday, and an American Muslim preacher linked to the man who shot dead 13 people at a U.S. army base may also have died, a Yemeni security official said. Nasser al-Wahayshi, the Yemeni leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and his Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shehri, were believed to be among more than 30 militants killed in the dawn operation in the eastern province of Shabwa, said the official, who asked not to be identified.

U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki may also have died in the air strike which targeted a meeting of militants planning attacks on Yemeni and foreign oil and economic targets, he said. If all the deaths are confirmed, the air strike would appear to have struck a severe blow against AQAP, seen as the most dangerous regional offshoot of Osama bin Laden's network.

False - Associated Press, December 25, 2009:

 

A U.S.-born radical cleric is alive and well following reports he may have been killed in a Yemeni airstrike against suspected al-Qaida hideouts . . .

In addition to al-Awlaki, the top leader of al-Qaida's branch in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi, and his deputy Saeed al-Shihri were also believed to be at the meeting, Yemen's Supreme Security Committee said. But Yemeni officials still have no access to the area, which is controlled by armed gunmen and supporters of al-Qaida, and could not confirm for certain who was killed in the attack.

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CNN - January, 2006 U.S. airstrike in Pakistan:

 

Ayman al-Zawahiri -- Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in the al Qaeda terrorist network -- was the target of a CIA airstrike Friday in a remote Pakistani village and may have been among those killed, knowledgeable U.S. sources told CNN. . . . the sources said there was intelligence suggesting he was in one of the buildings hit during the strike.

False - Fox News, January 31, 2006 - "Zawahiri, in New Videotape, Says He Survived Airstrike":

 

Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri said in a videotape aired Monday that President Bush was a "butcher" and a "failure" because of a deadly U.S. airstrike in Pakistan targeting the bin Laden deputy, and he threatened a new attack on the United States. A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity in compliance with office policy, said there was no reason to doubt the authenticity of the tape.

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CBS News, July, 2008 U.S. airstrike in Pakistan:

 

Ayman al-Zawahiri - the second most powerful leader in al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden's No. 2 - may be critically wounded and possibly dead, CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan reports exclusively. . . . CBS News has obtained a copy of an intercepted letter from sources in Pakistan, which urgently requests a doctor to treat al-Zawahiri. . . . The letter is dated July 29 - one day after a U.S. air strike that killed al Qaeda weapons expert Abu Khabab al-Masri, and five other Arabs in South Waziristan. . . . a counter-intelligence expert and other U.S. officials confirmed to CBS News that the U.S. is looking into reports that al-Zawahiri is dead.

False - NY Daily News, April 30, 2009 - "Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri calls the shots, says State Department":

 

Al Qaeda's No. 2 thug has "emerged" as its operational leader after seven years on the run with the same $25 million bounty on his head as Osama Bin Laden. Despite years of Bush administration claims that Ayman al-Zawahiri - an Egyptian doctor turned Bin Laden deputy - was on the lam with his boss and unable to exert control, the opposite is now true, a State Department report said Thursday. . . ."Although Bin Laden remains the group's ideological figurehead, Zawahiri has emerged as Al Qaeda's strategic and operational planner," the report added.

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January, 2006 missile strike in Pakistan, New York Times:

 

Two senior members of Al Qaeda and the son-in-law of its No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were among those killed in the American airstrikes in remote northeastern Pakistan last week, two Pakistani officials said here on Wednesday. . . .If any or all were indeed killed, it would be a stinging blow to Al Qaeda's operations, said the American officials, who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized by their agencies to speak for attribution. . . . The airstrikes, which killed 18 civilians, among them women and children, have caused anger across the country . . . At least one of the men believed by the Pakistani officials to have been killed, an Egyptian known here as Abu Khabab al-Masri, is on the United States' most-wanted list with a $5 million reward for help in his capture. His real name is Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, 52, who according to the United States government Web site rewardsforjustice.net, was an expert in explosives and poisons. . . . The target of the raid, American officials have said, was Al Qaeda's No. 2, Mr. Zawahiri, but they have acknowledged that he was not killed in the attack and Pakistani officials say that Mr. Zawahiri failed to show up for the dinner that night.

January, 2006 missile strike in Pakistan, ABC News:

 

ABC News has learned that Pakistani officials now believe that al Qaeda's master bomb maker and chemical weapons expert was one of the men killed in last week's U.S. missile attack in eastern Pakistan. Midhat Mursi, 52, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, was identified by Pakistani authorities as one of four known major al Qaeda leaders present at an apparent terror summit in the village of Damadola early last Friday morning. 

False --  LA Times, February 3, 2008:

 

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials now believe that the Egyptian, Abu Khabab Masri, is alive and well -- and in charge of resurrecting Al Qaeda's program to develop or obtain weapons of mass destruction.

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January, 2006 airstrike in Pakistan, New York Times:

 

Another Egyptian, known by the alias Abu Ubayda al-Misri, was also believed killed, the Pakistani officials said. He was the chief of insurgent operations in the southern Afghan province of Kunar, which borders Bajaur in Pakistan, the area where the airstrikes occurred, according to one of the Pakistani officials.

False - Fox News, April 9, 2008:

 

Abu Ubaida al-Masri, one of Al Qaeda's top operatives and the mastermind behind a plot to use liquid explosives to blow British passenger jets out of the sky, is dead, a U.S. official confirmed to FOX News Wednesday.  The unidentified official said it is believed that al-Masri died of natural causes, possibly hepatitis, in Pakistan, and are staying away from a report that he was killed in a January CIA predator strike.

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Summer, 2008 Predator strikes in Pakistan, Telegraph - "Al-Qa'eda's American-born propaganda chief may have died in predator attack":

 

Months of attacks by unmanned US predator aircraft have caused carnage among the middle ranks of terrorist leaders in the lawless lands along the border with Afghanistan . . . Their victims have included experienced Arab leaders and, it is now thought, Adam Gadahn, a former heavy-metal fan and so-called "killer computer nerd" originally from California. Nothing has been heard from him for months, leading intelligence experts to conclude that he may be dead.

False -- LA Times, June 14, 2009:

 

Adam Gadahn, a Southern California-raised man self-described as American Al Qaeda has released a new video in which he talks about his Jewish ancestry.

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July, 2009 airstrike in Pakistan, Fox News:

 

U.S. officials believe Usama bin Laden's son, Saad bin Laden, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Pakistan. Sources confirmed to FOX News late Wednesday that officials believe the younger bin Laden was killed by hellfire missiles from a U.S. Predator drone strike earlier this year.

Highly questionable - Middle East News:

 

A close friend of Osama bin Laden told Al Arabiya that he thought the al-Qaeda mastermind's son was probably still alive casting doubt on reports by American media that he was killed in Pakistan. Yemeni national Rashad Saied, who stayed with bin Laden in Afghanistan before the September 11, 2001 attacks, said there is no proof to U.S. media reports last week that Saad bin Laden was killed in an American airstrike on Pakistan earlier this year.  "If Saad had been killed, al-Qaeda would have announced that," Saied told Al Arabiya. "They announced the death of many key figures in the organization before. It is considered a source of pride for them."

New York Times, December 23, 2009:

 

A teenage daughter of Osama bin Laden, who has lived with at least five of her siblings in a guarded compound in Iran since 2001, took refuge last month in the Saudi Embassy in Tehran . . . The status of another son, Saad, remained uncertain. American officials said last summer that they believed that Saad bin Laden had traveled from Iran to Pakistan and had been killed by an American missile fired from a drone. Omar and Zaina bin Laden said Saad was still in the Tehran compound when the missile attack was said to have occurred, but they said that they did not know where he was now or whether he was still alive.

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I could literally spend the rest of the day chronicling events very similar to these.  A few caveats are in order.  It's not surprising that facts are sometimes difficult to obtain in the immediate aftermath of a strike, particularly in remote areas such as Western Pakistan and Yemen.  Sometimes, these air strikes do actually result in the death of the specific targets alleged to lead various Islamic radical groups

But far more often, these boasting claims regarding a controversial U.S. air attack or missile strike turn out to be completely false.  It's painfully obvious that these assertions are made to overwhelm, distort and suppress any discussions of the actual effects of the attack -- who the strike really killed, whether it was justified, legal or wise, whether we should continue to drop bombs in more and more Muslim countries.  Yet no matter how many times these claims prove to be false, American media outlets not only dutifully and mindlessly print them without challenge or skepticism, but also allow these claims to dictate their headlines and the overwhelming focus of their "reporting" on the attacks (U.S. Air Strike Said to Kill Top Al Qaeda Leaders).  As a result, Americans are innundated with false claims about things that never actually happened -- pure myths and falsehoods -- while the actual consequences of our actions (the corpses of innocent Muslim men, women and children being pulled from the rubble) are widely disseminated in the Muslim world, yet are barely mentioned by our media.  And then we walk around, confounded and confused, about how there could be such a grave disparity in perception among our rational, free and well-informed selves versus those irrational, mislead, paranoid, and primitive Muslims.

Because it's all done under the corrupt cover of anonymity, there's never any accountability (reporters will simply say that they printed this because their government sources whispered it in their ears -- so what choice did they have? -- and they'll keep the government officials' identity concealed to ensure they can never be questioned).  The whole process is blatantly designed not to convey what happened, but to obscure what happened and to prevent any discussion of its consequences.

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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