Panetta: Kill 20 Leaders, End the War on Terror

Leon Panetta kicks off his new job as Secretary of Defense with a trip to Afghanistan. On the plane over there this morning, he told reporters that we just need to kill 10 or 20 leaders of al Qaeda and we will “strategically defeat” al Qaeda. (h/t Spencer)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared Saturday that the United States is “within reach” of “strategically defeating” Al Qaeda as a terrorist threat, but that doing so would require killing or capturing the group’s 10 to 20 remaining leaders.

Heading to Afghanistan for the first time since taking office earlier this month, Panetta said that intelligence uncovered in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May showed that 10 years of U.S. operations against Al Qaeda had left it with fewer than two dozen key operatives, most of whom are in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa.

“If we can be successful at going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning to be able to conduct any kinds of attack on this country,” Panetta told reporters on his way to Afghanistan aboard a U.S. Air Force jet. “That’s why I think” that defeat of Al Qaeda is “within reach,” he added.

To kill or capture those 20 leaders, mind you, we’ve got 100,000 troops in Afghanistan–where none of these key al Qaeda leaders are, according to Panetta–and will have 70,000 there after we withdraw the surge troops. So I’m guessing Panetta isn’t really promising we’ll end the war; we’ll just have tens of thousands of troops in harms way to do … something.

Compare Panetta’s characterization of what we’re up against with Charlie Savage’s description of the government’s justification for capturing Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame. As you read this, remember that Warsame was captured on April 19, over a week before the government killed Osama bin Laden and started analyzing the intelligence at OBL’s compound. Though, according to ProPublica, we already knew that OBL nixed a suggestion to make Anwar al-Awlaki the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Savage suggests that we nabbed Warsame on his way back to Somalia from a meeting with al-Awlaki.

Meanwhile, new details emerged about Mr. Warsame’s detention on a Navy ship after his capture in April aboard a fishing skiff between Yemen and Somalia, and about internal administration deliberations on legal policy questions that could have implications for the evolving conflict against Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

A senior counterterrorism official said Wednesday that Mr. Warsame had recently met with Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical cleric now hiding in Yemen.

The Administration justified capturing Warsame based on an argument not that we’re at war against al-Shabaab as a group, but that a handful of al-Shabaab leaders adhere to al Qaeda’s ideology and “could” conduct attacks outside of Somalia.

While Mr. Warsame is accused of being a member of the Shabab, which is focused on a parochial insurgency in Somalia, the administration decided he could be lawfully detained as a wartime prisoner under Congress’s authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to several officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security matters.

But the administration does not consider the United States to be at war with every member of the Shabab, officials said. Rather, the government decided that Mr. Warsame and a handful of other individual Shabab leaders could be made targets or detained because they were integrated with Al Qaeda or its Yemen branch and were said to be looking beyond the internal Somali conflict.

“Certain elements of Al Shabab, including its senior leaders, adhere to Al Qaeda’s ideology and could conduct attacks outside of Somalia in East Africa, as it did in Uganda in 2010, or even outside the region to further Al Qaeda’s agenda,” said a senior administration official. “For its leadership and those other Al Qaeda-aligned elements of Al Shabab, our approach is quite clear: They are not beyond the reach of our counterterrorism tools.”

Now, logic dictates that this handful of leaders of a group that did not exist on 9/11 (and therefore couldn’t logically be included in the authorization of force against those who planned the attack) includes the Somalian al-Shabaab leaders included in Panetta’s 10-20 targets.

That is, among the 20 or so people we need to kill or capture to declare victory and go home try to invent some justification to keep 70,000 troops in Afghanistan, are people who simply “could” attack outside of Somalia, but may not have yet. And of course the nexus here seems to focus on al-Awlaki, a guy the Administration has declared a state secret, yet still feels free to leak details with impunity.

Don’t get me wrong, if Panetta is preparing to declare victory and come home, I’m all for it (if the Secretary of Defense actually brings these men and women home, which there’s no plan to do yet).

But there’s something fishy underlying even his claim we need to get these 10-20 leaders.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

52 replies
  1. rosalind says:

    (hey, my OT comment from the last thread is now – kinda – On Topic):

    and the PR pivot to Yemen has begun. shorter Panetta: “Al Qaeda” is vanquished! On to “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”!

    And in the middle of the story on why the U.S. will be blowing up many more innocent Yemenis this sentence: “The U.S. has also targeted Anwar al Awlaki, a U.S. citizen hiding in Yemen, in a drone strike but had missed killing him.”

    No context. No explanation. Obama targeting an American citizen for assassination with no due process now just a tossed off sentence in the midst of a Panetta PR blitz.

  2. Brian Silver says:

    Something fishy indeed. It has the flavor of the term “surgical strike.” We only cut into or cut out the parts that are threatening. No collateral damage to our society, our international reputation, the soldiers in uniform, and the unfortunate innocents who are taken out when our surgical efforts go awry.

  3. kdoren says:

    At the rate of about killing one Osama, that means about 200 years :). I guess that is an improvement over how well we did trying to kill Fidel Castro.

  4. IntelVet says:

    On the plane over there this morning, he told reporters that we just need to kill 10 or 20 leaders of al Qaeda and we will “strategically defeat” al Qaeda. (h/t Spencer)

    On the plane over there this morning, he told reporters that we just need to kill 10 or 20 leaders of al Qaeda and we will “magically defeat” al Qaeda. (h/t Spencer)

    There. Fixed that.

  5. Kassandra says:

    Has anyone heard anything about the Murdoch “News of the World” scandal breaking all over the world?
    It could have a real bearing on our quick descent into fascism.

    Murdoch hits the panic button

    Really surprised this isn’t being covered here.

  6. SouthernDragon says:

    Panetta, like all the advocates of the never ending War on Terrah, never mentions what it is that brings these people together in the first place: the actions/policies of the US government in/toward other countries, particularly predominately Muslim countries.

    • holeybuybull says:

      Bravo. The best way to defeat the “terrorists” is to stop the US/NATO policies that create them, but the US just can’t stop meddling in the affairs of other sovereign nations.

  7. McMia says:

    Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared Saturday that the United States is “within reach” of “strategically defeating” Al Qaeda as a terrorist threat, but that doing so would require killing or capturing the group’s 10 to 20 remaining leaders.

    So the major difference between the Bush/Cheney GWOT and the Obama GWOT is a smaller deck of playing cards?

    Maybe it’s another Obama deficit fighting strategy……..

  8. tanbark says:

    Thassit; we just need to kill enough of the ragheads, and the rest will love us…

    as long as we keep spending astronomical amounts of dollars to bribe them into doing it…


    probably not…

  9. workingclass says:

    I don’t believe the story about the assassination of Osama. I do believe that everything they say they found in Osama’s “compound” is shit they made up.

  10. Anson Mitchell says:

    This is no wonder coming from Panetta. The man was a crappy congressman from California who has been one lucky bastard in his rise among the elites.

    He is as talented as Obama is smart. Yes, I said that right. Obama is not smart – he may be book smart, but he is not common sense smart.

    But back to Panetta: the man is a disaster as CIA director and he gets a uptick to Secretary of Defense. What a laugh!

    Is there ONE THING that this administration has done right since coming into office? One thing? To hear Panetta think that killing 10-20 al Qaeda will solve the massive problem of Jihadism and Islamification of the world, he is either a liar or a nut. Perhaps both.

  11. BearCountry says:

    This capturing or killing “10-20 leaders” is just “light at the end of the tunnel” talk to make people think that things may end soon. There is no intention of ending the wars: we will just move to new territory. I felt that we should back the Libyan rebels. I should have known this president better. My mistake. George Orwell was prescient!

  12. oldhippiejan says:

    Would this mean the end of the Patriot Act and physical assaults at the airports, too?

    • PJEvans says:

      No, because we’ll still have to be protected against brown people. (The latest ‘be afraid’ story is the terrorists using ‘surgically implanted’ explosive devices. Like body cavities are actually empty containers and it wouldn’t be major surgery.)

  13. lordgoogoo says:

    I’m thinking 10 or 20 less warmongering bastards at the pentagon would be all it would take to end all the wars the US is involved in.

  14. jeffc says:

    The new Secretary of Defense starts with a trip from DC to Afghanistan. “Kill 20 leaders, end the WOT.”

    Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama, in first major appearance since giving up his political title, travels from near Afghanistan (well, Dharamsala, India) to DC. He’s speaking in front of the Capitol right now. Will his words be along the line of “Kill 20 ignorances, end the War on Peace”? Looks like a great big group of people are enjoying his public talk on World Peace downtown here today.

  15. pluege says:

    you’ve got to be effing kidding. this is the level of moron we have at the top of the government? does panetta not understand that even if he could accomplish it…

    a) there is nothing unique about those leaders – others would replace them
    b) like the Iraq invasion, killing al qaeda “leaders” would be a tremendous recruiting tool for terrorist organization. 20 will be replaced with 40 or 60 or more.

    what total jackasses at the top of the political heap running things – we are truly doomed.

  16. orionATL says:

    but, but

    what about recursiveness?

    we kill #3 four times.

    we kill #2 six times.

    we killed #1 a month ago and,

    can you believe it,

    we’re chasing #1 again.

    so you see,

    this could go on for a long, long time more.

    easy, no?

    and, guess what –


    keep your eyes on the drones

    (and forget about troops).

  17. Kris says:

    Great. This is why we are doomed: the people at the top, Panetta and the rest, can put out such stupid and bizarre statements and be confident that the U.S. public will pretty much buy them.

    Are our leaders really delusional enough to think that murdering Al Qaeda leaders will change the ideas of their followers? Or do they just know that most of us are delusional enough to believe any nonsense that they can dish out?

    Al Qaeda’s chief goal is to “unite all Muslims and to establish a government which follows the rule of the Caliphs.” Why do they want that? Would it have anything to do with the corruption and injustice they experience, much of it supported and inflicted by the U.S. and its allies?

    How will more killing and injustice convince these people of anything except the validity and necessity of their goal?

    • onitgoes says:

      Are our leaders really delusional enough to think that murdering Al Qaeda leaders will change the ideas of their followers? Or do they just know that most of us are delusional enough to believe any nonsense that they can dish out?

      1. No, probably not.
      2. Yes, most def…

      Whether a group known as Al Qaeda exists or not, whether Al Qaeda is really not some kind of “false flag” group set up by the CIA/MI6 or not, whether there truly are terrorists of some nature/orgina/creed or not… it’s all kind of moot in my opinion.

      Once Sainted Ray-gun – all on his own of course – defeated the Sovietskis, Team USA has been *desparate* to gin up an “enemy.” Et viola!! Al Qaeda.

      Panetta’s on the TAKE big time and willingly shills out crap, just like his boss Barry Zero. What a creep. Never thought a lot about Panetta, but like Dick Durbin, he *used to be* a better person & politician and sort of more or less stood for what was right for our nation. Clearly those days are LONG gone. Unsurprising stupidity on steriods. PTOUI!!!!

  18. Frank33 says:

    To hear Panetta think that killing 10-20 al Qaeda will solve the massive problem of Jihadism and Islamification of the world, he is either a liar or a nut.

    You forgot to include the scary World Wide Caliphate.

    You are either a liar or a neo-con nut. There is no Al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s army was a CIA front for mercenaries. Panetta just admitted the US Government is chasing a gang of criminals protected by Pakistan. Panetta should have included Saudi Arabia as one of “Al Qaeda’s” patrons.

    “The truth is, there is no Islamic army or terrorist group called Al Qaida. And any informed intelligence officer knows this. But there is a propaganda campaign to make the public believe in the presence of an identified entity representing the ‘devil’ only in order to drive the TV watcher to accept a unified international leadership for a war against terrorism. The country behind this propaganda is the US . . .” — Former
    British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook

    • jameshester12 says:

      Who invented this word “Caliphate”. Majority of the Muslims in Islamic world dont know the meaning or background of this concept. You are on the mark about Saudi’s. Please include Kuwaities, Jordanian, Qataris, in your list as servants of the Empire.

      • Frank33 says:

        Please include Kuwaities, Jordanian, Qataris, in your list as servants of the Empire.

        Perhaps the dictators in Syria also serve the Empire in their own way. The mid-east is so complex. Could Oil be a reason for any of the repression, violence and wars?

        • jameshester12 says:

          Oil or any kind of resources have been in our “national security” interest. How we achieve the goal is a different discussion. Different models have been applied throughout history.

          If you read history of Saudi Arabia and other oil producing States in the Middle East, you will learn that these guys come from Bandits of deserts. They are loaded with inferiority complex (another discussion). Syria, Egypt, and other countries come into another category (nor servants, like Saudis or Kuwaitis etc). There is a good book “Two faces of Islam” by Paul Schwartz (a real good book)

  19. milesscott says:

    With little Henery the chicken hawk and those star wars reject in the Pentagon ,we coming to the end of the worst episodes. We stating on the despicable course. I would enjoyed this movie if we wasn’t killing real people.

  20. tremoluxman says:

    Faro all their alleged intellect, one nagging fact escapes their notice. Terrorists can never be defeated and they can never claim victory for one simple reason.
    Terrorists and terror is not a monolithic enemy. It has no homeland, no standing army, no industry, no real tangible infrastructure, and it largely depends on its adversaries to supply an endless string of recruits. By continually waging a bullshit war on terrorism, you in reality perpetuate it. It makes as much sense as pouring gasoline on a refinery fire to put it out.
    The only hope in defeating terrorism is addressing the conditions that give rise to it. Those who engage in these acts feel, rightly or wrongly, powerless, exploited, disenfranchised, oppressed, and any number of other grievances.
    The sad part is, even if all these issues were addressed honestly and fairly, terrorism would still exist to some extent.
    There is no way to kill your way to ‘victory’.

  21. nocompromises4me says:

    So it took some good intelligence (perhaps a contradiction in words) and one Seal team to get Osama bin Laden. So there are 20 or so leaders we need to get rid of? Each Seal team has approximately 300 members. Put 20 Seal teams into the region, each assigned to a different leader, and remove all the rest of the American troops and our mercenaries. In Afghanistan alone that would be a drop of from 100,000 troops to 6,000 troops. After all, massive firebases with air conditioning isn’t winning us this supposed war. Speaking of, do you think the conservatives would accept removing all air conditioning in combat areas, saving $20 billion a year, as part of their 10 year savings plan? That’s a fifth of a trillion dollars over ten years alone, if you like voodoo economics.

  22. MadDog says:

    A couple questions arise in my mind regarding the Warsame affair.

    First, Warsame and another person were reported to have been in a small fishing boat sailing from Yemen across the Gulf of Aden to Somalia when the US military (Navy Seals I presume) stopped their fishing boat, captured, and then detained them (the 2nd person was eventually let go).

    Since 2 people in a small fishing boat number in the hundreds if not thousands in the Gulf of Aden, how is it that the US military would stop this particular small fishing boat with 2 people in it?

    Logic assumes that the US had foreknowledge of just who was aboard this particular small fishing boat else it must be that the US is stopping all small fishing boats in the Gulf of Aden on the tiny chance that bad folks might be aboard. Are they?

    But I digress.

    At this point I would ask Jeh Johnson, General Counsel of the Department of Defense, under whose legal guidance the US Navy would be operating, just under what legal authority would the US Navy be operating to stop a small fishing boat with 2 people in the Gulf of Aden, and then capture and detain Warsame onboard (the initial NBC news reports said that the US military “arrested” Warsame onboard. I didn’t know the US Navy could arrest folks on the high seas, but since the updated NBC/MSNBC report by some of the same reporters no longer used the word “arrested” one presumes that stands as a correction, no?)?

    Or should we be asking Harold Koh, Legal Adviser of the Department of State? He of the “engaging in hostilities is not War” school of Executive branch legal thought.

    In either event, logic assumes that the US thought it had prior foreknowledge to know that Warsame was 1 of 2 people on this particular small fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden, that Warsame was engaging in or had engaged in a crime against the US, and therefore the US had probable cause to stop this particular small fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden, capture and then detain Warsame.

    Again with the questions: What exactly was the US probable cause? Stopping ships on the high seas, boarding them, and then capturing and detaining their crew seems like a highly dubious act if one is not operating under color of some internationally-recognized law. Just what specific law does the US claim to have used for that?

    And about that more than 2 month detention and interrogation of Warsame onboard the USS Boxer, the US has admitted not providing Warsame a Miranda warning or access to an attorney until after that detention and interrogation interregnum when a separate FBI team arrived onboard the USS Boxer to question Warsame all over again. Just what specific law does the US claim to have used for that?

    • MadDog says:

      …Savage suggests that we nabbed Warsame on his way back to Somalia from a meeting with al-Awlaki…

      Which poses another legal question that should be answered: Did the US know that Warsame had met with al-Awlaki and AQAP (the material support for terrorism charge) before they captured and interrogated Warsame or after as a result of Warsame’s interrogation?

  23. fatster says:

    So, this is where they’ve gone? Seems the US now has two enemies in one.

    “This suggests that al-Adel and perhaps lower-level al-Qaeda figures now consider Iran a viable outpost, with fewer restrictions and the added security that a U.S. commando raid or drone strike on Iranian soil is unlikely. Al-Adel, an Egyptian who allegedly helped mastermind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, is among the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists and the U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for his capture.

    ‘”There are a number of reasons an al-Qaeda leader would feel comfortable these days in Iran,” said Theodore Karasik, a regional affairs expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Chief among them is a mutual enemy: America.”‘


  24. bluewombat says:

    Why stop at 10 or 20? Let’s just off anyone who doesn’t like us!

    Uggh. And I used to think Panetta, as a sensible-seeming Democrat, was a good guy. That seems like a lifetime ago…

  25. xargaw says:

    It’s our meddling and business corruption in the affairs of other nations that ignites terrorism. Quit that and there is little reason to be hated.

  26. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Perhaps Mr. Panetta made a Freudian slip. It’s not just the massive oversupply of resources in Afghanistan that have to be given something to do, it is the bulk of our military, surveillance and intel ops that have to be given something to do, not to mention their outsourced contractors. Imagine behaving like the Germans, Japanese or the French. They are hardly gentlemen scholars when it comes to protecting their national interests. They just don’t overindulge as if it were a pie eating contest, with a new pick-up truck as the grand prize.

  27. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mr. Panetta was being cavalier in a uniquely American way about the lives of his men, women and contractors, and their families. His enterprise isn’t about using hundreds of thousands of people and billions of dollars to kill 20 leaders of antediluvian groups. He is the top general of an imperial army that, like Alexander, must keep inventing worlds to conquer.

  28. roydavis says:

    Recent events prompt an observation or two:
    1. If we an capture an enemy on the “high seas”, then Israel can board boats on the “high seas”; therefore, international designations of sovereign waters have no meaning.
    2. If we can assassinate OBL and dump him in the high seas, we can also kill and dump Warsame? Awlaki? anyone after we demonize them long enough?
    3. If we can “afford” to spend $20 BILLION a year on air conditioning in Afghanistan, can we supply government paid AC to seniors in the US when the war is over. Oh, I forgot, the 80 or so bases will remain operational.
    4. How is it that we can afford to spend hundreds of billions in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan while our political posturing and moralizing is ushering into poverty hundreds of thousands of hard-working Americans?
    5. President Obama, you can absolute count on it, will wreak even more destruction on the old, the poor, and the unfortunate in the US as we “negotiates” away their job prospects, their safety net, and their retirement to satisfy gleefully greedy corporations and Republicans. We don’t need war to impoverish America and send us into the third world, but it’s helpful.

    • jwill5587 says:

      If we spent half as much time and resources solving our problems instead of Israel’s imagine what we could accomplish.

  29. melior says:

    For some odd reason, this story reminds me of an unrelated statistic cited by Chris Hedges recently on msnbc. If the top 25 (that’s twenty-five, just over two dozen individuals) hedge fund traders in the US were to have their 15% capital gains tax break changed so as to equal the current top marginal rate of 35%, the savings to the US would be $44 billion (that’s billion-with-a-bee) over 10 years.

  30. lovelalola says:

    Doesn’t Panetta sound just like Rumsfeld, circa 2003, with his “weeks, not months” scenario? It’ll just be so easy, Panetta says. But it never is. Same crap, different administration. How do I get off this ride?

  31. caleb36 says:

    The alleged assassination of Bin Laden certainly shouldn’t be accepted at face value with the limited information we have been given.

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