Weeks after Missing Claimed Russian Bomb Plot, US and UK Take Out Jihadi John

Politico has a big piece tied to a Showtime documentary on the living CIA Directors. As should be expected of a collection of paid liars, there are a lot of myths and score settling, most notably with expanded George Tenet claims about the strength of the warnings he gave about 9/11.

But I’m most interested in this insight, which seems very apt given recent intelligence failures and successes.

What’s the CIA’s mission? Is it a spy agency? Or a secret army? “Sometimes I think we get ourselves into a frenzy—into believing that killing is the only answer to a problem,” says Tenet. “And the truth is, it’s not. That’s not what our reason for existence is.” When Petraeus became CIA director, his predecessor, Hayden took him aside. Never before, Hayden warned him, had the agency become so focused on covert military operations at the expense of intelligence gathering. “An awful lot of what we now call analysis in the American intelligence community is really targeting,” Hayden says. “Frankly, that has been at the expense of the broader, more global view. We’re safer because of it, but it has not been cost-free. Some of the things we do to keep us safe for the close fight—for instance, targeted killings—can make it more difficult to resolve the deep fight, the ideological fight. We feed the jihadi recruitment video that these Americans are heartless killers.”

This is, of course, the counterpoint to Hayden’s claim that “we kill people based on metadata.” But it says much more: it describes how we’re viewing the world in terms of targets to kill rather than people to influence or views to understand. Hayden argues that prevents us from seeing the broader view, which may include both theaters where we’re not actively killing people but also wider trends.

Which is why I’m so interested in the big festival the US and UK — David Cameron, especially (of course, he’s in the middle of an effort to get Parliament to rubber stamp the existing British dragnet) — are engaging in with the presumed drone-killing of Mohammed Emwazi, nicknamed Jihadi John by the press.

Given that ISIS has plenty of other fighters capable of executing prisoners, some even that speak British accented English, this drone-killing seems to be more about show, the vanquishing of a public figure rather than a functional leader — contrary to what David Cameron says. As WaPo notes,

“If this strike was successful, and we still await confirmation of that, it will be a strike at the heart of ISIL,” Cameron said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Cameron alternated between speaking about Emwazi in the past and the present tenses, describing him as a “barbaric murderer” who was the Islamic State’s “lead executioner.”

“This was an act of self defense. It was the right thing to do,” he said.

[snip]

But it is not clear that Emwazi had a meaningful role in Islamic State’s leadership structure. Analysts said the impact of his possible death could be limited.

“Implications? None beyond the symbolism,” said a Twitter message from Shiraz Maher, an expert on extremism at King’s College London.

It also might be a way to permanently silence questions about the role that British targeting of Emwazi had in further radicalizing him.

And all this comes just a few weeks after ISIS affiliates in Egypt claim to have brought down a Russian plane — depending on how you count, the largest terrorist attack since 9/11. Clearly, the combined British and US dragnet did not manage to prevent the attack, but there are even indications GCHQ, at least, wasn’t the agency that first picked up chatter about it.

Information from the intelligence agency of another country, rather than Britain’s own, led the Government to conclude that a bomb probably brought down the Russian airliner that crashed in the Sinai.

It was reports from an undisclosed “third party” agency, rather than Britain’s own GCHQ, that revealed the so-called “chatter” among extremists after the disaster that killed all 224 passengers and crew – and ended with the suspension of all British flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, according to authoritative sources.

British officials are said to have asked whether the same information had also been passed to Egypt, and were told that it had.

[snip]

Sources declined to say which friendly country passed the information. The US and Israel – whose own borders have been threatened by Isis in Sinai – as well as Arab nations in the region all have an interest in monitoring activity in the area.

So while it’s all good that the Americans and Brits took out an ISIS executioner in Syria — thereby avenging the deaths of their country men — it’s not like this great dragnet is doing what it always promises to do: prevent attacks, or even understand them quickly.

Perhaps that’s because, while we approach ever closer to “collect[ing] it all,” we’re targeting rather than analyzing the data?

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.

6 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    personally, i don’t know why the saudis would not have been top of the list for ultimate responsibility for destroying the russian flight – in retaliation for greater russian involvement in syria.

    after all, they participated in the world trade center airplane bombing.

      • orionATL says:

        yes that’s the question.

        the saudis are too sophisticated and their country too small to do something overt, but they have a lot of loyalties owed them and a lot of money to throw around in their part of the world.

        maybe we will learn more in due time when we see toward whom the russians point their spears.

        it is a curious phenomenon in this world of apparent hyper-surveillance that hardly any major state action remains secret for long. toward which, you do your part :)

  2. bevin says:

    “..while it’s all good that the Americans and Brits took out an ISIS executioner in Syria — thereby avenging the deaths of their country men.”

    Is it ‘all good’ though? This is a person against whom allegations have been made- if he was killed in the line of fire that is one thing , if he was executed, without trial, for revenge, that is something which ought to be unacceptable in a civilised society.
    On the other hand, these reports, designed to serve as domestic political propaganda, are generally inaccurate. The chances are that the man in question was not killed and that the information suggesting otherwise was wrong, or invented.
    One final point: there is not a scintilla of evidence that this character is anything more than a low level operative. The suggestion that he was a ‘leader’ and that his death has any particular strategic meaning is, like most of Cameron’s claims, nonsense. Blair is beginning to appear dignified in comparison with the current Prime Poodle.

  3. wayoutwest says:

    The attack on Paris today will displace this puffery about getting JJ in Syria and discussions about civil liberties will be displaced by demands for civil defense.

    The ease and rapidity of the Islamic State’s exposure and exploitation of security failures and negating of surveillance by the US, Russia and now France will rumble through the halls of power and the reactions will probably be ugly.

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