The blast left little more than body parts and an oil stain in the desert. At first, word spread that the black all-terrain vehicle carrying a half-dozen Qaeda operatives had been blown up by a car bomb. Nothing unusual about a car bomb in Yemen, land of terrorists, kidnappers and blood feuds. The car was said to be carrying a highly-flammable propane tank; maybe someone was careless with a cigarette. The explosion on a lonely road in a remote province near the Saudi border on Sunday, Nov. 3, could have been an accident, or a score settling between rival clans.
It was a plausible cover story, but it lasted less than 48 hours. Tribesmen told journalists they had seen a helicopter flying near the scene of the explosion. In Washington, reporters suspected that the "helicopter" was in fact a Predator, a low-flying, missile-firing unmanned drone. Had the United States taken out the terrorists with a well-aimed Hellfire missile? By Tuesday morning, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was not only confirming the story, he seemed to be boasting about it.
The Predator strike was a show of superpower force, a demonstration that terrorists are not safe anywhere from the long reach of Uncle Sam. For the Bush administration, it was a tidy score in the war on terror: among the victims was one of the FBI's most-wanted men, Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, also known as Abu Ali, a high-level Qaeda operative who is believed to have helped stage the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole. The timing of the leak, the day before the election, was, at the very least, fortuitous. But the hit was not uncontroversial. The CIA, which ran the operation, was furious with the Defense Department for blowing its cover story. Reporters were starting to ask: was the United States getting into the murky business of assassination? How was this kind of hit job different from the Israeli policy of "targeted killings" of Palestinian militants, denounced by Washington? A State Department spokesman bobbed and weaved and tried to draw distinctions. But, privately, administration officials say the difference is really one of scale and frequency. Predator strikes against Al Qaeda chieftains, they say, will remain a last resort.
The story took a surprising twist when Yemeni officials told reporters that one of the men blown away by the Predator was a U.S. citizen. Kamel Derwish grew up in the grim industrial suburb of Lackawanna, N.Y., migrated with his family to Saudi Arabia, became swept up in radical Islam--and returned to upstate New York in the late 1990s. Witnesses told the FBI that Der-wish recruited American Muslims to go to Pakistan for religious training and then arranged for several of them to go to a Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. The so-called Buffalo Six were arrested and charged with "terrorism support" in September. CIA officials reportedly did not know that an American citizen would be in the car when they ordered the attack.
The Bush administration apparently spent little time debating the morality of using the Predator to hunt and kill Qaeda men in their lairs. "As soon as we could do it, we wanted to do it," said a former senior official who was part of the planning. The Predator was used in Afghanistan to strike Qaeda and Taliban targets (including the Qaeda military chief, Muhammad Atef), and administration officials were eager to put it to use worldwide. The ban on assassinations, adopted during the Ford administration, was not an obstacle. The Qaeda operatives were deemed to be combatants in wartime, fair game to be targeted. Trickier was the question of permission from the "host country." Most governments aren't keen on the idea of U.S. hit squads or unmanned Predators roaming their country, executing summary justice.
The Yemeni government, however, joined the war on terror shortly after 9-11. In December, 13 Yemeni soldiers were killed trying to flush a Qaeda cell from the lawless frontier. Informed sources say that President Ali Abdullah Saleh gave the United States consent to go after Al Qaeda with its own high-tech resources.
Jerry Bruckheimer's movies notwithstanding, the Pentagon is reluctant to insert sniper teams into remote areas where they could be lost or captured. The Predator is not perfect. Its wings ice up in bad weather; it is slow and easy to shoot down; and watching the video from the onboard camera is said to be like "peering through a straw." On the other hand, the drone can loiter for hours and hit a moving target. With about a dozen armed Predators in stock and two coming off the assembly line every month, the CIA has a growing capacity to execute hits all over the world. It also has about a dozen newer-tech Global Hawks that fly much higher and cover a wider area with their cameras. It is likely that the CIA and FBI had a team on the ground in Yemen helping gather intelligence on Al Qaeda's movements.
Generally speaking, the CIA and FBI prefer to let local police round up terrorist suspects. "The less we're seen, the better," says a former top counterterror official in the Bush administration. The CIA has always preferred to operate in the shadows to preserve "deniability." Better, the spooks and most diplomats say, not to embarrass friends and clients by making them look like American stooges. Yemen's President Saleh was "highly pissed" when the Predator story leaked, says a knowledgeable source. Now CIA officials worry that the leak will discourage other countries from allowing Predator strikes within their borders. They blame the Defense Department for making a macho show of force. "The Pentagon view seems to be, this is good, it shows we can reach out and touch 'em. The CIA view is, you dumb bastards, this means no other country will cooperate with us!" says a former senior CIA official.
Some intelligence experts regard the Predator as a temptation for trigger-happy spooks and their political masters. "What I worry about is if this becomes commonplace," says Jeffrey Smith, former CIA general counsel in the Clinton administration. "There's a moral issue, and you'll make mistakes and generate resentment abroad." (And at home. "[Derwish] is an American citizen," says Mohammed Al Banna of the American Muslim Council. "He hasn't been tried or convicted in a court of law.") But when NEWSWEEK asked Sen. Robert Graham of Florida, the departing chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, if the Predator attack was a precursor of more to come, he answered, "I hope so." He will almost surely get his wish. An informed source tells NEWSWEEK that several more Qaeda operatives are being tracked and targeted in Islamic countries in the Middle East and Asia.