The reappearance of two of al-Qaeda's best known figures this weekend overshadowed last week's news that an unmanned U.S. drone had killed a behind-the-scenes al-Qaeda operative named Saleh al-Somali in a remote northern region of Pakistan.
Both Adam Gadahn and Ayman al-Zawahiri popped up alive and well on the internet, showing once again that CIA drone attacks have not managed to knock out the high-visibility, high-value Taliban and Al Qaeda targets the U.S. has been seeking in the region since the 9/11 attacks.
Gadahn, a Southern California Muslim convert turned al-Qaeda propagandist, criticized America and its allies in a 17-minute video released Saturday morning. On Sunday, Zawahiri, long considered Osama Bin Laden's top lieutenant, released an audio statement, blasting Arab government figures as "Obama's henchmen" and slaves of "the new world order."
The continued survival of such high-profile targets points to poor U.S. intelligence, footdragging by Pakistani allies, and a success rate that has not kept pace with a marked increase in the number of U.S. drone attacks.
The total number of drone attacks in 2009 was roughly twice its 2008 level. In October, the New Yorker reported that President Obama authorized as many aerial strikes in Pakistan during his first nine and a half months in office as President Bush did in his last three years in office -- just over 40, or about one per week.
According to a former senior intelligence official, there are four reasons why the strikes have increased: more resources, better methodology, a lower threshold for who is targeted, and, perhaps, a higher tolerance for collateral damage. The New America Foundation think tank estimated earlier this month that up to 40 percent of those killed in Pakistan strikes are civilians.
But there are indications that the new strikes are no more successful than the old ones despite their greater frequency, said a second former intelligence official.
"We've been given the impression that with more strikes, there's been more success," said the official. "They're not more successful, they're less successful. They have not improved their ability to kill high-level al-Qaeda targets." According to the official, the U.S. plays a numbers game by making more requests so that the Pakistanis will approve more. The targeting, however, is not actually based on better intelligence.
The official's point was echoed by counterterrorism expert Charles Faddis, a 20-year veteran of the CIA and author of the book "Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. " While it's undeniably true that we're increasing the number of strikes," said Faddis, "anybody who draws the inference that we're getting better intelligence is drawing the wrong conclusion. We're just firing more missiles. There's a lower threshold for who we can hit."
The U.S. has also long been hampered in its ability to hit high-level targets by the refusal of the Pakistani government to authorize drone strikes on suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda targets. According to a report Monday in the New York Times, the U.S. has now threatened to step up drone strikes in Pakistan if the Pakistani military won't be more cooperative. According to the Times, the Pakistani military has rejected U.S. requests to hit a Taliban leader named Siraj Haqqani, who has a long relationship with Pakistan's spy agency.
Should a strike be approved and completed, the U.S. also has only a limited ability to confirm the identity of casualties. "Who's going to do it?" asked Faddis. "By definition, when you've hit someone, no one on our side has access to the site. There are no forensics. You hope for human intelligence to pick up some indication that your target's been hit."
That means that sometimes Al Qaeda figures seem to come back to life. Unnamed government officials have previously indicated to reporters that specific Al Qaeda targets were killed, only to have those individuals resurface later.
Zawahiri and Gadahn, for example, have a habit of reappearing after U.S. strikes that are said to have killed or wounded them. Zawahiri was thought dead in a 2006 CIA airstrike, only to reemerge on video shortly after. He also survived a 2008 strike.
Gadahn was said to have been killed by a Predator missile in early 2008. Later that year he appeared in a web video.