The Attack against Al Qaeda's 'No. 3'

4 MINS READDec 5, 2005 | 23:57 GMT
On Dec. 4, Pakistani authorities announced that Hamza Rabia — reportedly al Qaeda's director of operations, the third-highest position in the jihadist network — was killed in an explosion. Islamabad confirmed Rabia's death with much enthusiasm, but Washington has held off confirming the demise of the 38-year-old Egyptian, although it welcomes the possibility. If Rabia — for whom the United States offered a $5 million bounty and who was on the CIA's 10 most wanted list — was in fact al Qaeda's No. 3 man, he would have been the third individual to occupy that rank in the last year. The first, Abu Farj al-Libi, was captured in Pakistan in May, and his reported successor, Haitham al-Yemeni, was killed in an airstrike days later. It is more likely that these individuals, rather than being third in command of the jihadist network, were high-level leaders involved in day-to-day operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistanis would have an interest in propagating the notion that al Qaeda's third-highest ranking member was killed. By assigning a high value to Rabia, Islamabad can placate Washington by showing progress and cooperation in the war on terrorism. Eyewitnesses in North Waziristan reported that two explosions occurred at the safe-house Rabia was using in the village of Haisori on the night of Dec. 1. Pakistani authorities claimed that Rabia died while an improvised explosive device being manufactured in the house exploded prematurely. If Rabia was not killed by an accidental explosion, the cause of his death was likely a missile fired from a U.S. unmanned drone. Using a missile fired from an RQ-1 Predator drone would not be out of the ordinary. In May 2005, al-Yemeni was killed by an AGM-114 Hellfire missile fired from a Predator. The Pakistanis also denied that al-Yemeni's death was caused by a U.S. airstrike. If the Predator/Hellfire combination was used, it did not happen in a vacuum. There had to be intelligence — possibly human intelligence or intercepted signals intelligence — identifying the target at a specific location and a specific time in order to coordinate the strike. It is also likely that Washington had a source in the area to put "eyes on" the target and confirm Rabia's presence in the house prior to launching the missile. For their part, it is not surprising that the Pakistanis would deny that Rabia was taken out by a U.S. missile. Although the government of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is one of Washington's most valuable allies in the war on terrorism, anti-American sentiment in the country runs high. Public acknowledgement that U.S. drones are operating over Pakistan and launching missiles could direct that sentiment toward Musharraf. The Predator/Hellfire combination is a favorite weapon in the U.S. arsenal for dealing with terrorists. Flying high and far away, the small drone is very difficult to detect on radar, by sight or by sound. The Hellfire is guided by a laser mounted in a turret on the Predator that is aimed from the drone's remote ground control station, often miles — or a continent — away. The Predator's built-in laser designator eliminates the need for a spotter on the ground to "paint" the target with a laser, enabling the drone to strike deep inside what al Qaeda would consider to be safe territory. When the missiles — which fly at supersonic speeds — strike, the only indication their targets receive that they are under attack is the explosion of the Hellfires' warheads. The psychological impact of a weapon that can kill silently and stealthily is a valuable force multiplier at the tactical level in Washington's war on terrorism. Because it involves more direct involvement with operations, which can leave more "rabbit trails" for intelligence to follow, the so-called No. 3 job in al Qaeda seems to carry with it the inherent risk of being captured or killed. It is likely that the Predator/Hellfire combination will be used again to take out another high-value target in the region.

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