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The Independent November 6, 2002

Silent killer changes rules of engagement

How American agents tracked down and killed top al-Qa'ida targets in Yemen from thousands of miles away

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington and Raymond Whitaker in London
06 November 2002

The hellfire missile from the unmanned drone arrived without warning and offered little chance of escape. The alleged senior al-Qa'ida official, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, and his five companions would literally not have known what hit them.

All that remained yesterday of the vehicle in which the al-Qa'ida suspects were travelling in the Yemeni desert was a pile of charred debris scattered in the sand. Many of the remains were too badly burnt to allow identification.

But that patch of blackened sand, 100 miles east of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, represents a shift in America's war on terror. Washington is now ready, willing and terrifyingly equipped to launch pre-emptive strikes on suspected terrorists wherever and whenever it finds them.

Amazingly, it is also able to do so from thousands of miles away, without risk to its own pilots or ground forces. The agents who flew the Predator, using a joystick, and who attacked Harethi's vehicle using a real-time camera and a laser, were most probably sitting in the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, eight miles west of Washington.

The fact that the Bush administration has made clear, through the usual "unnamed officials", that it was responsible for the strike is also intended to send a message to the terrorists: you can run and hide, but you cannot hide for ever.

The use of such technology could also have important ramifications over the way any military strike against Iraq is executed. "It means the rules of engagement have changed," said a former CIA official with a background in special operations. "[This] would be the first time they have started doing this sort of thing."

Clifford Beal, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, said: "It doesn't seem they were given the opportunity to surrender. They were taken out Israeli-style."

America and Yemen have been working together since the start of the year in the hunt for al-Qa'ida operatives, thought to be hiding along the northern border with Saudi Arabia, where the largest unbroken swath of sand in the world stretches to the foothills of Oman, and 500 miles northwards into Saudi Arabia. More than half of the Yemen-Saudi border passes over its sands.

The line has been surveyed, but not demarcated, and there is a history of cross-border trafficking. It is the perfect hiding place for al-Qa'ida fugitives on the run after the US-led military operation in Afghanistan.

It was revealed two weeks ago that American unmanned Predator drones were being used to scour these vast stretches of desert in search of al-Qa'ida fighters. The 27ft, £16m aircraft can fly at more than 25,000ft, sending back real-time images from cameras fitted on the front, to the officers controlling them.

The James Bond-style technology employed means these officers can be thousands of miles away from the actual scene of the strike. John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.Org, a military think-tank in Washington, said the drone had probably taken off from a short runway in Djibouti, across the Red Sea from Yemen, where there has been a steady build-up of US special forces in recent months. But he said it was very likely the drone was actually flown and the missile fired by officers at CIA headquarters. "They are literally flying it like a normal aircraft," he said. "There are reports that when the drones were used in Afghanistan, they were 'flown' from Langley."

Mr Pike said the use of such technology, and the admission of its use, was designed to send an unequivocal message to the terrorists. "It's done to put the fear of the Lord in these guys," he said. "Bumping along in their car, it's quite possible they would not have known what hit them."

The strike on Sunday morning was not the first time America has used missiles fired from Predators against terrorists. In Afghanistan a Predator was used to kill al-Qa'ida's chief of operations, Mohammed Atef, and in May one was employed in a failed effort to kill a factional Afghan leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was trying to topple the government of Hamid Karzai.

But this was the first time one has been used outside Afghanistan, or at least the first time the US has admitted it. Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, said yesterday: "We've just got to keep the pressure on everywhere we're able to, and we've got to deny the sanctuaries everywhere we're able to and we've got to put pressure on every government that is giving these people support to get out of that business."

Harethi, a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden and considered one of the dozen most senior al-Qa'ida officials, had been hunted for some time. He is believed to be responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, when 17 American sailors were killed, as well as the recent attack on a French oil tanker off the Yemeni coast.

A Yemeni official said Harethi, also known as Abu Ali, had been under surveillance by Yemeni intelligence operatives for several months, and these operatives were passing on information to US forces. He had left a farm and was on the road to the town of Marib when the missile struck his vehicle.

Other reports suggested Harethi's location had been revealed by intercepting telephone conversations. One Yemeni security official said: "They have been ... monitoring the farm in recent months and relayed all the information they had to the Americans."

The incident highlights the increasingly important relationship between Yemen and the US, which has resulted in American forces training local soldiers. Washington has also provided money to Yemen to recruit up to 80 tribal chieftains in the country's lawless interior to provide information on al-Qa'ida fugitives. Washington refers to these chieftains as "sheikhs against terror".

Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism at the University of St Andrews in Fife, said: "The Yemenis were among the quickest to recognise they could get political and financial benefits from the war against terror. But the co-operation has its limits. Ideally [Harethi] would have been captured alive and removed for questioning.

"Although the Yemeni government was able to help the Americans locate him, it has little control in the interior of the country, and this was the next best outcome."

Copyright 2002 The Independent