Politics

Celebrity Assassination

BY LAURA CAVANAUGH/FILMMAGIC/GETTY IMAGES

Douglas London, a retired Senior CIA Operations Officer, has a disturbing – but not in a terribly surprising way – piece at Just Security. The gist is that Trump is obsessed with taking down “celebrity” targets, and in ways that undermine American national security objectives.

At CIA, I saw this play out more than once. Trump’s obsession in focusing resources against Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza is one example of the president’s preference for a “celebrity” targeted killing versus prioritizing options that could prove better for U.S. security.

CIA had not overlooked the value in Hamza’s name recognition, nor his musings posted by al-Qaeda’s media cell, but he was young, lacked battlefield experience, and had yet to develop a serious following. Despite having the opportunity to be tutored by his eventual father-in-law and indicted al-Qaeda operative Abu Muhammad al-Masri, Hamza was not under serious consideration in succeeding Ayman Zawahiri, the group’s current leader.

Despite intelligence assessments showing the greater dangers posed by  Zawahiri, as well as his Iran-based lieutenants al-Masri and Saif al-Adil, and the unlikelihood Hamza was in the immediate line of succession, the president thought differently. He regularly demanded updates on Hamza and insisted we accelerate our efforts to go after him. The president was willing to accept CIA’s take concerning the threat al-Qaeda continued to pose from South and Southwest Asia, but he was dismissive of our prioritization. His wishes necessarily influenced the alignment of the Intelligence Community’s focus and resources. In July, U.S. officials confirmed Hamza had died and that the U.S. played a role in the operation that killed him, but did not disclose further details.

The president responded in similar fashion with ISIS, as his public comments after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death show. Although U.S. efforts to target key ISIS leaders and operatives had preempted what might have been any number of devastating terrorist attacks, the president’s lack of familiarity with their names made such efforts, and their accomplishments, less consequential to him. As the commander-in-chief, of course, the president’s preferences are tied to his own political risk versus gain calculus, and this is not always aligned with the views of the Intelligence Community. It was not lost on us working the issue that the president pressed hardest for results in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.

I recommend a click through.

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