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Outside editorial: Luck finally runs out for a 'not so smart' terrorist

Posted: May 15, 2012 - 12:00am

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

In the beginning of America’s war on terrorism was a Yemeni jihadist named Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, who was to al-Qaida what Fredo was to the Corleone family.

He played a bumbling role in the October 2000 attack on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole. But there was no doubt he was in on the planning — he admitted it — and he was indicted in absentia by a federal grand jury in New York on 50 counts of terrorism activity.

In 2001, the CIA was still doing things the law enforcement way, with electronic and human intelligence, arrests and prosecutions by local authorities. Quso’s career as a terrorist lasted long enough for that to change.

On Sunday, in its fourth attempt, the United States killed Fahd al-Quso with a missile fired by a drone aircraft. The Yemeni government, which had authorized the strike, confirmed his death along with those of two other al-Qaida members.

According to the Long War Journal, an online public journalism project, since 2006 the United States has launched more than 300 air attacks — either by drone, manned aircraft or missiles — in Pakistan and Yemen. As many as 2,800 people have been killed, 90 percent of whom were identified by local authorities as militants or terrorists.

When the target is a group of individuals believed to be enemy combatants, the strike is called a “signature strike.” When the target is a specific individual, it’s called a “personality strike.”

Quso died in a personality strike. Whatever his abilities as a terrorist, he was a reminder to the CIA of a terrible mistake it had made in early 2001.

The mistake stemmed from the attack on the Cole. It was actually the second time al-Qaida terrorists had targeted a warship in Aden harbor. The first attack, in January 2000 against the USS The Sullivans, had failed. The boat that Quso had purchased for the attack had sunk.

Salvaged and repaired, the boat was readied for the Oct. 12 attack against the Cole. As his colleagues raced across Aden harbor in the fiberglass boat with a 700-pound shaped charge in its bow, Quso had better duty: He was assigned to videotape the attack from an apartment overlooking the Yemeni port.

He overslept. As he was hurrying to his video perch, he was rocked by the tremendous explosion that killed his colleagues and 17 U.S. sailors.

Yemini authorities arrested him two weeks later. In early 2001, Yemen’s Political Security Organization finally allowed the FBI to question Quso about the Cole bombing. In “The Looming Tower,” his history of al-Qaida, Lawrence Wright reported, “Before the interview began, a colonel in the PSO entered the room and kissed Quso on both cheeks — a signal to everyone that Quso was protected.”

Still, he sang like a canary when he was questioned, with non-enhanced techniques, by a brilliant Arabic-speaking FBI interrogator named Ali Soufan. He disclosed critical details about al-Qaida meetings in Singapore and Bangkok in January 2000.

He’d carried cash to the Bangkok meeting, cash that later wound up in the hands of two of the terrorists who took part in attacks on Sept. 11 of that year in New York and Washington. It turned out that the CIA had photographs of the meeting in Singapore, photographs that could have identified two al-Qaida operatives who were living in the United States.

The CIA did not share that information with the FBI; nine months later, one of the Singapore terrorists flew United 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Quso “escaped” from prison in 2003, was re-arrested in 2004 and was released in 2007. The State Department put a $5 million bounty on his head. U.S. forces reportedly attacked him with a cruise missile in 2009 and with either drones or manned aircraft in 2010 and 2011. He became the amazing escape guy, a celebrity within al-Qaida.

He claimed to have been part of the failed “underwear” bombing plot in 2009. On Monday, the day after Quso’s death, U.S. authorities said that they’d foiled a second “underwear bomb” plot, also originating from al-Qaida’s Yemeni franchise, this one using a more sophisticated bomb.

There have been no reports linking Quso to this second device. But as a nasty failure, it bears his fingerprints.

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