Alumnus, Former CIA Analyst Discusses Latest U.S. Strike Against al-Qaeda

The following story, featuring former CIA analyst Dr. Jarret Brachman, Augustana class of 2000, was featured in the June 5 broadcast of PRI's "The World." Brachman will be a featured speaker at the Augustana Thought Leader Forum in Sioux Falls on March 7, 2013.

Listen to the interview:

U.S. Officials: Top Al-Qaeda Leader Killed in Pakistan Drone Strike

Senior al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi was killed in Pakistan on Monday, a U.S. official has told the BBC.

U.S. officials said Libi was the target of a drone strike which hit a volatile tribal area of Pakistan’s north-west, killing 15 suspected militants.

There has been no confirmation of his death from sources in Pakistan.

According to officials, he played a critical role in the group’s planning against the West.

Marco Werman talks with former CIA analyst Jarret Brachman.

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman. This is “The World”. The United States takes a lot of grief from Pakistan over drone strikes. But the news today out of Pakistan shows why US officials believe those strikes are still worth the trouble. Officials say a US drone strike in Waziristan has killed al-Qaeda’s second in command. Abu Yahya al-Libi was also considered a top strategist for the terrorist group. The White House calls his death “a major blow against al-Qaeda”. Jarret Brachman is a former CIA analyst. He says al-Libi had been famous in militant circles ever since he escaped from the US jail in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005.

Jarret Brachman: Well, it’s a winding and almost Hollywood-like story. Abu Yahya al-Libi and three of his colleges had been planning for several months where basically they pick a bunch of locks and they climb under fences and they take off their shirts in order to look like local Afghan contractors and go right past US guards. I mean it’s this wild, you know, story, and after running and escaping detection for several days they link back up with the Taliban who then bring them back to al-Qaeda.

Werman: And what did that escape do for al-Libi’s credentials? I mean it should have been pretty good. Was he already in al-Qaeda at that point?

Brachman: Well, no, he hasn’t and it’s, you know, Abu Yahya al-Libi is one of the most complex figures within al-Qaeda because he had already established his career working with a militant group known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and he was, you know, you could say one of their highest ranking religious officials within the organization. So although he didn’t our radar until after he escaped in 2005, he was a very known quantity with the broader Jihadist world. But it gave him street cred, this escape from, you know, one of the most closely guarded American prisons, it catapulted him into the upper echelons of the Jihadi elite. But it was still several months before he would decide to officially align himself with al-Qaeda.

Werman: So describe al-Libi kind of as a figure. How was he regarded by the al-Qaeda rank and file? And when you see him in those videos, what do you see? What is he like?

Brachman: Well, you know, I always say that people revere al-Qaeda’s current emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, because he’s been in it for so long, but when they look at Abu Yahya, they love him. He’s a populist. I mean he’s really the general who’s down there with the troops, eating with them, patting them on the back. I mean in every video where’s he’s speaking to al-Qaeda rank and file, they line up afterwards to hug him, to embrace him. It’s a very different understanding of what an al-Qaeda leader is.

Werman: That kind of charisma sounds a lot of like some of the accounts I’ve read of Osama bin Laden though.

Brachman: Yeah, you know, I call Abu Yahya the upgrade model in the sense that he actually had real religious credentials. He was younger, far more savvy in terms of how he understood the media, and his writings were everything bin Laden wished he could have produced, but wasn’t probably smart enough to do. So very much he was poised to be, I called him the next bin Laden.

Werman: I mean “upgrade model”, that’s complementary, but it also implies something quite eerie too.

Brachman: It is and, you know, I had the chance to interview his older brother in a Libyan prison several years ago and I got a very detailed sense for the personality and I saw the charisma, you know, firsthand of his older brother and I think it’s the same kind that Abu Yahya had. And it occurred to me that Abu Yahya never really had drank the Kool-Aid, so to speak, of al-Qaeda. It was more of a pragmatic decision to use the organization to advance his own agenda which was far bigger than anything al-Qaeda wanted to do.

Werman: Just how important was he? And can he quickly be replaced?

Brachman: I don’t think that al-Qaeda can recover from this loss. To me, if Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al-Qaeda, and Abu Yahya are taken out, the senior leadership is done, the back is broken. And so, you know, because Abu Yahya, because of his scholarship, because of his intellect, and because of his ability to hold the movement together in many ways he cannot be replaced.

Werman: Jarret Brachman, former CIA analyst. Thanks so much for your time.

Brachman: Yeah, thanks so much.