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To Improve Assassination Operations, CIA Studies Failures of Colonial Powers to Combat Resistance

WikiLeaks has released a copy of a secret CIA analysis, which reviewed the success of “High Value Target” (HVT) assassination programs used by governments to combat insurgencies. The review shows the CIA is learning lessons from colonial powers that have failed to suppress revolutions and also demonstrates that relying on lethal strikes to combat insurgencies has often failed to succeed.

The report [PDF] was drafted by the Office of Transnational Issues (OTI), which is the agency tasked with providing senior United States policymakers, military planners and law enforcement with “analysis, warning and crisis support.”

It is dated July 7, 2009, which means it was put together before President Barack Obama escalated use of drones to kill leaders of insurgent groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The analysis of the pros and cons of assassinating militant leaders in insurgent groups are informed by “clandestine and defense attache reporting, discussions with HVT practitioners, a CIA-sponsored study on HVT operations in counterinsurgencies and our review of current and historical case studies.”

OTI studied: Afghanistan (2001- June 2009), Algeria (1954-1962), Colombia (2002-June 2009), Iraq (2004- June 2009), Israel (1972 to mid-1990s, mid-1990s to June 2009), Peru (1980-1999), Northern Ireland (1969-1998) and Sri Lanka (1983 – May 2009). Examples from Chechnya, Libya, Pakistan and Thailand were also considered as well.

HVT strikes “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if noncombatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semilegitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent. Because of the psychological nature of insurgency, either side’s actions are less important than how events are perceived by key audiences inside and outside the country, according to an academic expert on counterinsurgency.”

For example, from 2000 to 2002, in Israel, the CIA analysis states these efforts “strengthened solidarity between terrorist groups and bolstered popular support for hardline militant leaders, according to US Embassy officials in Jerusalem and clandestine reporting.”

“HVT operations can capture the attention of policymakers and military planners to the extent that a government loses its strategic perspective on the conflict or neglects other key aspects of counterinsurgency. Since 2004, the Thai Government’s fixation on targeting southern insurgent leaders—which in the late 1990s proved effective against an earlier generation of insurgents—has caused Bangkok to misperceive the decentralized nature of the movement and miss opportunities to counter it, according to reporting from the US Embassy in Bangkok,” the analysis additionally warns.

Another cited “academic expert on counterinsurgency” found that an “aggressive HVT strategy risks fragmenting an insurgency or causing it to devolve into terrorist or criminal activity.”

The emergence of a “more aggressive set” of Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, northwest Africa and Somalia is exactly what has happened in the past years as the CIA (and US military) has escalated its use of HVT operations.

This year, the State Department’s annual report on global terrorism warned of the “serious threat” posed by this growth in affiliates.

Leadership losses in Pakistan, coupled with weak governance and instability in the Middle East and Northwest Africa, have accelerated the decentralization of the movement and led to the affiliates in the AQ network becoming more operationally autonomous from core AQ and increasingly focused on local and regional objectives.

This is exactly what the CIA’s own analysis seems to highlight as a key drawback of relying on HVT operations against insurgencies. In fact, all of the countries or regions cited by the State Department were places where the US has been engaged in operations that appear to be fueling terrorism.

According to the CIA’s analysis, relying on “sustained” lethal strikes in Afghanistan, Algeria, and Israel—during the above mentioned periods—has had a limited impact.

Between 2004 and 2009, the reliance on lethal strikes was perceived as having a moderate impact on al Qaeda in Iraq. However, as evidenced by President Barack Obama’s decision to escalate more war in Iraq to go after the Islamic State, those “successes” did not rid the country of the threat posed by al Qaeda. It is very debatable whether the CIA’s own operations were helping to stabilize the country, given the fact that it was involved in assassinations, allying with death squads, kidnappings and torture of terrorism suspects.

Other stunning details in the analysis include this statement about capturing leaders, which mentions anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela:

Capturing leaders may have a limited psychological impact on a group if members believe that captured leaders will eventually return to the group, according to an academic expert on counterinsurgency, or if those leaders are able to maintain their influence while in government custody, as Nelson Mandela did while incarcerated in South Africa

In other words, according to the CIA, the white South African apartheid government may have fared better against the struggle for equality and justice if it had assassinated Mandela. Governments, including the US, should murder inspirational leaders if they want to defeat insurgencies.

Colombia appears to be that rare country where HVT operations by the government are believed to have succeeded:

…After several years of failures and near misses, Bogota began a series of successful HVT strikes in 2007, following improvements in intelligence, strike accuracy, mission planning and deployment, operational security, and interservice coordination, according to US Embassy in Bogota reporting.110 Colombia has effectively integrated the HVT effort into its broader counterinsurgency strategy and has capitalized on the psychological impact produced by the strikes to boost the government’s legitimacy and to erode insurgent morale, according to a body of clandestine, Colombian National Police, and US Embassy in Bogota reporting.

The CIA has played a key role in fighting this insurgency, which has been present to some degree since the 1960s. Its operations have only fueled bloody class-conflict in Colombia.

A major investigative report by The Washington Post’s Dana Priest released last year showed the CIA had overseen and helped the Colombian government target and assassinate rebel leaders. Forces from Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had also provided assistance to the Colombian government, mounting operations to find hostages taken by guerrilla groups.

Since 2006, the CIA had contributed “real-time intelligence” to allow Colombian forces to “hunt down” leaders from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). They had transformed “less-than-accurate” 500-pound gravity bombs into precision-guided munitions (PGMs) or “smart bombs” by attaching a “$30,000 GPS guidance kit” to the gravity bombs.

It was all a part of a military assistance program called “Plan Colombia.” Congress refused to authorize US military operations in Colombia so the HVT operations by the CIA have unfolded in the shadows and under the same dubious legal criteria the Obama administration uses to justify drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia.

Finally, one of the more extraordinary passages expounds upon French colonialism in Algeria and assesses how the French erred in suppressing the insurgency in that country.

The National Liberation Front (FLN) began a revolt in 1954 against French rule in Algeria with the goal of establishing an independent state. The group’s campaign of urban terrorism, intended to provoke a French overreaction that targeted the general Algerian population, succeeded, and the resulting loss of civilians increased the FLN’s popularity, according to an academic study. French efforts to target FLN leaders included intelligence-driven commando raids on insurgent hideouts, according to a former insurgent, and culminated in the 1956 capture of FLN chief Ahmad Ben Bella and four other top leaders during a flight from Rabat to Tunis. Ben Bella was a relative moderate among the FLN leadership, and his capture enhanced the influence of radical Algeria-based leaders, according to academic studies. French military gains from 1956 to 1958 shifted the conflict sharply against the insurgents, according to a RAND study.107 However, the draconian measures taken to quell the insurgency eroded French domestic and international support for the effort, resulting in Algeria achieving independence in 1962, according to the RAND study.

It is known that US government and military officials have held screenings of “Battle of Algiers,” filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece portraying Algerian resistance to French colonialism. Viewers typically sympathize with the guerrillas fighting the French. However, the Pentagon in the past decade has focused upon the French to “prompt informative discussion of the challenges” the country faced.

The analysis is evidence that the CIA studies colonialism and advises US government officials on how to avoid the same perils and pratfalls that previous countries have experienced. The CIA is not only creating a body of expertise on how to protect “national security” but how to suppress revolutions, which in some cases may be fighting legitimate struggles for dignity, justice and equality for oppressed groups of people.

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To Improve Assassination Operations, CIA Studies Failures of Colonial Powers to Combat Resistance

WikiLeaks has released a copy of a secret CIA analysis, which reviewed the success of “High Value Target” (HVT) assassination programs used by governments to combat insurgencies. The review shows the CIA is learning lessons from colonial powers that have failed to suppress revolutions and also demonstrates that relying on lethal strikes to combat insurgencies has often failed to succeed.

The report [PDF] was drafted by the Office of Transnational Issues (OTI), which is the agency tasked with providing senior United States policymakers, military planners and law enforcement with “analysis, warning and crisis support.”

It is dated July 7, 2009, which means it was put together before President Barack Obama escalated use of drones to kill leaders of insurgent groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The analysis of the pros and cons of assassinating militant leaders in insurgent groups are informed by “clandestine and defense attache reporting, discussions with HVT practitioners, a CIA-sponsored study on HVT operations in counterinsurgencies and our review of current and historical case studies.”

OTI studied: Afghanistan (2001- June 2009), Algeria (1954-1962), Colombia (2002-June 2009), Iraq (2004- June 2009), Israel (1972 to mid-1990s, mid-1990s to June 2009), Peru (1980-1999), Northern Ireland (1969-1998) and Sri Lanka (1983 – May 2009). Examples from Chechnya, Libya, Pakistan and Thailand were also considered as well.

HVT strikes “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if noncombatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semilegitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent. Because of the psychological nature of insurgency, either side’s actions are less important than how events are perceived by key audiences inside and outside the country, according to an academic expert on counterinsurgency.”

For example, from 2000 to 2002, in Israel, the CIA analysis states these efforts “strengthened solidarity between terrorist groups and bolstered popular support for hardline militant leaders, according to US Embassy officials in Jerusalem and clandestine reporting.”

“HVT operations can capture the attention of policymakers and military planners to the extent that a government loses its strategic perspective on the conflict or neglects other key aspects of counterinsurgency. Since 2004, the Thai Government’s fixation on targeting southern insurgent leaders—which in the late 1990s proved effective against an earlier generation of insurgents—has caused Bangkok to misperceive the decentralized nature of the movement and miss opportunities to counter it, according to reporting from the US Embassy in Bangkok,” the analysis additionally warns.

Another cited “academic expert on counterinsurgency” found that an “aggressive HVT strategy risks fragmenting an insurgency or causing it to devolve into terrorist or criminal activity.”

The emergence of a “more aggressive set” of Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, northwest Africa and Somalia is exactly what has happened in the past years as the CIA (and US military) has escalated its use of HVT operations. (more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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