Oh, by the way: Al Qaeda's number two killed in drone strike in Syria

Not number two in Al Qaeda in Syria, a.k.a. the Nusra Front. Abu al-Khayr al-Masri was number two in all of Al Qaeda. He was Zawahiri’s deputy, an explosives expert, and Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law. He goes at least as far back with AQ as the embassy bombings in 1998 and was in Afghanistan after 9/11. He ended up under house arrest in Iran after fleeing the U.S. invasion but was freed a few years ago and dispatched to Syria to lead the jihad against the regime there. Until this past weekend, that is, when the U.S. dropped something on his head.

We’ve become inured to stuff like this after 15 years of whack-a-mole with big fish from Al Qaeda (how many times has the U.S. military liquidated the “number three” guy or “operational leader” of the group?) but watch the short clip below of the aftermath of the strike and be amazed at America’s counterterror capabilities. It’s hard enough to find and track an individual jihadi inside the Syrian maelstrom; not only did they find him, they put a non-explosive projectile right through the roof of the car to kill him. The car itself is mostly intact. The window on the rear passenger-side door isn’t even broken. That shouldn’t be as impressive as it is years after laser-guided bombs were introduced, but explosives provide a certain margin for error in targeting. With a non-explosive weapon, you need a bullseye. They got a bullseye. I’m surprised Trump hasn’t made more of it, especially as a counterpoint to the Yemen raid.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and an expert on the war in Syria, said in an email that the death of Mr. Masri was the most significant blow to Al Qaeda’s global network since the killing of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Al Qaeda’s No. 2 official at the time, in a drone strike in Yemen in June 2015.

Mr. Masri was “jihadi royalty, meaning his death will almost certainly necessitate some form of response, whether from Syria or elsewhere in the world,” Mr. Lister said…

Mr. Masri had operated in Syria as Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, providing orders and advice to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the Qaeda affiliate in Syria formerly known as the Nusra Front, and its leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, Mr. Lister said.

I’ve never heard of a non-explosive drone strike by the U.S., although I’m sure that’s more a reflection of my ignorance than anything having to do with policy. I’d be curious to know when the Pentagon introduced them, though. Were they an Obama innovation or something that came very recently under Trump or Mattis? If you have the capability to put a bowling ball through a particular car’s roof from thousands of feet up, non-explosives make a lot of sense. It’s lethal force against the target with very little risk of collateral damage to bystanders. A great stopgap until laser drones inevitably debut!

Speaking of Trump and Mattis, here’s a fascinating scoop from the Daily Beast in light of the Yemen raid about Trump delegating authority to his military commanders for future missions:

President Donald Trump has signaled that he wants his defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, to have a freer hand to launch time-sensitive missions quickly, ending what U.S. officials say could be a long approval process under President Barack Obama that critics claimed stalled some missions by hours or days.

In declared war zones, U.S. commanders have the authority to make such calls, but outside such war zones, in ungoverned or unstable places like Somalia, Libya, or Yemen, it can take permissions all the way up to the Oval Office to launch a drone strike or a special-operations team…

One model being considered is pre-delegating authority to Mattis on extremely sensitive operations like hostage rescues; for raids or drone strikes against pre-approved targets, that authority could be pushed much further down the chain of command—all the way down to the three-star general who runs JSOC. If his teams spot a target that’s already on the White House approved high-value target list, the elite force will be able to move into action, informing the national-security apparatus of the operation but not having to wait for permission.

Giving the military a freer hand to initiate operations against jihadis has been in the works since before the inauguration. Both the Times and the Post mentioned it in their earliest stories about the Yemen raid in January. “We expect an easier approval cycle [for operations] under this administration,” said one defense official to WaPo. Letting commanders strike faster, without having to obtain such a long string of approvals, should allow them to exploit more opportunities. Under normal circumstances, the thought of the president farming out decisions to his SecDef that could lead to major wars would be hair-raising and earn him tons of political heat. Under the circumstances we actually live in, don’t expect much public upset at the thought of retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis making some of the tougher battlefield calls instead of Trump. It makes all kinds of political sense for the White House too, with Trump having surrounded himself with so many esteemed military figures — not just Mattis and Joint Chiefs chair Joseph Dunford but John Kelly at DHS and now H.R. McMaster as his national security advisor. If an operation goes well, he gets to take credit as the president. If it goes badly, hey — who are we to second-guess Mattis and McMaster? That may help explain Trump’s tacky but possibly innocent usage of “they” a few days ago in describing what happened on the Yemen raid. Because he’s delegating new authority to the military and to Mattis specifically, he honestly may view operations more as a “they” thing than a “we” thing. Greater delegation isn’t a trend you’d necessarily want to see catch on among future presidents, but given the caliber of personnel around Trump, you can see the virtues.

Exit quotation from the Daily Beast piece: “One U.S. official told The Daily Beast that the [Yemen] raid garnered possibly ‘the most intelligence ever netted’ on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including information that will help U.S. intelligence map the network of AQAP followers and how they operate.”