| Laden (top) and al-Zawahiri (below)
Washington, Dec. 15: The Bush administration has prepared a list of about two dozen terrorist leaders that the Central Intelligence Agency is authorised to kill if capture is impractical and civilian casualties can be minimised, senior military and intelligence officials said.
The previously undisclosed CIA list of targets includes top leaders of al Qaida, like Osama bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other principal figures from affiliated terrorist groups, the officials said. “It’s the worst of the worst,” one official said.
President Bush has provided written legal authority to the CIA to hunt down and kill the terrorists without seeking further approval each time the agency is about to launch an operation. Some officials said the terrorist list was known as the “high-value target list”.
A spokesman for the White House declined to discuss the list or issues involving the use of lethal force against terrorists. A spokesman for the CIA also declined to comment on the list.
Despite the authority given to the agency, Bush has not waived the executive order banning assassinations, officials said. The presidential authority to kill terrorists defines operatives of al Qaida as enemy combatants and thus legitimate targets for lethal force.
Bush issued a presidential finding last year, after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, providing the basic executive and legal authority for the CIA to either kill or capture terrorist leaders.
Initially, the CIA used that authority to search for al Qaida leaders in Afghanistan. That authority was the basis for the CIA and military effort to kill Laden and other al Qaida leaders and several Taliban leaders. The newer list represents an expanded CIA effort against a larger number of al Qaida operatives outside Afghanistan in countries like Yemen.
The President is not legally required to approve each name added to the list, nor is the CIA required to obtain presidential approval for specific attacks, although officials said Bush had been kept well informed about the CIA’s operations.
In November, the CIA killed an al Qaida leader in a remote region of Yemen. A pilotless Predator aircraft operated by the CIA fired a Hellfire anti-tank missile at a car in which Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, also known as Abu Ali, was riding. Harethi and five other people, including one suspected al Qaida operative with US citizenship, were killed in the attack.
Harethi is believed to have been on the list of al Qaida leaders that the CIA had been authorised to kill.
After the Predator operation in Yemen, US officials said Bush was not required to approve the mission immediately before the attack was launched nor was he specifically consulted.
Intelligence officials said the presidential finding authorising the agency to use lethal force against terrorists was not limited to those included on the list. The President has given broad authority to the CIA to kill or capture operatives of al Qaida around the world, the officials said. But officials said the group’s most senior leaders on the list were the primary focus of the agency’s efforts.
The list is updated periodically as the intelligence agency, in consultation with other counter-terrorism agencies, adds new names or deletes those al Qaida leaders who are captured or killed, or when new intelligence indicates the emergence of a new leader.
The precise criteria for adding someone to the list are unclear, although the evidence against each person must be clear and convincing, the officials said. The list contains the names of many of the same people who are on the FBI’s list of most wanted terror suspects, although the lists are prepared independently.
Officials said the CIA, working with the FBI, the military and foreign governments, will seek to capture terrorists when possible and then bring them into the custody of the US or another nation willing to work with it in the campaign against terrorism.
Counter-terrorism officials prefer to capture senior al Qaida leaders for interrogation, if possible. They regard killing as a last resort in cases in which the location of an operative of the terrorist group is known but capture would be too dangerous or logistically impossible, the officials said.
Under intelligence law dating back to the mid-1970s, the President must sign a finding to provide the legal basis for covert actions to be carried out by the CIA.
In response to past abuses, the decision-making process has grown into a highly formalised review in which the White House, justice department, Pentagon and CIA take part.