Obama Is Changing the Way He Fights the War on Terrorism

The U.S. moved to capture militants in Libya and Somalia, rather than killing them. It may be better than drones, but it brings political risks.

U.S. Navy SEALS await a night mission to capture Iraqi insurgent leaders July 27, 2007 near Fallujah, Iraq.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
Oct. 7, 2013, 1:01 p.m.

In a risky op­er­a­tion this week­end, Navy SEALs stormed a villa in a sea­side Somali­an town, search­ing for Ikrima, a top com­mand­er from al-Shabab, the Qaida off­shoot re­spons­ible for an at­tack in a Kenyan mall that killed dozens of people just weeks ago. When the troops came un­der in­tense gun­fire, they re­treated, re­portedly be­cause their tar­get was im­possible to cap­ture. Mean­while, in Tripoli, Libya, spe­cial forces whisked away Abu Anas al-Libi, the Qaida op­er­at­ive wanted in con­nec­tion with the 1998 bomb­ings of Amer­ic­an em­bassies in Tan­zania and Kenya, to an un­named loc­a­tion in U.S. cus­tody for ques­tion­ing.

The two raids this week­end, both with the un­usu­al goal of try­ing to cap­ture ter­ror­ists, may be a har­binger of a dif­fer­ent style in Obama’s war on ter­ror­ism, which has largely centered on de­ploy­ing drones to kill tar­gets away from con­ven­tion­al bat­tle­fields. “We are go­ing to see more of this,” says Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Cal­if., a seni­or mem­ber of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. The sur­gic­al op­er­a­tions re­flect the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “change in policy” to min­im­ize ci­vil­ian cas­u­al­ties when tak­ing out ex­trem­ists, Schiff says. It also re­flects the White House’s de­sire to move away from a coun­terter­ror­ism strategy re­li­ant on drones to­ward one more fo­cused on cap­tur­ing, in­ter­rog­at­ing, and pro­sec­ut­ing sus­pects — a strategy, Schiff says, that “makes use of our proven cap­ab­il­ity of bring­ing to justice people who have com­mit­ted acts of ter­ror­ism.”

Even Re­pub­lic­ans are tak­ing note. “I think it’s en­cour­aging that cap­ture is back on the table,” says Rep. Mac Thorn­berry, the Tex­an who chairs the House Armed Ser­vices sub­com­mit­tee that over­sees coun­terter­ror­ism pro­grams.

Des­pite the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­sist­ence it prefers cap­tur­ing sus­pects whenev­er feas­ible, the num­bers tell a dif­fer­ent story: Only a hand­ful of ac­cused mil­it­ants have been brought to the U.S. for tri­al; by con­trast, the CIA and mil­it­ary have re­portedly killed roughly 3,000 people in Pakistan, Somalia, and Ye­men. Obama has pressed on with the drone war des­pite cri­ti­cisms that the strikes un­in­ten­tion­ally kill ci­vil­ians and fuel anti-Amer­ic­an­ism — and that sus­pects are slain without due pro­cess, a chance to sur­render un­der fire, or re­lin­quish­ing in­tel­li­gence through in­ter­rog­a­tions.

The twin raids are a sign that Obama is try­ing to change course, after strong hints from the pres­id­ent and his team that policy changes were com­ing. In May, Obama spoke out against the ap­peal of drone strikes — which he said pres­id­ents may be temp­ted to view as a ter­ror­ism “cure-all.” After broadly in­ter­pret­ing ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity to ex­pand the scope of the cov­ert drone war throughout his pres­id­ency, Obama in his second term is clearly try­ing to set a pre­ced­ent for lim­it­ing pres­id­en­tial power on this front. “Bey­ond Afgh­anistan, we must define our ef­fort not as a bound­less ‘glob­al war on ter­ror’ but rather as a series of per­sist­ent, tar­geted ef­forts to dis­mantle spe­cif­ic net­works of vi­ol­ent ex­trem­ists that threaten Amer­ica,” Obama said at the Na­tion­al De­fense Uni­versity in May. So Obama form­ally inked the “play­book,” a secret set of pro­cesses and stand­ards dic­tat­ing the rules of drone strikes.

In this, Obama is not just re­strain­ing him­self but fu­ture pres­id­ents. “We needed to co­di­fy cer­tain prac­tices and pro­ced­ures to con­strain this pres­id­ent or any pres­id­ent that came after “¦ to try to fur­ther lim­it the use of cer­tain kin­et­ic tools, so they were only used as a last re­sort,” says Tommy Vi­et­or, former Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil spokes­man, in a Na­tion­al Journ­al fea­ture last week. Obama has also asked Con­gress to nar­row — and ul­ti­mately re­peal — the 12-year-old Au­thor­iz­a­tion to Use Mil­it­ary Force, passed after the 9/11 at­tacks to tar­get ter­ror­ists. The pres­id­ent has dis­agreed with the idea that the sweep­ing pro­vi­sion, which his team has used to jus­ti­fy tak­ing out ter­ror­ists in far-flung places, en­cour­ages per­petu­al war and grants the White House too much power.

In this week­end’s two raids, however, one’s suc­cess and the oth­er’s fail­ure high­light the polit­ic­al and tac­tic­al mine­fields the com­mand­er in chief will face by cap­tur­ing more ter­ror­ists.

Libi’s cap­ture in the suc­cess­ful Libya op­er­a­tion raises sens­it­ive ques­tions about where the U.S. should hold and pro­sec­ute sus­pects in cus­tody — thorny is­sues the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­ten­tion­ally or not, has largely man­aged to avoid since it has failed to ap­pre­hend sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists en masse. “Every time there’s a cap­ture and dis­cus­sion of bring­ing some­body to tri­al, that re­opens a big de­bate about wheth­er we should be pro­sec­ut­ing ter­ror­ists here in the United States at all, or if we should be hold­ing them abroad as mil­it­ary de­tain­ees … [and] where to hold them while de­cid­ing wheth­er to bring them to tri­al,” says na­tion­al se­cur­ity law pro­fess­or Mat­thew Wax­man of Columbia Uni­versity. Already, House Armed Ser­vices Chair­man Buck McK­eon said in a state­ment that Libi should be in­ter­rog­ated “thor­oughly” in­stead of rushed to tri­al on an “ar­bit­rary” timeline, be­cause the sus­pect has “vast in­tel­li­gence value.”

Thorn­berry be­lieves the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion prefers to use leth­al force rather than cap­ture sus­pects be­cause it does not want to back­track on its goal of clos­ing the Guantanamo Bay pris­on. The Re­pub­lic­an prom­ises a fight on Cap­it­ol Hill if the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion “rushes” Libi through an in­ter­rog­a­tion and moves him in­to the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem “to make a polit­ic­al point” — and more heated de­bate about de­ten­tion if the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion changes its coun­terter­ror­ism strategy. “If they cap­ture a lot more people, then how are they go­ing to deal with that? My point is, maybe they need to re­think some of their past po­s­i­tions,” Thorn­berry says. “Do I [ex­pect] them to re­think their po­s­i­tion on Guantanamo and put people back there? I doubt it, but I don’t know of any bet­ter op­tion.”

And the Somalia cap­ture at­tempt, in which troops came un­der fire and failed to take their tar­get, high­lights the high­er costs when boots are on the ground. No U.S. forces were in­jured or killed in the Somalia battle — this time. Des­pite pock­ets of cri­ti­cism about the drone policy, the strikes have re­mained pop­u­lar with­in this coun­try, and Amer­ic­ans are cer­tain to be more up­set if U.S. troops die try­ing to cap­ture ter­ror­ists who could have been killed in re­mote-con­trol com­bat. A botched raid could have also changed the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cal­cu­lus about a coun­terter­ror­ism strategy fo­cused on cap­tur­ing sus­pects. “Should either of these raids have gone badly, I think it would have caused the ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­think wheth­er it can move strongly in this dir­ec­tion,” Schiff says.

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