In a risky operation this weekend, Navy SEALS stormed a villa in a seaside Somalia town, searching for Ikrima, a top commander from al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida offshoot responsible for an attack in a Nairobi 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 Anas al-Libi, the al-Qaida operative wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. 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 capturing terrorists, may be a harbinger of a different style in Obama’s war on terror, 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, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee. The surgical operations reflect the Obama administration’s “change in policy” to ensure there’s virtually no chance of civilian casualties when taking out extremists, the California Democrat says, and its desire to move away from a counterterrorism strategy reliant on drones toward one more focused on capturing, interrogating, and prosecuting suspects whenever possible—a strategy, as Schiff says, which “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, 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, where by contrast, the CIA and military have reportedly killed roughly 3,000 people in strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Obama has pressed on with the drone war despite criticisms that strikes unintentionally kill civilians and fuel anti-Americanism—and that suspects are killed 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 are 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 for years, now in his second term Obama is clearly looking ahead to set a precedent for limiting presidential power when it comes to push-button combat. “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 balked at 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 tale of 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.
The success of the Libya operation and capture of al-Libi 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 codifying since it has failed to capture 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 or not,” says Columbia University national security law professor Matthew Waxman. Already, House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon said in a statement Libi should be interrogated “thoroughly” instead of rushed to trial on an “arbitrary” timeline, since the suspect has “vast intelligence value.”
Thornberry believes the Obama administration prefers to use lethal operations rather than capture suspects because it does not want to backtrack on its goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison. The Texas Republican promises controversy on Capitol Hill if the Obama administration “rushes” al-Libi through an interrogation and moves him through the criminal process “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 of operations where 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 virtually certain to be more upset if U.S troops are killed 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.