News broke this weekend of two Special Forces raids conducted by the United States against two "high value" targets in the global terror network. The first raid, which was unsuccessful, occurred in a coastal town in Somalia which was aimed at capturing a leader of the terror group al Shabaab, who claimed responsibility in the siege on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The second raid was conducted in Tripoli, Libya where U.S. Navy SEALs captured a long sought-after al Qaeda leader named Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi.
These raids have pointed to a potential shift in the handling of these terrorist leaders. As Foreign Policy points out, “It's not clear whether Al-Liby's capture signals a new interest in
prosecuting suspected terrorists in U.S. criminal courts. But in recent months
the administration's use of lethal drone strikes has been evolving, to the
point where they can no longer be seen as the default option for going after
terrorists.” The Obama Administration has used drones extensively and almost exclusively (with the exception of the Osama bin Laden raid) to combat known terrorists. A key flaw with drone strikes is that major intelligence can be lost. For example, terrorist safe houses found by soldiers in Afghanistan during the Bush years were intelligence goldmines. Names, maps, phone numbers as well as myriad other useful bits of intelligence were found allowing the U.S. to stay one step ahead. By targeting these safe houses with drone strikes, this intelligence, like many innocent civilians, become collateral damage.
The U.S., after 9/11, declared a global war on terror and these recent raids demonstrate how vast that declaration is. The U.S. has had spats with al Shabaab before but the recent attack on the Kenyan mall served as the catalyst for this weekend's raid to capture its leader in Somalia. Americans had been working with the Somali government prior to the raid. Al Shabaab has been an arm of al Qaeda and has recently thrived in regions with weak governments much like organizations such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Despite not being able to confirm the killing or capturing of the al Shabaab leader, this raid raises more questions about the terror policies going forward for the Obama Administration.
Are we now moving towards capturing, questioning, and prosecuting? Is CIA director John Brennan's decree of scaling back on the drone program coming to fruition? Did Rand Paul's filibuster earlier this year play a role in all of this? These questions still are unanswered but they make for an interesting inquiry. As noted earlier by Foreign Policy, prosecution may be the new route sought by the administration. The New York Times writes, “With President Obama locked in a standoff with Congressional Republicans and his leadership criticized for a policy reversal in Syria, the raids could fuel accusations among his critics that the administration was eager for a showy foreign policy victory.” Obama
has never been afraid to use force when necessary, as I have noted time and
again, and the indecisiveness in Syria seems to be a fluke in an otherwise
carefully crafted foreign policy strategy.
Drones have raised some questions in the international community regarding acts of war and state sovereignty. While these recent raids are a step towards mending these international woes, the issue of state sovereignty still hangs in the balance. "Officials in Libya's interim government have demanded an explanation
for the U.S. operation, which they described as a ‘kidnapping of a Libyan citizen.’ The United States has
never asserted that it needs the permission of a host government to conduct
anti-terrorism operations on its soil, although in some cases it does seek out
and receive that blessing. But officials have stressed that if a government is
unwilling or incapable of rounding up terrorists plotting attacks against the
United States, American forces will act in the nation's defense,” states Shane Harris. The U.S. worked with the Somali government however, and they clearly felt the Libyan government may not have been as sympathetic to them therefore, foregoing pleasantries. This was demonstrated in the bin Laden raid when Pakistan became upset with our action. State sovereignty is the chief international relations doctrine in modern times. Is it possible that this new procedure in the war on terror calls for new rules and a new order?
It is quite possible that this may be the new norm and, given the flack the administration has received for the "collateral damage" associated with drone strikes, they may be pursuing a more passive capturing route. Typically, if capture is unfeasible, which the administration has stated is the preferred first method, drones are then used. It is still unclear how risky the raid in Somalia was and it is unclear if Navy SEALs ran into unexpected danger causing them to pull back without accomplishing their mission. If so, this signals new rhetoric for the administration because if the raid was deemed too risky, they would have just issued a targeted drone strike. Again, details are still emerging and it is entirely possible that U.S. officials believed there was important intelligence at the stronghold which they desired to obtain.
Nevertheless, the Obama Administration is continuing its dismantling of global terror units as it sees fit. While terror groups are becoming more organized and less grassroots, dismantling their leadership seems to be the best way to defeat them piece-by-piece rather than a full-fledged war. I am interested to see how much sovereignty plays into future missions and if this trend towards capture is utilized more, how the administration plans to prosecute terrorists. It is always a constant struggle in the international relations front combating terrorism and it may appear as though the administration is trying to smooth things over slowly. This will be the next challenge: how are non-American citizens tried in the U.S. justice system? A new Constitutional debate is forthcoming.