The outlines of Obama’s new approach, which he sketched in his May speech at the National Defense University, have become clearer in recent months, especially in the twin raids in Libya and Somalia
on Oct. 5. The first raid snatched up
, an al-Qaeda member indicted in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The second was an unsuccessful attempt to capture Ikrima
, a member of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab group who is reputedly responsible for plotting attacks around East Africa.
Raids have several advantages over drones. The targets can be interrogated for further intelligence, laptops and other physical evidence can be scooped up, and perhaps most important, the capture can result in what operators call a “judicial finish,” with the terrorist tried and convicted in a court of law.
Of course, Special Operations forces, along with the CIA, will still use drones when a threat is deemed so imminent that taking out a suspect is the best way to stop an attack on vital U.S. interests. That was the case in August when a barrage of drone strikes pummeled the nether provinces of Yemen to foil a reported plot on oil terminals and ports by the most active terrorist group today, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
But the drone’s disadvantages, primarily political and diplomatic, are now widely recognized. Even if a
strike takes out a target, the apparent unilateralism of the attack (local leaders often give tacit support) can lead to popular resentment against the United States. In Yemen, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has publicly endorsed drone strikes, but such a stance can undermine a leader’s legitimacy at home. Finally, even if civilian casualties are minimal, just a few deaths can tarnish America’s image — and fuel terrorist recruitment.
The third tool in the anti-terrorism toolkit is the use of partnered forces. Somalia is a good example: Special Operations troops have worked with a variety of partners to retake the country from al-Shabab, restoring government there for the first time in two decades and creating a network of allies to push al-Qaeda out of East Africa. Amid a wider peace enforcement operation, U.S. troops have helped train forces from Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Djibouti. High-end Ugandan units played a key role in pushing al-Shabab out of Mogadishu, and SEAL-trained Kenyan boat units and infantry conducted a joint operation to retake the port city of Kismayo from al-Shabab, thus denying the terrorist group a key revenue source. Partner forces also reportedly played a role in the raid two weekends ago.