By Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010; A01
When a window of opportunity opened to strike the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa last September, U.S. Special Operations forces prepared several options. They could obliterate his vehicle with an airstrike as he drove through southern Somalia. Or they could fire from helicopters that could land at the scene to confirm the kill. Or they could try to take him alive.
The White House authorized the second option. On the morning of Sept. 14, helicopters flying from a U.S. ship off the Somali coast blew up a car carrying Saleh Ali Nabhan. While several hovered overhead, one set down long enough for troops to scoop up enough of the remains for DNA verification. Moments later, the helicopters were headed back to the ship.
The strike was considered a major success, according to senior administration and military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation and other sensitive matters. But the opportunity to interrogate one of the most wanted U.S. terrorism targets was gone forever.
The Nabhan decision was one of a number of similar choices the administration has faced over the past year as President Obama has escalated U.S. attacks on the leadership of al-Qaeda and its allies around the globe. The result has been dozens of targeted killings and no reports of high-value detentions.
Although senior administration officials say that no policy determination has been made to emphasize kills over captures, several factors appear to have tipped the balance in that direction. The Obama administration has authorized such attacks more frequently than the George W. Bush administration did in its final years, including in countries where U.S. ground operations are officially unwelcome or especially dangerous. Improvements in electronic surveillance and precision targeting have made killing from a distance much more of a sure thing. At the same time, options for where to keep U.S. captives have dwindled.
Republican critics, already scornful of limits placed on interrogation of the suspect in the Christmas Day bombing attempt, charge that the administration has been too reluctant to risk an international incident or a domestic lawsuit to capture senior terrorism figures alive and imprison them.
"Over a year after taking office, the administration has still failed to answer the hard questions about what to do if we have the opportunity to capture and detain a terrorist overseas, which has made our terror-fighters reluctant to capture and left our allies confused," Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Friday. "If given a choice between killing or capturing, we would probably kill."
Some military and intelligence officials, citing what they see as a new bias toward kills, questioned whether valuable intelligence is being lost in the process. "We wanted to take a prisoner," a senior military officer said of the Nabhan operation. "It was not a decision that we made."
Even during the Bush administration, "there was an inclination to 'just shoot the bastard,' " said a former intelligence official briefed on current operations. "But now there's an even greater proclivity for doing it that way. . . . We need to have the capability to snatch when the situation calls for it."Lack of detention policy
One problem identified by those within and outside the government is the question of where to take captives apprehended outside established war zones and cooperating countries. "We've been trying to decide this for over a year," the senior military officer said. "When you don't have a detention policy or a set of facilities," he said, operational decisions become more difficult.
The administration has pledged to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Congress has resisted moving any of the about 190 detainees remaining there, let alone terrorism suspects who have been recently captured, to this country. All of the CIA's former "black site" prisons have been shut down, and a U.S. official involved in operations planning confirmed that the agency has no terrorism suspects in its custody. Although the CIA retains the right to briefly retain terrorism suspects, any detainees would be quickly transferred to a military prison or an allied government with jurisdiction over the case, the official said.
Military officials emphasized that terrorism suspects continue to be captured in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in Iraq, where counterterrorism operations must be approved in advance by its government and conducted with Iraqi forces in the lead, all prisoners must be turned over to Baghdad.
In Afghanistan, the massive U.S.-run prison at the Bagram air base is scheduled to be relinquished to the Afghan government by the end of the year. Its 750 prisoners include about 30 foreigners, some of them captured in other countries and brought there. But recent legal decisions, and Afghan government restrictions, have largely eliminated that option.
"In some cases," the senior military official said, captives in Afghanistan have been taken to "other facilities" maintained by Special Operations forces. Such detentions, even on a temporary basis, have become more difficult because of legal and human rights concerns, he said.Cooperation overseas
Outside the established war zones, senior administration and military officials said, how an operation is conducted and whether its goal is killing or capturing depend on where it is taking place and which U.S. agency is involved. American personnel have worked closely on counterterrorism missions with local forces in Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere, with those countries in the lead.
Al-Qaeda and Taliban havens in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border are considered part of the Afghanistan war theater. The Pakistani government tacitly permits CIA-operated unmanned aircraft to target terrorist sites and militants up to 50 miles inside the country. Under an executive order first signed by Bush and continued in force under Obama, the CIA does not have to seek higher administration authority before striking.
But while U.S. Special Forces work closely with the CIA on the Afghan side of the border, any ground operation in Pakistan would require specific White House approval, which so far has not been granted. In addition to the difficulty such a mission would pose amid a hostile population in rugged terrain, the Pakistani government has drawn a red line against allowing U.S. boots on the ground, and the risk of sparking an anti-American backlash is seen as too great.
Beyond Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, potentially lethal operations must be approved by Obama or his designee, which can include the CIA director and the defense secretary. In Yemen, stepped-up military and intelligence cooperation with the country's government, including the use of U.S. aircraft and munitions for raids against a list of targets suspected of involvement with terrorist groups, was approved by Obama late last year, and at least two lethal attacks have taken place in coordination with Yemeni ground forces. Any captives belong to Yemen.The Somalia calculus
Somalia poses unique problems. In the vast majority of the country, there is no functioning government to approve or coordinate operations, or to take custody of captives. Under the Bush administration, the military conducted several White House-approved air operations against alleged senior terrorist figures fleeing south after the 2006 U.S.-backed ouster of the Islamic government there. But while military teams made quick forays over the border to the targeted sites, finding and identifying bodies proved difficult.
Nabhan, a 30-year-old Kenyan, had long been a prime U.S. target. A senior official in the al-Shabab militia fighting to overthrow the U.S.-supported transition government in Somalia and impose strict Islamic law, he was said to be the chief link between the main al-Qaeda organization and its East African allies. Wanted by the FBI in connection with the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he was also accused in the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Kenya and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner that year.
After tracking him for a while, the Special Operations Command thought it had established a sufficient pattern of activity to target him and had the time to plan for it. Several alternatives, including capture, were developed and assessed under military procedures for missions outside recognized war theaters.
Planners were asked for more details on the proposed force to be used, intelligence proving the target's location and the level of verification, and operational details -- including, in the case of capture, where Nabhan would be taken. Planned under U.S. Central Command, the operation was turned over to the U.S. Africa Command for implementation.
On the political side, the National Security Council received detailed versions of each proposed course of action. At that level, the senior administration official said, "there is an evaluation making sure you are able to prosecute the mission successfully . . . and minimize the dangers and risks."
The Somalia calculus, several officials said, included weighing the likelihood that U.S. troops on the ground for any amount of time in the militia-controlled south would be particularly vulnerable to attack. Looming large, they said, was the memory of the last time a U.S. combat helicopter was on the ground in lawless Somalia, the 1993 Black Hawk debacle that resulted in the deaths of 18 soldiers.
"There are certain upsides and certain downsides to certain paths," the administration official said. "The safety and security of U.S. military personnel is always something the president keeps at the highest level of his calculus."