THE CAPTURE Saturday of a senior al-Qaeda operative in Libya and a raid in Somalia the same day by Navy SEALs broke some new ground in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism operations. For the first time, the administration acted in Libya under the auspices of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), in which Congress sanctioned war against al-Qaeda. For only the second time, it held a suspect captured outside a war zone for interrogation on a Navy ship — using the same authority under which the Bush administration detained militants at the Guantanamo Bay prison. In Somalia it attempted, unsuccessfully, to capture a terrorist commander rather than target him with a drone strike.
These operations were legal and justified, in our view, even if they incurred some risks: Libya’s crumbling government, which publicly denounced the Tripoli raid as a “kidnapping,” could be further undermined. Though the tactics may have been dictated largely by circumstance, the raids can only be welcomed by those, including us, who have called on the administration to seek to capture, rather than kill, al-Qaeda leaders and to rely on military forces, rather than the CIA, to lead operations. The interrogation of Abu Anas al-Libi, a longtime member of al-Qaeda’s core leadership, could yield valuable intelligence about the organization and its nascent operations in North Africa without compromising his eventual prosecution in a civilian criminal court in the United States.
It’s worth noting, however, that neither of these operations fits well with President Obama’s announced counterterrorism policies. In a major speech in May, the president rejected suggestions that the AUMF be updated, instead promising “efforts to refine and ultimately repeal” it. In his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly, he asserted that the world was “more stable than it was five years ago” because the United States was “shifting away from a perpetual war footing.” In fact, the AUMF and continued U.S. “war footing” enabled both of the weekend’s operations.
What these episodes demonstrate is that the battle against al-Qaeda, far from ending, is morphing and spreading to other regions, particularly in Africa. As several legal experts have pointed out, as U.S. operations move to countries and targets far from Afghanistan and the original al-Qaeda cadre, the legitimacy of the legal and political authority provided by Congress’s 2001 act erodes. While the suspect captured in Libya has been indicted for his alleged role in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, the reported target of the Somalia raid was not part of al-Qaeda’s pre-2001 organization.
As tempting as it may be to declare “the end of a decade of war,” Mr. Obama would be wiser to recognize — as he did in approving these operations — that the war against al-Qaeda continues. What’s needed is not the repeal of the legal justification for fighting it but an update that provides more explicit authority for operations in places such as Libya and Somalia.