ON OCTOBER 5th American special forces launched two nearly simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia. Rather than sending in a Predator drone to vaporise jihadists with Hellfire missiles, the plan was to capture them and take them to America to face justice. The targets were Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir (a leader of the Shabab group that carried out the recent massacre in a shopping mall in Kenya) and Abu Anas al-Libi (a veteran al-Qaeda operative, long on the FBI’s most- wanted list).
Could this mark a shift in tactics? To fight terrorism, Barack Obama has relied far more than any previous president on the use of aerial drones to kill suspected terrorists. (He has ordered over 400 such attacks since 2008.) Such assassinations are, to put it mildly, controversial. Civil-liberties groups say they are illegal, as do some members of Congress. Even counter-terrorism officials privately fret that they may in some instances be creating as many militants as they kill.
Mr Obama’s right-wing critics note that, although he has broken his promise to close the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, he has not sent any new prisoners there. Rather than capturing and interrogating jihadists, he is simply killing them. That, say his critics, deprives America of vital intelligence.
The president himself has shown signs of unease about his drone campaign’s secret aspects. Last May he announced the establishment of “a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists–insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability”. Mr Obama also declared: “America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute…and before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured–the highest standard we can set.”
These principles governed the two operations carried out last weekend. In the case of Mr Libi, who was grabbed by Delta Force commandos as he returned to his home in a Tripoli suburb after morning prayers, a drone strike would have been unthinkable–many innocent bystanders could have been killed. Even though Mr Libi was captured without a shot being fired, the fragile Libyan government was shaken by the temporary kidnapping of the prime minister, Ali Zidan, by a rebel militia group apparently in revenge. Federal prosecutors believe that they have ample evidence to bring a case against Mr Libi for his role in plots going back to the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.
The storming of a villa in the Somali coastal town of Barawe was a different kind of mission. Mr Obama could have chosen to send in a drone. Instead, he sent in men from the same Navy SEALs unit that killed Osama bin Laden.
Drones have been used in Somalia sparingly–no more than nine times since 2011–for various reasons. The administration sees the Shabab more as a local scourge than a direct threat to Americans. The intelligence informing drone attacks is worse in chaotic Somalia than in Yemen (where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the target). And drones flying over Somalia are at the limit of their range. Given these circumstances, special forces were regarded this time as a better bet.
The SEALs in Somalia failed to get their man. One reason for this was that their commander had a better idea of what was happening on the ground than a drone operator thousands of miles away. When he saw that his men were involved in a heavy firefight, he withdrew rather than call for air support and risk the lives of women and children who were also in the compound. Mr Obama’s new guidelines undoubtedly influenced him.
Mr Obama’s decision to start capturing terrorists does not mean he will stop killing them. As Tom Sanderson of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank, puts it, the president will still want a “quiver full” of weapons that include drones, special forces and local allies (whom Americans will continue to train and equip). Picking the right arrow for each target will never be easy.
Click here to subscribe to The Economist
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.