Drone strikes: Should US capture, and not kill, Al Qaeda leaders?
The White House hailed the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi as bringing Al Qaeda 'closer to its demise than ever.' But some say the drone strike policy is squandering sources of valuable intelligence.
Courtesy of Senior Airman Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force/Reuters/File
The White House on Tuesday trumpeted the killing by drone strike of Al Qaedaâ€™s second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, as bringing the terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks â€ścloser to its demise than ever.â€ť
But by killing off Al Qaeda leaders and operatives by means of the unmanned drones rather than capturing them, is the US losing out on valuable intelligence on an evolving organization â€“ and thus on information that might also be crucial in defeating the terror group?
While few voices are lamenting the demise of the man considered to have become Al Qaedaâ€™s global ambassador for Islamist extremism following the death last year of Osama bin Laden, some critics are beginning to find fault with President Obamaâ€™s increasing use of the drones in targeted killings.
Their reasons are not concerns about international law or the violation of other countryâ€™s territorial sovereignty that others have raised, but rather that the US is wiping out potential troves of intelligence â€“ think Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind held for years in detention in Guantanamo.
Terrorism experts concur that there can be a â€ślossâ€™ in terms of uncollected intelligence in an over-reliance on drone strikes. But they also note that the alternative is boots-on-the-ground intervention, even if only by small special-operations teams, that incur their own risks and potential costs.
Other critics even accuse the White House of relying on the high-profile strikes, and in particular of building up their national-security impact, as a means of boosting Mr. Obamaâ€™s image as a successful anti-Al Qaeda warrior.
After a recent New York Times article â€“ based on White House leaks â€“ described Obamaâ€™s close involvement in the deliberations on targeting key terrorist figures, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona blasted the leaked information as intended to â€śenhance President Obamaâ€™s image as a tough guyâ€ť before the November election.
Senator McCain did not criticize the operations themselves, saying only that disclosure of information about them could â€śundermineâ€ť future operations. But some conservative critics fault what they see as the downside of relying on drone strikes to take out terrorists rather than capturing, detaining, and interrogating them: the loss of what conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer calls â€śpotentially life-saving intelligence.â€ť (Some of Obama's harshest critics suggest that one reason he has embraced the drone-strike approach to high-profile targets is that it avoids the controversial issues of long-term detention and methods of interrogation.)
â€śCertainly there is a considerable benefit from a tactical point of viewâ€ť in eliminating a high-profile terrorist like Mr. al-Libi, says Yonah Alexander, director of Potomac Instituteâ€™s International Center for Terrorism Studies in Arlington, Va. â€śBut from a strategic point of view the picture is not as clear,â€ť he adds, noting that, like Mr. bin Ladenâ€™s, al-Libiâ€™s â€ślegacy will live on â€¦ especially as he is transformed into a martyr.â€ť
Then there is the intelligence question. â€śIf you could capture and interrogate someone of this level, presumably you could get some very valuable information,â€ť Dr. Alexander says.
Officials in the countries where the drone strikes are increasingly employed â€“ in Pakistan, where al-Libi was killed, and in Yemen, where the American-Yemeni Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike last September â€“ tend to agree that while the strikes may be tactical successes, they are strategic disasters, as they infuriate and alienate local populations. Â
Alexander says that in the years ahead â€śthe battle of ideas will be the key challenge we faceâ€ť in addressing Islamist extremism. And in that battle, he says the elimination of leaders and operatives wonâ€™t be the only or even the most effective means of dealing with terrorism.
â€śWe can eliminate the people,â€ť he says, â€śbut can we eliminate the attraction of their idea?â€ť