The number of drone strikes approved by the Obama administration on suspected terrorists has fallen dramatically this year, as the war with al Qaeda increasingly shifts to Africa and U.S. intelligence craves more captures and interrogations of high-value targets.
U.S. officials told The Washington Times on Wednesday that the reasons for a shift in tactics are many — including that al Qaeda’s senior ranks were thinned out so much in 2011 and 2012 by an intense flurry of drone strikes, and that the terrorist network has adapted to try to evade some of Washington’s use of the strikes or to make them less politically palatable.
But the sources acknowledged that a growing desire to close a recent gap in actionable human intelligence on al Qaeda’s evolving operations also has renewed the administration’s interest in more clandestine commando raids like the one that netted a high-value terrorist suspect in Libya last weekend.
Capturing and interrogating suspects can provide valuable intelligence about a terrorist network that has been morphing from its roots with a central command in Pakistan and Afghanistan (known as intelligence circles as the FATA) to more diverse affiliates spread most notably across North Africa, officials and analysts said.
“Al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan has been steadily degraded. What remains of the group’s core is still dangerous but spends much of its time thinking about personal security,” one senior counterterrorism official told The Times, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the secret nature of the drone program. “As the nature of the threat emanating from the FATA changes, it follows that the U.S. government’s counterterrorism approach is going to shift accordingly.”
The decreased reliance on drones was in full view last weekend when one team of commandos from the Army’s Delta Force captured long-sought al Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Libi in Tripoli and a Navy SEAL team failed to take down an al Qaeda affiliate leader in Somalia.
The U.S. has carried out nearly 400 drone strikes over the past decade in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, a tactic that killed numerous senior operatives. But al Qaeda leaders have been increasing their own counterintelligence activities and moving to more populated areas in order to increase the risks of civilian casualties, two developments that have made the strikes less politically palatable and effective, analysts and intelligence sources say.
As a result, the number of drone strikes carried out against al Qaeda suspects in the Middle East and South Asia has dropped by half over the past year. There were 22 drone strikes on targets in Pakistan during the first 10 months of this year, compared with 47 carried out during 2012 and 74 in 2011, according to data compiled by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the leading independent body examining the U.S. government’s secretive drone program.
But intelligence officials and some national security analysts cautioned against reading too deeply into such data, saying the U.S. remains committed to using drones when it makes sense.
“Given the clandestine nature of the program, it’s impossible to assess the reasons why the number of strikes has decreased over time,” said Seth Jones, a political scientist who specializes in counterterrorism studies at the Rand Corp., a research institution with headquarters in California.
“We just don’t have access to the information,” he said.
Thirst for new intelligence
With U.S. counterterrorism officials eager to pin down fresh and actionable intelligence on what several sources described as a gradually metastasizing and complex network of al Qaeda affiliate groups concentrated in North Africa, most analysts say it would make sense for the Obama administration to begin favoring capture-and-interrogate missions.
“Raids allow you to both potentially capture a high-value target and exploit his knowledge through interrogations,” said Daniel R. Green, an al Qaeda and Yemen analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. When U.S. soldiers are on the ground for a raid, Mr. Green said, it means they can “collect additional materials of intelligence value from the dwelling, further assisting in the planning of follow-on operations.”
Others said heavy reliance on drones has only added to America’s potentially dangerous deficit of human intelligence on al Qaeda. “If you’re not capturing guys to get that intel, then, yeah, you’re going to be missing a part of the picture — if not a large part of the picture,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow focusing on al Qaeda and North Africa at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.