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.
“You can rely extensively on electronic intelligence, but you still need that [human intelligence]to put the full picture together,” said Mr. Joscelyn, who added that recent years have fostered a “fetish within some parts of the intelligence community for drone attacks because they’ve succeeded in taking out some very high-level targets.
“There are other parts of the American military and intelligence community that understand that drones are not going to win this war,” he said. “Drones are a necessary tactic, but they are not a strategy.”
Last weekend’s raids in Libya and Somalia are “evidence that there’s more emphasis now on capture than on kill,” said Linda Robinson a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corp.
“It is an indication of the shift that was alluded to by the president in May,” said Mrs. Robinson, referring to a speech President Obama gave at the National Defense University in which he stressed that “as a matter of policy, the preference of the United States is to capture terrorist suspects.”
Mrs. Robinson said there is “recognition that, frankly, you get something from raids, which you don’t get from drones.” Raids allow for capturing a suspect and can lead to an “incredible intelligence dump” from that individual, she said.
Drones still on the table
During the May speech on terrorism, Mr. Obama acknowledged the use of drones as a central tactic within his administration’s war strategy and suggested it will continue.
At the time, Mr. Obama said it “not possible for America to simply deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist.”
Citing instances in which doing so “would pose profound risks to our troops and local civilians” and where “putting U.S. boots on the ground may trigger a major international crisis,” Mr. Obama said the secret May 2011 Navy SEAL operation that resulted in the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden “cannot be the norm.”
In the shadow of such remarks from the president, some analysts say, such raids likely would pose challenges in Yemen, where the Obama administration has relied heavily on the use of drones.
A raid such as the one that netted al-Libi in Tripoli would be “much more difficult” in Yemen “in part because potential targets are far more inland, thus complicating an attack from the sea,” said Mr. Green, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Also, the Yemeni government is much more capable and would likely detect such a raid, as compared to Libya’s anarchic conditions, and al Qaeda is a much more developed force in Yemen, which will have already adapted to this new tactic by U.S. forces,” he said.
Mrs. Robinson said that “with a raid, of course, you incur more risk for those U.S. forces usually, special operations forces that you’re putting on the ground.”
“I don’t think there’s a big appetite to go around launching raids unless there is a clear U.S. national security interest to do so,” she said. “The political and diplomatic and atmospheric risks or counterproductive effects have to be very much weighed in the equation.”
Others pointed to potentially serious legal issues that an increase in commando-style raids likely would bring to the fore for the Obama administration.
John B. Bellinger, a Washington lawyer who served as a legal adviser for the State Department and the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, said he believes it is “much to soon to say that there is a new pivot to boots on the ground and capture” missions to replace drone attacks.
“If there is going to be some new emphasis on capture, it is going to pose legal challenges for the administration because these continue to be uncharted waters, both domestically and internationally,” said Mr. Bellinger. “What the administration is apparently going to try to do is to apply a hybrid model of law of war detention and interrogation coupled with traditional criminal law enforcement prosecution. While that makes a lot of sense, it’s not clear yet whether that will work as a matter of U.S. domestic law or whether it will be any more acceptable internationally than the law of war detention than the Bush administration was criticized for.”