Skip to main content
al_liby001
Up Front

Captures vs. Drones

Daniel L. Byman

This weekend’s raids to seize Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, better known as Abu Anas al-Libi, from outside his home in Tripoli and the Shabaab’s external operations chief Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, known as Ikrimah, a Kenyan of Somali origin, are heralded as a shift away from drone strikes toward more legally appropriate capture operations. Although this weekend’s operations do suggest a rebalancing effort, the Obama administration and its successors are not likely to give up drone strikes. More capture operations are desirable, but we should not forget their downsides or abandon the targeted killing program.

Capturing terrorists offers both tactical and diplomatic rewards. Dead men tell no tales, and a dead terrorist carries his secrets to the grave. By capturing rather than killing al-Libi, the United States can interrogate him about the old guard Al Qaeda members involved in the 1998 Embassy attacks and the latest incarnation of jihadists active in Libya and nearby Maghreb states, an area of growing concern to U.S. counterterrorism officials. Al-Libi can fill in holes in our understanding of Al Qaeda and provide intelligence that enables the United States and its allies to disrupt more plots. Over time, sustained capture operations can create a benign circle, with successful arrests and interrogations leading to further arrests, taking terrorists off the streets faster than they can be replaced.

Arrests and the legal system also offer more legitimacy, particularly with Western allies. The legality of U.S. drone strikes outside recognized war zones and against targets only loosely associated with the Al Qaeda core and the 9/11 attacks, even if they are clearly terrorists, is hotly debated. The U.S. drone and targeted killing program are widely criticized as counterproductive and barbaric, with allies rejecting the war paradigm the United States uses to justify these attacks. Capture is deemed more civilized, particularly when – as seems the case with al-Libi – it is followed by a trial in a civilian court. In theory at least, such legitimacy makes allies more willing to support U.S. policies in general.

Yet the costs and limits of capture operations are also painfully clear. Most important, capture operations are much harder. To insert U.S. forces into another country, and to be sure they can be supported if they encounter problems or need to be extracted unexpectedly, requires far more military support than just the insert SEAL or Delta Force team. In contrast, a drone strike, like a military capture operation, requires excellent intelligence, but if the drone encounters problems it simply flies away – and even if it is shot down no Americans die.

In addition, capture operations are more likely to fail. No one doubts the bravery or professionalism of the team that tried to capture Ikrimah, but they came up empty-handed, in part because they encountered more civilians than they expected. A drone flying overhead could have provided continuous surveillance and, had there been a moment when civilians were not near Ikrimah, struck with deadly effect.

In some cases, captures are simply not feasible without taking absurd risks. In remote parts of Pakistan’s FATA, inserting and extracting a special operations force team to capture a suspected terrorist would be exceptionally difficult in most cases. The terrorists are on the lookout for enemies, and U.S. forces could not blend in to a supportive population or move quickly before the enemy could respond. A hail of gunfire, not shocked immobility, would be the likely response.

Not only could U.S. forces be killed, they might also be wounded and captured. This would make the raid a political disaster, with the terrorist group demanding the release of other prisoners and otherwise using the captive to extract concessions.

Somewhat surprisingly, the presence of boots on the ground can be perceived as more of a violation of sovereignty than a drone strike. It was the Bin Ladin raid that caused the most outrage in Pakistan – far more than any drone strike. Already Libya’s government condemned the al-Libi capture and threatened to remove the prime minister if he approved it.

Many of those targeted by U.S. intelligence could not be tried in a U.S. court. There is no indictment against them, evidence is confined to intelligence challenges, or the threat they pose is primarily to U.S. allies. In such cases the United States may want to capture the individual and pass him to an ally, but in so doing the United States becomes implicated in the ally’s treatment of the suspect, a troubling association if the ally is a dictatorship like Algeria or Egypt.

Making this problem much worse, U.S. detention policy is a failure. Obama and other liberals roundly reject continuing Guantanamo, but no policy has emerged to take its place. So what is to be done with captured terrorists who cannot neatly be tried in the U.S. legal system?

Emphasizing capture operations more can help U.S. intelligence and it is good PR – but we can’t pretend that targeted killings will become a thing of the past. Capture is often infeasible or too risky, and policymakers will turn to drone strikes or other lethal approaches instead. So rather that see this weekend’s raids as a shift in the U.S. approach, we should consider it a broadening – increasing the role of capture operations, but not abandoning killing operations altogether.

Get daily updates from Brookings