Over the past two years, the Obama administration has begun to formalize a so-called “disposition matrix” for suspected terrorists abroad: a continuously evolving database that spells out the intelligence on targets and various strategies, including contingencies, for handling them. Although the government has not spelled out the steps involved in deciding how to treat various terrorists, a look at U.S. actions in the past makes it possible to reverse-engineer a rough decision tree for certain types of suspects.
Understanding these procedures is particularly important for one of the most vexing, and potentially most dangerous, categories of terrorists: U.S. citizens. Over the years, U.S. authorities have responded with astonishing variety to American nationals suspected of terrorism, from ignoring their activities to conducting lethal drone strikes. All U.S. terrorists are not created equal. And the U.S. response depends heavily on the role of allies, the degree of threat the suspect poses, and the imminence of that threat — along with other factors.
What follows is a flow chart that takes us through the criteria and decision points that can lead to a suspect terrorist’s being ignored as a minor nuisance, being prosecuted in federal court, being held in a Pakistani prison, or being met with the business end of a Hellfire missile.
Click any numbered section of the chart for details on the decision process at that point.
Defeating the Islamic State will be the easy part. The hard part will be securing the peace, making sure that the forces converging on Deir Ezzor don't start fighting among themselves. The stakes for Deir Ezzor could not be higher. The Iranians want an overland route to the Mediterranean. The Kurds want a buffer between Assad's forces and their territory further to the north. In some ways, the situation is like the end of World War II, when Soviet and American forces converged on Berlin.
The US has flaked out on the Kurds in the past, so it's understandable that they're worried about US withdrawal in Syria now, but in this case, the US won't be going anywhere for a while. Once ISIL is defeated, the US will need proxy forces on the ground to push back against both Assad and Russia.
What do you do when your allies [like Pakistan] are part of the problem? The desire to turn our backs on these people is there, but then you worry that terrorists will have more operational freedom and it will cost you more in the long run.