You may have noticed something peculiar about the two military operations against two terrorism suspects this weekend: neither involved drone strikes in any way. This is the new norm, apparently: special forces raids are the President's preferred option now.
Top military special forces teams moved separately against two high-level terrorism targets on Saturday. In Somalia, a team of Navy SEALs invaded an al-Shabab compound looking for the group's leader, as a response to the group's attack on the Westgate Mall that killed dozens in Kenya two weeks ago. U.S. officials think the target was killed during an hourlong firefight, but the SEALs were forced to retreat before they could confirm his death. Around the same time, the U.S. Army's Delta Force captured a top al-Qaeda commander from his home in Tripoli with some help from FBI and CIA officials. Drones were nowhere to be found in either operation.
This is allegedly the new normal for the Obama administration. The administration is finally moving away from drone strikes after years of defending the controversial counter-terrorism strategy. "I think this goes along with this policy that they are trying to move counter-terrorism operations from CIA to Defense, and trying to operate less with drones," a Congressional aide told the L.A. Times' Ken Dilanian and David Cloud.
The Pentagon tried to pass off the capture of top al-Qaeda leader as a common occurrence. "Wherever possible, our first priority is and always has been to apprehend terrorist suspects, and to preserve the opportunity to elicit valuable intelligence that can help us protect the American people," Pentagon spokesperson George Little said in a statement. But we know that's not really true. The administration has preferred using drone strikes to go after top terrorism targets, killing hundreds in Afghanistan and Yemen since 2002, instead of capturing them.
But, weirdly, some national security experts suggest the raids are relying on the same legal justification the administration uses for drone strikes. "Assuming [al-Liby] has not since abandoned his role in al Qaeda, then, he is almost certainly covered by the AUMF," Just Security's Marty Lederman, a former Justice Department official, wrote Sunday. "Moreover, even if he weren't, the FBI likely had the statutory authority...to capture him overseas in order to bring him back to the U.S. for trial..." Others see the raid in Libya as a sign the administration is simply following Al-Qaeda to where ever the top commanders are located. Now that operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been broken down by military strikes over the last decade, the U.S. will follow the group wherever it sprouts up next until its gone. "The invocation of the ‘law of war' rationale overtly extends the battlefield for the war on Al Qaeda, such as it is, to Libya,"national security lawyer Phillip Carter told Foreign Policy. "That's significant at a time when we are drawing down in Afghanistan, after successfully dismantling Al Qaeda there and in Pakistan. The threat is metastasizing, and we are following it."
This is not the first time people have forecasted a shift in administration policy away from drone strikes. Whether or not this weekend's operations truly were a sign of things to come remains to be seen. The guesses of an anonymous congressional aide don't make an official turnaround, but this weekend's events will be looked at as the turning point if the President does draw down his drone efforts.