Somalia raid suggests incoherence in Obama’s anti-terrorism policy

Information is beginning to emerge about the Navy SEALs raid in Somalia that failed (apparently; we are not sure) to kill or capture its target, an al-Shabab commander named Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, also known as Ikrima. For me, the information contained in this Washington Post report raises more questions than it answers.

According to the Post, the commander in charge of the raid had the authority to call for an air strike against the compound the SEALs were attacking. But instead, says the Post, “he opted to retreat.”

Why? The Post cites two reasons. First:

A drone strike against the al-Shabab compound had been rejected, officials said, because there were too many women and children inside, the same reason that the commander opted against an airstrike once the operation was underway.

Second:

Destroying the compound probably would also have defeated a primary purpose of the mission: to capture, not kill [Ikrima].

The first rationale — sparing women and children — was driven by restrictive counterterrorism guidelines that President Obama signed in the spring, according to the Post. The goal is commendable. But it seems to me that the U.S. unduly ties its hands in the fight against terrorism when it enables top terrorist leaders to hide behind women and children.

The second rationale — the desire to capture Ikrima rather than kill him — also raises questions. Capturing terrorists is often better than killing them because of the information we may be able to obtain. But if capture isn’t realistic, then killing should do. Keep in mind that Ikrima is on a “capture or kill” list.

If there’s a reasonable likelihood that we can capture this guy, then I understand why we wouldn’t want to take him out with an air strike. But it seems unlikely, after this attack, that we’ll have much of an opportunity to capture Ikrima any time soon.

I also find it unfortunate that, according to the Post’s reporting, Team Obama is spinning the forbearance in Somalia as a refutation of charges that the administration is too prone to kill rather than to capture:

Officials cited the Somalia operation, as well as the capture of an al-Qaeda figure in Tripoli, Libya, on the same day, as proof that the administration is not overly enamored with the relatively risk-free use of drones at the expense of detaining militants to glean intelligence.

The administration would be well-advised to tune out the critics when it makes key decisions about how to deal with terrorists. In any event, killing Ikrima, after making a strong effort to capture him via a landing of troops, would have been a sufficient demonstration of the administration’s willingness to take risks to obtain intelligence.

The Post also reports that the Obama State Department has, since 2009, successfully opposed attacking al-Shabab training camps. It’s theory? Al-Shabab was “a hybrid organization in which there was an element of East Africa, of al-Qaeda and foreign fighters, but the large mass of the group was concerned with Somalia issues and had not signed up for the global jihad.”

I’m far from being an expert on al-Shabab, but this view sounds naïve on its face, in a 1960s kind of way. Recent events tend to back up this assessment, I think. Perhaps Hillary Clinton, no stranger to the ’60s, would like to explain to the families of victims of the mall attack in Kenya that the killers came from “a hybrid organization” that was mostly “concerned with Somalia issues.”

The Post informs us, however, that the attack on the Nairobi mall, though it is frequented by Americans in Kenya, did not make al-Shabab a “continuing and imminent threat” to the U.S. homeland or to Americans, such that its leaders can be targeted with lethal force under Obama administration guidelines.

Now I’m confused. Why the raid in Somalia if the Nairobi mall attack wasn’t sufficient provocation? Here is what a senior administration official told the Post:

You make a judgment based on the intent, the capability and the active plotting. . . . Some of it is a threat picture, some of it is a specific plot. With a guy like this, it is a mix of all those things.

This sounds to me like “overlawyering.” The call to capture or kill Ikrima should have been straightforward after the Nairobi attack, if not before. Balancing a mix of factors should have been unnecessary, and it may have contributed to what seems like questionable forbearance in the conduct of the attack.

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