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The Known Unknowns of Counterterrorism Ops

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
October 8, 2013


Last Friday, Navy SEALs reportedly attacked a compound in the coastal city of Barawe, Somalia, with the goal of capturing or killing a senior leader of al-Shabab. According to an Obama administration official: "It did not achieve the objective." Hours later, Army Delta Force commandos were reportedly involved in a mission in Tripoli, Libya, which led to the capture of Abu Anas al-Libi, who was indicted in a U.S. district court for his alleged involvement in the U.S. African embassy bombings in 1998. These twin counterterrorism operations conducted 3,000 miles apart were lauded as "a major blow against the remnants of al Qaeda's core," by Rep. Adam Schiff; as a confirmation of "the unparalleled precision, global reach, and capabilities of the United States military," by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; and as "a powerful flex of military muscle aimed at capturing fugitive terrorist suspects," by the New York Times.

Several news reports and analysts also claimed that the operations demonstrated that the Obama administration suddenly prefers capturing suspected terrorists to killing them. Recent evidence would suggest otherwise. In 2013, by one estimate, there have been 45 U.S. drone strikes (in Pakistan and Yemen) that killed approximately 209 people; two raids that captured one person are clearly not the equal. There are assuredly other covert or clandestine capture/kill operations that we do not know about, but it is far too soon to tell if this portends a wholly new policy shift.

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