The Complex

Team Obama Tries Capturing a Terrorist Instead of Droning Him

Since President Obama stepped into the White House, his administration has had a rather consistent reaction when it located an accused terrorist: drop a Hellfire missile on the guy's head. Saturday was different. U.S. forces got the drop on an al-Qaeda operative named Nazhi Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai. But rather than drone him, those forces put him in cuffs. That not only marks a rather dramatic departure from what has been standard Obama administration policy. It could open a new chapter in the struggle against Islamic terror.

Al-Ruqai, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Anas al-Libi, is accused of helping plan the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. He was captured on Saturday "under military authorities" and "is currently lawfully detained under the law of war in a secure location outside of Libya," Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement. The operation was approved by President Obama and was reportedly carried out with the assistance of FBI and CIA personnel. "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," Little said.

Capture may be the priority, but it's not the norm. The Obama administration has killed far more suspected terrorists and militants with drones and special operations strikes than it has brought back to face justice in the U.S. courts system. Indeed, on the same day that U.S. forces were capturing al-Libi, special operations commandos launched a strike in Somalia aimed at a senior leader of the terrorist group Al Shabab, which has claimed responsibility for the audacious assault against a shopping mall in Nairobi. The dual operations provided a stark example of the breadth of U.S. counterterrorism policy, which can encompass law enforcement actions as well as clandestine attacks.

Al-Libi would be only the second person allegedly involved in the 1998 embassy bombings to be tried in the United States since the September 11 attacks. That first, Ahmed Khalfan Ghaliani, was convicted in 2009 and has the distinction of being the only person held in Guantanamo Bay to be brought to the United States to stand trial in a criminal court. No accused conspirators in the 9/11 attacks have faced trial in the United States. The alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is being tried in a military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama administration officials have long expressed a preference for prosecuting terrorists in U.S. courts. But privately, they've said there are few places to keep them imprisoned while they await trial. A decision to try Mohammed in a U.S. court and keep him incarcerated in New York during the trial met with outrage from local, state, and congressional officials.

It's not clear whether Al-Libi's capture signals a new interest in prosecuting suspected terrorists in U.S. criminal courts. But in recent months the administration's use of lethal drone strikes has been evolving, to the point where they can no longer be seen as the default option for going after terrorists.

The number of strikes hasn't exactly dropped off--there has been a resurgence in Yemen in recent months. But the administration has taken drone strikes off the table in Iraq, where Iraqi officials have floated the idea of using drones to hit al-Qaeda militants there.

Little, the Pentagon spokesman, said the capture of al-Libi was "a clear sign that the United States is committed to using all the tools at our disposal to bring to justice those who commit terrorist acts against Americans."

National security experts said the capture of al-Libi appears to rely on the authorization to use military force against al Qaeda that Congress passed in 2001, which is the same legal doctrine that the Bush and Obama administrations have used to justify lethal strikes.

"Assuming [al-Libi] has not since abandoned his role in al Qaeda, then, he is almost certainly covered by the AUMF," Marty Lederman, a former senior Justice Department official, wrote on the new national security affairs blog Just Security. "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..."

If that's the case, capturing Al-Libi would not involve "any assertion or exercise of new or expanded legal authority," Lederman wrote.

Robert Chesney, a national security expert and co-founder of the blog Lawfare, also saw the authorization as "plainly relevant" to the capture. "That said, don't expect al-Libi to stay in military custody for more than a few weeks. This situation will unfold just like the capture of Ahmed Warsame a few years ago, meaning that after a period of no more than, say, 6-8 weeks, al-Libi almost certainly will be flown to the United States to face a criminal trial." Warsame, a Canadian citizen accused of aiding terrorists, was arrested in 2003 and held and questioned for more than a month before he was indicted.

The al-Libi operation also signals that the "battlefield" of the war on terror, as the United States sees it, is broadening.

"The invocation of the ‘law of war' rationale overtly extends the battlefield for the war on Al Qaeda, such as it is, to Libya," Phillip Carter, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a national security lawyer, 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."

Carter said that if al-Libi is ultimately brought to trial, "This would mirror what has been done in recent cases, and reflect the evolution of a post-war CT model where military forces work in concert with other elements of national power." Phillips pointed to the recent criminal prosecution of two al Qaeda members in New York as cases where the administration could have used lethal force, but chose a law enforcement route.

Officials in Libya's interim government have demanded an explanation for the U.S. operation, which they described as a "kidnapping of a Libyan citizen." The United States has never asserted that it needs the permission of a host government to conduct anti-terrorism operations on its soil, although in some cases it does seek out and receive that blessing. But officials have stressed that if a government is unwilling or incapable of rounding up terrorists plotting attacks against the United States, American forces will act in the nation's defense -- a notion that traditionally recieves broad support in Congress

"These raids show the President will use force when necessary to combat al-Qaeda threats wherever they may be," Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told FP." Terrorists who have threatened the homeland should know that U.S. will not rest until they have been brought to justice or otherwise neutralized. We will never give up the hunt for those with American blood on their hands."

Al-Libi has been indicted in the Southern District of New York in connection with his alleged role in the embassy bombings. He is accused of conducting photo surveillance of the embassies. Those photos were shown to Osama bin Laden, who gave instructions about where to place truck bombs to do the most damage, according to an ex-al Qaeda member who pled guilty for his role in the attacks.

Al-Libi was also once known as Al Qaeda's top computer expert. He spent time with bin Laden in Somalia in the mid-1990s. The embassy attacks were partly in retaliation for U.S. military strikes in Mogadishu in 1993. The charges against al-Libi include planned attacks against U.S. forces stationed in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Somalia.

Four other men were convicted for their role in the embassy bombings, in a trial that ended in August 2001. They are currently serving life sentences in the supermax prison in Colorado.

U.S. Navy

National Security

New U.S. Drone Base Is America's Latest Move to Contain China

U.S. officials swear that America's military and diplomatic build-up in Asia is not an attempt to contain a rising China. But they sure are parking lots of advanced firepower on Beijing's doorstep. The U.S. is even welcoming the increased militarization of Japan, the country America barred from having an offensive force in the aftermath of World War II.

On October 3, U.S. and Japanese officials announced that the U.S. Air Force will be stationing RQ-4 Global Hawk drones in Japan. The Global Hawk is a large, long-range spy jet meant to complement its 50-year-old counterpart, the legendary U-2 Dragon Lady.

This not only marks the first time U.S. drones will be based in Japan. The basing of the [Global Hawks] puts an American long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability in the heart of Asia.

U.S. officials say two or three of the high-flying drones will be stationed somewhere in Japan next spring. While no one said this explicitly, the high-tech aircraft will be able to easily monitor the East China Sea, including the uninhabited Senkaku Islands. The Japanese-controlled Senkakus sit in a potentially oil-rich section of the sea less than 150 miles northeast of Taiwan. China also claims sovereignty over them in a dispute that is increasing tensions between the two Asian powers.

In addition to the Global Hawks, U.S. and Japanese officials announced plans to base several other types of America's newest combat aircraft in Japan soon.

The Global Hawks will be joined in Japan by two squadrons of U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors. An MV-22 can haul a couple dozen Marines over long distances at airplane speeds with the ability to take off and land vertically like a helicopter. Needless to say, these craft could be very useful in responding to emergencies in the Pacific, where American defense officials often lament "the tyranny of distance."

The Marines will also station F-35B Joint Strike Fighters in Japan starting in 2017, officials announced. The Marines are following the U.S. Air Force's lead by positioning the stealth fighters in Japan. The air service announced last year that the first overseas bases for its fleet of F-35As will be in Japan. In addition to the American F-35 squadrons, the Japanese, Australian, and possibly Singaporean air forces will all fly the Joint Strike Fighter, ringing China's southeast flank with the stealth jets.

It's worth pointing out that the U.S. Navy will base some of its brand-new P-8 Poseidon submarine- and ship-hunting jets in Japan starting in December. The P-8 is a navalized version of Boeing's 737 airliner equipped with sonar gear, powerful radars, torpedos, and even Harpoon anti-ship missiles. (Chinese-made counterfeit parts have been found on P-8s, causing their critical ice-detection systems to fail.)

Defense officials also announced that Japan will get another powerful X-band radar capable of detecting missile launches from places like North Korea. The U.S. and Japan will also up cooperation on cybersecurity and intelligence efforts. The whole weapons package is part of a revised agreement between the U.S. and Japan that aims to bolster the longtime American ally's defenses in the face of an increasingly aggressive China and an unpredictable North Korea.

The agreement is framed by a U.S.-Japanese "strategic vision" for East Asia and the Pacific that "reflecting our shared values of democracy, the rule of law, free and open markets, and respect for human rights, will effectively promote peace, security, stability, and economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region," according to a State Department announcement.

Tokyo is actively considering a revision of its constitution to allow it to enter combat to defend an ally that has been attacked. Japan's constitution, written after World War II, only allows it to engage in combat when it has been attacked.

Japan is also looking at expanding its defense budget, "strengthening its capability to defend its sovereign territory, and broadening regional contributions, including capacity-building efforts vis-à-vis Southeast Asian countries," reads the announcement. All of these moves are "welcomed" by the United States.

The latest news out of Japan comes several months after the top U.S. Air Force general in the Pacific revealed that American fighters, bombers, and tankers will constantly deploy to a string of bases in the Pacific and Indian ocean regions. These facilities aren't slated for permanent occupation by American aircraft -- or at least that's what American commanders say. Instead, these sites will see a steady stream of U.S. units visiting on a regular basis.

These temporary American bases range from Tinian and Saipan to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, India, and possibly sites in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. American jets permanently stationed at dozens of U.S. bases in the Pacific -- as well as at bases in the U.S. -- will rotate in and out of these airfields under a concept that harkens back to the Cold War.

"Back in the late, great days of the Cold War, we had a thing called Checkered Flag: We rotated almost every CONUS [Continental United States] unit to Europe," said Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle last July. "Every two years, every unit would go and work out of a collateral operating base in Europe. We're turning to that in the Pacific."

(Click here for a map of the sites the U.S. is considering rotating its forces in and out of in the Pacific.)

Interestingly, Japan is helping to pay for the construction of bare-bones bases on Tinian and Saipan, according to the State Department announcement. This is partially in exchange for the U.S. Marines pulling some troops out of Okinawa and partially to allow the Japanese military access to the bases for training purposes. But the bottom line is that the U.S. is prepositioning forces around China. And Japan is only too happy to help.

--Additional reporting from Asia by Gordon Lubold.

U.S. Air Force