WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama’s remote-control war on Al-Qaeda has come under fresh criticism in a new U.N report that says the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in drone strikes had created “an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency.” The report urges the United States to release data on civilian casualties. Ben Emmerson, a British lawyer who is the U.N.’s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, writes that “the current lack of transparency creates an accountability vacuum and affects the ability of victims to seek redress.”
His report, the result of a seven-month investigation of civilian casualties of drone strikes, is scheduled to be presented to the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 25.
U.N. investigators looked at America’s use of killer drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Somalia against the background of a global backlash against what critics have branded an extrajudicial assassination campaign that is creating as many, or more, terrorists than it kills.
In his first term in office, Obama paid little attention to such criticism: Drones became his weapon of choice to kill as many jihadists as possible.
But this year, the number of drone attacks has fallen sharply, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which monitors drone warfare.
In May, Obama signaled a change in tactics – more emphasis on capturing suspected terrorists.
“America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists,” he said in a speech at the National Defense University. “Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute.”
Five months after the speech, the president’s words were translated into deeds with special forces raids on the same day in Libya and Somalia.
One was successful – the capture on a Tripoli street of Abu Anas al-Libi, an Al-Qaeda leader wanted in connection with the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In the second raid, special forces came under fierce fire when they attempted to storm the seaside home of a top leader of Al-Shabab, the Somali affiliate of Al-Qaeda.
The U.S. team’s commander called off the raid for fear of inflicting serious “collateral damage,” the military euphemism for dead civilians. Their revenge-seeking relatives often join the ranks of America’s enemies.
The U.N. report to be presented this week takes note of a key element of the new tactic pushed by Obama: ending the parallel drone campaigns waged by the CIA (whose operations are secret) and the military, which reports its attacks.
“The Special Rapporteur understands that this process of migration is underway and that the administration aims to have completed it by the end of 2014” for the purpose of greater transparency and accountability.
In turf-conscious Washington, this is easier said than done, and to hear congressional aides tell it, there is already wrangling over who should do what between the congressional committees that have oversight over the military and the intelligence establishments. The “obstacle to transparency” highlighted in the U.N. report is likely to prove stubborn.
One of the reasons for the shift of tactics and the decrease in drone strikes clearly is an effort by Obama to avoid going down in history as “the drone president,” as some critics have called him. In his first term in office, Obama ordered more than six times as many drone strikes in Pakistan alone as his predecessor, George W. Bush, did in eight years.
“Now Obama wants to rebrand his legacy,” a former administration official remarked.
To hear some counterterrorism experts tell it, the change in tactics is also an implicit admission that the way the U.S. has waged war on Al-Qaeda has fallen short of expectations. These were outlined last November by Jeh Johnson, the former Pentagon lawyer Obama just nominated as new chief of the Department of Homeland Security.
“On the present course, there will come a tipping point,” Johnson said in a speech at the Oxford Union, “a tipping point at which so many leaders and operatives of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured ... that Al-Qaeda has been effectively destroyed.”
That tipping point is not in sight. By one count, the Al-Qaeda network spanned a dozen affiliates before the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Now, there are 45 groups subscribing to Al-Qaeda’s ideology scattered around the world, from Sudan to Indonesia, from Baghdad to Damascus, according to IntelCenter, a Virginia-based private contractor working for U.S. intelligence agencies.
Despite the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, 2011, “the overall Al-Qaeda network became stronger,” according to a recent report by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Counterterrorism fighters now hope that the capture of such figures as Libi will yield a fount of intelligence leading to more captures.
“Raids have several advantages over drones,” said Linda Robinson, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank. “The targets can be interrogated for further intelligence, laptops and other physical evidence can be scooped up, and perhaps most important, the capture can result in what operators call a ‘judicial finish,’ with the terrorist tried and convicted in a court of law.”