When a window of opportunity opened to strike the head of Al-Qaeda in East Africa last September, US Special Operations forces prepared several options. They could obliterate his vehicle with an airstrike as he drove through Somalia. They could fire from helicopters that could land at the scene to confirm the kill. Or they could try to take him alive.
The White House authorised the second option. On the morning of September 14, helicopters flying from a US ship off the Somali coast blew up a car carrying Saleh Ali Nabhan. While many hovered overhead, one set down long enough for troops to scoop up enough of the remains for DNA verification. Moments later, the helicopters were headed back to the ship.
The strike was considered a major success, according to senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation and other sensitive matters. But the opportunity to interrogate one of the most wanted US terrorism targets was gone forever.
The Nabhan decision was one of a number of similar choices the administration has faced over the past year as President Barack Obama has escalated US attacks on the leadership of Al-Qaeda and its allies around the globe. The result has been dozens of targeted killings and no reports of high-value detentions.
Although senior administration officials say that no policy determination has been made to emphasise kills over captures, several factors appear to have tipped the balance in that direction.
“Over a year after taking office, the administration has still failed to answer the hard questions about what to do if we have the opportunity to capture and detain a terrorist overseas, which has made our terror-fighters reluctant to capture and left our allies confused,” Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said. “If given a choice between killing or capturing, we would probably kill.”
Some military and intelligence officials, citing what they see as a new bias toward kills, questioned whether valuable intelligence is being lost in the process. “We wanted to take a prisoner,” a senior military officer said of the Nabhan operation. “It was not a decision that we made.”
"In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post". For additional content please visit www. washingtonpost.com"