Mar. 23, 2011: Afghan detainees are seen through mesh wire fence inside the Parwan detention facility near Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Oversight of the main U.S. detention center in Afghanistan has been transfered to the Afghan government.
"Dead Men Share No Secrets"
Op-Ed, New York Times
September 25, 2012
Author: Marisa L. Porges, Research Fellow, International Security Program
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
THOSE who naïvely believed that Osama bin Laden's death and America's forthcoming departure from Afghanistan would usher in a new era free of threats from Al Qaeda have been proved wrong.
After Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed on Sept. 11 in Benghazi, Libya, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb issued a statement praising the murder and calling for further attacks against American diplomats in the region. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula made similar calls for violence.
Then, last week, new evidence emerged suggesting that the attack had been planned by Al Qaeda — and was linked to Sufian bin Qumu, a Libyan who had been detained at the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In 2007, Mr. Qumu was transferred to Libyan custody and held in a Libyan prison; he was later freed by the Qaddafi government and rejoined terrorist groups.
The ongoing fight against Al Qaeda is not limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan; Qaeda affiliates and supporters operate actively in North Africa, Yemen, and beyond. And if Mr. Qumu was indeed involved with the mission attack, it raises serious questions about what other countries do with captured terrorists who remain a threat. It also reminds us that America's ability to effectively hold and interrogate those it captures in this fight is crucial.
At the moment, the United States has nowhere to hold and interrogate newly captured terrorists. America just handed over control of its detention facility at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a significant step toward transferring security operations to Afghans. And while Guantánamo Bay remains home to nearly 170 men that the United States believes are still a threat, no captured terrorist has been transferred there since August 2008. Yet in the past four years, drone strikes and airstrikes targeting Al Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have increased dramatically.
Since 2010, there have been about 2,000 such strikes in Pakistan alone, with hundreds more in Yemen and North Africa. Meanwhile, only one alleged terrorist outside of Afghanistan — a Somali named Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame — was captured, held and interrogated. He was later flown to New York to stand trial.
It's true that drone strikes and other tactics that aim to kill, rather than capture, terrorists are an effective tool for combating serious threats. They increase America’s ability to quickly attack targets in remote regions where American troops cannot easily operate. Such strikes allow the United States to respond quickly to time-sensitive intelligence about a known terrorist's location or plans. They avoid the political risks and the costs, in money and lives, of supporting a large-scale military operation on foreign soil. And they help the White House avoid controversial issues of long-term detention and interrogation, which remain a political liability at home and abroad.
But this one-sided approach — always opting to kill instead of capture — is a major weakness of America's current approach to counterterrorism. It deprives us of significant amounts of intelligence about what Al Qaeda is thinking and planning, and information that could help find other senior terrorists. After all, it was intelligence from a detainee that helped American forces track down Bin Laden.
America's heavy reliance on drones also creates more sympathy for Al Qaeda in some countries and, ultimately, may radicalize more people and encourage them to join forces with terrorists — creating more enemies for America, not fewer. One young Yemeni told me this summer that he and his friends "are like mobiles with two SIM cards," his way of saying that American drone attacks make them shift allegiances, just as they easily switch their cellphone service providers and they become sympathetic with local Al Qaeda groups.
The fact that the United States now has nowhere to hold a terrorist — and no policy to deal with him once captured — means that a dangerous suspect might very well be let go. At present, there is no standard course of action approved by the president and relevant government agencies for what to do in the days and months following capture.
This situation creates disturbing incentives for troops on the battlefield. It encourages soldiers and policy makers in Washington to opt for the "five-cent solution" — a bullet. Rather than shooting people, we should be exercising due process, and bringing transnational terrorists to justice. That's an approach that would help America maintain the moral high ground in the ongoing fight against Al Qaeda.
The United States has had numerous counterterrorism successes in the past few years, but this month's events prove that we are still fighting a serious battle against terrorists in North Africa, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere. It is a battle that requires multiple weapons — not just airstrikes and drone attacks — and one that requires detention facilities where transnational terrorists can be safely held after they are captured.
As the election approaches, we need to start asking both candidates how they would handle high-profile terrorists. "Kill them" should not be the only answer.
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