Center for Strategic Communication

Marisa Porges has a forceful op-ed in today’s NYT making the case for beefing up the capture component of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Read the whole thing:

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.


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.

That there needs to be more human intelligence collection in U.S. CT is beyond dispute. So too are the issues currently wracking American detention policy. Warsame, for example, spent a good deal of time onboard the USS Boxer, which Spencer Ackerman fairly described as a “floating Gitmo” when put to this use. But that’s not the worst of it. Warsame was lucky enough to make it to a U.S. courtroom, but as Jeremy Scahill has documented, Somalia’s NSA and the CIA run some dreadful sounding facilities where not just fighters found in Somalia, but alleged terrorists from Kenya face interrogation and detention. If U.S. detention policy ultimately ends up relying on building Bagrams and Guantanamos across AFRICOM and CENTCOM, or else employing the U.S. Navy to this end, counterterrorism with a human face might not turn out all it’s cracked up to be.

But even leaving aside navigating the legal and logistical issue of where to put terrorists once we capture them – an issue that Porges readily acknowledges – there is an issue of how to bring back warm bodies from where we currently have drones buzzing overhead. This is a critical question, because the means the U.S. employs to capture terrorists and suspected terrorists will have a great impact on the costs, benefits, and relative merits and demerits of capturing HVTs as opposed to the current targeted killing campaign.

In Afghanistan, the massive conventional presence of U.S. forces was and still is a significant enabler for capture operations. Afghanistan’s infamous night raids, now under the control of the Afghan military or specialized CIA-trained elements, are a prime example. Yet many familiar issues emerged. Civilians resented property damage, casualties, mistaken targets, lack of transparency or accountable due process, and increasing the role of the ANSF may not have significantly improved the situation.

In many respects though, Afghan night raids are easy. Special operations enjoy significant legal and operational freedom of movement. Large amounts of on-the-ground intelligence and conventional forces enable better targeting and mitigate the risks of raids. Try to pick up targets in, say, Somalia, and things get much harder. JSOC raids into that country required air and naval fire support, while the enabling conventional force in question was the Ethiopian military, which did not do much to win Somali hearts or minds. Penetrating Somalia has required a patchwork of often unsavory partner military forces, militia proxies, private contractors, and covert operations. While America has learned much from 1993’s most infamous attempt to conduct HVT capture, its foes in Somalia continue to pose stiff security challenges – though fortunately Shabaab seems to be losing ground.

In Yemen, the U.S. has a number of options for conducting capture operations, none of them particularly appealing. It can rely on Yemen’s government and U.S.-trained troops, whose political loyalty and human rights credentials are not great. Though drone strikes are destructive, so are smash-and-grab expeditions into ungoverned or hostile space, particularly with a partner state’s less, well, delicate touch (this is the country that named its counterinsurgency against the Houthis Operation Scorched Earth, after all). While we should always remember that U.S. airstrikes – manned or unmanned – rely on significant theater basing and local covert ground presence, capture missions would likely increase the footprint of U.S. operations. In Yemen, geography is favorable enough to allow sea-based raiding, but maintaining raids at the tempo of drone strikes would likely mean a vastly expanded U.S. military presence in the area. Or else it might rely on the Yemeni government, the prisons of which helped radicalize an earlier generation of al Qaeda.

In Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, too, we see similarly pressing problems. As C. Christine Fair rightfully points out, it’s been Pakistani conventional offensives (which would provide the presumed enabling element for an increased tempo of capture raids) that have done the most damage and displacement to the region’s population. A law enforcement approach’s outlook is bleak because the entire region, whether the U.S. likes it or not, falls under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, a colonial piece of legislation which makes playing by host rules and occupying the moral high ground an ethical gymnastics act. While Pakistan is willing to tolerate, to some extent, drone strikes on its soil, will it be so willing to replace them with more cross-border activity from JSOC, the CIA-trained Counterterrorism Pursuit Team, or let the U.S. direct its own security forces to a degree amenable to U.S. interests?

In areas where government capacity is strong and politically pliant, using the FBI to capture terrorist suspects will likely remain viable. When the U.S. tried to capture the 1993 CIA headquarter shooter, Aimal Kasi, the FBI worked with the Pakistani government to render him to the U.S. But they could not capture him until he entered Punjab province, and even then the U.S. initially hid the extent of Pakistani government involvement due to the controversy of the extradition. This was one arrest in 1997 – conducting arrests and renditions at a high tempo today simultaneously demands a much larger host government role while straining the political space for it to participate.

All this said, on balance the U.S. still must reorient its HVT program towards collecting HUMINT. For pragmatic and ethical reasons, the U.S. also must do something to fix the current legal and logistical morass of its detention policy. Yet assessing the proper role of capturing terrorists, and the likely degree of practical and moral surplus derived from it, demands a frank assessment about the demands of substituting captures for kills, and the capacity and willpower of the U.S. to undertake such operations. Even with the legal problems sorted out, and a system of prisons without the lingering insidious reputation of Guantanamo, Bagram, or CIA black sites, we still have the matter of kicking down the doors of suspected terrorists in well-armed and unfriendly neighborhoods and spiriting them away to a host or foreign prison. This is a process that will still likely get civilians killed, families unjustly torn apart, and put armed men and military hardware in places where they are not wanted. Dealing in such generalities, it is extremely hard to say whether this would appear, to the broader population, more moral, more desirable, or less encouraging of radicalism than drone strikes, in part because it is already so difficult to accurately measure very much about drone strikes in these regions to begin with.

Just look at the Phoenix Program, the massive effort to capture suspected foes in Vietnam to dismantle VC infrastructure. As William Rosenau and Austin Long explain in their invaluable report on its relevance for modern operations, the Phoenix Program unduly gained a lasting reputation as an “assassination” campaign of marauding “death squads” – a reputation so widespread that even President Nixon thought this was what the CIA-handled Provincial Reconnaissance Units were really aiming for. Whether using local governments, proxy forces, special operations, or some other element, snatching somebody from their home at night at gunpoint is a risky proposition for seeking political kudos. Particularly when placed alongside host governments that engage in disappearing opponents, brutal methods of counterinsurgency, and generally repressive practices, the perceptual and counter-radicalization benefits of a similar-tempo capture campaign might rapidly wane.

Doubtlessly, expecting all of this from an op-ed is a curmudgeon’s (and a blogger’s) game, but shifting the frame somewhat is necessary from a policy perspective. We must at least broach the question of what kind of force commitments and operational guidelines we need to effectively conduct a capture campaign is essential, as well as when and where we ought to employ such means.  While it’s undeniable the HUMINT value of capture operations are higher, the costs of undertaking them may well reduce or even eliminate the presumed ancillary benefits.