Last weekend’s daring anti-terrorist raids in Somalia and Libya demonstrated once again the extraordinary capabilities of America’s special operations forces and intelligence services. Launched almost simultaneously against distant, unrelated targets, these two assaults also showed conclusively that the global war on terror is far from over.
Capturing Abu Anas al-Libi, a key al-Qaida perpetrator of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, after 15 years of diligent effort, was, ironically, a form of “rendition,” once harshly criticized by presidential candidate Barack Obama. The operation recalled Osama bin Laden’s 2011 death in Pakistan, after a similar decade of preparation and pursuit. And the Somalia raid against a top al-Shabab operative — retaliating for September’s Nairobi shopping mall attack — exemplified what our response should be to terrorist attacks on us or an ally: swift and deadly.
Yet even as our front-line defenders proved their resourcefulness and bravery in the most difficult circumstances, President Obama was making a grave error. Al-Libi, indicted and with a $5 million price on his head, had been on the FBI’s most-wanted list since the embassy attacks. So it was entirely appropriate that the FBI’s famed Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) participated in seizing him in Tripoli, Libya, where he had been living openly since Moammar Gadhafi’s fall.
But at that point, Obama’s ideological blinders took over. The HRT’s real mission, it seems, was to be present primarily to take al-Libi into custody, at some point read him his Miranda rights and then transport him to the United States for trial under the pending indictment.
This is like traveling in a time machine back to 1998, before al-Qaida’s massive Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when Americans came to the tragic realization that Islamicist terrorists were waging war against the United States, a war we grasped only when it struck our homeland.
Terrorist incidents in earlier years had also been met with law-enforcement responses, from numerous airplane hijackings or bombings, like Pan Am 103 in December 1988, to the long, sad story of the 1990s: the first attempt on the World Trade Center, using a truck bomb in its basement; the Khobar Towers bombing; the 1998 embassy bombings; the suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen and others. Only rarely were there military responses, as in Reagan’s 1986 strike against Libya for its bombing of Berlin’s La Belle disco (a favorite of U.S. servicemen), or economic sanctions, like the U.N. Security Council’s resolutions against Libya for Pan Am 103.
Unfortunately, the 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks proved conclusively both that the law-enforcement paradigm had failed to stop al-Qaida and other radicals and that this approach fundamentally mischaracterized the nature of the threat we faced.
The terrorists and their state sponsors were warring against the West in general and America in particular. Treating their attempts at mass murder as simply aggravated criminal cases, to be dealt with by police and prosecutors, effectively conceded both the philosophical dimensions of the global hostilities being waged against us and doomed us inevitably to rising levels of terrorist intimidation. Law enforcement in a free society, by design and constitutional structure, is rightly defensive in nature; it is also, therefore, completely unsuitable against terrorists who have something far more sweeping in mind than mere unlawful enrichment.
That is why the term “global war on terror,” unwieldy and insufficiently descriptive though it is, more accurately captures the essence of the international threat America and its allies have confronted since 9/11, if not before. Now, after more than a decade of hard-learned, mortal lessons, reverting to a pre-9/11 law-enforcement mentality, which Obama has been striving to do since his inauguration, would be a tragic mistake.
Instead of trying al-Libi in a federal court, with the full panoply of procedural protections any U.S. criminal defendant receives, he should be taken to Guantanamo Bay and interrogated about what he and his al-Qaida colleagues have been doing for the past 15 years. Al-Libi is an unlawful enemy combatant and should be treated as such under the law-of-war paradigm, not processed as just one more criminal defendant along with the embezzlers and drug traffickers our federal criminal process normally handles.
In al-Libi’s case, it might now be too late to undo all the damage that the Obama administration’s rigid ideological shackles have caused. But there is still ample time for the general public to understand once more that al-Qaida and other terrorists are waging war against us. It is not in our power to end this war by pretending it doesn’t exist: that will simply encourage the terrorists to strike with more ferocity.
Instead, the Somalia and Libya raids demonstrate that we can cripple the terrorists if Washington exercises strong and decisive leadership, prepared to act on a sustained basis. That is what American voters should demand.
John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
This article was originally published by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.