The Limits to Obama’s Surgical Counterterrorism Strikes

by Benjamin Weinthal

The Obama administration’s decision to send elite commando troops to pursue al-Qaeda terrorists in Libya and Somalia advances American interests. Without question, the capture of al-Qaeda member Abu Anas al-Liby (a.k.a. Nazih al-Ragye) is a significant counterterrorism achievement. 

The U.S. indicted the Libya-based Liby for his alleged role in the mass murder of 224 people in the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. 

“We hope this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror,” declared Secretary of State Kerry. He is right.  

However, Kerry then proceeded to praise Syria’s president Bashar Assad for his initial compliance with the destruction of his country’s chemical weapons. It is a “good beginning” and Assad deserves credit, the secretary said.

This is the same Assad that Kerry compared to Adolf Hitler in early September. Assad continues to use conventional weapons on his population, and there appears to be no end to the ballooning death toll (currently at more than 115,000). One CNN reporter questioned whether Kerry’s remarks might deliver “job security” to Assad.

Kerry’s praise on the one hand and his tough anti-terror rhetoric on the other reveal the limitations and deficiencies of U.S. foreign policy. Targeted assassinations and abduction operations by special forces are an important tactic to combat Islamism-animated terrorism. (The most famous example was the raid in Pakistan to eliminate Osama bin Laden.)

But special-operation tactics are not a substitute for a long-term strategy to, for example, stop Iran’s regime from obtaining a nuclear-weapons device and exporting terrorism to Syria and other countries.

The Obama administration’s principal opponents in the Middle East and Africa comprise al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Iran’s regime, the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah, and Assad’s blood-soaked regime. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan will also continue to pose a major security threat to U.S. security interests.

Taken together, the aforementioned lists of terrorist organizations and states require a comprehensive U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Intensified economic sanctions, which aim to destabilize Iran’s economy to end the jingoistic revolutionary Islamic regime in Tehran, should be implemented.  

It’s good news that the Obama administration rejects creeping pacifism, political inertia, and non-interventionist approaches to target individual terrorists. The pressing question is, will the Obama administration confront the major sponsor of global terrorism, namely, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its proxy Hezbollah, which are responsible for the deaths of many Americans?

— Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal.