On Jan. 23, 2013, after an afternoon of hanging out with friends and chewing qat at a marketplace a few miles outside of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, Saleem al-Qaweli, a 27-year-old university student, was approached by a group of six men who asked for a ride back to their nearby village in his truck. Saleem agreed, and asked his cousin Ali Saleh al-Qaweli, a 32-year-old schoolteacher, to come along. A little after 7:30 p.m., as the pickup passed through the village of al-Masna’ah, a U.S. drone fired four missiles into Saleem’s vehicle, obliterating it. Investigators on the scene would find bone fragments 150 meters away from the car.
Saleem and Ali were just two of the estimated 81 to 87 civilians who’ve been in the wrong place at the wrong time during the estimated 122 drone and air strikes the U.S. has launched against terrorist targets in Yemen, all but one of them under the Obama administration. At least two of the men who hitched a ride in Saleem’s truck that day, Rabei Laheeb and Naji Sa’d, were alleged members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
What makes the case unusual, and the reason why it’s highlighted in a new report on drone deaths from the Open Society Justice Initiative, is that from all indications, Laheeb and Sa’d would have been pretty easy to capture.
The strike occurred just 500 meters from a military checkpoint, where presumably troops could have arrested the two men. Laheeb and Sa’d weren’t in a remote or inaccessible region. They lived just 12 miles from the capital, and as the Washington Post has reported, they were “hardly fugitives.” Laheeb was a local councilman, and Sa’d was a bodyguard for a powerful general. Both were well-known local figures and passed through military checkpoints, including on the day they were killed. Both were also members of ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s tribe who turned against him during Yemen’s 2011 uprising, and some members of the local community believe factions within the government were taking advantage of the American drone program to eliminate political enemies.
Since coming into office and ramping up the covert drone war while simultaneously trying, with mixed success and enthusiasm, to undo the controversial detention policies of the Bush years, the Obama administration has contended with accusations that it prefers killing terrorists in the field to capturing and holding them. CIA Director John Brennan, the homeland security adviser at the time, dismissed the notion as “absurd” during a 2011 speech at Harvard Law School. “I want to be very clear—whenever it is possible to capture a suspected terrorist, it is the unqualified preference of the administration to take custody of that individual so we can obtain information that is vital to the safety and security of the American people,” Brennan said.
The official stance is that the U.S. uses lethal options like drones only when capture is impossible. In a 2013 speech announcing reforms to the U.S. counterterrorism program, President Obama said that “despite our strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists, sometimes this approach is foreclosed.”
He noted that al-Qaida operates in “some of the most distant and unforgiving places on Earth,” where the state has “only the most tenuous reach.” Because of risks to U.S. troops, local civilians, and the potential for political blowback, “it’s also not possible for America to simply deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist,” the president said.
An anonymous U.S. official echoed this language almost exactly in responding to the drone death report in the New York Times, though it hardly applies to the Jan. 23 strike, in an area well under the control of the Yemeni military.
While it’s of little consolation to the families of Ali and Saleem, it’s certainly possible that the strike that killed them was an outlier, just the result of faulty intelligence. Open Society’s report identifies just two cases where it’s pretty clear that the targets could have been apprehended. In the vast majority of the hundreds of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and beyond, it’s hard to judge after the fact whether other methods could have been used. In many cases these strikes have taken place in much more unstable regions of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, where the argument that safe capture would have been impossible is more credible.
Still, Brennan’s “unqualified preference” claim is hard to square with the numbers. As Council on Foreign Relations fellow Micah Zenko noted in a recent article for Foreign Policy, the U.S. has conducted 215 drone strikes around the world since he made that speech, killing an estimated 1,271 people. Meanwhile, there are fewer than a dozen known cases of U.S. troops capturing terrorist suspects in foreign countries, though it’s possible there are more we don’t know about, including, as Brennan alluded to recently, suspects captured and held by other countries with U.S. cooperation. But if capturing, as opposed to killing, is actually the preference, it’s a preference the administration acts on, generously, less than 10 percent of the time.
The cynical explanation for the Obama administration’s inclination to kill rather than capture is that it’s more politically expedient. The president came into office decrying Guantánamo Bay, “enhanced interrogations,” black site prisons, and other Bush-era detainee policies as moral abominations, but the war on terror isn’t going anywhere. Blowing terrorist suspects to smithereens eliminates the politically and legally tricky problems of where to keep them, how to interrogate them, and when to release them.
In the rare instances when the administration does go the capture route, it appears to have developed a preferred post-Gitmo, non-drone method of doing so. In three recent cases in Libya and Somalia, high-value terrorist suspects have been captured by U.S. Special Forces and held briefly for CIA interrogations before being turned over to the civilian justice system for trial in U.S. courts. But these cases remain the outliers as, nearly two years after Obama vowed to rein it in, the drone war continues unabated. Claim as administration officials might that targeted killing is an option of last resort, for now it’s capture that happens only under the most exceptional circumstances.