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Drone strikes: Should US capture, and not kill, Al Qaeda leaders?

The White House hailed the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi as bringing Al Qaeda 'closer to its demise than ever.' But some say the drone strike policy is squandering sources of valuable intelligence.

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Senator McCain did not criticize the operations themselves, saying only that disclosure of information about them could “undermine” future operations. But some conservative critics fault what they see as the downside of relying on drone strikes to take out terrorists rather than capturing, detaining, and interrogating them: the loss of what conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer calls “potentially life-saving intelligence.” (Some of Obama's harshest critics suggest that one reason he has embraced the drone-strike approach to high-profile targets is that it avoids the controversial issues of long-term detention and methods of interrogation.)

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“Certainly there is a considerable benefit from a tactical point of view” in eliminating a high-profile terrorist like Mr. al-Libi, says Yonah Alexander, director of Potomac Institute’s International Center for Terrorism Studies in Arlington, Va. “But from a strategic point of view the picture is not as clear,” he adds, noting that, like Mr. bin Laden’s, al-Libi’s “legacy will live on … especially as he is transformed into a martyr.”

Then there is the intelligence question. “If you could capture and interrogate someone of this level, presumably you could get some very valuable information,” Dr. Alexander says.

Indeed, he says that al-Libi was already in US custody once, at Bagram air base in Afghanistan in 2002, but that somehow he managed to escape a few years later.

Officials in the countries where the drone strikes are increasingly employed – in Pakistan, where al-Libi was killed, and in Yemen, where the American-Yemeni Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike last September – tend to agree that while the strikes may be tactical successes, they are strategic disasters, as they infuriate and alienate local populations.  

Alexander says that in the years ahead “the battle of ideas will be the key challenge we face” in addressing Islamist extremism. And in that battle, he says the elimination of leaders and operatives won’t be the only or even the most effective means of dealing with terrorism.

“We can eliminate the people,” he says, “but can we eliminate the attraction of their idea?”

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