WASHINGTON – The case of an American citizen and suspected member of al-Qaida who is allegedly planning attacks on U.S. targets overseas underscores the complexities of President Barack Obama’s new stricter targeting guidelines for the use of deadly drones.
The CIA drones watching him cannot strike because he’s a U.S. citizen. The Pentagon drones that could do so are barred from the country where he’s hiding, and the Justice Department has not yet finished building a case against him.
Four U.S. officials said the American suspected terrorist is in a country that refuses U.S. military action on its soil and that has proved unable to go after him. And Obama’s new policy says American suspected terrorists overseas can only be killed by the military, not the CIA, creating a policy conundrum for the White House.
Two of the officials described the man as an al-Qaida facilitator who has been directly responsible for deadly attacks against U.S. citizens overseas and who continues to plan attacks against them that would use improvised explosive devices.
The officials said the suspected terrorist is well-guarded and in a fairly remote location, so any unilateral attempt by U.S. troops to capture him would be risky and even more politically explosive than a U.S. missile strike.
In a major counterterrorism speech last May about drone policy – made to calm anger overseas at the extent of the U.S. drone campaign – Obama said lethal force must only be used to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.
The target must also pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons – the legal definition of catching someone plotting an attack.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity and were not authorized to discuss the targeting program publicly.