David Tucker

November 1, 2002

The destruction of members of al Qaeda in Yemen by a Hellfire missile fired from a CIA drone is a remarkable event. As far as we know, it is the first time that the United States has successfully targeted individual terrorists outside a military operation for anything other than arrest.

In principle, we have long said we would carry out such operations. In response to the last great upsurge of terrorist violence, in the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration adopted a policy of using violence against terrorists that included preemption or getting the terrorists before they got us. But when a Defense Department official wrote a memorandum laying out a few ways in which this policy might be put into effect, his superiors told him to rip it up because they feared it made him and them accessories to murder. Apparently this legal reasoning no longer applies.

Sensing that it does not, some press reports have suggested that the Hellfire attack was a departure from our previous legal approach and a turn toward an increased use of violence in the war on terrorism. In a sense, this is of course true. No effort was made to arrest the perps. But we should hope that we have not turned completely from the effort to arrest. Those we blew up can now provide no information on al Qaeda and its plans, as some of their colleagues have, to our advantage, after they have been arrested. Also, it remains the case that it is easier for the terrorists to blow us up than it is for us to blow them up, despite the apparent ease with which we hit our targets. If all we do is engage in a tit-for-tat exchange, we are likely to come out on the short end.

Does this mean that it was wrong to fire that Hellfire or that we should not do it again? Hard to say. If those we killed could not be arrested or we had reason to think that they knew nothing that we needed to know, then blowing them up was probably all right. This judgment assumes, of course, that the government of Yemen did not object to us blowing up its citizens. In the past, we have refrained from carrying out an operations against a terrorist because the country in which they were located objected and we needed that country’s assistance against terrorism in other ways or because damage to our relations with that country outweighed the benefit of getting the terrorist. In this case, it appears that if the Yemenis did not help us they did not object.

On balance in this case, it appears that we should have carried out the attack. Even so, there will be costs. Following the Hellfire attack, we closed our embassy in Yemen to review security, a sign that we recognize our vulnerability.

Such attacks will incur other costs. The President’s spokesman denied that there was any similarity between our Hellfire operation and what the Israelis have been doing in targeting those responsible for the suicide bombings that have become so common in Israel. Actually, it is hard to see how Israeli attacks differ from ours, another sign that the September 11 attacks have moved us closer to Israel. We are both democracies under attack by terrorists, now using at least some of the same means to respond. This plays into the hands of al Qaeda and its sympathizers around the world, who try to portray the United States and Israel as part of an anti-Islamic conspiracy. This in turn makes it harder for us to persuade certain Muslims that they should not support al Qaeda, a critical part of winning the war on terrorism.

There is still another cost. The Bush administration has made some effort to produce a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, presumably because it believes that this will improve our political position in the Middle East, something that will help as we prosecute the war on terrorism, including a possible invasion of Iraq. Following the Hellfire attack, it will be harder for us to restrain the Israelis from carrying out their own targeted killings of terrorists. We will no longer be able to expect that anyone will take us seriously when we urge restraint and say that such attacks are not helpful.

One hopes that somewhere in the Bush administration all such costs and potential benefits of the Hellfire operation were weighed and will be weighed in the future. In any case, when we hear about such attacks we may want to cheer but we should also reflect on the costs of such operations and what they tell us about the difficult fight in which we are engaged.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.