The capture of Anas al-Libi (pictured), a prominent Al-Qaeda leader allegedly responsible for the devastating 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, by U.S. Navy Seals in Libya has received widespread support by pundits and politicians here in the United States, but it raises some troubling questions regarding its legality, the risks of blowback and U.S hypocrisy regarding the harboring of terrorist suspects.
To the Obama administration's credit, al-Libi was captured rather than killed. He was seized by U.S. forces rather than assassinated by an anonymous drone launched in a control center thousands of miles away. No civilians lost their lives.
This stands in sharp contrast to the policies of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, which responded to terrorist attacks by launching devastating air strikes on Libya and Sudan, or the Bush administration, which invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of the indiscriminate use of force against entire nations, Obama launched a well-planned, precisely-targeted paramilitary operation based upon solid intelligence.
However, there appears to have been no extradition request sent to the Libyan government or other legal efforts to bring al-Libi to justice. Given the history of colonial rule and foreign intervention in Libya -- as well as in Somalia, site of a simultaneous commando raid -- there is the risk of blowback from even a very short and limited foreign intervention. U.S. military intervention in the name of counter-terrorism has often created more terrorists than it has killed or captured.
Furthermore, Al-Qaeda has decentralized in the 12 years since the United States and allied forces drove them from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan, and a whole new generation of terrorists have sprung up as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. As a result, there are questions as to how much impact the killing of so-called "leaders" may actually have in terms of crippling the terrorist network.
Another problem is the hypocrisy of the Obama administration's insistence that U.S. forces have the right to kidnap a terrorist suspect in a foreign country, when the United States is also harboring terrorists.
One can only imagine, for example, the reaction if Cuban commandos kidnapped Luis Posada Carriles, a right-wing, Cuban-born terrorist and former CIA operative who has effectively been granted political asylum by the Obama administration. Posada Carriles is responsible for a series of terrorist bombings in Havana, including one that killed an Italian tourist; a plot to blow up a Panamanian auditorium filled with hundreds of students where Cuban President Fidel Castro was speaking; as well as the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airline in Barbados that killed 73 people. He has been indicted for a series of terrorist charges in several Latin American countries, but the Obama administration has refused every request to extradite him to face justice.
As journalist Blake Fleetwood put it, "Obviously someone is protecting him. We trained him. He's our boy. I think he's still a hero to some people [at CIA headquarters] in Langley ... there's a tremendous sense of loyalty to him. He did what we trained him to do."
The good news, however, is that Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups have been seriously weakened in the past couple years. Indeed, far more significant than the killing of Osama bin Laden and killing and capture of other leaders have been the largely nonviolent, pro-democracy insurrections that have swept the Arab world, which -- despite setbacks in Egypt and some other countries -- have been empowering civil society, instilling hope, and creating models of governance that are much less likely to breed terrorists.
Al-Qaeda leaders have always insisted that only through subscribing to their apocalyptic reactionary ideology and genocidal methods could Muslim peoples overthrow oppressive and corrupt U.S.-backed Arab dictatorships. Indeed, Al-Qaeda's first attack against U.S. interests was a residential compound of U.S. soldiers training the repressive Saudi internal security forces back in 1995. However, Al-Qaeda has never come close to overthrowing any regime. Most Muslims found their methods not only morally reprehensible, but recognized how they gave dictatorial governments an excuse to crack down even harder against all dissent.
Instead, millions of Middle Easterners are recognizing -- as did Filipinos, Poles, Chileans, Serbs and others before them -- that strategic nonviolent action is far more powerful and effective. The masses calling for freedom, liberty, and social justice directly counter Al-Qaeda's medieval visions of a theocratic dictatorship, to which very few Muslims aspire.
Ultimately, the way to stop the threat of the kind of mass terrorism that has struck countries from Kenya to Britain to Spain to the United States is not simply through killing and kidnapping terrorists, but in ending policies that help create them. As most Muslims long recognized, bin Laden was never an authority on Islam. He was, however, a businessman by training who -- like any shrewd businessman -- knew how to take a popular fear or desire and use it to sell a product: in this case, anti-American terrorism.
The grievances expressed in Al-Qaeda's manifestos -- the ongoing U.S. military presence in the Middle East, the humanitarian consequences of the U.S. policy in Iraq, U.S. support for the Israeli government, and U.S. backing of autocratic Arab regimes -- have widespread appeal in that part of the world. Even if only a tiny percentage of Muslims accept Al-Qaeda's ideology and tactics, it will be enough to replenish the ranks of like-minded groups as long as the United States continues to pursue such misguided policies.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.