According to senior American officials, the Obama administration recently deemed the Shabab, the Islamist militant group based in Somalia, to be part of the armed conflict that Congress authorized against the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
This recent decision is just one aspect of the Obama administration’s attempt to broaden the legal scope of the war against terrorist groups in the Middle East. In June, the administration authorized military forces in Afghanistan to carry out airstrikes intended “to achieve strategic effects.” In other words, the military can now carry out an airstrike against anyone who impedes the work of Afghan government forces. Previously, strikes in Afghanistan were permitted only in self-defense, for counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda or Islamic State forces, or to prevent a complete defeat of Afghan forces.
Later in the summer, the Obama administration deemed Surt, Libya an area of “active hostilities,” after the Libyan prime minister asked for assistance in dislodging Islamic State militants from the city. This action effectively exempted Surt from 2013 laws that restricted drone strikes and other counterterrorism efforts in non-battlefield zones. Since August, the Pentagon has carried out 420 airstrikes against militants in Surt.
Though these 2013 laws still apply to non-battlefield areas in Somalia, the U.S. military has a history of authorizing attacks to help foreign partners in the name of “self-defense,” even if Americans are not at risk.
The Obama administration’s pattern of relaxing rules regarding airstrikes against Islamist militants has prompted substantial opposition from some legal and foreign policy experts. Many claim that it is unconstitutional for the administration to extend the 2001 war authorization against Al-Qaeda to include other terrorist groups, many of which did not even exist at the time of 9/11. Additionally, people have criticized the President for breaking his promise to withhold “American boots” from the ground in Syria.
However, Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, emphasized that the terrorist threat is “constantly evolving and requires an adaptable response.” She represents a more proactive opinion; along with many others, Ms. Monaco believes that putting an end to the danger that all terrorist groups pose to America’s national security rationalizes the use of extreme counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East.
Unsurprisingly, the use of American force is not always welcome. This past September, Somalia’s Security Minister Osman Issa accused the United States of killing twenty-two Somali soldiers in an airstrike. On October 13th, the U.S. engaged in direct military action with Yemen, entering the civil war between the Yemeni government and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. This action was met with hostility from Congress, as most agreed that it increased civilian casualties. Though the United States quickly called for a ceasefire in Yemen, the same cannot be said for Somalia.
In total, the Obama administration has carried out 506 drone strikes. The Obama administration has called its drone program a “precise, effective form of warfare” that targets known terrorists and rarely hits civilians. However, the exact ratio of terrorists to innocent civilians killed as a result of these strikes is heavily debated: the number of civilian casualties recorded by the Bureau is six times higher than the United States’ Government’s figure. This discrepancy is in part due to the fact that the military considers any males caught in the vicinity of a warzone to be “guilty by association,” unless posthumous evidence proves that the individuals killed were not terrorists.
Ultimately, Obama succeeded in making Americans comfortable with drone strikes, as they are generally supported by the American public and widely popular in Congress (though heavily opposed in other parts of the world). In many ways, Obama has institutionalized and normalized the practice of aerial warfare.
These “stretches” on American laws regarding counterterrorism efforts function as a blueprint for warfare that President Obama has embraced and will pass along to his successor: as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Micah Zenko, said, President-elect Donald J. Trump has “tremendously expanded capabilities and authorities” in regards to the Fight Against Terror.
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