Here’s the trickiest counterterrorism puzzle for U.S. policymakers: How do you stop al-Qaeda from attacking the American homeland without getting bogged down in protracted wars against insurgents?
One answer would be to establish deterrence in the long war against Islamic extremism, like the standoff that developed between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Soviets were obviously a far bigger adversary, but the basic logic is the same: Both sides have deadly weapons, but if you don’t shoot at us, we won’t shoot at you.
The Obama administration hasn’t declared any such neo-deterrence strategy, but you can see the outlines of one emerging in the administration’s unannounced targeting policy for armed Predator drones, which have been America’s deadliest weapon against al-Qaeda.
The latest illustration of the drones’ precision power came in Friday’s attack on Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The strike over northern Yemen, which followed days of silent surveillance, killed Awlaki and Samir Khan, the editor of an al-Qaeda online magazine called “Inspire.” Both were U.S. citizens.