WASHINGTON — When Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, was taken into US custody in Jordan last month, he joined one of the most select groups of the Obama era: high-level terrorist suspects who have been located by the US counterterrorism juggernaut, and who have not been killed.
Abu Ghaith’s case — he awaits a federal criminal trial — is a rare illustration of what Obama administration officials often say is their strong preference for capturing terrorists rather than killing them.
‘‘I have heard it suggested that the Obama administration somehow prefers killing Al Qaeda members rather than capturing them,’’ John Brennan said last year when he was Obama’s counterterrorism adviser; he is now CIA director. ‘‘Nothing could be further from the truth.’’
Despite Brennan’s protestations, an overwhelming reliance on killing terrorism suspects, which began under George W. Bush, has defined President Obama’s terms.
Since Obama took office, the CIA and military have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, mostly using drones. Only a handful have been caught and brought to the US; an unknown number have been imprisoned by other countries, with US help.
This policy on targeted killing, according to experts on counterterrorism inside and outside the government, is shaped by several factors: a weapon that does not risk US casualties; resistance of Pakistani and Yemeni authorities to even brief incursions by US troops; and decreasing urgency of interrogation at a time when the terrorist threat has lessened and the US has deep intelligence on its enemies.