Over the past two years, the Obama administration has begun to formalize a so-called "disposition matrix" for suspected terrorists abroad: a continuously evolving database that spells out the intelligence on targets and various strategies, including contingencies, for handling them. Although the government has not spelled out the steps involved in deciding how to treat various terrorists, a look at U.S. actions in the past makes evident a rough decision tree.
Understanding these procedures is particularly important for one of the most vexing, and potentially most dangerous, categories of terrorists: U.S. citizens. Over the years, U.S. authorities have responded with astonishing variety to American nationals suspected of terrorism, from ignoring their activities to conducting lethal drone strikes. All U.S. terrorists are not created equal. And the U.S. response depends heavily on the role of allies, the degree of threat the suspect poses, and the imminence of that threat -- along with other factors.