Various national security officials have publicly stated that it is only a matter of time before a terrorist strike against the US on its soil occurs. There are just too many potential vulnerabilities to monitor. However, in concert, the whole of the US government is doing everything in its power to put off that day and to build national resilience in any aftermath.
Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker’s “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign against Al Qaeda” bookend their text with the successful takedown of Osama bin Laden in early May 2011.
“Nearly a decade of frustration, false hopes, and faulty leads had come to an end. A thirty-eight-minute raid by a secret Navy assault team dropping into a walled, three-story compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, marked the culmination of months of painstaking intelligence work, military planning, and political risk assessment,” they write.
This phenomenal work of planning and execution would not have been possible just post 9/11, the authors assert, because the various parts of US government were simply not coordinated sufficiently (“divided, almost tribal”) and did not have the infrastructure for the appropriate intelligence-gathering to enable such a finely tuned and complex operation.
In the decade in-between 9/11 and the killing of the terrorist mastermind bin Laden, the US built up the political infrastructure to enable better coordination between the civilian intelligence agencies and the military.
It also reframed a new counter-insurgency strategy that was applied in Afghanistan and Iraq and on battlefields in other countries-against Al Qaeda.
It brought back a deterrence playbook that some had thought was applicable only in the day of cold-warring nation-states. It built up a legal structure to guide decisions and actions based on real-world threats. This nation sent out its diplomats to various countries to request cooperation on fighting the hydra-headed Al Qaeda. It created new technologies for surveillance from air-space and offensive weapons in cyberspace.
The US has spent the past decade learning assiduously about various terror groups and their modus operandi and bringing to bear severe force based on actionable intelligence-in real time.
The authors credit Nobel laureate and Cold Warrior Tom Schelling (formerly a professor at Harvard University) with some principled thinking behind using deterrence against terrorists-who, while they do not have the traditional interests of nation-states-still have preferences.
Now in his early 90s, Dr. Schelling suggested that a mix of pressures, incentives, and disincentives might be brought to bear on global terrorists, even those with “millennial, aspirational, (and) otherworldly goals.”
In the Barry Pavel-Matthew Kroenig analysis, the territory that some of the modern-day terrorists facing the US care about include the following: “calculus of chances for success of their attacks; personal glory; personal reputation; support among Muslim populations; publicity; network cohesion and dependability; trust in fellow cell members; well-being of their family; enhancement of the Muslim community; material assets; growing membership for the movement, (and) strategic success.”
The analysts also looked at the equivalent of “the air and water and land of terrorism”-the basic items needed for their functioning: “leadership, safe havens, intelligence, communications, movement, weapons, personnel, ideology, (and) finances.” These insights culminated in a National Security Presidential Directive 46 (from March 2006) that legally codified terrorist deterrence endeavors. The new deterrence would have to use a mix of strategies, tactics, peoples, and tools to increase the nation’s (and world’s) overall security from terror attacks.
Not only would law enforcement and the military work to disrupt terror plots, but they would be doing so with intense information collection. One central theme is the importance of accurate intelligence. The FBI used to mostly focus on building a legal case against those suspected of terrorism, but now, they also work to get a sense of what accused terrorists know about their organizations, leadership, capabilities, resources, and ideologies.
When the military conducts raids of terrorist safe houses and curfew car stops, they harvest all the available information on the premises-the computers, the paper documents, and even pocket litter-in order to glean every bit of learning possible. A mobile checkpoint in Taji, Iraq, in Dec. 19, 2006, resulted in a major intelligence haul when a Mercedes traveling during the curfew was stopped. The car which belonged to a major Al Qaeda courier contained the organization’s strategy for the takeover of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and the order of battle.
The US countered the concept that suicide bombers would enjoy “heavenly delights” as a reward for martyrdom-by amplifying the voices of respected Muslim religious leaders who cited the Koran against the killing of innocents. They over-broadcast radio messages to the channels used by the militant recruiters with non-extremist messages. They disseminated information to highlight the fallibility of the terror leaders who cultivated warrior propaganda images for themselves. They worked to turn public opinion against the terrorists.
US military analysts realized that the terrorists’ plans used “established communications, structures, housing, and lines of attack that Saddam Hussein’s forces had planned to use to counter the American invasion,” which revealed the hand of Saddam Hussein’s loyalists. The findings enabled the US to develop a more nuanced war strategy. Other military operations allowed them to scoop up an “an Al Qaeda Rolodex” for Iraq, Southwest Asia, and North Africa.
Another area of growing sophistication involved the uses of drones for airborne surveillance of Al Qaeda smuggling routes and various locations’ patterns of life. These over flights revealed various “ratlines” of fighters and suicide bombers from other countries.
The battle against Al Qaeda went into cyberspace, where this terror group went to fund-raise, win recruits, and train others. The US infiltrated these sites to “sow confusion.” They used misinformation to lure a high-value leader to his capture. They spoofed some sites to post counter-extremist messages. They took down some sites to interrupt the momentum, even though many such sites were reconstituted by other means in a matter of days. They worked to head off those who might self-radicalize (with dozens of Americans having fallen for the rhetoric and worked to commit terror acts).
The collected information was not only vetted and analyzed in part by computing machines but various Defense Intelligence Agency exploitation triage centers, and the flow of information from one mission apparently directly led to others.
Such information was also used in diplomatic overtures to other countries-to encourage their law enforcement efforts to break up networks of foreign fighters and smuggling rings supporting the insurgency. The US also sent its military and law enforcement personnel to build up the security capacity of other nations.
The US created “the Horse Blanket” briefing paper to define contingencies for each of the federal agencies in case of terror attacks. In 2009, the Defense Senior Leadership Conference was held to consider threats in cyberspace and how the nation would respond to a cyber attack on America’s “power grids, communications systems, and financial networks.” In a virtual battle space, the enemy had “anonymity, speed, and unpredictability,” and the US could not even credibly identify the country of origin. Given that the US military and intelligence community have an estimated 90 percent of the capability for cyber-defense and offense, but 90 percent of the vulnerable targets are I the private sector, the federal government has been working to link military capabilities to domestic protections-if a cyber attack starts to materialize against the homeland. There are also efforts at consequence management, to enhance the country’s resilience in case of attacks on its critical infrastructure. Even with Pentagon defenses deployed, it is expected that some 20% of the attacks will still get through, which is a basis for the argument for an active defense, or having cyber-warriors hunting on US networks for malicious code and activities.
The authors cite director of the NSA, General Keith B. Alexander, in describing the cyber decision space: “In 2010, he said, there were 1.9 billion Internet users worldwide, sending 247 billion e-mail messages daily. While 70 percent is spam, that presents an opaque thicket in which adversaries hide malicious messages and poisonous code. On top of that are the 4.6 billion cell phone subscribers around the world. That is a lot of digits to watch and listen to. And a cyberthreat travels fast at network speed. Divide one second on the clock into 1,000 parts. In just 70 of those, malicious code could strike a target in the United States from anywhere on the globe.”
Federal officials are working on a nationwide reporting system to go live in 2014 that uses “a standardized system of codes for suspicious behaviors” to try to identify emerging terror threats to head them off.
Eric Schmitt is a terrorism correspondent for The New York Times and has twice been on reporting teams that received the Pulitzer Prize. Thom Shanker is a Pentagon correspondent for the Times and has served as a foreign editor for The Chicago Tribune in Moscow, Berlin, and Sarajevo. They conducted over 200 interviews of military personnel, diplomats, intelligence officers, law enforcement, Pentagon leaders, and White House officials for this book.
The author suggest the root causes of terrorism are “poverty or lack of education or hope; the humiliating corruption in public life across the developing world; a false-prophet interpretation of American foreign policy as a twenty-first-century crusade to occupy sacred Muslim lands.” In Counterstrike, the authors suggest that law enforcement officers want to bring terrorist threats back down to a low simmer.
Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.