Counterterrorism today

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John F
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Counterterrorism today

Post by John F » Mon Sep 05, 2011 1:44 am

This is just the beginning and end of a long book review that's worth reading complete.

September 4, 2011
Deterring Enemies in a Shaken World

In an audacious operation that unfolded like a Hollywood thriller, the Navy Seals executed a daring raid deep into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. The departing members of the Seals took not only the body of bin Laden but also a cache of invaluable intelligence on his organization, Al Qaeda. It is fitting that Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, veteran security correspondents for The New York Times, begin and end their insightful new book about United States counterterrorism efforts with this triumph. The United States, they argue, could not have pulled off the same raid 10 years ago. The bin Laden strike was the “logical culmination of nearly a decade of missteps, mistakes, trial and error under fire, and ultimately lessons not only learned but taken to heart.”

Their book, “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda,” is not just another book about Sept. 11, Iraq or Afghanistan. Rather, it focuses on the various military and civilian agency responses to terrorism. Along with insights gleaned from some of the biggest names in the business the reporters also talk to lesser-known, and usually more informed and informative, government officials who do much of the heavy lifting on counterterrorism.

Juan Zarate, for example, was a rising star in the Treasury Department who on Sept. 11 watched smoke billowing out of the Pentagon from his office window and soon became the Treasury’s point man for tracking terrorist financing. Before the 2001 attacks the ability to do this was almost nonexistent. Now, by following the money, United States officials can find hidden terrorist cells, scare off donors and kill fund-raisers, financially starving terrorist organizations. The result? Al Qaeda operatives have to pay for their own training, weapons, and room and board.

Reassuring to readers of the 9/11 Commission Report and other post-mortems of that tragic day, Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker emphasize a sea change in interagency cooperation. Counterterrorism collaboration among the F.B.I., C.I.A. and National Security Agency, between intelligence agencies and the military, and within the federal government as a whole, is better than ever...

Today, the authors write, American counterterrorism policy embraces “the new deterrence.” By imposing costs on terrorists’ reputations, chances for success, material assets — whatever they hold dear — you “alter the behavior and thinking of your adversary.” In contrast to deterrence strategies during the cold war, deterrence today does not involve a state actor, like the Soviet Union, with nuclear-tipped missiles but rather more nebulous networks that include not only fanatic suicide bombers but also more rational financiers, recruiters, arms runners and others who can be dissuaded by the threat of death or arrest. The new deterrence involves “kinetic” instruments, to use the military parlance for killing people, but also innovative information operations that might discredit a cause and scare away providers of funds.

In outlining this new approach the book would benefit from a more detailed treatment of Al Qaeda’s own point of view. To know if deterrence works you need to know how your policies affect the enemy’s thinking. We don’t glean much here about whether Al Qaeda members are learning the lessons America is trying to teach them. Similarly one could come away from “Counterstrike” thinking that the United States does all the counterterrorism work, when in reality much if not most of the day-to-day operations are handled by the intelligence agencies, police officers and military forces of allies.

For the most part “Counterstrike” is a good-news story, and with good reason. However, Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker’s emphasis on positive change misses the darker part of the picture. Al Qaeda’s affiliate groups receive short shrift: only the Yemeni branch gets any real attention. Fighters from affiliates number in the thousands, however, and one of bin Laden’s biggest successes was turning groups in Somalia, Algeria and elsewhere, who began their fight focusing on local causes, into anti-American movements.

Similarly, tactics used in Iraq and Afghanistan are discussed, but if these interventions fail to produce stable governments, the United States may be worse off in the end despite the hard work of clever operators. Finally, 10 years after Sept. 11, America still has not come up with a coherent policy toward Al Qaeda detainees. The embarrassing result is that the United States neither ensures that militants are taken off the street and interrogated nor gains the moral high ground that might accrue from closing the hated Guantánamo prison.

Successful deterrence, the theme of “Counterstrike,” depends partly on success in all these disparate areas. The book’s missing pieces, however, should not obscure its strong portrayal of the many unheralded United States victories.

With the death of bin Laden and the transformation of Egypt, Libya and other countries during the Arab Spring, Al Qaeda is at a crossroads. While it is too early to declare Al Qaeda defeated, Americans should take comfort in this book’s reminder that their government can adapt to meet threats as they change, keeping them safer — if not necessarily safe — from terrorism. ... eview.html
John Francis

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