Two surprise operations illuminate America’s shadow war against terrorists and reveal important elements of Washington’s evolving counterterrorism strategy. By James Kitfield
The news that U.S. Special Forces commandos carried out nearly simultaneous counterterrorism raids on Saturday has briefly illuminated a shadow war the United States continues to wage against Islamist terrorists around the world. A snatch-and-grab “rendition” operation in Tripoli netted long-time al Qaeda operative Nazhi Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai (better known as Abu Anas al-Liby), who carried a $5 million bounty on his head for participating in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, was further confirmation that the U.S. has a long memory in terms of terrorist manhunts. By contrast, the direct assault on an al-Shabab headquarters in Somalia by Navy SEALS was a response to the recent deadly attack by the terrorist group on an upscale shopping mall in Kenya that killed more than 60 civilians. Taken together, the two counterstrikes reveal important elements of the Obama administration’s evolving counterterrorism strategy. Here are five early takeaways from the two raids:
1. Counterterrorism, Not Counterinsurgency
As the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on over the past decade, Washington was periodically transfixed by a heated debate between advocates of a holistic counterinsurgency strategy versus those arguing for much more limited counter-terrorism operations. The former required large numbers of U.S. boots on the ground to protect civilian population centers, nurture governing institutions and conduct nation-building operations. The latter involved small, multi-agency task forces led by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that target individual terrorist and insurgent leaders for death or capture.
The news of the nearly simultaneous U.S. commando raids this past weekend drives home just how decisively advocates for a limited counter-terrorism strategy have won the argument. Though it might prefer that transitional societies move in the direction of democracy, Washington has indicated there are severe limitations on how much it is willing to invest in that process after expending so much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan, with decidedly unsatisfactory results. For the foreseeable future, the United States will clearly counter a metastasizing Islamist terrorist threat by expanding globally the “Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze and Disseminate” counterterrorism model of operations that JSOC honed to a lethal edge in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
2. Regime Change? Yes, Nation-Building? No
Recall that, like Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia both began as “regime change” operations directly involving U.S. military forces. In the case of Libya, the U.S. was a key participant in a 2011 NATO air operation that was largely responsible for toppling the regime of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. With the help of CIA operatives and British Special Forces troops on the ground in Libya, an armed U.S. drone helped track and disable the convoy carrying Qaddafi as he tried to evade the rebel siege of his hometown of Sirte, leading directly to his capture and execution by rebel forces.
With the recent 20th anniversary of the “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Mogadishu, many Americans are unaware that U.S. Africa Command forces were also instrumental in breaking al-Shabab’s nearly ironclad grip on power in Somalia beginning in earnest in 2010. With the help of U.S. military training, logistical support, unmanned reconnaissance drones and occasional precision-strikes on al-Shabab leaders (by U.S. drones and commando units operating out of Kenya and Djibouti), African Union troops in Somalia have largely expelled the terrorist group from the major urban centers of the country, including its former strongholds of Mogadishu and Kismayo.
Unlike earlier regime change operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the United States has provided only nominal assistance to fledgling governments in Libya and Somalia, eschewing the deployment of conventional forces and relying on targeted capture or kill operations to counter a still potent terrorist threat.
“I think we’ll eventually look back on Iraq and Afghanistan as anomalies and the debates over counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism as largely unhelpful,” said David Maxwell, associate director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and a former senior U.S. Special Forces officer. The recent raids in Libya and Somalia reinforce the administration’s promise to go wherever necessary to capture or kill terrorists who threaten the United States, he said, by whatever means best fit the circumstances.
3. U.S. Will Act If Governments Unable, or Unwilling
Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on a willingness to target top al Qaeda leaders wherever he found them, even if that violated the sovereignty of countries unable or unwilling to bring the terrorists to justice themselves. He followed through on that promise by tripling the rate of lethal drone strikes, many of them inside Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions and launching the JSOC commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011, without giving prior warning to the Pakistani government. The result was a severe backlash from which U.S.-Pakistani relations have never fully recovered.
Similarly, the nascent Libyan government is now demanding an explanation of the “kidnapping” of its citizen Abu Anas al Liby. At the very least, the operation seems likely to complicate life for interim Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, a former exile based in Geneva who many Libyan Islamists were already accusing of cooperating too closely with the West. With the fragile interim government unable to extend its authority over the many militias which operate inside the country, and powerless to target the extremists responsible for last year’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, the Obama administration obviously decided that the al Liby’s “rendition” was worth the risk in diplomatic blowback.
4. Center of Gravity Shifting from CIA to U.S. Military
With the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command both involved in flying drones as part of the targeted-killing program, it has been difficult if not impossible to untangle their roles-and-missions responsibilities or to determine which agency is responsible for what specific operations. As a general rule of thumb it has been assumed that in declared war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military retains operational control, while in nations beyond the battlefield like Pakistan the CIA has operated the drones covertly as a way to retain “plausible deniability.” In truth there is significant overlap, with Special Forces operating in a number of countries that the United States is not at war with, to include Yemen and Somalia.
The tight comingling of U.S. military forces and intelligence agencies has actually become a defining characteristic of the counterterrorism model that has evolved over the past decade. To grasp just how intertwined U.S. military and intelligence operations have become, consider that two of the last three secretaries of defense were former CIA directors (Robert Gates and Leon Panetta); a recent CIA director was a general who devised the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan (David Petraeus); the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, is a retired Air Force lieutenant general; the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency is a former Special Forces operator and pioneer of JSOC’s “find, fix, finish” operational model (Lt. General Michael Flynn); and the current CIA director is the Obama administration’s top counterterrorism adviser (John Brennan).
During his confirmation hearing, Brennan expressed his desire to shift the drone program and most direct-action operations from the CIA back to the U.S. military, the better to return the agency’s focus back to its traditional role of intelligence gathering and analysis. The change in emphasis is part of an Obama administration initiative to put counterterrorism operations on a more sustainable basis by providing additional layers of accountability and oversight, and putting them under a more disciplined command culture.
The fact that both of the recent strikes were made by U.S. Special Operations Forces, and not CIA paramilitary units, suggests to some observers that the center of gravity for counterterrorism may be shifting. “I do find it interesting that immediately after these two operations were announced, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed they were conducted under ‘military authorities,’” said David Maxwell of Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies. “Though every operation is unique, I do think that was significant. We should definitely pay attention.”
5. Joint Strike Model Ascendant
With the Obama administration winding down the war in Afghanistan and facing an era of austerity, many experts wondered whether it could sustain the Joint Task Force model of counterterrorism operations that JSOC pioneered in Iraq and Afghanistan. The concern was that the synergy created between U.S. Special Operations Forces and U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies as they fought together against a common enemy in war zones would dissipate as the conflicts ended, operatives returned home, and cash-strapped bureaucracies reasserted themselves in a fight for scarce resources.
The recent counterterrorism operations in Libya and Somalia suggest that the Joint Task Force model continues unabated. There were reports that both CIA and FBI agents took part in the rendition operation in Libya, for instance, and the chain of events that led to the assault on an al-Shabab headquarters in Somalia began with an FBI forensic team picking through the smoldering wreckage of the Nairobi shopping mall, looking for evidence of who was responsible.
“In Afghanistan we worked with Special Operations Command to prevent 43 separate IED (improvised explosive device) incidents targeting coalition forces around Kabul, and we continue to work with SOCOM and DIA and other government agencies to align our threat assessments in places like Africa, which we remain very concerned about,” Brian McCauley, the FBI’s deputy assistant director for International Operations, said at a conference this summer hosted by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis and the International Security Studies Program of The Fletcher School at Tufts University. “So we’re attempting to take the model of collaboration and partnership we developed in Afghanistan and expand it globally…Because I think one agency trying to fight this battle by themselves is a strategy for failure.”
"Where you've got active plots and active networks, we're going to go after them," President Obama said during a press conference Tuesday. "We prefer partnering with countries where this is taking place wherever we can, and we want to build up their capacity. But we're not going to farm out our defense."