Striking at terror
Eric Schmitt & Thom Shanker
St Martin’s Griffin
2012, pp 342
Eleven years after the 9/11 strike, the US is still after the perpetrators. Al Qaeda, the outfit that had masterminded the audacious attacks, has been weakened considerably in the course of war against terrorism.
But it remains the number one enemy of the US, despite the decimation of its top leadership, including Osama bin Laden. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, US counterterrorism policy focused on use of brute force to defeat Al Qaeda. As the strategy did not make much headway, the Pentagon started looking for a new way out. This involved close coordination among the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency and between intelligence agencies and the
Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Campaign Against Al Qaeda by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, security correspondents for The New York Times, offers an insight into the evolution of the new counterterrorism policy. They recount how a group of analysts within the military, espionage agencies and law enforcement has evolved a path-breaking and effective strategy to fight terrorism. Drawing a parallel with the Cold War, a new kind of deterrence is applied against the faceless enemy who holds no territory.
The new deterrence tries to impose costs on terrorists’ reputations, material assets and whatever they hold dear. The new campaign is multi-pronged. It involves covert operations by Special Operations Groups, tracking the source of terrorist funding, disrupting cyber operations, increased use of drones and psychological war for the hearts and minds of Muslims. The propaganda aims at discrediting Al Qaeda leaders by publicising cases of terrorist attacks, enlisting religious leaders and blunting the message that the US is anti-Islam.
It is hi-tech war fought in the domain of cyberspace too. Schmitt and Shanker explain how the contents of cell phones seized from captured terrorists are cloned in no time, with computers scanning the numbers to match those of terrorists. Such information can lead to vital clues on the whereabouts of wanted terrorists. Now US has a formal process with a cyber command in place for planning timely attacks on terrorist websites.
Al Qaeda-linked websites often use code messages to get in touch with operatives. Counterstrike fails to offer any clues on the tools employed in this digital offensive. As more and more Al Qaeda-related websites go down, they start communicating over the net via real time video games, making it difficult to track. A major concern of the US is how to thwart any attack on vital computer networks.
The book inadvertently exposes the foreign policy dilemmas facing the US. In an effort to wean away Muslims from Al Qaeda, Obama promised a new beginning in his 2009 Cairo speech. But his failure to act on the promises to close down the infamous Guantanamo prison and getting involved more actively in the Middle East peace process had a negative impact. US had learnt that Al Qaeda was funded by Saudi charities in a big way with the wealthy Arabs in the neighbouring countries chipping in.
The regimes of these nations are all very close to the US. It was also found that 41 per cent of jihadis reaching Iraq were from Saudi Arabia. It is also true that radicalisation of Muslims all over the world is funded mainly by Saudis. But the US government is in no mood to annoy its close ally.
What is of interest to Indian readers is the American failure to involve Pakistan fully in the counterterrorism campaign. Counterstrike captures vividly how the exasperated American policy makers’ delicate mission at the ‘epi-centre of terrorism in the world’ reaches a dead end. Musharraf successfully deflected the US pressure to do more against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, while raking in billions of dollars in aid.
Being convinced of ISI collusion in providing safe havens to terrorists, a frustrated President Obama once openly warned Pak army chief Kayani. Schmidtt and Shanker are at their best in giving a blow-by-blow account of the Navy Seals’ daredevil operation in Abbottabad to bump off Osama Bin Laden. It 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.”
Counterstrike is an excellent news story with a wealth of inside information gleaned from key operatives engaged in counterterrorism. But the reader doesn’t get a chance to know what Al Qaeda thinks about the campaign. As embedded reporters, they might not have a choice. The book is silent on the colossal cost of this war, human and economic. The issues of extra-judicial killings, inhuman torture of suspected terrorists and the violation of sovereignty of nations in drone attacks are ignored.