Where war­rior-spies fight in the shad­ows

Amer­ica’s spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces fill the breach left by U.S. dis­en­gage­ment

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Thomas H. Hen­rik­sen

As the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­treated, or openly flirted with re­trench­ment, from Mid­dle Eastern wars dur­ing its ten­ure, Amer­ica has been spared the full on­slaught of ji­hadi ter­ror­ism be­cause of the ex­er­tions of na­tion’s spe­cial mil­i­tary forces and the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ties work­ing in con­cert. This close in­ter­ac­tion of the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Forces and the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency over­came a his­tory of bu­reau­cratic in­fight­ing over turf, funds, and brag­ging rights to wage a highly ef­fec­tive coun­tert­er­ror­ist cam­paign far from the U.S. home­land af­ter the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

Not widely known is the fact this team of spe­cial mil­i­tary units and in­tel­li­gence per­son­nel con­sti­tuted one of the three coun­terof­fen­sives that broke the back of the Iraq in­sur­gency fu­eled by the Al-Qaeda in Iraq ter­ror­ist net­work af­ter the 2003 in­va­sion of the Per­sian Gulf coun­try. To­gether with Ge­orge W. Bush’s in­jec­tion of 28,000 ad­di­tional com­bat troops in 2007 and the win­ning over to the Amer­i­can side of Sunni sheiks who feared and loathed the in­sur­gents im­po­si­tion of Salafist dress and be­hav­ior codes, the U.S. covert forces ac­cel­er­ated the in­tel­li­gence-to-raid cy­cle, while es­ca­lat­ing the num­ber of night op­er­a­tions from about a dozen a month to 300. These tac­tics beat back the eth­nic ter­ror­ism-laced in­sur­gency just as to­day the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Forces knock Mid­dle East ter­ror­ists off stride, pre­vent­ing many more ter­ror­ist in­ci­dents oc­cur­ring out­side the re­gion. This “thin red line of he­roes” made up of U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tors has filled the breach left by Wash­ing­ton’s dis­en­gage­ment.

Barack Obama’s with­drawal from Iraq in 2011, tepid re­sponse to Libya’s plunge into chaos, blase re­ac­tion to the widen­ing con­flict in Syria (not to men­tion Da­m­as­cus’ cross­ing the pres­i­dent’s red line on chem­i­cal weapons), and nearly com­plete with­drawal of all U.S. ground forces from Afghanistan cre­ated political vac­u­ums for ter­ror­ist nests. Al Qaeda, the Is­lamic State, or other ter­ror­ist move­ments have never been re­luc­tant to fran­chise their brand of mur­der­ous ide­ol­ogy in vul­ner­a­ble lands. Based in Afghanistan, Syria, Ye­men, or other coun­tries, ter­ror­ist in­sti­ga­tors strive to mount or in­spire at­tacks within the United States or Western Europe.

Wash­ing­ton’s dis­as­so­ci­a­tion has for­tu­nately been partly off­set by SEAL, Delta, Ranger and other clas­si­fied forces op­er­at­ing against the world’s fes­ter­ing ter­ror­ist hives from Pak­istan to the Philip­pines. Started dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, which was widely crit­i­cized for its global-war-on-ter­ror­ism ap­proach, Amer­ica’s spe­cial op­er­a­tors and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers now de­ploy to coun­tries not-at-war with the United States to dis­rupt ter­ror­ist plans, such as Libya, So­ma­lia, and Ye­men.

Op­er­at­ing hand-in-glove with CIA in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers in hos­tile and in­hos­pitable en­vi­ron­ments, spe­cial war­fare groups have taken ter­ror­ist plot­ters, fa­cil­i­ta­tors, and bomb-mak­ers off the bat­tle­field by em­ploy­ing com­man­do­type raids or re­motely con­trolled drone airstrikes. Oth­ers have trained, ad­vised, and men­tored lo­cal forces in Asia and Africa as well as Iraq and Syria to com­bat in­dige­nous ter­ror­ist bands bent on carv­ing out “caliphates,” from which to launch ter­ror­ism against Amer­ica and the West.

This war­rior-spy coun­tert­er­ror­ism war fought in the shad­ows gets only in­ter­mit­tent news me­dia cov­er­age, usu­ally when a high-val­ued ter­ror­ist is dis­patched by a raid force or drone mis­sile. Our spe­cial­ized war­riors pride them­selves on be­ing “quiet pro­fes­sion­als” rarely of­fer­ing glimpses into their risky mis­sions. But they need not be un­sung by those they ren­der safe. As Ge­orge Or­well mem­o­rably put it: “We sleep safe in our beds be­cause rough men stand ready in the night to visit vi­o­lence on those who would do us harm.”

To deal with elu­sive ter­ror­ists de­mands ar­du­ous train­ing and skills dif­fer­ent from those used to ward off con­ven­tional threats em­a­nat­ing from na­tion states with planes, tanks, and troops. Killing or cap­tur­ing bomb planters and assassins also re­quires pin­point in­tel­li­gence ob­tained from aerial sur­veil­lance or from sources en­listed by in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives work­ing in the field. Re­cruit­ing in­for­mants in out­sta­tions far from the usual spy venues at em­bassy cock­tail cir­cuits, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers ob­tain in­for­ma­tion on ter­ror­ists from lo­cal tip­sters or from aerial sur­veil­lance and pass it quickly to lethal drone pi­lots or spe­cial warfight­ers.

These tac­tics are of­fen­sive in na­ture but Wash­ing­ton’s over­all strat­egy is hes­i­tant and dis­en­gaged, in­cre­men­tally trans­fer­ring small num­bers of ground forces to Iraq over the past year. Yes, U.S. un­der­cover forces ini­ti­ate deadly ac­tions against mil­i­tants but the White House holds back on a more mus­cu­lar, broader ap­proach to de­stroy Is­lamic State pock­ets in Syria and Iraq. It fears that the de­struc­tion of the ji­hadi re­doubts will en­tan­gle the U.S. in sta­bi­liza­tion cam­paigns to fos­ter gov­er­nance, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, and peace-pre­serv­ing du­ties. These are le­git­i­mate con­cerns but with­out more ro­bust en­gage­ment the ter­ror­ist scourge will per­sist in spread­ing into other lands. The next ad­min­is­tra­tion must move beyond the lim­ited Obama strat­egy of merely keep­ing the lid on ex­pand­ing Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ates un­til it leaves of­fice. Thomas H. Hen­rik­sen is a se­nior fel­low at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion and the au­thor of “Eyes, Ears & Dag­gers: Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Forces and the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency in Amer­ica’s Evolv­ing Strug­gle against Ter­ror­ism” (Hoover In­sti­tu­tion Press, 2016).


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