Where warrior-spies fight in the shadows
America’s special operations forces fill the breach left by U.S. disengagement
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).