Huffing, Puffing, and Sending in the Tactical Team – The Changing Face of U.S. Counter-Terrorism

Those of our faithful readers who will have at some point in their years in Saint Andrews signed up for a terrorism studies module will have certainly been told something along the lines that terrorists and terrorism have been around for centuries (arguably going back as far as the Zealots in the 1st Century), and will most likely remain regardless of our best efforts to combat them. It’s all about doing our best to live side by side with it, and deploying the necessary means to detect and contain the threat. Arguably, this somewhat sobering revelation continues to elude the United States Government and its officials at the Department of State, Defence, and in the various Intelligence Agencies. “They can run but they can’t hide” said State Secretary John Kerry about a week ago, promptly followed by Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s affirmation that the United States would “spare no efforts to hold terrorists accountable”. Clearly, the United States is still at war with terrorists all over the world, and if anything the two raids conducted over the weekend of October 5th in Libya and in Somalia, leading to the capture of at least one high ranking al-Qaeda official, show just that.

Image courtesy of Chris Beckett, © 2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Chris Beckett, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Indeed, over that weekend, a U.S. Delta Force commando was dispatched to Libya, and one Navy SEAL team swam to the coast of Somalia, to conduct surgical seizing operations on two major terrorist leaders. The SEAL team was after Abdulkadir Mohammed Abdulkadir, known as Ikrima, a Kenyan citizen of Somali origin. He is one of the top al-Shabaab commanders, and is alleged to be a close associate of al-Qaeda operatives, plotting and conducting operations on their behalf in the Horn of Africa. The Delta Force commando successfully seized Abu Anas al-Libi, accused of involvement in the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and he is now reported to be in U.S. custody.

However beyond that, these two raids are part of this wider chain of operations that show that the U.S.’ counterinsurgency strategy in this ‘Global War on Terror’ has changed, and its tactics have become more refined. Certainly while critics can say that the whole idea of ‘Global War on Terror’ is nothing more than a PR smokescreen, due to the unpredictable and mercurial nature of the enemies being fought; over the last two years, there has been a change in strategy that, while controversial, is starting to send the right message that the United States has understood what sensible counter-terrorism strategy consists of. One must certainly not forget that terrorism is meant to be a mere tactic within a broader insurgency context, and how can one wage a war against a tactic?

Two years ago, on May 2nd 2011, Operation ‘Neptune Spear’ took place. More famously, this operation resulted in the storming of the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan where al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden had been in hiding for years. This was arguably a very swift surgical strike that occurred in the dead of night and left very little trace, other than the massive media campaign that kicked off mere hours after the President of the United States reported Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Special Operation teams. This surgical strike, coupled with the expansion of the drone program under President Obama’s command, contrasts sharply with the previous administration’s strategy. Indeed, while President Bush declared a ‘Global War on Terror’ by waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan with the hopes of capturing al-Qaeda leadership and dismantling the group, President Obama seems to have adopted a more surgical approach. While this approach is no less controversial, particularly surrounding the issue of drones and the debate around de-humanisation of warfare and the many civilian casualties in Yemen and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan due to misjudgements and miscalculations, it nevertheless seems to be somewhat of a more sensible approach than invading two countries to look for terrorists.

Our very own Principal, Louise Richardson, herself an accomplished scholar in the field of Terrorism Studies, stresses the importance of intelligence gathering when trying to contain the threat of terrorism. Clearly, the United States have gone beyond containment and persist in uncovering terrorist leader locations and going after them wherever they may be to bring them in front of U.S. courts of law. However, this shift in strategy that has occurred over time shows that indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies are doing their job once again. They spy, and they gather data and analyse it in order to determine who to track down and where these people are. Thus, instead of turning a whole area of the world upside down for just a small group of terrorists hidden in the depths of one of the most mountainous and impracticable regions on the planet, there is inter-branch cooperation through the feeding of that data to the commanders of the armed forces, who then plan quick hit-and-run type operations to seize their target. Considering the relatively small, discrete, and targeted form these surgical operations take, civilian casualties are lessened, which does not draw any negative publicity or public opinion at home and abroad. While surely an imperfect shift, particularly as far as drones are concerned, this can be welcome as a first step towards a more reasonable approach to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.

While the United States seem to understand more and more that terrorism is but a tactic in the midst of a context of insurgency, the question ‘what insurgency?’ can be raised. The United States is certainly steering clear from elaborate operations in Somalia since the 1990s debacle, and is not in any way present on the ground in Libya. What threat then justifies their clandestine operations in sovereign states? What right do they have, and what is immediately at stake should they not go through with these operations? Without going into legal arguments here, it seems to this analyst that there is still some progress to be made as far as US counterinsurgency strategy is concerned.

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