Micah Zenko

They Who Must Not Be Named

They Who Must Not Be Named

Who’s the enemy, year after year?
War after war, who’s the enemy?
What’s the weapon, battle after battle?
What’s the news, defeat after defeat?
What’s the picture, decade after decade?

–Allen Ginsberg, Iron Horse, 1972

The annual ritual of the worldwide threat briefings of Intelligence Community (IC) officials before the congressional intelligence committees has begun. Policymakers, analysts, and the media watch these rare public assessments of the severity and trend lines of national security threats very closely. Last year, we learned from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that, "On the issue of terrorism, the threat from core al Qaeda and the potential for a massive coordinated attack on the United States is diminished, but the global jihadist movement is a more diversified, decentralized, and persistent threat." This week we were told that al Qaeda is "more diverse," "more complicated and complex," and characterized by "dispersion and decentralization."

What the American people will not be told — understandably, as it is a matter of policy and not intelligence — is who exactly the United States remains at war with, more than 12 years after Sept. 11, 2001. Obama administration officials characterize the scope of the enemy variously as "core al Qaeda," "al Qaeda," "al Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents," or "those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans." But this elasticity makes it impossible for policymakers and the public to assess progress in the war against terrorism or to determine if those strategies already in place are succeeding, much less anticipate an end to the conflict. The time for the Obama administration to explicitly name which organizations the United States are at war with has long passed.

It is impossible to gauge the true threat based upon any information released by the U.S. government. The White House has sent a war powers resolution consolidated report to Congress every six months since 2012, which names some countries where the U.S. military conducts "direct action" against "al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces." But because there is no additional specificity provided — such as whether this also captures those groups targeted under Title 50 "covert" lethal operations conducted by the CIA — it is incomplete even though this information might be in the classified annex attached to each report.

Worse, you can’t get a clear read on America’s enemies even from the two main terrorist designation lists: the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Global Terrorists or State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. The criteria for being included on the FTO list are that the group be foreign, engage or be capable of terrorism, and that its terrorism "threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States." Presently, there are 57 FTOs — from Aum Shinrikyo, to the Real Irish Republican Army, to al-Shabab – most of which have historically posed little direct threat to the United States or its citizens. By my estimate, maybe 10 of these FTOs have committed recent acts of terrorism against U.S. nationals, predominantly against U.S. servicemembers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you add up the estimated "strength" numbers for these 10 FTOs — as provided by the State Department — they consist of perhaps 10,000 active members, a number that has collectively grown in the past half-decade. In Iraq alone, recent estimates of al Qaeda-linked militants "range between 3,000 and 7,000 fighters," according to a senior U.S. defense official.

Are these more than 10,000 individuals actually America’s enemies? As White House counterterrorism czar Lisa Monaco declared in November, U.S. counterterrorism goals are to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, its affiliates, and adherents." Her predecessor John Brennan had offered a more expansive mission in 2012: "We’re not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and eliminated from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas." If this eliminationist objective remains the strategic guidance for U.S. government agencies, then they have a long way to go. Moreover, as President Obama stated in his major counterterrorism address in May, "not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States."

This leads to the question of which thugs are worth caring about, and why the Obama administration will not reveal which collection of thugs is most concerning. Moreover, it is not clear that members of Congress know this either. At a remarkable hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, was asked by Sen. Carl Levin: "Is there an existing list of groups that are affiliated with al-Qaeda?" Sheehan troublingly replied: "I’m not sure there is a list per se." (Sheehan later added that he believed the war against terror would last "at least 10 to 20 years" against these anonymous groups.) While Levin was later provided the information he requested, a Pentagon spokesperson told journalist Cora Currier that releasing such a list would cause "serious damage to national security…. Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States." The spokesperson added: "We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks."

Thus, we’re told, the reason Americans cannot know who they are at war with is not the result of operational or secrecy concerns, but rather spurred by the fear that these suspected terrorists might brag. (As if these listed enemies cannot find other information and disinformation to fuel their public relations efforts.) Moreover, many of these organizations are openly affiliated with al Qaeda or have openly declared war against the United States — which leads one to ask why the United States is unable or unwilling to declare war against them.

Naming and narrowing those groups that are the focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts matters more than ever, because it is far too easy for politicians to conflate the phenomenon of terror attacks with U.S. national interests. The vast majority of terrorism has nothing to do with America. In 2012, the last year in which there is available data, of the 11,098 people who died from a terrorist attack, just 10 were private U.S. citizens. Though the 2013 data is still being compiled, it is likely that global terror fatalities will have increased, while the number of U.S. citizen deaths will have decreased. And let’s recall: The number of terror attacks on the United States was 258 percent higher in the decades before 9/11 than in the decade that followed. Finally, the vast majority of terrorism is clustered on miniscule portions of the Earth, and fueled by conflicts where U.S. interests are often indirectly involved, if at all. Although terrorism occurred in 85 countries in 2012, 55 percent of all attacks, 62 percent of all fatalities, and 65 percent of all injuries occurred in just three countries: Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The next three countries (by attacks): India, Nigeria, and Thailand.

Refusing to identify which organizations are the focus of U.S. counterterrorism strategies makes it impossible to differentiate what terrorism should matter to Americans, and how then the public can hold officials accountable for whether these strategies work. Over time the descriptions used by the U.S. government to characterize al Qaeda and the threat of global jihadist affiliates has become more and more diffuse, which makes it harder and harder to know who the real enemy really is. Last May, Obama warned: "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us." Why he does not therefore direct the Pentagon to declassify the list of who is part of this struggle is puzzling. Like other areas regarding countering terrorism where the president has promised greater transparency, he has fallen far short of the very principles he declared to be his own.