Best Defense

Book excerpt: Inside the threat matrix

An excerpt from Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies, and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War


In late September of 2013, the National Counterterrorism Center’s threat matrix was figuratively flashing red. One stream of intelligence detailed a horrific terrorist massacre that killed 67 civilians and wounded more than 170 others at an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, perpetrated by al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate al-Shabab. The other involved the sighting by a reliable source in Tripoli of longtime al Qaeda operative Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, a.k.a. Anas al-Libi. Intelligence indicated that core al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan had dispatched al-Libi home to establish a new terrorist cell in Libya, which after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi had descended into ungovernable chaos. Al-Libi was already under secret indictment for his role in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Inside Liberty One, NCTC’s nondescript headquarters near Tysons Corner, Virginia, scores of counterterrorism analysts from more than twenty intelligence, national security and law-enforcement agencies sifted through the initial raw intelligence on the Westgate Mall massacre and the al-Libi sighting. They searched for clues and “patterns of life” for the elusive terrorists. Through an analytic process that is as much art as science, they elevated both intelligence streams into the Situation Report sent out twice a day, seven days a week to the intelligence community, and they were discussed on the secure video teleconferences that NCTC conducts three times a day with the other twenty-odd intelligence agencies. They also figured prominently in the Presidential Daily Brief delivered at the White House each morning. Al-Libi and al-Shabab had officially made it onto the NCTC’s matrix of the top 40 or so terrorist threats, and they were rising with a bullet.

While the machinery for targeting terrorists operates in utmost secrecy, the list of candidates passes through an elaborate, multiagency vetting process that culminates at the level of the National Security Council, and generally requires presidential approval for any lethal action. NCTC director Mathew Olsen always attended cabinet-level “Principals” meetings with his boss, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper whenever counterterrorism operations were discussed. After once such meeting in September 2013 it was determined that NCTC would develop a plan for capturing or killing al-Libi and the al-Shabab leaders behind the Westgate Mall attack, and then hand it off to U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to execute the mission.

In the early post-9/11 days, that kind of elaborate planning and decision-making process had taken months, but out of long repetition and years of honing the cycle had been compressed dramatically. By then the ethos of the joint, network-centric targeting operations that JSOC task forces had pioneered in Iraq and Afghanistan “rippled through the government’s entire counterterrorism apparatus,” according to a top White House counterterrorism official.

In the case of al-Shabab and al-Libi, the Obama administration and counterterrorism planners quickly decided to launch two nearly simultaneous operations thousands of miles apart and far from any declared war zone. They involved JSOC’s two elite counterterrorism strike forces — Navy SEAL Team Six and the Army’s Delta Force. The date chosen for the commando raids was October 5, 2013. Ironically, on the day US counterterrorism forces launched the operations, the rest of the U.S. government was shut down by political paralysis in Washington, D.C.

Just two weeks after the Westgate Mall attack, U.S. Navy SEAL commandos listened to a muezzin’s call to predawn prayers as it echoed down the crooked alleys and side streets of the ramshackle Somali seaside town of Barawe. A lone figure stepped out of a two-story villa a few hundred yards from the water’s edge, and into the darkness of a walled compound to smoke a cigarette. His face was rhythmically illuminated in the glow of the ash, an effect heightened by the night-vision goggles trained on him.

The moment he stepped back inside, the commander of SEAL Team Six, his own face hidden under black grease, motioned with his hands for his commandos to take up their positions to storm the villa. Inside they expected find Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, a.k.a. Ikrima — the Kenyan in charge of al-Shabab’s “external operations” who was suspected of masterminding the gruesome massacre at the Westgate Mall.

Before the SEAL team could reposition, however, the al-Shabab fighter came back out of the door, firing an AK-47, and he was quickly cut down by the SEAL team’s return fire. Soon the entire compound erupted in automatic weapons fire, and the SEAL commandos quickly lost the all-important element of surprise. With his exfiltration route to the sea in danger of being cut off, the SEAL team commander eventually ordered his raiding team back to the inflatable boats waiting on the beach. The commandos suffered no casualties, but it undoubtedly irked them that they had to break contact with a high value target with a $5 million bounty on his head. At the very least, they had sent an important message to al-Shabab leaders about the long reach of US counterterrorism forces.

Just two hours after SEAL Team Six assaulted Ikrima’s seaside villa, and nearly 3,000 miles away, Anas al-Libi was returning from dawn prayers as the sun rose over Tripoli, Libya. An al-Qaeda operative whose tenure traced back to the 1990s and the original core group led by Osama bin Laden, al-Libi like so many other Islamist militants had been drawn to the chaos and weak governance left in the wake of Arab Spring revolutions.

As he pulled up in front of a comfortable house in an upscale suburb of Tripoli, al-Libi’s car was suddenly boxed in from the side and the front by two white vans with darkened windows. Commandos from the Army’s elite Delta Force counterterrorism unit leaped out, one training his gun on al-Libi from the front as another broke the car’s window, pulling the terrorism suspect out of the car and bundling him into one of the vans before both vans sped off, followed by a third trailing vehicle that had been providing over-watch. The entire operation had taken sixty seconds. (see it on YouTube here). In a remarkable indication of the synergy between law enforcement and Special Operations Forces engaged in counterterrorism operations, specially trained members of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team had accompanied both SEAL Team Six and Delta Force on the nearly simultaneous raids in Somalia and Libya.

When asked about the twin commando raids executed just hours apart in different countries with whom the United States was not at war, Secretary of State John Kerry was unapologetic. Kerry insisted the raids signaled the United States’ long memory and determination to bring terrorists to justice: “This sends the message that members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations can literally run, but they cannot hide.”

Kerry’s message was underscored a few days later, when an armed Predator drone operated by the JSOC team attached to US Africa Command’s Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in Djibouti established visuals with a car known to be carrying two top al-Shabab commanders, including the group’s chief bomb maker named Anta. The two men and the car disappeared in the blast cloud of a Hellfire missile. Before another year passed, another U.S. airstrike inside Somalia would kill al-Shabab’s mercurial leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, whose determination to export the group’s terror to the wider region pushed his name to the top tier of the US threat matrix.

Adapted  from Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War, by James Kitfield. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Photo credit:

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola