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Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker’s Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al-Qaeda,traces the evolution since 9/11 of U.S. counterterrorism strategy within themilitary, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement, the results of which are nowat work in combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates worldwide. Schmitt and Shankerdo a thorough job of pulling together all of ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker’s Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al-Qaeda,traces the evolution since 9/11 of U.S. counterterrorism strategy within themilitary, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement, the results of which are nowat work in combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates worldwide. Schmitt and Shankerdo a thorough job of pulling together all of the bits and pieces of the effortsacross the myriad agencies and departments now dealing with terrorism, and presentingthem in a fast paced, gripping story. The authors personalize the often mundanebureaucratic policy initiatives such as Presidential findings, resources, andauthorities needed to gradually shift our approach to terrorism through thestories of key individuals working on these issues over the last ten years.

The pair further put flesh on the bones of our counterterrorismcampaign by highlighting key milestones such as the raids on al-Qaeda leaders andsafehouses in places like Taji and Sinjar in Iraq. These battlefield detailsshow the reader how policy initiatives and technology developed in Washingtonand elsewhere actually played out on the ground, and how the treasure trove ofintelligence gained from such operations then, in turn, helped our policies shiftand enhanced our knowledge of al-Qaida’s operations and leadership.

Shanker and Schmitt describe in detail how people like thePentagon’s former Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Low IntensityConflict (now Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence) Michael Vickers and then-JointSpecial Operations Command chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal pushed for the droppingof information barriers and the massive influx of resources that allowed forceson the ground to "find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze" information gainedfrom the battlefield. This push in turn made the discovery of al-Qaeda’s "Rolodex"at Sinjar and their "database" at Taji possible. The information proved sovaluable that it changed our diplomatic approach to countries producingterrorist recruits and harboring facilitation networks. Rather than keeping theinformation gleaned classified, McChrystal:

Decided to break down more walls.He believed that effective pressure could be mounted by sharing the informationwith the countries of origin for the jihadists — even those countries withwhich the United States had little or no alliance in the struggle. And, evenmore, he thought the pages of the highly classified intelligence findingsshould be thrust into the very public marketplace of ideas to shape theinternational debate on terrorism.

From my own experience commanding Special Forces unitsduring multiple tours in Afghanistan, the authors’ description of how themilitary and intelligence agencies grappled with integrating the various "INTs"(signals intelligence, human intelligence, imagery intelligence, etc) islargely accurate. Throughout my tour in 2006 we had to request these assetsfrom the theater headquarters level. However, by my next tour in 2009, not onlywere the various types of intelligence pushed out to my forces in the field,but we had actual representatives from the various intelligence agencies aswell as the FBI attached directly to my command, representing a sea change inour ability to exploit intelligence and target insurgent leadership. 

The pair then turn to how our counterterrorism campaign hasgrown and developed beyond kill-capture missions to executing increasinglysophisticated counter-messaging campaigns, as well as efforts to counter all aspectsof terrorist networks, such as their ability to recruit and train, theirability to raise funds, and the legitimacy of their actions within the broaderMuslim world. The authors are critical of the Bush Administration for itsinitially narrow focus on kinetic missions, the lack of an overall strategy andthe paucity of resources applied to the campaign, and in turn, credit the ObamaAdministration for our now more expansive approach. Yet I would argue, based onmy time in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Operations and Low IntensityConflict and later in the White House, that the current, more sophisticatedcounterterrorism campaign is a natural progression that benefitted greatly fromthe trial and error of previous years.   

But setting these details and descriptions aside, perhaps thecentral theme running throughout Counterstrikeis the application of deterrence theory from the Cold war to the issue of counteringterrorism. Schmitt and Shanker do a masterful job of explaining the important elementsof the theory and the problems key Bush Administration officials had with usingtraditional tools to possibly deter a person willing to die for a cause. Theearly post-9/11 thinking was that terrorists did not seize or want to hold territoryin the traditional sense, were not afraid of retribution, and did not have resourcesthey needed or wanted to protect. In keeping with that thinking, theintelligence community’s initial focus was to shift resources to fill itsinitial intelligence gaps, while the military focused on enhancing its abilityto kill or capture individual al-Qaeda leaders.

However, Schmitt and Shanker trace how a small group of formerCold War theorists slowly began gaining traction with their idea of a "newdeterrence." Douglas Feith, Barry Pavel, Tom Kroenig and others promoted thenotion that terrorists do indeed have issues they care about, issues that canbe used to pressure individual terrorists and whole groups. The advocates ofthe new deterrence argued that the "terrain" extremist organizations need tohold is the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. In a pivotal briefing toPresident Bush, Gen. James Cartwright, then head of America’s nuclear arsenal,applied Cold War-era deterrence theory to terrorism, stating "If you canintroduce ambiguity and uncertainty into the minds of the attacker…if you canremove a certainty of success in striking an objective, if you make the pricetoo high, then you increase the opportunity the adversary will notstrike." 

Furthermore, terrorist networks hoping for large-scaleaction and sustained campaigns need a constant stream of fresh recruits, fundsto operate, sanctuary in physical locations to train and prepare, and to knowthat their efforts will have an effect on the United States or other targets. Isaw these efforts first hand during my participation in the White House’s CounterterrorismSecurity Group, where we worked to develop and implement a whole of government –military, diplomatic, intelligence, homeland defense, and development –approach to pressure, deter, and harden against terrorist groups, techniques thatcould indeed minimize the threat in the short term while slowly eroding it inthe long term. Over the course of time, as Schmitt and Shanker accuratelydescribe, we moved our efforts beyond reforming our bureaucracies andintegrating our streams of information to undermining the legitimacy of the extremists’ideology (later known as counter-messaging), disrupting financial flows, andworking through military or diplomatic means with other countries(as well asextending development aid to ungoverned spaces) to deny terrorists thesanctuary they need to operate. 

Schmitt and Shanker, carefully following key individuals inthis process, go on describe how al-Qaeda began metastasizing and reacting toour initiatives by shifting their efforts onto the Internet. The authors giveinsight into enormously complicated issues of military versus intelligenceauthorities and the long-running debates within government about whether todestroy an extremist website facilitating the killing of Americans or continueto monitor the sites for additional information. The authors reference a numberof government sources to describe how we have purportedly gained the ability togo on to radical websites and post information and orders that areindistinguishable from legitimate orders issued by al-Qaeda’s leadership,resulting in dissent and confusion among supporters and operators.

Finally, they describe the speed with which the cloak anddagger of counterterrorism on the Web is evolving and changing in chillingdetail. The most dangerous trend to emerge is the recruitment of home-grownfanatics to attack the West from within. Schmitt and Shanker highlight thecases of Najibullah Zazi, Nidal Hassan, and Faisal Shahzad to call attention toal-Qaeda’s new dual track strategy of radicalizing individuals in the West throughthe internet to conduct smaller scale and harder to detect attacks with ahigher probability of success while still aiming to repeat a massive 9/11 styleattack.  


Counterstrike willbe a revealing and informative read to the average reader, who may have spentthe last ten years only vaguely aware of simplified terms and governmentclichés popularly used in the media, from "drone strikes," to "intelligencefusion," and "connecting the dots."  Schmittand Shanker effectively bring to life the confusing vernacular that mycolleagues in Washington national security circles use as part of theireveryday speech. The authors also effectively tell the story of ourcounterterrorism campaign by personalizing the struggles of key individuals whorecognized the need to radically change the way our law enforcement agencies,intelligence agencies, the military and our policy-making bodies did — andstill do — business. 

Curiously, however, the vitally important issue of detaineeinterrogations and their significant contribution to the counterterrorismcampaign is missing from the book. I was surprised to not see an entire chapterdevoted to the detainee issue, given its centrality to the effort to understandterrorist networks, the important intelligence gained from the capture ofal-Qaeda members and fellow-travelers, and the controversy surrounding detaineetreatment and proper interrogation practices that persists to this day.  In my own experience in eastern Afghanistan in2009, the information gained from detainees — from that dealing with thecomplicity of the Pakistani Army with insurgent networks to tribal motivations behindindividual support for the insurgency — was critical to our counterinsurgencyand counterterrorism efforts. In fact, at the strategic level, one of the maindrivers behind the push within the last administration to conductcross border raids into Pakistan rather than kinetic strikes, even with theinevitable diplomatic fallout they caused, was to create the possibility forcapturing key al-Qaeda leaders for the information they could provide. 

Also left unexamined are the hugely significant implicationsof the Arab Spring on al-Qaeda’s legitimacy.   Schmitt and Shanker conclude Counterstrikewith a discussion of ‘How this Ends,’ and the authors rightly discuss thetransformation of al-Qaeda from being an individual man and highly-ordered butsmall vanguard group to being an inspirational philosophy and a movement. However,I disagree with the authors’ conclusion that "you can’t destroy the idea of al-Qaeda."The philosophical underpinnings of the organization are currently crumbling inthe midst of peaceful protests in the Middle East rather than the violent jihadit preaches, which by nearly all measures has failed. Most damning is that the protestsmovements have not made the introduction of Islamic law a central point of contention.The much decried corrupt governments in North Africa and the Middle East arefalling one by one, and al-Qaeda is becoming less and less relevant on the ArabStreet. This could be the beginning of ‘How this Ends,’ much as perestroika andthe solidarity movement marked the beginning of the end of communism as apopular ideal.    

Overall, the educated lay reader who is going to pick upCounterstrike will find this book to be a well reported, well written dive intothe arcane world of counterterrorism over the past decade. It largely comportswith my own experiences both in the field and in Washington, and is asignificant contribution to our body of knowledge regarding our campaign thusfar in the "Long War" against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups.  

Michael Waltz formerlyserved as a senior advisor for counterterrorism to Vice President RichardCheney and still serves as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer in the reservecomponent. He is currently Vice President for Strategy at Metis Solutions, LLC.

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