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Micah Zenko

The Known Unknowns of Counterterrorism Ops

When it comes to assessing the success of the war on terror, there's a lot we just don't know.

Kyle Gahlou/DVIDS
Kyle Gahlou/DVIDS

Last Friday, Navy SEALs reportedly attacked a compound in the coastal city of Barawe, Somalia, with the goal of capturing or killing a senior leader of al-Shabab. According to an Obama administration official: "It did not achieve the objective." Hours later, Army Delta Force commandos were reportedly involved in a mission in Tripoli, Libya, which led to the capture of Abu Anas al-Libi, who was indicted in a U.S. district court for his alleged involvement in the U.S. African embassy bombings in 1998. These twin counterterrorism operations conducted 3,000 miles apart were lauded as "a major blow against the remnants of al Qaeda’s core," by Rep. Adam Schiff; as a confirmation of "the unparalleled precision, global reach, and capabilities of the United States military," by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; and as "a powerful flex of military muscle aimed at capturing fugitive terrorist suspects," by the New York Times.

Several news reports and analysts also claimed that the operations demonstrated that the Obama administration suddenly prefers capturing suspected terrorists to killing them. Recent evidence would suggest otherwise. In 2013, by one estimate, there have been 45 U.S. drone strikes (in Pakistan and Yemen) that killed approximately 209 people; two raids that captured one person are clearly not the equal. There are assuredly other covert or clandestine capture/kill operations that we do not know about, but it is far too soon to tell if this portends a wholly new policy shift.

The reactions to the African raids remind us that perceptions of success, failure, and trends in preventing terrorism swing wildly based upon public events. Nothing captures public attention, or appears to appraise U.S. counterterrorism effectiveness more than verifiable uses of military force and/or demonstrable terrorist attacks. Someone, it is unclear who, once said: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Accordingly, assessing U.S. counterterrorism policies based solely on a limited selection of events amplified in the media should be avoided.

The overwhelming majority of counterterrorism operations and tactics are never known, rarely revealed years later, and of debatable effectiveness. For example, after the Saudi Hezbollah bombing of the Khobar Towers housing facility in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 Americans in June 1996, the Clinton White House debated many military and non-military responses against Iran. One that was implemented consisted of a large-scale covert operation that "outed" Iranian agents around the world in order to deter Tehran from threatening U.S. intelligence agents and diplomatic institutions. Among the participants was then-CIA station chief to Saudi Arabia John Brennan, who reportedly knocked on the car window of an Iranian agent, and announced: "Hello, I’m from the U.S. embassy, and I’ve got something to tell you." Whether this coordinated demonstration of global U.S. surveillance worked, and for how long, is unclear.

Similarly, financial counterterror tools are applied discreetly, in corporate boardrooms and via off-the-record conversations between regulatory officials. In his excellent new book, Treasury’s War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare, former Bush administration official Juan Zarate describes how law-enforcement, intelligence, and regulatory agencies developed and refined tools to monitor and constrain international financial transactions that are diverted to support terrorist causes:

This was a new kind of war — not ‘shock and awe,’ but more like a creeping financial insurgency. It was a ‘hidden war’ intended to constrict our enemies’ financial lifeblood. And we were succeeding, under the radar.

The book catalogues notable innovations in reducing terrorists’ access to global banking networks, and increasing the resources required to securely transfer money. Several intercepted al Qaeda communications — later selectively released by the U.S. government — showed how some local affiliates had become primarily fundraising entities, with an aspiration to re-activate plots should they be able to bring in sufficient funding. Yet, as Zarate notes, al Qaeda’s affiliates adapted to U.S. pressure, developed self-funding mechanisms, and continue to recruit, train, and plan terrorist attacks, albeit with a predominantly domestic or regional focus.

Since quiet or unreported counterterrorism programs are impossible to evaluate in real-time, they subsequently have little salience in policy debates. On the other hand, drone strikes that occur in plain sight, or widely reported special operation raids, are unmistakable and treated as privileged sources of data for evaluating counterterrorism policies. But while there are three databases that provide estimates of U.S. targeted killing operations and casualties, there is none for covert "influence" operations or for the application of financial tools.

Bear in mind that even counterterrorism operations that we "know" occurred are shrouded in mystery and motivated misinformation. U.S. civilian officials routinely tout the supposed near-infallibility of drones, and their preference for them over massive ground invasions. Meanwhile, targeted groups seek to publicize and promote alleged civilian casualties to magnify grievances among impacted local populations, and to garner support and sympathy from neutral third-parties. Furthermore, we now know (based upon U.S. intelligence community estimates of drone strikes in Pakistan) that even the CIA does not always know who is being targeted, or how many people have been killed.

Successful terrorist attacks can also be marshaled as evidence for the strength of a terrorist organization. The Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack against U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, was believed to demonstrate that "al Qaeda types are really on steroids," by Sen. Lindsay Graham, and "much stronger than they were a year ago," by terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman. But, even such well-documented attacks can result in conflicting interpretations. Thus, the recent al-Shabab massacre on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, was either "an effort to send a message to the rest of the world that they’re still around," said Rep. Schiff, or proof that "They’re not on the decline. They’re on the rise," as claimed by Sen. Tom Coburn.

There are scores of major, multi-year counterterrorism operations going on around the world, just as there committed terrorists plotting to conduct international attacks. However, few terrorism or counterterrorism activities ever come to light, and even when those activities do, they usually lack the specificity or comprehensiveness to assess their overall impact. Given this reality of such uncertainty, when thinking about the phenomenon of terrorism, we should be conscious about how little we really know, and refrain from over-interpreting those few public events that appear in the news. 

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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