Inside America’s Shadow War on Terror — and Why It Will Never End

The American war in Afghanistan will end. Perpetual U.S. war against jihadis will not. A rare look at the secret forces nowhere near finished with the fight.

National Journal
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James Kitfield
May 15, 2014, 5 p.m.

The muezzin’s call to pre­dawn pray­ers had not yet woken the sea­side Somali town of Barawe when a lone fig­ure stepped out of a two-story villa near the wa­ter’s edge. In the dark­ness of a walled com­pound, he smoked a ci­gar­ette, the glow of ash rhyth­mic­ally il­lu­min­at­ing his face. It was an ef­fect that was heightened by the night-vis­ion goggles fo­cused on him. When the man stepped back in­side, the com­mand­er of Navy SEAL Team Six, his own face hid­den un­der black grease, dir­ec­ted his com­mandos to take up their po­s­i­tions and storm the villa. The date was Oct. 5, 2013, and in­side was a Kenyan named Ab­dikadir Mo­hamed Ab­dikadir, or Ikrimah — the lead­er of al-Shabaab sus­pec­ted of mas­ter­mind­ing the grue­some killing of non-Muslims at Nairobi’s West­g­ate Mall.

Two hours later and nearly 3,000 miles away, a Liby­an named Nazih Ab­dul-Ha­mad al-Ruqai, or Anas al-Libi, was re­turn­ing from dawn pray­ers as the sun began to rise over Tripoli. His sedan pulled up to a com­fort­able house in an up­scale sub­urb of the cap­it­al and 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 win­dow, pulling the ter­ror­ism sus­pect out of the car and bund­ling him in­to one of the vans be­fore both vehicles and a third that had been hid­den sped off. The en­tire op­er­a­tion, caught on a sur­veil­lance cam­era and pos­ted on You­Tube, took 60 seconds.

Pres­id­ent Obama wants deeply to con­vince Amer­ic­ans that the time of per­petu­al war is over. “Amer­ica is at a cross­roads,” he said last year in a speech that was meant to re­as­sure a weary pub­lic that the post-Sept. 11 era of in­va­sion, re­gime change, and na­tion-build­ing was nearly done. “Bey­ond Afgh­anistan, we must define our ef­fort not as a bound­less ‘glob­al war on ter­ror,’ but rather as a series of per­sist­ent, tar­geted ef­forts to dis­mantle spe­cif­ic net­works of vi­ol­ent ex­trem­ists that threaten Amer­ica.”

Yet these twin raids, ex­ecuted just hours apart in dif­fer­ent time zones and in­side coun­tries with which the United States is not at war, demon­strate that the con­flict is far from over. The unique U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism mod­el of in­tel­li­gence-driv­en op­er­a­tions by mul­tia­gency task forces around the globe rep­res­ents war — per­haps by an­oth­er name, but deadly and per­petu­al, non­ethe­less.

In­deed, even after the last U.S. com­bat troops leave Afgh­anistan this year, the shad­ow war against ji­hadi ter­ror­ists that began on Sept. 11, 2001, will rage on, ex­ecuted by comingled mil­it­ary, in­tel­li­gence, and law-en­force­ment cap­ab­il­it­ies us­ing leg­al au­thor­it­ies that blur dis­tinc­tions between un­com­mon crim­in­als and en­emy com­batants. Ter­ror­ism sus­pects caught in the hard stare of the U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism net­work will still be ar­res­ted by U.S. law-en­force­ment agents over­seas; snatched off the streets of law­less cit­ies by U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces; evis­cer­ated by CIA drone strikes in re­mote areas far from any de­clared war zone; and in­ter­rog­ated un­der the rules of war­fare be­fore be­ing read their Mir­anda rights and pro­sec­uted in fed­er­al courts. And that life-and-death struggle will con­tin­ue to play out largely in secret.

Na­tion­al Journ­al was offered a glimpse be­hind that cur­tain of secrecy, vis­it­ing with U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism war­ri­ors who have been on the front lines of this fight for many years. Their war did not end when Osama bin Laden’s body slipped off the deck of a U.S. war­ship in 2011, nor will the en­emy sur­render when the last air­man turns off the lights at Ba­gram Air Base in Afgh­anistan. Rather, theirs is a twi­light struggle in which an­cient hatreds are kindled anew and show no sign of res­ol­u­tion.

Like many top na­tion­al se­cur­ity and coun­terter­ror­ism of­fi­cials today, Lt. Gen. Mi­chael Flynn honed his craft as a field-grade of­ficer in the cru­cible of war. As the former in­tel­li­gence chief for Joint Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, Flynn helped his boss and ment­or, former JSOC Com­mand­er and now-re­tired Army Gen. Stan­ley Mc­Chrys­tal, de­vel­op the mod­el of in­tel­li­gence-driv­en, tar­geted strikes that has largely come to define U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions: find, fix, fin­ish, ex­ploit, and ana­lyze (or “F3EA” in mil­it­aryspeak).

Today, the rhythms of that cycle ripple through the vast U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism net­work: me­tic­u­lous in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing to es­tab­lish “pat­terns of life” for ter­ror­ism tar­gets; fol­lowed by raids and ar­rests (or, in ex­treme cases, leth­al strikes); then in­ter­rog­a­tions, and ex­ploit­a­tion of evid­ence such as com­puter hard drives or smart­phones; and fol­low-up ana­lys­is lead­ing to fur­ther raids or ar­rests. This is re­peated in a loop that con­tinu­ally strengthens link­ages in the U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism net­work and ex­pands in­tel­li­gence data­bases, all while de­grad­ing the en­emy.

It’s an in­tel­li­gence sys­tem that has yiel­ded an alarm­ing pic­ture of the new ter­ror­ist en­emy. Yes, the al-Qaida that at­tacked the United States on 9/11 has been dev­ast­ated by a dec­ade of drone strikes and ar­rests in Pakistan. But Qaida af­fil­i­ates and sym­path­et­ic Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ist groups have pro­lif­er­ated to fill that void, es­pe­cially in the re­volu­tion-riled Middle East and Africa.

That loose and still gravely dan­ger­ous net­work in­cludes al-Qaida in the Ar­a­bi­an Pen­in­sula, known as AQAP, which has launched three at­tacks on the United States from its base in Ye­men and was tar­geted in a series of U.S. drone strikes in April that killed more than 40 of its sus­pec­ted mem­bers. Al-Qaida in the Is­lam­ic Maghreb, or AQIM, ex­pan­ded from its base in Al­ger­ia last year to cap­ture much of north­ern Mali be­fore be­ing pushed back by U.S.-sup­por­ted French and Afric­an forces. Al-Shabaab, the Qaida af­fil­i­ate in Somalia re­spons­ible for last year’s mas­sacre in the Kenyan shop­ping mall that killed 67 ci­vil­ians, sits near the top of the most-dan­ger­ous list, as does Boko Haram, the Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ist group be­hind the grisly mas­sacres of non-Muslims in Ni­ger­ia and the re­cent kid­nap­ping of more than 200 school­girls, and An­sar al-Sharia, a rad­ic­al group in Libya tied to the 2012 murder of U.S. Am­bas­sad­or Chris Stevens and three oth­er Amer­ic­ans. As if that were not enough, a vi­per’s nest of Qaida- and Taliban-linked Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ist groups re­mains act­ive in Pakistan and Afgh­anistan.

The National Counter Terrorism Operations Center in Mclean, Virginia, Tuesday June 8, 2010.  (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images) Washington Post/Getty Images

Most wor­ri­some to Flynn and oth­er U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism ex­perts is the situ­ation in Syr­ia, where a pro­longed civil war is be­gin­ning to re­semble the con­flict in Afgh­anistan in the 1980s and 1990s that ori­gin­ally spawned al-Qaida and the Taliban. The re­cently re­named Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia (formerly al-Qaida in Ir­aq), and the Qaida-af­fil­i­ated al-Nusra Front have at­trac­ted more than 7,000 for­eign fight­ers to their black ban­ners in Syr­ia, hun­dreds of them from Europe and the United States; the groups con­trol ter­rit­ory and en­joy a de­gree of sanc­tu­ary stretch­ing from north­ern Syr­ia to An­bar province in west­ern Ir­aq. U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism of­fi­cials are mind­ful that Ar­ab fight­ers such as bin Laden, who joined the Afghan mu­ja­hedeen in fight­ing the So­vi­ets in the 1980s, brought the cam­paign of ter­ror home with them, be­fore ex­port­ing it glob­ally. The Na­tion­al Counter Ter­ror­ism Op­er­a­tions Cen­ter in Mclean, Vir­gin­ia, Tues­day June 8, 2010.  (Melina Mara/The Wash­ing­ton Post via Getty Im­ages)

This de­cent­ral­iz­a­tion and pro­lif­er­a­tion of the Qaida threat drove a 43 per­cent in­crease in world­wide ter­ror­ist at­tacks between 2012 and 2013, ac­cord­ing to the State De­part­ment’s re­cently re­leased glob­al ter­ror­ism re­port. “I ac­tu­ally think al-Qaida is be­com­ing more dan­ger­ous as it de­cent­ral­izes, and through its fran­chises it has a big­ger foot­print today than on Septem­ber 11, 2001,” says Flynn, now dir­ect­or of the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency.

As the in­tel­li­gence chief for JSOC in both Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, Flynn helped cap­ture many loc­al lead­ers of al-Qaida and the Taliban. Many of those hardened mil­it­ant field com­mand­ers have since either been re­leased, in the case of Afgh­anistan, or freed in a series of bold pris­on breaks in Ir­aq. In both cases, Flynn notes, they’ve re­turned to the bat­tle­field. “They have got­ten smarter from ap­ply­ing the les­sons learned from fight­ing us, in many cases they are bet­ter armed and fun­ded than in the past, and they are more soph­ist­ic­ated in know­ing how to tar­get and con­trol weak gov­ern­ments and so­ci­et­ies in the Muslim world through fear and in­tim­id­a­tion.” He notes that lead­ers of al-Qaida’s far-flung net­work of af­fil­i­ates and as­so­ci­ated ji­hadists still com­mu­nic­ate reg­u­larly with core Qaida lead­er Ay­man al-Za­wahiri, thought to be hid­ing in Pakistan’s tri­bal re­gions, as well as with each oth­er.

If Za­wahiri were ever able to unite them un­der a single ban­ner and strategy, today’s al-Qaida would be tan­tal­iz­ingly close to bin Laden’s vis­ion of a glob­al Is­lam­ic in­sur­gency in­tent on wa­ging end­less war, loc­ally, re­gion­ally, and against the West. “If the grow­ing num­ber of al-Qaida af­fil­i­ates be­come more co­her­ent and co­hes­ive as a group, then we will have a very big prob­lem on our hands,” Flynn warns. “They are not there yet. But know­ing what I do about this en­emy and its evol­u­tion over the last 10 years, as I look for­ward to the next 10 or 20 years, I see this threat be­ing with us for a very, very long time.”

Only months after Obama’s coun­terter­ror­ism speech at Na­tion­al De­fense Uni­versity last year, the con­tours of the secret war against Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ists came briefly in­to view with a series of events com­pressed in­to a few short weeks yet spread out over thou­sands of miles and across mul­tiple in­ter­na­tion­al bor­ders, none of them near Afgh­anistan.

The un­likely series of events began at the sprawl­ing West­g­ate Mall in Nairobi, a re­tail oas­is of up­scale shops and res­taur­ants favored by wealthy Kenyans and tour­ists, in­clud­ing plenty of Amer­ic­ans who were among the crowd strolling through the mall look­ing for souven­irs on Sept. 21, 2013.

Ini­tially, few people took note of the sil­ver Ja­pan­ese com­pact car that pulled in­to a re­stric­ted zone next to the mall and parked il­leg­ally. Four young men piled out with their heads swathed in the sig­na­ture black head scarves of the Somali Shabaab ter­ror­ist group, and once in­side the build­ing they calmly shouldered as­sault rifles. After shout­ing for any Muslims to raise their hands and exit the mall in Chris­ti­an-ma­jor­ity Kenya, the as­sail­ants began meth­od­ic­ally shoot­ing in­to the ter­ri­fied crowd.

By the end of the second day of the siege, scores of vic­tims lay in a make­shift morgue out­side the mall, part of a body count that would grow to nearly 70 ci­vil­ians, many of them young chil­dren. Four Amer­ic­ans were among the nearly 200 people wounded in the at­tack. Already, an FBI Rap­id De­ploy­ment “Fly Team” was on the scene. Spe­cial Agent in Charge Richard Frankel stood be­hind a bar­ri­cade out­side the wreck­age of West­g­ate, listen­ing to sporad­ic gun­fire and wait­ing for the sig­nal to send in his team of more than 80 in­vest­ig­at­ors.

The tac­tic­al com­mand post set up on the peri­met­er of West­g­ate mirrored the multi- agency Joint Ter­ror­ism Task Forces that are spread across the United States. The Kenyan task force was crawl­ing with agents and op­er­at­ors from the ma­jor U.S. in­tel­li­gence, law-en­force­ment, and mil­it­ary agen­cies, many of them fa­mil­i­ar faces and vet­er­ans of JSOC’s task forces in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan.

The job of Frankel’s FBI team was to con­duct “sens­it­ive site ex­ploit­a­tion.” His in­vest­ig­at­ors helped to in­ter­view eye­wit­nesses, pro­cess the car for fin­ger­prints, re­view video­tape from the sur­veil­lance cam­er­as, and con­duct a meth­od­ic­al search of what was left of the still-smol­der­ing mall. FBI forensics ex­perts cat­egor­ized each piece of evid­ence, from shell cas­ings to cell phones, not­ing ex­actly where it was found and whom it was most likely con­nec­ted to. By match­ing sur­veil­lance videos with evid­ence on the ground, they de­term­ined where the shoot­ers killed cer­tain vic­tims and, most im­port­ant, where they bed­ded down in­side the mall that first night. That was where FBI forensic ex­perts found a trove of evid­ence.

Be­fore long, Frankel’s team knew that the me­dia re­ports of a dozen or more Shabaab fight­ers were way off mark. They were track­ing four shoot­ers and per­haps a fifth fa­cil­it­at­or. “Our primary mis­sion at that point was to help the Kenyans identi­fy the ter­ror­ists who were re­spons­ible for the mas­sacre, and hope­fully gath­er enough evid­ence to track and ul­ti­mately pro­sec­ute them,” Frankel says.

The pres­ence of such FBI Fly Teams at the scene of ma­jor ter­ror­ist at­tacks world­wide speaks to the bur­eau’s post-9/11 trans­form­a­tion from primar­ily a law-en­force­ment agency in­to a crit­ic­al coun­terter­ror­ism play­er, a pro­cess also heav­ily in­formed by the les­sons of Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. A turn­ing point came in 2006, when the U.S. Em­bassy in Ka­bul was hit by a sui­cide bomber who killed two Amer­ic­an sol­diers and 14 Afghan ci­vil­ians.

Bri­an Mc­Cauley was the FBI leg­al at­taché in the em­bassy at the time. After wit­ness­ing the at­tack, he was alarmed to see Afghan po­lice and NATO forces rush to the scene and wash down the gory bomb site with hoses, des­troy­ing vi­tal forensic evid­ence in the pro­cess. At Mc­Cauley’s re­quest, FBI headquar­ters in Wash­ing­ton de­ployed more than 100 spe­cial agents to Afgh­anistan, where they launched a con­spir­acy in­vest­ig­a­tion aimed at the ter­ror­ist cells in Ka­bul that were tar­get­ing U.S. and al­lied troops with sui­cide bombers and im­pro­vised ex­plos­ive devices. Work­ing with JSOC, the FBI in­vest­ig­a­tion even­tu­ally iden­ti­fied more than 150 IED “fa­cil­it­at­ors” whom spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces either cap­tured or killed, foil­ing 43 bomb­ing plots in the pro­cess.

Those hard-earned les­sons in­form the FBI’s close co­ordin­a­tion with JSOC and the full panoply of U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism forces. “We all learned in Afgh­anistan that no single agency can win this fight by them­selves, but work­ing to­geth­er, we had a lot of suc­cess in dis­rupt­ing these ter­ror­ist net­works and cells,” says Mc­Cauley, now the deputy as­sist­ant dir­ect­or of the FBI’s In­ter­na­tion­al Op­er­a­tions Di­vi­sion.

Today, with only hours of no­tice and a green light from the chain of com­mand, U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism forces can rap­idly de­ploy a ma­jor new node in a globe-span­ning in­tel­li­gence net­work that in­cludes hun­dreds of thou­sands of in­vest­ig­at­ors, in­tel­li­gence ana­lysts, mil­it­ary op­er­at­ors, and private con­tract­ors sta­tioned in more than 160 coun­tries. That mod­el of mul­tia­gency co­oper­a­tion and in­tel­li­gence-driv­en, tar­geted op­er­a­tions has ex­pan­ded well bey­ond Afgh­anistan, Mc­Cauley notes. “We’ve now learned to align our threat as­sess­ments, and the place where we all see the ter­ror­ist threat mi­grat­ing and grow­ing is Africa. So we need to re­spond to that be­fore some weakly gov­erned place in Africa be­comes the next ter­ror­ist sanc­tu­ary, like Afgh­anistan was in the 1990s.”

Around the time of the em­bassy bomb­ing in Ka­bul, the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion also began work­ing closely with JSOC to track Afghan drug king­pins whose pro­ceeds were help­ing to fuel the Taliban in­sur­gency. To par­ti­cip­ate jointly in JSOC raids, in 2006 DEA cre­ated For­eign Ad­vis­ory Sup­port Teams, units whose com­mandos un­der­go train­ing that rivals the mil­it­ary spe­cial forces they of­ten work along­side. In one case that DEA in­vest­ig­ated, an Afghan drug car­tel was traf­fick­ing methamphet­am­ine to Cali­for­nia and us­ing the pro­ceeds to fund the same sui­cide bomber cells in Ka­bul that the FBI was track­ing. “So work­ing with JSOC in Afgh­anistan took the blinders off for every­one, and taught us that we were fa­cing a com­mon threat,” says Derek Maltz, dir­ect­or of DEA’s Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Di­vi­sion. “And the best way to at­tack that kind of com­plex or­gan­iz­a­tion is not only to go after its lead­ers, but to also at­tack its money trail, its lo­gist­ics in­fra­struc­ture, and its arms smug­gling.”

The FBI Fly Team’s raw in­form­a­tion on the mil­it­ants likely be­hind the West­g­ate Mall at­tack, like all for­eign and do­mest­ic in­tel­li­gence on the ter­ror­ist threat, was re­layed in real time to the round-the-clock op­er­a­tions cen­ter of the Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton’s Vir­gin­ia sub­urbs, near Tyso­ns Corner. The Liberty Cross­ing cam­pus that houses both the NCTC and the Of­fice of the Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence — two in­sti­tu­tions that did not ex­ist be­fore 9/11 — stands at the pin­nacle of a far-flung em­pire of “fu­sion cen­ters” that have pro­lif­er­ated over the past dec­ade, and it acts as the cent­ral nervous sys­tem of the United States’ glob­al coun­terter­ror­ism net­work.

Each day in­side Liberty One, a non­des­cript, mod­ern edi­fice of gray stone that is one of the most-wired build­ings in the world, hun­dreds of coun­terter­ror­ism ex­perts from more than 20 in­tel­li­gence, na­tion­al se­cur­ity, and law-en­force­ment agen­cies sift through thou­sands of re­ports of raw, ter­ror­ism-re­lated in­tel­li­gence from more than 100 data­bases. Each threat is cross-checked against the NCTC’s own Ter­ror­ism Iden­ti­fic­a­tion Datamark En­vir­on­ment watch list of more than 740,000 sus­pec­ted or po­ten­tial ter­ror­ists, and ana­lysts choose the top 30 or 40 most cred­ible threats to post to the NCTC’s threat mat­rix. Through an ana­lyt­ic pro­cess that is as much art as sci­ence, ana­lysts then pri­or­it­ize a hand­ful of the most ur­gent threats and flag them in the clas­si­fied Situ­ation Re­port that the NCTC pub­lishes for the top levels of gov­ern­ment twice a day. Those high-pri­or­ity threats dom­in­ate dis­cus­sion dur­ing the three video tele­con­fer­ences the in­tel­li­gence com­munity holds each day, and are also in­cluded in the Pres­id­en­tial Daily Brief­ing de­livered at the White House each morn­ing. 

Ter­ror­ism threats that make it in­to the Situ­ation Re­port and the Pres­id­en­tial Daily Brief­ing are gen­er­ally as­signed to spe­cial NCTC “pur­suit groups” con­sist­ing of ana­lysts from mul­tiple agen­cies whose sole task is to find the con­nec­tions in the di­git­al in­tel­li­gence clut­ter — to dis­cov­er that this email or that phone num­ber links two in­di­vidu­als and sets off an alarm. Es­tab­lished after the NCTC failed to dis­cern the ter­ror­ist plot of the so-called un­der­wear bomber, Umar Farouk Ab­dul­mutall­ab, on Christ­mas Day 2009, the pur­suit groups are the hunters at the top of the in­tel­li­gence food chain, tak­ing the art of find­ing pat­terns of life of po­ten­tial tar­gets to the next level.

That con­stant pro­cess of fil­ter­ing and pri­or­it­iz­ing ter­ror­ist threats from all-sources in­tel­li­gence re­quires ex­traordin­ary re­sources and man­power, but NCTC Dir­ect­or Mat­thew Olsen be­lieves it real­izes the 9/11 com­mis­sion’s vis­ion of a single clear­ing­house that al­lows ana­lysts to con­nect the dots on most ter­ror­ist plots. “In the be­gin­ning of the NCTC, that was prob­ably more vis­ion than real­ity, but now in our 10th year I do think we’ve achieved the goal of be­ing the one place where all the most sens­it­ive in­form­a­tion on ter­ror­ism comes to­geth­er and is vis­ible to all the ma­jor stake­hold­ers,” Olsen said in an in­ter­view. “I can tell you our products on spe­cif­ic ter­ror­ist-threat streams are reg­u­larly dis­sem­in­ated across the gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing to the White House.”

As it turned out, two ma­jor streams of in­tel­li­gence in­ter­sec­ted at the top of the NCTC’s threat mat­rix last Oc­to­ber: one from al-Shabaab’s West­g­ate Mall at­tack and the oth­er in­volving long­time Qaida op­er­at­ive al-Libi, the man un­der in­dict­ment for his role in the 1998 bomb­ing of the U.S. em­bassies in Kenya and Tan­zania. On the radar of U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies for more than a dec­ade, al-Libi had re­cently been spot­ted in his ho­met­own of Tripoli. More im­port­ant, there was in­tel­li­gence in­dic­at­ing that core Qaida lead­ers in Pakistan had sent al-Libi home to es­tab­lish a new cell in the chaot­ic land­scape of Libya post-Muam­mar el-Qad­dafi, a weakly gov­erned coun­try ruled by com­pet­ing mi­li­tias where Am­bas­sad­or Stevens and three oth­er Amer­ic­ans had been killed by Is­lam­ic mil­it­ants in Benghazi the year be­fore.

In the kind of plan­ning pro­cess that once would have taken months, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion quickly made the de­cision to launch two nearly sim­ul­tan­eous op­er­a­tions thou­sands of miles apart, in­volving the U.S. mil­it­ary’s two elite coun­terter­ror­ism strike forces — Navy SEAL Team Six and the Army’s Delta Force. Para­dox­ic­ally, on Oct. 5, the date chosen for the com­mando raids, the rest of the U.S. gov­ern­ment was shut down by polit­ic­al para­lys­is in Wash­ing­ton.

The SEAL team in Somalia was giv­en the or­der to storm the sea­side villa. But, ac­cord­ing to nu­mer­ous me­dia re­ports that in­cluded eye­wit­ness ac­counts, the Shabaab fight­er who had re­treated in­side came back out, fir­ing an AK-47 be­fore SEAL Team Six could re­pos­i­tion. The U.S. com­mandos fought their way in­to the villa, but en­countered heavy fire and saw more wo­men and chil­dren than ex­pec­ted, scram­bling for cov­er. Hav­ing lost the crit­ic­al ele­ment of sur­prise, the SEAL com­mand­er ordered his team to re­treat to in­flat­able boats wait­ing on the beach.

The team could take solace that they suffered no cas­u­al­ties and had sent a mes­sage to Shabaab lead­ers about the long reach of U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism forces. That mes­sage was un­der­scored a few days later when, out­side an­oth­er Somali town, a car car­ry­ing two top Shabaab com­mand­ers, in­clud­ing the group’s chief bomb-maker, was des­troyed by a Hell­fire mis­sile. The armed Pred­at­or drone that fired the mis­sile was most likely op­er­ated by the JSOC team at­tached to the U.S. Africa Com­mand’s Com­bined Joint Task Force”“Horn of Africa, headquartered in nearby Dji­bouti.

After be­ing snatched from the street in front of his fam­ily’s home, al-Libi was be­low decks in a spare in­ter­rog­a­tion room aboard the USS San Ant­o­nio. An FBI agent was there too, read­ing al-Libi his Mir­anda rights. The sus­pect now had the right to re­main si­lent, and any­thing the Liby­an said would cer­tainly be used against him in a court of law. If he could not af­ford an at­tor­ney, one would be provided. Anoin­ted with those ma­gic words, the man was sud­denly trans­formed from an “en­emy com­batant” in Amer­ica’s war with al-Qaida to just an­oth­er ter­ror­ism sus­pect in the U.S. justice sys­tem.

The FBI spe­cial agent sit­ting with al-Libi was part of the gov­ern­ment’s High-Value De­tain­ee In­ter­rog­a­tion Group, an­oth­er mul­tia­gency hy­brid peopled by seni­or mil­it­ary, in­tel­li­gence, and law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials and cre­ated spe­cific­ally for the war against al-Qaida. Be­cause the war­ship was in in­ter­na­tion­al wa­ters some­where in the At­lantic, and they were op­er­at­ing un­der broad war­time au­thor­it­ies be­stowed by Con­gress in the post-9/11 Au­thor­iz­a­tion for the Use of Mil­it­ary Force, the spies and the sol­diers could ques­tion al-Libi in­def­in­itely. They no longer used long-since banned “en­hanced in­ter­rog­a­tion tech­niques,” and what they learned could not be used in a court of law. But they could keep at it with pa­tience and mad­den­ing per­sist­ence and a psy­cho­lo­gic­al jujitsu that ap­pealed to the ter­ror­ist’s sense of self-im­port­ance.

At first al-Libi co­oper­ated with the in­ter­rog­at­ors, and even after be­ing read his rights, he waived them for a time. But he was ill, and as he tired un­der the ques­tion­ing, his mood soured un­til he in­voked Mir­anda and stopped talk­ing. At that point, the in­ter­rog­a­tion team hal­ted the ques­tion­ing and made ar­range­ments to have al-Libi flown to New York City. With­in days, the gray-bearded ter­ror­ism sus­pect was stand­ing be­fore a judge in a fed­er­al Dis­trict Court in New York, plead­ing not guilty and re­quest­ing a court-ap­poin­ted at­tor­ney.

All of these op­er­a­tions — from the twin raids and the Pred­at­or strike to the West­g­ate in­vest­ig­a­tion and al-Libi’s float­ing in­ter­rog­a­tion — demon­strate the glob­al nature of this cease­less war. It’s why the Pentagon con­tin­ues to add spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces (from 61,000 in 2012 to nearly 70,000 by 2015, rep­res­ent­ing a 300 per­cent in­crease com­pared with pre-9/11 levels) and to in­crease the size of the un­manned drone ar­sen­al by more than 30 per­cent even as it re­duces ground forces to field the smal­lest Army since be­fore World War II. It’s why the U.S. in­tel­li­gence budget has more than doubled since 9/11 to more than $75 bil­lion an­nu­ally, and why the num­ber of FBI Joint Ter­ror­ism Task Forces has grown from 26 to more than 100.

“It takes a net­work to de­feat a net­work,” Mc­Chrys­tal has of­ten said.

“In the be­gin­ning, it was dif­fi­cult even put­ting all these dif­fer­ent agen­cies un­der one tent with our Joint Task Forces, and sus­pi­cions ran so high that I re­mem­ber one agency put­ting crime-scene tape around its work sta­tions,” the former JSOC com­mand­er told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view last year. Over time, suc­cess built great­er in­ter­agency trust. “And as we built the net­work, we were able to hit the en­emy faster and with an op­er­a­tions tempo that was really crush­ing to them, be­cause they keep los­ing ex­per­i­enced lead­ers. That’s our coun­terter­ror­ism mod­el and the heart of our strategy,” Mc­Chrys­tal said. “We be­came like an in­dus­tri­al ma­chine — the Amazon.com of coun­terter­ror­ism.”

In­deed, the 16 ma­jor agen­cies in the in­tel­li­gence com­munity have in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized a war­time eth­os of in­form­a­tion-shar­ing and in­tel­li­gence-fo­cused op­er­a­tions to cre­ate a fright­en­ingly ef­fi­cient coun­terter­ror­ism mod­el. DIA’s Flynn and his co­horts atop peer agen­cies, in­clud­ing Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per, are de­term­ined that the syn­ergy is not lost as the post-9/11 wars wind down and bur­eau­cra­cies in Wash­ing­ton be­gin to as­sert them­selves anew. For them, there is no end in sight to this war, as their on­go­ing activ­it­ies at­test.

The White House clearly wants the na­tion to re­dis­cov­er its peace­time equan­im­ity. Yet the pres­id­ent has pub­licly de­fen­ded the con­tin­ued use of leth­al drone strikes even against Amer­ic­an ter­ror­ism sus­pects, as well as snatch-and-cap­ture op­er­a­tions by spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces on for­eign soil and the NSA’s war­rant­less mon­it­or­ing of the com­mu­nic­a­tions of non-U.S. cit­izens. And his call for an even­tu­al re­peal of war­time au­thor­it­ies feels more as­pir­a­tion­al than real. Obama gets the Pres­id­en­tial Daily Brief­ing, he’s seen the threat mat­rix, and he sat in the lone­li­est chair in the White House as SEAL Team Six fol­lowed his or­ders to the faraway com­pound of Osama bin Laden. He’s seen the wis­dom in Win­ston Churchill’s words that we sleep safely at night be­cause rough men (and wo­men) stand ready to vis­it vi­ol­ence on those who would do us harm.

So, des­pite an in­sist­ence that things will change after Afgh­anistan, the coun­terter­ror­ism mod­el born there will live on to fight a war that is not go­ing away.

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