An Intelligence Perspective – Principles of a Counterterrorism Strategy

By: - November 5, 2017

“Having identified specific CT objectives as being within the scope of our intelligence and the military capabilities, rather than the international practice of treating terrorists as law enforcement targets, the US’s primacy on CT was established across the international community and brought unprecedented resources to this effort.”

“Turn on the TV chief, a plane just hit the World Trade Center”, Pam directed as she stood in the doorway of the Chief of Operations (COPS) in the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Counterterrorism Center (CTC).  Ric interrupted our conversation as he reached for the TV remote on the corner of his desk and clicked on the news.  The conversation between Ric and I shifted to the flight pattern of commercial aircraft in and out of the John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports, both of which we were very familiar with after decades traveling for work.

Approximately 15 minutes after Pam’s first announcement, our tentative conclusion that the crash of American Airlines Flight 11 was a deliberate act was confirmed when United Airlines Flight 175 struck World Trade Center Tower 2.  “We’re at war Dan, and you are my personal assistant until we figure this out”, Ric blurted as he headed to Cofer’s office.  “Ok chief, I will get with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Rep and bring a copy of the flight manifests to chief’s (CTC’s) office”.

As I walked through the maze of cubicals, Ben, CTC Deputy Chief, requested my presence in his office and asked if the attack was Hizbollah, for which I had management responsibility prior to Ric’s directive moments prior.  “No Ben, while we have been tracking some flight training by members, (rhetorically) Hizbollah is state sponsored and Iran would not declare war on the US without provocation.”

Moments later, the FAA Rep entered Ben’s office with the flight manifest from AA Flight 11, but nothing stood out.  That changed when an agitated young analyst from CTC’s Bin Ladin Group arrived and, after a brief scan of the document, announced “I recognize three names, all al-Qa’ida.  The odd thing is they are all true names on the manifest, although they are in the country in alias.”

As I reentered the bullpen area, the news of additional hijackings had spread widely. Just moments later, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the West-facing side of the Pentagon.

Upon receiving confirmation from the analyst that CTC was aware of the presence of the al-Qa’ida members in the US, a seemingly relieved Ben said: “Ok, good, and we are working with the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) on this?”  “Well, yes, this is the July 4th attack we had been tracking, but it appears they (al-Qa’ida) couldn’t get everyone in place and so they postponed until today.”  “Then the FBI has the identities of these attackers?” asked Ben, to which the analyst responded, “well, they have the names of the (al-Qa’ida) members who arrived before the 4th, but not all the names who have entered since.”

In response to Ben’s query as to why, the analyst clarified “well, you know how Rich felt that they (the FBI) bring nothing to the table.”  Ben’s response hung in the air as the three of us quickly made our way to safer ground outside of his office…”We’re going to burn for this!”

As I reentered the bullpen area, the news of additional hijackings had spread widely. Just moments later, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the West-facing side of the Pentagon.  Despite the ongoing attacks and ‘rumors’ of additional aircraft en route to Washington, the initial shock had worn off the staff and a hurried but calm atmosphere had enveloped the Center.  Administrative staff were diligently conducting world-wide personnel accountability, analysts were pulling raw intelligence in preparation for a presidential brief, and operations was in full crisis management mode.

I was able to track down Ric for a brief conversation, during which I passed along preliminary analysis of al-Qa’ida involvement, and was informed that the senior leadership were preparing to move out of the Original Headquarters Building (OHB).  Likewise, a decision had been made to evacuate the ‘river-facing’ OHB because there were as many as three additional aircraft not responding to air traffic controller communications.

The intervening period between the crash of Flight 77 and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in rural Ohio was surreal.  Rumors, mixed with accurate reporting of hijacked aircraft, fueled concern that the CIA was the next logical target after the Pentagon and, despite the impending threat, 47 officers from the evacuated OHB arrived in CTC to volunteer their services for any role needed.

Later that evening, as Ric and I sat at his office conference table, we could see Cofer approaching “you two are here tonight, right?”, confirmation, “In the morning I need a draft of the reorganization and an addendum (to the 1986 Presidential Covert Action) Finding.”  It was the early morning hours of 12 September when Ric and I tried to get some rest before CTC again came alive.  Mike, a talented young CTC attorney, was actively putting our “wish list” for the addendum into a readable format for when the seniors arrived. For the first time that day, a realization of what just happened settled in.

In the days that followed, the President had his national security team meet to discuss the most effective and expedient course of action in retaliating for the attack and undermining al-Qa’ida leadership and its support structure.  The traditional choice would have been to conduct the war in Afghanistan through the established military mechanisms available to the US Government, but the logistical requirements and time to execute them would have allowed the Pakistan-supported Taliban government to preserve its institutional mechanisms of power, through which it had supported al-Qa’ida, by temporarily retreating to the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan.

Core al-Qa’ida and ISIS, although very different in goals and approach, both have the capacity and intent to conduct attacks in the US and, as such, do warrant the full coordination and application of intelligence, law enforcement, and military resources.

Thus, President George W. Bush chose to use the existing and the more rapidly deployed Covert Action mechanisms of the CIA, supported by US Special Forces’ operators and tactical air control (TACP) personnel to leverage strategic and close air support for “coalition” forces.

Perhaps unintentionally, this decision for the conduct of the war has had a long-lasting and positive affect on the marriage between requirements, collection, and liaison cooperation in what was called the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT).  Having identified specific CT objectives as being within the scope of our intelligence and the military capabilities, rather than the international practice of treating terrorists as law enforcement targets, the US’s primacy on CT was established across the international community and brought unprecedented resources to this effort.

Although the last eight years have seen a significant shift away from the fundamental underpinnings of this policy, global intelligence, law enforcement and military alliances continue to benefit from these enhanced capabilities and intelligence sharing practices.

No atmosphere inspires young patriots like that which provides the instant gratification of supporting kinetic strikes on our nation’s enemies, and such was the case within our intelligence and military communities.

While there has been real and quantifiable advantages to the primacy of our civilian and military intelligence services in the GWOT, it was not without consequences to the role of clandestine human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) within the US Intelligence Community (USIC).  The primary impact of these changes was an imbalance created between foreign intelligence (FI) collection and Covert Action (CA), both in resources and in the overall foreign policy.

No atmosphere inspires young patriots like that which provides the instant gratification of supporting kinetic strikes on our nation’s enemies, and such was the case within our intelligence and military communities.  Likewise, CA kinetic operations have less public accountability and more deniability, which is appealing to policy makers and congressional leaders alike.  Thus, political support and funding for these programs escalated throughout the next decade, as did the mechanisms for “fenced” or line item funding.

In considering CT strategies, our first inclination is to define our goal.  However, our intelligence services are so distracted and demoralized, and our nation so divided over the merits of our activities, that we must start our consideration with leadership…identifying who is going to define a vision, building a consensus, establishing a team, prioritizing resources, and rebuilding the services’ belief in themselves.  First and foremost, the USIC needs a Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in the mold of General Clapper, who brings humility and a strong understanding of the respective INTs.

The two HUMINT agencies need experienced HUMINT managers, not policy presiders, who understand that CT is not an existential threat and is not the number one intelligence issue facing the United States; that the standard of FI and CI tradecraft must be based on hard target requirements, not war zone requirements; that intelligence must be independent of policy, and neither support it nor be tailored to it; that there is a human life at the other end of the protection of sources and methods, and access is determined by operational security and not by position or political agenda; and, most importantly, that the mission of the clandestine HUMINT service is clandestine HUMINT collection and HUMINT-enabling operations.

Through leadership which actually knows what it’s talking about, the goal for a CT policy could be defined by the policy-makers; the intelligence requirements to collect within the framework of the policy could be determined; and a healthy consensus for the policy and intelligence authorities could be reached between the Executive Branch executors and Legislative Branch overseers.

Having traveled a unique road to get here, the nation is in desperate need of a comprehensive CT strategy moving forward.  This is not a checklist issue — each group, each cause, each location and each level of threat requires its own approach.  However, there are conditions and principles where a consensus would provide much needed clarity for those tasked with executing the mission.

First, again, CT isn’t an existential threat and is not the most important challenge America faces.

Second, the US Government cannot protect 350 million people at home, and the untold numbers overseas at any given time, and we need to stop declaring war on ourselves and our liberties every time a lone or inspired idiot decides to take a bunch of people with him/her in their act of zealous self-destruction.

Third, we need to prioritize the current and future threat and allocate resources according to the terrorist organization’s ability to project the threat, either directed or inspired, to the US homeland.

Fourth, we need to apply US rights and liberties to US Persons and not to the global population simply because the US is the actor.

Fifth, we need to refrain from a “punchline” approach to making policy, such as “we don’t profile”, “this isn’t consistent with our values”, “America is a role-model”, and “our defensive actions are inspiring terrorists to murder us.”

Six, although terrorism is an illegal act, chasing Interpol red border notices and dealing with every politically-motivated or corrupt judge in every two-bit court is not a viable approach.

Seven, like law enforcement, the military has an important role in the conduct of direction action in our CT efforts but is not the solution.

Eight, we must be willing to deal with any State or non-State actor on CT issues, regardless of diplomatic or human rights’ status.

Nine, primacy for CT coordination with foreign partners must be given to the USIC, with the flexibility to share preliminary or fragmentary all-source information, with the goal of denying these groups access to the US, degrading their capability, and eliminating their leadership.

And finally, to accomplish the above, the US Government requires tracking data on global communications and people, so we need to figure it out, because no program can succeed without a consistent legal foundation.

Each of the 10 foundational principles for a CT strategy are going to be controversial to someone, that is the point of a consensus in which we form a collective position rather than a gaggle of 100 disparate views.  A strategy would recognize individual concerns and place appropriate limitations based on a prioritization of the threat.

At this time, there are three global organizations with the ability to plan and conduct attacks in the US.  All happen to be global and Islamic organizations, but one is Shia and the others are fundamentalist Sunni.  In further contrast, two are transnational terrorist groups, core al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State (IS), and one is State-sponsored, Hizbollah.  The IS and Hizbollah both provide functions of government over some territory and population, and Hizbollah has political recognition within Lebanon.  Having managed operations focused on each of these, I can attest that no one solution would be effective across them all.

Hizbollah’s lethal component is a paramilitary arm of the Iranian government, as a surrogate force against Israel and its allies.  As such, although designated a terrorist organization, from an intelligence perspective, it is a quasi-State collection target accessible directly through penetrating command or indirectly through penetrating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.  Thus, consistent with other strategic collection objectives, it would not warrant several of the more intrusive principles provided in this strategy.

The point of this article is not to address all the issues of a comprehensive strategy, but to highlight the need for a prioritized and tiered approach, based on core principles upon which a new Executive Branch and Legislative Branch leadership could reach a consensus

Core al-Qa’ida and ISIS, although very different in goals and approach, both have the capacity and intent to conduct attacks in the US and, as such, do warrant the full coordination and application of intelligence, law enforcement, and military resources.  A third tier of highly capable regional terrorist organizations with limited capacity to project into the US are Boko Haram, the Haqqani network, al-Nusra, and al-Shabbab, all of which pose a significant challenge due to their isolation and potential to rapidly absorb radicalized members and expand their scope of operations.  As such, they would warrant the full utilization of all our foreign partnerships and resources, as well as limited US collection against leadership and their operational cadre.

The point of this article is not to address all the issues of a comprehensive strategy, but to highlight the need for a prioritized and tiered approach, based on core principles upon which a new Executive Branch and Legislative Branch leadership could reach a consensus, to both limit exposure of sensitive military and intelligence information, as well as to establish a legal framework through which collection and disruption would be executed.