America's 'Secret Campaign' Against Al-Qaida
America's anti-terrorism strategy has evolved in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks. New York Times reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt explain some of the tactics used by the United States over the past decade to disrupt al-Quaida both in real life and online.
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America's 'Secret Campaign' Against Al-Qaida
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross, who's
off this week.
Among the frustrations American officials have confronted in battling
al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are that unlike past enemies, they
don't have defined territory to attack or a set of clearly defined
rational interests that could form the basis for negotiation or
But our guests, New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker,
write in their new book that American military and intelligence analysts
have developed some innovative approaches to the war on terrorism, many
aimed at stopping attacks before they happen.
Techniques include hacking into jihadist websites, undermining al-
Qaeda's message to young Muslims, and disrupting financial networks that
fund terrorist plots. And perhaps most important, intelligence gathering
has been dramatically expanded and integrated into military operations.
Eric Schmitt is a senior writer for the New York Times, covering
terrorism and national security issues. He has embedded with troops in
Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan and has twice been on reporting teams that
won the Pulitzer Prize.
Thom Shanker is a Pentagon correspondent for the paper who often reports
from Iraq and Afghanistan. Their new book is called "Counterstrike: The
Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
Well Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker, welcome to FRESH AIR. This is a story
about America becoming smarter in the battle against terrorism and
Islamic radicals. Clearly, we were not a country that was ready in 2001.
And I'd like you to begin by just talking a bit about the notion of
deterrence, how it made sense in the Cold War but was more problematic
when considering an adversary like al-Qaeda.
Mr. THOM SHANKER (Co-author, "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of
America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda"): In the immediate aftermath
of the terror strikes on 9/11, America responded with a very
understandable, very sort of military strategy. It was capture and kill
â again, a very understandable response, but it became very obvious over
the ensuing months that there was no way to simply, through warfare
alone, to, you know, counter this new type of adversary, which was
global terrorism and al-Qaeda in particular.
And so a group of analysts working deep within the bowels of the
Pentagon and at the various regional commands began looking for a
broader, more holistic strategy. And actually, Dave, they turned to the
history books and looked back at Cold War-era deterrents that had kept a
tense nuclear peace, but a peace nonetheless, with the nuclear-powered
Soviet Union over the decades.
And they began looking at elements of classic deterrence that could be
applied to this new kind of enemy.
DAVIES: Right. And, of course, back in the Cold War days, the notion was
to make it clear to the Soviets that were they to launch a nuclear
attack, they would suffer an overwhelming retaliation and thereby deter
it - you know, mutually assured destruction. It wasn't going to work.
Now, in cases like al-Qaeda, you don't have a state actor. It doesn't
defend a particular territory. And I guess the prevailing view was, you
know, they are religious fanatics that simply aren't going to be -
aren't going to follow a rational course. What are some of the ways that
these thinkers came to believe that a different kind of deterrence made
Mr. ERIC SCHMITT (Co-author, "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of
America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda"): Well, Dave, what happened
was, this eclectic band of thinkers at the Pentagon looked over this
history of the Cold War deterrence, and they found that while you
couldn't necessarily deter the suicide - every suicide bomber or the
hardcore al-Qaeda leaders â say, Osama bin Laden - there were those
around the terrorists, the enablers, the financiers, the logisticians,
the gun-runners, that the terrorists relied upon.
And these people you very much could deter. These people were in it
largely for the money, largely for the success of their operation. And
so the strategy became what are some of the tactics and operations you
can use against these enablers, putting pressure on them, that would
thus enable the Americans in this case, counterterrorism experts, to
disable, disrupt or even destroy some of these terrorist networks.
DAVIES: Yeah, and maybe convince suicide bombers that the heavenly
delights they are expecting might not be there.
Mr. SHANKER: Well, that was certainly one of the counter-messaging
efforts of the United States government, which was to put out there, and
even more importantly to have respected elders of the Muslim community
say that killing innocents will not get you the heavenly rewards that
the terrorists have promised.
But they also made an important decision that these new principles of
deterrence probably would be less effective against a person after
they'd already strapped on the suicide vest, because they've already
made the commitment, and they certainly knew they couldn't deter an
Osama bin Laden or someone like him.
But as Eric said, you could deter the people in the middle. I mean, you
know, it takes a network to carry out a terrorist operation, and not
everyone in that network is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
And as our book describes in particular, you look at the gunrunners, the
weapons suppliers, the explosives buyers, and most importantly the
financial backers. There's some very interesting missions carried out in
Afghanistan to go after the financial networks that transferred money
for the terrorist operations.
Now, the American military in '09 and 2010 shut down a handful of these
just to show what they could do. But more importantly, they went to
scores more of these financial houses and money transfer markets and
said, hey, if you continue to do this, your family will suffer a
significant loss of the quality of life. Is that what you want?
And that's, Dave, how you achieve a long-term deterrence value, because
it shut down the money flow for months.
DAVIES: These were the Hawallah operations that transfer money across
Mr. SHANKER: That's exactly right. It's a cultural norm there. It's
based on trust and family ties and networks where you can hand off money
to someone in one town and then your contact can pick it up in another
town just based on a handshake. So there's no international record-
keeping of the kind that Treasury and law enforcement can follow. So
they had to find a new way to threaten the quality of life of these
Hawallah operators to prevent them and deter them from financing
Mr. SCHMITT: There's another example in our book that's interesting, and
that is the American military discovered in some of the operations
combating terrorist organizations in the northern part of Iraq that the
suicide bombers there, before they carried out their bombings, would
have their, basically, attacks blessed by an emir.
And once the military discovered that and they targeted the emir, they
essentially killed the emir, it would disrupt this terrorist suicide
bombing network for some time until you could get a new emir. So again,
you're disrupting and delaying these attacks as a way of disrupting the
DAVIES: Now, of course you write that in the early years after the 9/11
attacks, the Bush administration was focused on Iraq and focused on a
kill-and-capture strategy to deal with al-Qaeda and other Islamic
But I was a little surprised to read that one of those in the government
who really sought a more flexible, integrated approach to terrorism was
Donald Rumsfeld. What was his role?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, as I like to say, just because Rumsfeld says
something doesn't make it automatically wrong.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHANKER: He's the sort of fellow who offended a lot of people in the
bureaucracy, and he definitely gave general officers the wire brush
treatment, and history will judge whether his decisions were
historically right or historically wrong.
But one thing about Rumsfeld that is true, when he couldn't solve a
problem, he expanded it, and dealing and assessing the fact that America
seemed to be creating more terrorists than it was either capturing or
killing, he was the first to sort of say there's got to be a bigger way
of looking at this. How can we expand our discussion to perhaps come up
with a new way of looking at the terror problem?
DAVIES: And you write that, I guess - was it, 2005, he arranged a
briefing with President Bush at his Crawford ranch. Do you want to give
us a sense of what his message was and what the outcome was?
Mr. SCHMITT: That's right, and again, this goes back to this eclectic
band of thinkers deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, Dave, that were
working away on this new notion of new deterrence. And it just so
happened that they were working away on this at a time when Rumsfeld had
gotten a briefing and was very frustrated at the time that there wasn't
any - kind of any new real thinking going on in this area.
And Douglas Feith, who at the time was undersecretary for policy at the
Pentagon, the Pentagon's top policymaker, he knew what was going on in
the bowels of the Pentagon, in his shop, and the thinking there, and he
immediately said we've got to rush this up to the secretary. We've got
to get this thinking to him quickly. This is exactly the type of new
idea that he's looking for.
So in just a matter of weeks, what had been just a conceptual idea that
was being fleshed out was quickly drafted into a presentation for
Rumsfeld, who took it down to Bush and laid it out for him at Bush's
Now, to be sure, Bush was somewhat skeptical about this, but Rumsfeld
was insistent in kind of pushing this, and this was something they
continued to work through the â work through the Pentagon.
DAVIES: Now, I was interested to read in your book that there were
efforts, I think this was in the Bush administration initially, to open
some line of communication with Osama bin Laden. What do we know of that
Mr. SHANKER: In the days and weeks after 9/11, there really was an
effort to in some ways reach out to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda
senior leadership, to replicate the sort of dialogue, on a much smaller
scale, that the U.S. had with the Soviet Union.
So the intelligence community very quietly tried to get messages to bin
Laden through the family financial network, through family members
themselves, some of whom were very open to carrying a message because
they were embarrassed or bothered or humiliated by what al-Qaeda was
doing, and some of the family members of course were not as receptive.
At the end of the day, and Eric and I spoke with some of the
intelligence officials directly involved in this effort, the answer from
bin Laden was utter silence, and the effort was dropped.
DAVIES: And what was the message to bin Laden: Please call back?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHANKER: It was an effort to describe in some ways, you know, the
kinds of retaliation the U.S. would consider for future attacks. It was
trying to again deter any future al-Qaeda attack by making clear the
punishment that would be carried out. Because if you read bin Laden's
dialogue before 9/11 and in the days afterwards, he thought the U.S. was
a paper tiger and was afraid to respond. And I think in many ways that
was what inspired them to go for this incredibly bold and horrible set
of 9/11 attacks.
DAVIES: And I'm just curious, I mean what sort of retaliation could they
have threatened against a guy whose location they didn't know?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, as you saw, I mean classic deterrence was carried
out. The United States invaded Afghanistan, which was his territory, and
while the goal would have been to capture or kill him, they certainly
did rout him from his safe haven. That was actually a classic case of
DAVIES: We're speaking with Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker. They are both
veteran correspondents for the New York Times. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guests are Thom Shanker and Eric
Schmitt, both veteran reporters for the New York Times. They've covered
national security issues for many years. They have a new book called
"Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al
Well, in the later years of the Iraq War, I mean you write that America
was getting smarter about and more flexible, bringing a more integrated
approach to dealing with terrorism. And a lot of this involved the
military and intelligence communities working together more effectively.
And you describe an operation - I believe this was December of 2006 in
Iraq - that you say changed the course of the war. There was a First
Lieutenant Garry Owens Flanders that led this relatively unassuming
mission. What happened that night?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, they were just out on a routine patrol because the
IED networks had been really causing terrible havoc and loss of life in
the region. But they realized that when they set up their static
patrols, cars didn't come by because all the Iraqis in the belt north of
Baghdad were supporting the insurgency.
So rather than having static patrol, this young lieutenant decided he
would out-guerrilla the guerrillas, and he began setting up a mobile
checkpoint. And one evening in December, just as you said, Dave, they
stopped a car, just, you know, it was a Mercedes out driving, and it was
And as they approached the car, the driver leapt from the vehicle and
began running away and then self-detonated. He was wearing a suicide
vest. And they captured the occupant of the car and a briefcase full of
thumb drives and files and all of that.
What they found really was the al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia battle plan for
how to counter the surge that had just been ordered. It showed the safe
houses, it showed where all of the weapons were stored, and it also
showed that al-Qaida really understand the Iraqi people more than the
Americans did, because among the chief targets that al-Qaida in
Mesopotamia was going to attack during the surge were the bakeries,
because buying fresh bread every day is a sign to the population of a
good life, and they were going to attack the garbage men, because they
wanted the garbage to pile up to show that the American effort was
And using this sort or really serendipitous capture by this young
lieutenant, General Ray Odierno, who was commanding the day-to-day
operations of the surge, was able to reshape his entire force footprint.
And he's described this seizure almost like, you know, the ability of
the Allies to break the Enigma codes of the Nazis during World War II.
It gave him total visibility into the al-Qaeda battle plan.
DAVIES: And I gather that if this same raid had happened a couple of
years earlier, that they might not have taken advantage of this treasure
trove of intelligence. What had changed?
Mr. SHANKER: It used to be that the intelligence community would stay
back in Washington. They'd wait for the reports to come back, and they'd
be back here safe and sound and all that.
Well, you know, given the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the global
nature of this threat, intelligence analysts were pushed forward. So
they were on the ground. There was actually an officer of the NSA, which
is the code-breaking arm of intelligence, who was at the headquarters
when this material landed. So he could immediately begin sorting it and
looking through it.
And they'd also installed - and it sounds like such a small thing - a
giant electronic pipe from Iraq back to the United States. I mean, think
about the frustration all of us have with our home Internet, when it's
slow or it goes down. Well, actually, the American military is not
perfect. They actually were having communications difficulties during
the early years of the war.
But they had just installed this giant Internet classified pipeline so
they could move vast materials of data back and forth. If that had not
been in place, there's no way they could have cracked this cache of
intelligence quickly enough to do any good.
DAVIES: So you've got a military that realizes that the briefcases and
the hard drives really matter and the technical capability to go through
all of that data that's in Arabic.
Now, you also describe this raid at a place called Sinjar in Iraq near
the Syrian border. This is really fascinating. Describe what this was
all about, what led to that operation.
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, again, this was an operation â again, serendipitous.
It's a little town near the Iraqi-Syrian border, where a Special
Operations team raids this camp, really, that - it's full of jihadists.
And what they come up with is essentially the al-Qaeda Rolodex, the
index of the foreign fighters that are coming in primarily from Syria
into Iraq and the countries they're coming from.
And one of the interesting things about this story, Dave, is the idea of
how anal, really, al-Qaeda is about its recordkeeping and excruciating
detail about the names of these individual recruits, where they're
coming from, their home towns, and the countries they're coming from.
Well, this became a very important tool for the U.S. government to use,
and it was turned over to an interesting guy, a retired general, Dell
Dailey, who had been the head of several Special Operations commands.
And so he came from a very experienced background as a military
But he, at the time that this information came forward from Sinjar, was
the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator. So what he was able
to do was go to these countries armed with this information, Sinjar
files, and go one by one through these countries and basically confront
- and he carried the weight of a former (technical difficulties)
operations command general, a three star Army general with him. So he
could go to some countries essentially as General Dailey and use his
military connections to show them exactly where these recruits were
coming from in the country.
DAVIES: And I guess this is sort of an interesting kind of corollary to
the, you know, the deterrence doctrine. He goes to Saudi Arabia, he goes
to Jordan, and he tells them how many suicide bombers are coming from
there, and what does he tell them then that makes them act? Why is it in
their interest to do something about this?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, he simply reminded them of something that has stung
America over the decades, which is blowback, that if you don't take care
of problems emanating from inside your country, even if at that point in
time those young men are making jihad in another country, they will
eventually return, those who don't kill themselves, or they will inspire
others who will come back as hardened veteran terrorists.
And they will come home, and they will bring that problem back to your
soil. That in essence was what General Dailey told them.
DAVIES: The other fascinating part of this story is the decision by
General Stanley McChrystal on how to handle this data. Explain what he
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, what McChrystal did was basically look at this
information, which was collected by Special Operations forces, and
typically in a raid like this, it would remain within highly classified
channels. It might be shared within the government, the intelligence
community, but it would be held very tightly.
What McChrystal did, he said no, no, we need to act on this quickly, and
one of the - the only way we can do that is to essentially make it
public. And so what he did was he took the information to the West Point
Combating Terrorism Center and said we want you to publish this,
basically in an open forum, to allow everybody to analyze this
It was really an unprecedented step by McChrystal, who was really a
visionary thinker in this way, but it got the information out there
quicker, had many more eyes analyzing this information in a much broader
way, and again reflected the idea that it needs a whole-of-government
approach to combat terrorism, not just the very narrow bands that
existed certainly prior to 9/11.
DAVIES: Now, this reminded me of WikiLeaks. I mean, was he literally
making public safe houses, names of operatives, destinations, tactics,
all that stuff?
Mr. SHANKER: It was scrubbed quite a bit more. The information that was
released was really an ink spot of what communities had produced the
young men who then traveled through Syria into Iraq to be either suicide
bombers or simply to become foot soldiers.
It was scrubbed of anything that might have given an operational
knowledge of what the U.S. knew at the time, but what it did, it gave
General Dailey the ability, you know, to an open source and with
countries that were not allies of ours.
I mean he went to Libya, for goodness sake, but to say, hey, we didn't
make this up; this is honest to goodness raw data seized from al-Qaeda,
this is not a propaganda campaign. And he would not have been able to
share that with all of these allies, partners, and some countries who
aren't friends, if General McChrystal had not decided to declassify the
DAVIES: And do we know what the impact was of these efforts?
Mr. SHANKER: Yeah, General Petraeus told us on the record that there was
no single operation during his entire period of command that cut down
the numbers of suicide bombers as much as this whole-of-government
effort that was led by General Dailey using the seized intelligence.
So you know, other than the raid on the camp that killed the terrorists
there, there was no other kinetic aspect. It was all about translation,
assessment, pulling together an exploitation through diplomatic channels
to stop suicide bombers from flowing from Syria into Iraq.
DAVIES: And was there a notable decrease in suicide attacks?
Mr. SHANKER: Absolutely. It dropped to about one-tenth of what it had
DAVIES: Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt are veteran reporters for the New
York Times. Their book is called "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of
America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda." They'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross,
who is off this week.
We're speaking with New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom
Shanker about innovative strategies developed to fight al-Qaida and
other terrorist groups. In their new book, Schmitt and Shanker report
that some years after the September 11th attacks officials moved beyond
a kill-and-capture strategy to a more integrated approach, aimed in part
at disrupting terrorist networks and inhibiting their ability to recruit
and train new followers. The book is called "Counterstrike: The Untold
Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
So you write that by the end of the Bush administration there was
certainly much better coordination among the military and intelligence.
There were smarter approaches to the issue of terrorism. You know, in
January of 2009, Barack Obama is inaugurated. How did his approach to
this problem differ from President Bush's?
Mr. SCHMITT: In many ways when president Obama came into office he
picked up on many of President Bush's counterterrorism policies and
strategies. What was interesting to note is that the biggest difference
was probably between the first and second Bush administration where some
of the real major changes began in the thinking and evolution of how you
combat terrorism. It really started in the second Bush administration.
So there was a great deal of continuity from Bush to the second Bush
administration into President Obama's first administration.
President Obama, of course, embraced the CIA drone strikes, drone
strikes used in Pakistan, and actually expanded them. He had certainly
continued the policy that started with the Bush administration of
closing down the black sites, the detention sites.
But important enough was the effort by President Obama to work more
closely with allies in dealing with counterterrorism issues, in working
to combat not only the flow of fighters, as we've talked about, but the
flow of money, for instance, that comes out of ally countries in the
Middle East or in Europe. And so I think in many ways there were many of
the allies in these places were working more closely with the Obama
administration as they came in.
DAVIES: And he consciously tried to undermine the notion that America is
waging a war on Islam. He went to Cairo and gave that speech, talking
about America's, you know - the importance of American relations with
Islamic countries and its respect for Islam. And there were efforts to
in effect undermine al-Qaida's message. And this was not something that
Obama did for the first time; it was done before then. But I wonder if
you can just talk a little bit about that. First of all, what were some
of the things that were tried that didn't work in this area, the
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, in many ways beginning in the Bush administration
there was a push to talk about how good the United States was. And if
you could only polish the American image in the Middle East suddenly
everybody would see how well-meaning the United States would be and want
to be just like us - just like the United States. And again, it
reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of how the United States was
being interpreted there.
The United States was seen, of course, initially as the country that was
the victim after 9/11 and had wide, you know, wide world global support
for that. But when the United States moved into Iraq during the Iraq
war, much of that sympathy dissipated and soon turned to anger and
hatred against the United States and in many ways was generating more
militants and it was before.
It continued to have the problem of being seen as an ally of Israel. And
so you had the distrust of the United States in this way. So rather than
combating the message that al-Qaida was putting out - and it was a very
simple but effective message, that is the United States and the West in
general is at war with Islam. Instead the United States and many of its
policymakers at the time were trying to burnish the American image.
It wasn't until again, later in the Bush administration and then
continuing on in the Obama administration that there was a significant
shift. And that was to go after the underlying message of al-Qaida and
to undermine its credibility. And to point out through credible voices
in the Muslim community - not through American voices, which would taint
that message, but through credible Muslim voices - to point out that the
vast number of casualties for instance in suicide attacks and other
bombings in places like Iraq and Afghanistan were innocent men, women
and children - Muslims themselves. And so this became part of became
still an evolving counter-messaging strategy by the United States. And
it's still one of the weakest links in this whole counterterrorism
DAVIES: Are there some other, I don't know, tricks they've used, some
other strategies that they've employed that have been more effective?
Mr. SHANKER: It's difficult to gauge the effectiveness of a lot of these
things because you can't really do public opinion polling among...
Mr. SHANKER: ...the jihadis, but some that the military and the
intelligence community feel are worthwhile, there's a system whereby
native Arabic speakers will go onto chat rooms that are popular with
either jihadists themselves or potentially radicalized young people who
could join the jihad. And what these Americans and their agents do in
Arabic online is sort of pose questions, try to foment a discussion.
They don't really state propaganda themselves but they say hey, did you
see the bombing at that market in pick your country, Jordan or Iraq or
Afghanistan? And I'm troubled, my friends, about the number of innocent
members of our Islamic community who were killed. Can someone please
explain to me how this is in keeping â how is this al-Qaida attack in
keeping with what we believe?
And so they hope to raise those questions to help these young potential
jihadis come to their own conclusions that this is not the path they
want to pursue.
DAVIES: Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt are veteran reporters for The New
York Times. Their new book is called "Counterstrike."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guests are two veteran reporters
for The New York Times, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker. They've covered
national security and military affairs for many years. Their new book is
"Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al
Now you write also about cyber war. And I'm interested to hear not so
much in defending the country from a cyber attack, but in the efforts of
the administration to deal with jihadist websites. Give us a sense first
of all of what these websites are like and what their roles are in these
campaigns of terror.
Mr. SHANKER: Well, it's very interesting to return to our, the original
theme of our discussion, Dave, which is can deterrence be applied? You
know, terrorists don't have territory and they don't have targets you
can readily see. So, in fact, the Internet is their classic safe haven.
It's where they live and operate. It's their air and land and water.
It's where they recruit. It's where they do their fundraising. It's
where they do their propaganda. It's actually also where they do their
operational planning and where they issue orders.
So if there is a domain of combat that the American military and
intelligence community have to attack that's where they find the
terrorists. And so it is a huge priority and one that has not been
written about or understood very well before.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things in the book is that the military
loves to create new groups tasks force and committees with long
acronyms. And one of my favorites is the one for the for, you know, the
Internet war, the Strategic Operational Planning Interagency Group for
Terrorist Use of The Internet," which could be pronounced SOPIGTUI(ph),
I guess. They did form this inter-agency group to take this on. And
there were some interesting dilemmas that they faced. I mean, you know,
do you take down the site? Do you milk them for data? Do you use them to
sow disinformation? Do you want to just talk a little bit about some of
the debates on how to approach that task?
Mr. SHANKER: Sure. And the reason this crazy organization was created
because they needed some grownups in the room to settle very, very deep
and heartfelt separations of views. If you are an operational commander
in Iraq or Afghanistan and one of these terrorist sites is putting out
information, which it does, about how close you have to stand and at
what angle to be able to penetrate a soldier's bulletproof vest. Or
what's happened in Iraq, one of the websites for an insurgent group
called the JRTN was posting the polling places, the exact locations
ahead of a national parliamentary election. That was a targeting list.
They wanted those sites attacked. So if you're a general on the
battlefield and this is on the Internet that is a clear and present
danger to your troops and to the mission.
At the same time, the intelligence community might say now wait a
second. This is just a honey pot of great information. We see who comes
to the site. We see who stays on the site. We can follow them back to
other websites. And this might let us understand more about how this
network operates and we can do greater harm to the terror network if we
let this site run and keep learning from it. So you have huge knockdown,
drag out debates with the operational commander saying take the site
down and the intelligence community saying no, we want to leave it up.
DAVIES: I guess in some ways that's akin to what happens in a lot of
criminal investigations where - and in terrorist investigations whether
you're following someone who might do something dangerous. Do you arrest
them or do you keep an eye on them and see what you can learn about a
wider network? Was this debate ever resolved or was it simply a tension
that has to be managed?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, there is a system now to resolve it and so it's case
specific. In the case of this JRTN website that was putting up really,
you know, dangerous information before the election - and it wasn't just
the polling places, they were having all of the jihadi porn you hear
about, the decapitations and all of that. General Odierno did win the
debate on that and the server was taken down. And there's a very
interesting footnote on this story, Dave, which is that the server
carrying the website was based in the United States.
Now they had millions of pages on their site. They could never have
known what it was. So it wasn't even cyber warfare or sending poison
electrons to take it down. They sent some guys in suits from Commerce or
Treasury or the local police department to show the Web server what was
on his site. That person pulled the plug and it went down but, of
course, it popped up again in Southeast Asia on a server there about a
Mr. SCHMITT: Dave, what's interesting and the book also shows in
addition to the fights inside the government over cyber that Thom's just
described, these same kind of fights were going on inside the FBI, for
instance. And again this shows an evolution about what was happening
within the counterterrorism community.
As you pointed out, in the criminal justice field it used to be
certainly the FBI prior to 9/11, if they're looking at a possible
suspect they're going to collect enough evidence and at the time they
get enough evidence that somebody a person they suspect has committed a
crime they'll arrest them.
Well, an important sea shift takes place in the FBI and certainly years
following 9/11 in that they're asked, they're directed by the president
to now become the country's premier domestic intelligence agency. And so
now not only do they have the responsibility of arresting potential
criminals but now they are essentially an intelligence agency gathering
information on criminals - in this case potential terrorists. So they're
faced with the dilemma of tracking individuals who might be a part of
terrorist networks and usually at the point where they might walk in and
bust the guy and arrest that person they're now saying no, no, let's
wait. Let's let this guy play out and see if he'll take us to other
nodes in this network so we can understand the full scope and scale of
And every morning now at FBI headquarters where director Bob Mueller
convenes his top aides they have a list of a couple of dozen individuals
they're tracking every single day watching and they're having to make
that call: When do we move in on this person? When do we think we've
exhausted our resources in terms of monitoring and surveillance to think
we now understand that network as best we can? Because the fear is, of
course, if you arrest somebody, roll them up too soon you may have
missed sleeper cells, you may have missed parts of the network that
could come back and carry out terrorist attacks.
The concern now is, as we move more and more toward the threat of
domestic terrorism, is that that span between somebody who becomes
radicalized who may just think or go online and think about carrying out
terrorist attacks to actually carrying out an attack is becoming much
shorter. And it's very hard and very difficult to monitor and to gauge
if you're law-enforcement in the United States now.
DAVIES: Now are there cases where American intelligence officials were
able to get on to these jihadist websites and in effect imitate
commanders and post phony orders? You both co-authored a piece in -
recently that mentioned this and that created some stir, some attention.
Mr. SHANKER: Yeah, it certainly they did. What the American military
intelligence can do is forge the watermarks or certification, if you
will, of official al-Qaida postings because they don't what people going
online and, you know, pretending to be them. But, you know, American
cyber technology is so advanced that they can have a near perfect re-
creation of an al-Qaida message.
And what they're doing from time to time is going on to jihadi websites
and posting conflicting and contradictory orders, statements that raise
doubt about who the jihadi should follow and who is really in charge,
and is this person still alive? Are they, you know, still in control?
And the goal is to really disrupt the entire network by sowing distrust
and dissent and confusion, and we've been told that they've had some
great successes at that.
DAVIES: And I was also surprised to read that - in the book, that some
terrorists are using video games to communicate with one another.
Mr. SCHMITT: Yes. What you've got in these kind of games is the
terrorists have essentially adopted the language of the games itself and
turned that into a kind of code so that you go online and you're
following a game like this. And while it may seem to anyone else as if
you're just playing this virtual game, for the terrorists, they've
created a whole - idioms that go with this. And...
DAVIES: And just to clarify, we're talking about these massive,
interactive online games where hundreds of thousands of people across
the world can be interacting in real-time online in this game, right?
Mr. SCHMITT: That's right. So the challenge now for the nation's code
breakers at the NSA is to try and figure out, well, who is on this. Is
it terrorists? And when they're playing these games, what exactly are
they saying in this coded language? And it's posing one of the biggest
challenges today, because as Thom said before, this is really the domain
of the terrorists in the cyber world.
Mr. SHANKER: And what it's done is it's shown, really, that the
terrorists are a learning adversary. I mean, they now understand that,
you know, the NSA and other code breakers can pick up on keywords in
emails or cell phones. You know, those words change a lot, but, you
know, whether it's a wedding or something else, they can scan the global
cell phone networks and find those. But the technology doesn't yet exist
to decode if there's 100,000 gamers on at one time and they're all
talking about this exploding or that attack, it's almost impossible to
differentiate what's a high school kid having fun with his friends and
what is a jihadi plotting an attack.
SCHMITT: Dave, this gets to another one of the points we make on the
book and how one of the big changes since 9/11 is just not only the
volume of information that's being sucked up by various intelligence
platforms - be they satellite and imagery or eavesdropping on
communications. But then it's the ability of supercomputers to crunch
all this information in much shorter timeframes to give the operators a
chance to then react to this information in a much faster way, so that
you - if you pick up information, whether it's a cell phone
conversation, you now have databases that can link those individuals on
the cell phone conversations to everyone else they've been talking to
over a period of months.
And suddenly - within a matter of minutes, perhaps - you have a vast
profile surrounding an individual. And you can deploy whether it's
commandos, armed aircraft or drone strikes, or perhaps just more
surveillance over that individual in a much faster way. And it gives the
commanders in the field and policymakers here in Washington a much
broader array of options to deal with terrorists.
DAVIES: Well, I guess it was - as you were finishing your book, or maybe
after you'd submitted the manuscript, that Osama bin Laden was killed by
that American team, and you have an epilogue in the book which describes
it. And I'm wondering how you think the killing of Osama bin Laden has
changed the game for, you know, for Americans fighting terrorism?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, obviously, it's had a dramatic effect and an initial
impact. And that you can't discount the significance that bin Laden had,
not only as the operational and spiritual leader of al-Qaida, but this
sense that this is a man who had, up until his death, had defied the
West, had defied the United States, continuing to put out video - more
likely audio releases - and that there was a sense that he was almost
untouchable, that he and Zawahiri, his number two, remained above the
fray, even as their number three commanders, their operational
commanders and their rank-and-file were killed. And he was an
inspiration in the Middle East and to those in the Muslim community and
the jihadi community who followed him.
His death now and the way he died really punctured that, and it showed
the vulnerability that he had and that the leaders now of al-Qaida had
and the way he was killed, living in a safe house in Abbottabad,
Pakistan in relative comfort has also been used to mixed effects by the
United States in their counter-messaging campaign.
There's still a long way to go, though, in this battle. As Thomas said,
there have been there may be tactical successes, and this is obviously
one of the most important ones in the last 10 years. But al-Qaida, the
ideology remains quite virulent. And more important, perhaps, the al-
Qaida affiliates, the branches of al-Qaida beyond the tribal areas of
Pakistan that have sprouted up - most notably in Yemen, which right now
U.S. counterterrorism officials say is the - it poses the greatest
threat to the United States, as well as adherence in Somalia and
northern Africa and even some resurgence in Iraq.
So even though bin Laden is dead, the main al-Qaida infrastructure and
operation in Pakistan has been dealt a severe blow, there's still a long
way to go you for you can count out the terrorists right now.
DAVIES: Thom Shanker, you want to add anything to that?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, I would just say that, you know, as Eric described,
it's going to be a long, hard battle. And I think the terrorist
community is shifting. While there's still a desire for an attack of
mass casualties like on 9/11, and while terrorist networks are seeking a
weapon of mass destruction, absolutely, they're changing to a strategy
of multiple, smaller attacks.
Think of it Dave, as throwing pebbles into the cogs of the Western
economic machine. If you throw enough pebbles, some will get through,
and those cogs will stick. Think about the printer cartridge attack that
al-Qaida in Yemen attempted, the group that Eric was just talking about.
That attack was caught. It was aborted. It didn't happen. But the idea
of sending explosive printer cartridges on commercial air prompted
hundreds of millions of dollars in excess spending on security,
disrupted transportation for days. So even though that attack was a
failure, it was a propaganda success for the adversary.
And so what the United States and its allies have to do is to be ready
for the next attack, but to respond with resiliency and even a shrug of
the shoulders. Because another attack is going to come, and denying the
adversary victory is all about the United States and its and its allies
picking up - not the next day or the next week - but picking up that day
and moving ahead. That's what denies terrorists a victory.
DAVIES: New York Times reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt. Their
new book is called "Counterstrike."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're speaking with Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker. Their new
book is "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign
Against Al Qaeda."
You write about the growth in homegrown extremism, Americans who are
attracted to, you know, jihadist groups and some of them have gone to
Pakistan or Yemen and have been trained and come back. And it's
interesting that in the first years after the 9/11 attacks, we didn't
see this so much. You know that it was around 2009 that you saw more of
this arising. Did the officials you talked to have an explanation for
Mr. SHANKER: Part of this is just an evolution, I think, and that first
of all, the Muslim community here in the United States is much better
integrated socially and economically than, say, those communities in
Europe or the Middle East which had been the target for most of the al-
But as time goes on, the al-Qaida message became more nuanced and more
effective. And particularly with the rise of an American-born cleric
named Anwar al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico, practiced here in the United
States, fluent English speaker. He has now emerged as one of the key
spokesman. He's now in hiding in Yemen. But his propaganda - all in
English, and targeted at the English-speaking world - has been very
If you look at the number of these so-called homegrown attacks, whether
it's the Major Nidal Hasan in Fort Hood, Najibullah Zazi, the so-called
subway bomber, the attempted subway bomber in New York City, and many,
many others. These have all been affected by Anwar al-Awlaki. Another is
a guy from North Carolina named Samir Khan, who is the editor of an
English-language online journal called Inspire, which has got very, a
very slick production - again, aimed at the English-speaking audience.
So I think the - al-Qaida understands now, as they've moved to this dual
strategy that Thom talked about of still preparing for the mass casualty
attack, if they can obtain weapons of mass destruction. They're now
trying to inspire individuals, particularly over the Internet and here
in the United States or in parts of English-speaking Europe, to carry
out attacks of all sizes and kinds, however they may be. And this is
what really poses one of the biggest challenges to American intelligence
and law enforcement now, is how to detect.
It's one thing if you have a cell, a terrorist cell that has multiple
parts. And any part of that, if you detect it, you can pull the string
and it'll unravel. If you're only talking about individuals, one or two
perhaps who are basically radicalize over the Internet and inspired to
attack on their own and they have the wherewithal to do so, many times
these online journals that al-Qaida in Yemen, for instance, are
producing give you tips exactly how to produce ricin for instance, or
DAVIES: That's the substance that was going to be used in the plot in
London that was thwarted.
Mr. SCHMITT: Exactly...
Mr. SCHMITT: ...a deadly poison. Or just on how to carry out a simple,
small explosive attack. It's basically a how-to guide for the individual
terrorist out there. This is very difficult to detect and to thwart if
you're in American law enforcement.
DAVIES: We're coming up on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th
attacks. I'm curious what, if anything, you're hearing from your
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, counterterrorism experts are telling me that while
the 10th anniversary of 9/11 may seem to pose an obvious target for al-
Qaida, what they fear, actually, is that al-Qaida will know the various
defensive measures that'll be taken around the world and will actually
wait a month or so afterward when, presumably, defenses are lessened to
carry out any kind of attack.
The concern here is, though, that the copycats, some of those new
extremists that are being radicalized over the Internet may see it as a
great time to carry out its own kind of individualized attack. So while
you may not see any large-scale attack from an al-Qaida or al-Qaida
affiliate, there could well be threats made by individuals seeking to
make a statement of their own on 9/11.
DAVIES: Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. SCHMITT: Many thanks, Dave.
Mr. SHANKER: Dave, it was an honor to be here. Thanks for all the great
DAVIES: Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt cover military and national
security issues for The New York Times. Their new book is called
"Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al
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