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Analysts: An Evolution in US Counterterrorism

  • William Eagle

FILE - Navy SEALs training. SEALs are maritime special operations forces who strike from the sea, air and land.

FILE - Navy SEALs training. SEALs are maritime special operations forces who strike from the sea, air and land.

The United States recently launched two raids on suspected terrorist hideouts in Somalia and Libya. In Somalia, Navy SEALS attempted to seize a senior leader of the radical terrorist group al-Shabab. In Libya, U.S. forces captured a senior al-Qaida figure wanted in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania 15 years ago. Analysts from the RAND Corporation in Washington say the raids show an evolution in US policy - away from killing terrorists with a drone strike to taking them alive.

Alleged al-Qaida operative Abu Anas al-Libi is now in the US after spending several days under interrogation on an American warship in the Mediterranean.

Capture or kill?

Angel Rabasa, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation with a focus on radicalization in Africa, says incidents in other parts of the world show the importance of capturing terrorists. For example, in Indonesia, the government has successfully pursued the leaders of the armed Islamic group Al Jamaah Islamyia.

“The Indonesian police and intelligence agencies have been very successful in breaking up the group and capturing leadership. They say 90 percent of the information they obtained about the group came from people who were captured and corroborated [details] with the authorities, or by defectors. The practice of the U.S. using drones to get terrorists has been counterproductive - once you kill these fellows, you don’t have the ability to derive any information from them,” said Rabasa.

"Examples abound of captured terrorists providing critical information," he continued. "One of the leaders purged by al-Shabab leader Mukhtar Abu Zubayr in Somalia was Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a senior leader and founder of the now disbanded group preceding it, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya. After the purge, he fled and surrendered to Mogadishu authorities. He is now a prisoner and could be a source of invaluable information in the counter-terrorism effort."

Some analysts think experiences from Afghanistan and Indonesia have shown that direct U.S. military involvement - including putting troops into a conflict zone -- can increase local support for radical extremists, especially in regions with large Muslim populations.

Limits to engagement

“There is a danger to inserting the U.S. into direct conflict with some of these groups that are not actively plotting against the U.S. [domestically].…" said Seth Jones, the associate director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.

"One lesson from a different theater applies to Africa and to groups like al-Shabab: the U.S. in 2009 took out the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan Baitullah Mehsud with a drone strike with Pakistan’s support. [However, in response] the next year, [the group] put a SUV with explosives inside Times Square [driven by] Faisal Shahzad. He had problems building that bomb, but we went from an organization that was very parochial [and pushed them] to respond by targeting the US homeland.

"So," he continuied, "we have to be careful with how we deal with some of these organizations that are not actively plotting [an attack within the US]."

Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst with RAND with expertise on joint force development and special operations forces, points out that there are alternatives to high-profile interventions by the U.S. For example, Washington can work with other countries that share an interest in eliminating terrorism in their region.

A tapestry of choices

“The broad tapestry of the menu I characterize as ‘soft partnering’ includes a wide variety of [options for US defense and intelligence officials]," explained Robinson.

"They can provide direct support, like aerial feed reconnaissance. They can put together intelligence packets. They may accompany the host nation or partner forces up to a target, but let them prosecute the target…They can stay behind the wire and just provide training; they can help write campaign plans. They can advise ministries. So there’s a whole gamut that falls short of doing a joint combat raid, which is yet another mode that they’ve been doing alongside the Afghan commandos in Afghanistan.”

Robinson also noted that Special Ops Forces are key players in the partnerships - and have played an important role in training forces in Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia against al-Shabab extremists in East Africa. They’ve also worked to strengthen civil defense in rural areas of Afghanistan.

“In Afghanistan, village stability operations and local police was the largest such initiative since [the war in Vietnam in the 1960’s]. They have over 25,000 now standing local defenders. To me, that experiment has really rescued a forgotten skill set of the Special Ops forces so they can go out into the villages and live with [civilians] and help those willing to stand up and defend themselves. That is a sustainable solution where you get countries [providing for their own internal security], denying safe haven to terrorists,” said Robinson.

Mindful of history

Analysts, however, warn that to be effective, partnerships must also take into consideration cultural and political dynamics of a region.

“For example, in working with Ethiopians in Somalia, there is historical baggage. They have been used by Shabab in Somalia as a recruitment and propaganda tool. One of the leaders of the Minnesota Somali community said that most of the folks in Minneapolis, who have fought in Somalia, have been recruited for nationalist rather than religious reasons… ," noted RAND analyst Seth Jones.

"So if you increasingly rely on the Kenyans and Ethiopians in countries like Somalia, the concern from some of the communities in the U.S. is that it [leads] into a nationalist fight…which has been the primary recruitment purpose for some of the Americans who have gone over to fight over there."

Unappealing alliances

Analysts say an important goal of U.S. policymakers should be to stop another form of partnership - those between Islamists with local grievances and global terrorists, who advocate a war against the West.

Angel Rabasa said the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao, the Philippines, decided to break ties with a radical group in Indonesia. The move followed al-Qaida’s attacks on New York City and Washington in September 2001.

“The MILF prior to 9/11 had a relationship with the al Qaida-associated group in Southeast Asia, the Jemaah Islamyia. The JI established training camps in Mindanao in close association with MILF commanders. But after 9/11 the leadership of MILF decided it was not in the interest of the group to be associated with al-Qaida and to bring on the opposition of the United States. So, they broke relations with al-Qaida,” said Rabasa.

Rabasa said all local Islamic extremists are asking themselves whether the training and funding they get from an alliance with al-Qaida is worth the expense. The answer, he says, may depend on how successful the U.S. and its allies are in making such alliances very unappealing.

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