According to a new CIA assessment, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen is now a more dangerous threat to the United States than is the core group based in Pakistan. A recently released report written by the heads of the 9/11 Commission states that the threat from homegrown Islamic terrorism inside the United States is significant and growing. Meanwhile the United Nations notes that violence in Afghanistan is soaring despite, or perhaps because of, the presence of close to 100,000 American troops.
Nine years after 9/11, we remain at war with radical Islam and, while we are not losing, we are not winning either. Rather than continue to pound away at this problem with the same weapons and tactics we have used to date, it is time we stopped, reflected and considered what methods we should be using.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, despite tremendous confusion and uncertainty, we acted appropriately. We responded to an attack by a relatively small number of fanatics using very unconventional methods by turning loose a select group of intelligence officers and Special Forces personnel to take the fight to Al Qaeda in its Afghan safe haven. Those men performed brilliantly, and within months Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was destroyed.
Having won that victory, however, we then allowed the conventional military and the forces of Washington bureaucracy to take charge of the situation. In place of small teams of highly professional operators pursuing a very narrow and clearly defined mission, we deployed massive numbers of conventional forces and representatives of other agencies and took on a mission completely unrelated to that which first brought us into that nation, the creation of a modern nation-state where none has ever existed in recorded history. That undertaking continues to this day at an increasingly horrific cost in both blood and treasure.
After driving Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and finding that its surviving senior leadership had taken refuge in Pakistan, we again pursued the wrong course of action. Rather than turning to select groups of highly-trained operators to take on the task of locating and either apprehending or killing a very small number of targets, we again opted to turn loose all the force of Washington bureaucracy and the conventional military on the problem. Nine years later we find ourselves mired down in Pakistan as well, with a massive intelligence presence, a huge military assistance and training program and an effort to locate and target Al Qaeda officials which resembles a long-term siege much more than it does a clandestine operation
While we have been engaged in these massive, frustrating efforts, Al Qaeda has moved on. It has evolved. It has shifted its center of gravity. It has found new ways to operate. We are still trying to complete the invasion of Afghanistan we undertook nine years ago. Al Qaeda is training and dispatching terrorists from Yemen. It is forming new alliances with groups like Al Shabaab. It is dispatching operatives to the United States who within the past year have come within a hair’s breadth of taking down an airliner and detonating a car bomb in Times Square.
Despite all this, we seem doomed to repeat all of the same mistakes. A lack of success to date is not causing us to reexamine our tactics, to revisit our methodologies or to think in terms of any manner of innovation or creativity whatsoever. Instead, we seem determined to do exactly what has not worked to date, to spend more money, to send more personnel, to build new bases and, in short, to confuse process and expenditure with forward progress. As I write this, the administration is proceeding with plans to significantly expand the numbers of American personnel in Yemen and to broaden their mission. Yet another exercise in “nation-building” awaits.
The truth is that this is not a conflict that can be won by either conventional means or by the employment of large forces operating under the direction of a slow, top-heavy bureaucracy. Our adversaries are nimble and evolving, and we need to pit against them an entity that is equally as audacious, adaptable and agile. The US military is incapable of doing this job, not because of any failing on the part of the men and women who serve in it, but because it is far too stiff and slow to respond. Al Qaeda will not sit still and wait for thousands of troops to arrive and finish building massive base facilities. Even when those troops have arrived, Al Qaeda is highly unlikely to present itself as a target against which those forces can be arrayed.
The CIA, after years of calcification and decay, has itself become too risk-averse and too inflexible. It continues to do a poor job of collecting human intelligence against terrorist organizations, and, as demonstrated by what happened in Khost, it has lost many of its most seasoned officers to attrition.
What is needed is an organization capable of getting one step ahead of the enemy instead of perpetually being several steps behind. What is needed is something like the OSS of World War II, which blends human intelligence and covert action capabilities in a culture that demands creativity and action. What is needed is an organization tough enough, light enough and quick enough to beat Al Qaeda at its own game.
What is needed is the right tool for the job.
Charles S. Faddis is a retired CIA ops officer and the former head of CIA’s WMD terrorism unit. He led the first CIA team into Iraq in advance of the 2003 invasion of that country. He is now a security consultant and the author of several works of non-fiction, including “beyond repair”, an argument for the creation of a new OSS. He lives near Annapolis, Maryland.