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Tilting at Windmills

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May 6, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CRUSH THE CELL....Michael Sheehan, an NSC staffer and counterterrorism professional under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has a new book out called Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves.In Newsweek, Christopher Dickey talks to him about al-Qaeda and global terrorism:

Before September 11, said Sheehan, the United States was "asleep at the switch" while Al Qaeda was barreling down the track. "If you don't pay attention to these guys," said Sheehan, "they will kill you in big numbers." So bin Laden's minions hit U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, they hit the Cole in 2000, and they hit New York and Washington in 2001 — three major attacks on American targets in the space of 37 months. Since then, not one. And not for want of trying on their part.

What changed? The difference is purely and simply that intelligence agencies, law enforcement and the military have focused their attention on the threat, crushed the operational cells they could find — which were in fact the key ones plotting and executing major attacks — and put enormous pressure on all the rest.

...."Even in 2003, less than two years after 9/11, I told [counterterrorist colleagues in New York City] that I thought Al Qaeda was simply not very good," Sheehan writes in his book...."I said what nobody else was saying: we underestimated Al Qaeda's capabilities before 9/11 and overestimated them after."

....That's part of what makes Sheehan so refreshing. He knows there's a big risk that he'll be misinterpreted; he'll be called soft on terror by ass-covering bureaucrats, breathless reporters and fear-peddling politicians. And yet he charges ahead. He expects another attack sometime, somewhere. He hopes it won't be made to seem more apocalyptic than it is. "Don't overhype it, because that's what Al Qaeda wants you to do. Terrorism is about psychology." In the meantime, said Sheehan, finishing his fruit juice, "the relentless 24/7 job for people like me is to find and crush those guys."

Note the absence of large scale wars in this prescription. We need to crush the bad guys where we can, but we also need to leave the "war of civilizations" talk in the ash heap where it belongs. Not only is it wrong, but it makes our fight against actual terrorists harder than it needs to be. We need help from the other 99% of the Islamic world, not their eternal enmity.

Kevin Drum 2:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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We need to crush the bad guys where we can, but we also need to leave the "war of civilizations" talk in the ash heap where it belongs.

Isn't this what every Democrat has been saying since oh, 9/11? It's absolutely correct and yet the Repubs have successfully attacked this as "soft" at every turn. Will WE ever get smart?

Posted by: ckelly on May 6, 2008 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Thank God for the few sane individuals seeking real solutions to real problems. Kinda like Obama.

Posted by: kevin K on May 6, 2008 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

Will WE ever get smart?

Not as long as people vote for politicians who engage dumb bluster.

Posted by: Ron Byers on May 6, 2008 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

The problem with this guy's analysis, however, is conflating attacks on an unsecured embassy in deteriorating 3rd World country and on an, apparently, unsecured navy vessel in a hostile 3rd World port.

I work with someone who was in the navy during the first Gulf War. A small vessel approached his ship, failed to head warnings and was shot up by a .50 caliber machine gun to the extent that very little was left of the boat. This is the level of security that should have been on the Cole. No one is to blame for the USS Cole bombing but the people in command of that ship. That was an attack that was easily avoided.

Again, there is simply no relationship between the Nairobi embassy and USS Cole bombings and the 9/11 attacks.

Posted by: Jeff II on May 6, 2008 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

What's the relationship between what this guy is saying about underestimating Al Qaeda's capacities before 9/11 and stuff I've read about Al Qaeda being on the wane before (and esp. immediately after) 9/11 (until Bush started up all those wars, that is)? I mean, it's true that the Bush administration was asleep at the wheel, but . . .

Posted by: mary on May 6, 2008 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

The thing that needs to be said over and over again is that "crushing the cells" is essentially a LAW ENFORCEMENT matter, not a military one. The "war on terror" is a big lie packed up into a brief phrase.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on May 6, 2008 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

Govts tend to think in terms of other govts.

The other stuff just confuses them. Al Qaeda - a small band of zealots or a mass movement? Makes their heads hurt...

Posted by: Horatio Parker on May 6, 2008 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

I work with someone who was in the navy during the first Gulf War. A small vessel approached his ship, failed to head warnings and was shot up by a .50 caliber machine gun to the extent that very little was left of the boat. This is the level of security that should have been on the Cole.

I disagree. The Cole was not attacked during wartime, but was on a peacetime mission at anchor in the harbor of the capital of a country that we were at the time aggressively trying to court as an ally and whose population would not have appreciated us shooting up every dhow and dinghy that strayed a little too close. If the Cole, or other US warships, routinely made a habit of raking civilian craft in crowded harbors with heavy caliber machine gun fire I don't think there would very soon be many harbors left where we were welcome. Don't forget that for every one Cole attack there have been literally hundreds of thousands of incidents where civilian ships have gotten that close with no trouble at all.

No one is to blame for the USS Cole bombing but the people in command of that ship.

No one else? Not even the bombers themselves?

Posted by: Stefan on May 6, 2008 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

"This was said to be part of the war on terror, but Iraq feeds terrorism," Scowcroft told the [The New Yorker] magazine...well, duh.

Posted by: Jet on May 6, 2008 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK
In the meantime, said Sheehan, finishing his fruit juice. . . .

Ignore him. He drinks juice. Probably doesn't like cheesesteaks either. A useless elitist.

Obliteration is the answer. If not tax cuts.

Posted by: cowalker on May 6, 2008 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

We need to crush the bad guys where we can, but we also need to leave the "war of civilizations" talk in the ash heap where it belongs.

Sorry, the visuals aren't good enough. Please rethink your strategy.

Posted by: marych on May 6, 2008 at 3:37 PM | PERMALINK

I disagree. Posted by: Stefan

What's to be expected for someone from Ft. Lee.

If you don't think the whole situation was hinky from a prudent security standpoint, why are small civilian craft anywhere near ocean going vessels in a deep water port to begin with? Again, it still boils down to no one paying attention at the time. A boat passing laterally fifty yards away is one thing. A boat heading straight for the ship . . .

We may have been courting Yemen as a "ally," but that doesn't mean it still wasn't, isn't an essentially hostile country. As I've said here time and again - we have no friends in that region and that includes Israel.


Posted by: Jeff II on May 6, 2008 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

Hey man, we've got a really really big army, we've got to use it somehow. Attacking Al Quada sleeper cells? Get real.

Posted by: AnotherBruce on May 6, 2008 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, doesn't just doing law enforcement seem kind of, um, girlie or something? How can we be safe unless we're bombing some brown people someplace?

Posted by: craigie on May 6, 2008 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

Here's an oldie but a goodie, that relates to the new book, from 2004:
“Kerry said, and I quote, ‘The war on terror is far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering law enforcement operation.’ (Audience boos.) I disagree. I disagree….. After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. With those attacks, the terrorists and supporters declared war on the United States of America — and war is what they got. (Audience applauds.)

It appears that Kerry guy wasn't elected though because some people didn't want guy men to have any rights to civil unions and others still wanted to have a beer with a non-drinking alcoholic... or something.

Posted by: carsick on May 6, 2008 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

If you don't think the whole situation was hinky from a prudent security standpoint, why are small civilian craft anywhere near ocean going vessels in a deep water port to begin with?

Huh? Small civilian craft routinely share space near larger ocean going vessels in every deep water port I've ever seen, particularly in Third World countries. I'm looking out my window now at New York harbor and see small yachts and motor boats criss-crossing the path of larger freighters.

Again, it still boils down to no one paying attention at the time. A boat passing laterally fifty yards away is one thing. A boat heading straight for the ship . . .

...is not by itself so suspicious during peacetime as to justify firing on it when in a friendly port. The ship that hit the Cole wasn't rushing at it at ramming speed. It just sort of gently motored up as if it was taking a curious look.

We may have been courting Yemen as a "ally," but that doesn't mean it still wasn't, isn't an essentially hostile country.

Why was it hostile? Yemen had taken no real action against the US, and we were there in part to court it as an ally. Such courting would have been a bit hampered by a shoot to kill order enforced against all Yemeni ships that got a little too close.

As I've said here time and again - we have no friends in that region and that includes Israel.

If that's the case, then maybe we shouldn't make port there. But you can't make port and then start to fire on the civilian craft sharing the harbor with you.

Posted by: Stefan on May 6, 2008 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

"I said what nobody else was saying: we underestimated Al Qaeda's capabilities before 9/11 and overestimated them after."

I think it's more like a few key idiots- and principally one that 51% or so of Americans voted into the White House- underestimated them. There were plenty of experts more or less screaming their heads off about Al Qaeda and the threats they were going to cause to America in the future well before 9/11, and they were expressing those concerns consistently for years. What happened maybe is that the big oil industry hotshots who pull the strings were hoping for a more impressive enemy, one who could inspire big weapons systems contracts for their buddies to win (and kickbacks, whether in cash or in kind or in political power, for themselves) and they couldn't be bothered with paying attention to something like a real enemy who were actually the most dangerous threat.

If the Republican voters wanted to pick out airheads to lead us who really weren't practical enough to "get" national security policy, they couldn't have decided on a better bunch. Now, as part of the deal, we also get all these perverse (and unnecessary) pet projects of those airheads, like surveillance on steroids, torture, and a completly botched Iraq occupation.

Posted by: Swan on May 6, 2008 at 4:47 PM | PERMALINK

It's interesting to note, that apparently direct counterterrorism efforts did OK under the Bush Admin while the grand nation-building experiment (and the Afghanistan flop-out contingent on the former) was such a screwup. How could there be such contrast in competency?

Posted by: Neil B. on May 6, 2008 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK

Again, there is simply no relationship between the Nairobi embassy and USS Cole bombings and the 9/11 attacks.

You mean no relationship other than the fact that al-Qaeda groups carried out all three attacks?

Posted by: Mnemosyne on May 6, 2008 at 5:34 PM | PERMALINK
What happened maybe is that the big oil industry hotshots who pull the strings were hoping for a more impressive enemy, one who could inspire big weapons systems contracts for their buddies to win (and kickbacks, whether in cash or in kind or in political power, for themselves) and they couldn't be bothered with paying attention to something like a real enemy who were actually the most dangerous threat.

My theory has always been that W went to his good friend Bandar Bush and said, "Hey, all of these guys from the Clinton administration keep talking about bin Laden and how dangerous he is and how he's planning a huge attack. Should I worry?" And Bandar said, "Nah, the guy's a fuck-up. We've known about him for years. You have nothing to worry about."

And then, ooops! Bin Laden gets lucky. So much for that source of knowledge.

Posted by: Mnemosyne on May 6, 2008 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

We know how to crush cells. Unfortunately, Al Queda was in partnership with the Bushies at the time.

Posted by: Matt on May 6, 2008 at 5:46 PM | PERMALINK

From a psychological point, Al Qaeda would be foolish to strike the U.S. again.

Having been so successful on 9/11, any follow-up would have to top it. And if they failed in a co-ordinated attack, they would go from "those who struck a great blow against the Great Satan" to "those guys who can't do it anymore."

Besides, as long as your victim is still running around acting terrified (by over-reacting militarily and crushing liberties), why go to the trouble?

Posted by: BrianInAtlanta on May 6, 2008 at 5:47 PM | PERMALINK

*

Posted by: mhr on May 6, 2008 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

I work with someone who was in the navy during the first Gulf War. A small vessel approached his ship, failed to head warnings and was shot up by a .50 caliber machine gun to the extent that very little was left of the boat. This is the level of security that should have been on the Cole.

Imagine this scenario: Fleet Week in the summer in New York. A French (or Russian, British, Chinese, whatever) destroyer is tied up at the West Side piers. A motor boat driven by some teenagers from Jersey putters up to the side to take a look, only to be met with a hail of gunfire that cuts them and their boat apart. You think we as the host country might have a little problem with that?

Posted by: Stefan on May 6, 2008 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

Great post.
Deep thinking.

But I do have a question:

What is a greater threat to humankind: terrorism or global warming?

Posted by: koreyel on May 6, 2008 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK

Imagine this scenario: Fleet Week in the summer in New York. A French (or Russian, British, Chinese, whatever) destroyer is tied up at the West Side piers. A motor boat driven by some teenagers from Jersey putters up to the side to take a look, only to be met with a hail of gunfire that cuts them and their boat apart. You think we as the host country might have a little problem with that?
Posted by: Stefan

Stefan, the Port of NY is not the Port of Aden. But, if they were French or British, there might be some negative feedback. Also, we do have the Coast Guard to make sure "pleasure craft" keep a safe distance from navy vessels and ferries (take note next time you ride the Staten Island boat home.

Posted by: Jeff II on May 6, 2008 at 7:13 PM | PERMALINK

Osama Bin Laden had specific objectives that he was trying to achieve with his terrorism: 1) Get US forces out of Saudi Arabia, 2) Raise the price of oil.

Bush capitulated to the terrorists, and maybe that's why there weren't any more attacks.

Posted by: Robert W. Calfee on May 6, 2008 at 9:28 PM | PERMALINK

Anyway, they are simply too busy crushing stem cells.

Posted by: Kenji on May 6, 2008 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Sheehan presents the most common sense analysis of terrorism outside of Noam Chomsky.

Look, al-Qaeda wasn't much of a threat in 2001 - they sucker punched us! Bush didn't see it coming, because he had a big hard-on to kill Saddam Hussein. Had he listened to Richard Clarke, 9-11 wouldn't have happened. We have no national defense - we couldn't even defend ourselves against 19 men with box cutters. We couldn't even get one fighter jet into the air in time to shoot down United 93. We are spending trillions on forward power projection to defend an empire that is unsustainable. Why do we have military bases in Japan? To defend against attacks by sushi chefs? Why do we have military bases in England? To defend against the Loch Ness monster? We are being screwed royally by the war machine and most people don't even get it.

Department of Defense? What a fuckin' joke!

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on May 6, 2008 at 10:45 PM | PERMALINK

Bush certainly has secured our nation with his open borders policy that has let in 60,000 Arabs through Mexico. He's like a big daddy, or more accurately a big brother, who watches over us.

Posted by: Luther on May 6, 2008 at 11:30 PM | PERMALINK

The Cole's CO would not be left to his or her own devices as to a shoot/no shoot decision. They would be operating under pretty clear rules of engagement, given to them by their command.

There's no particular reason to assume that the rules of engagement for the Cole were the same for that of Jeff's friends boat, which was engaged in Gulf War 1.

When you can tell me what those orders were, then you can blame the Cole's crew for what happened.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on May 7, 2008 at 1:55 AM | PERMALINK

The enmity of 99% of the Islamic world? More like 99.9999%. There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world and maybe 130000 that could be called terrorists.

Posted by: Kyron Huigens on May 7, 2008 at 6:50 AM | PERMALINK

Stefan, the Port of NY is not the Port of Aden.

Exactly, it's a much more valuable target. I mean, we can't exactly say there haven't been major acts of international terrorism in New York City, so shouldn't those foreign sailors be on alert?

But, if they were French or British, there might be some negative feedback. Also, we do have the Coast Guard to make sure "pleasure craft" keep a safe distance from navy vessels and ferries (take note next time you ride the Staten Island boat home.

The Coast Guard isn't shadowing every single pleasure craft in the harbor, and even less so when they're at dock. I see small craft cut close to bigger ships every day, and if they wanted to get close enough to sink them with a bomb they could do so easily.

Posted by: Stefan on May 7, 2008 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

What changed since 9-11-2001? GW Bush gave them everything they could ever have thought of asking for and more.

Posted by: QrazyQat on May 7, 2008 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

This is a great idea! I read a similar book recently: "Manhunting: Reversing the Polarity of Warfare" ISBN 1-60441-332-8. The author, also a retired special ops guy, argues that these sorts of tactics should form the basis for future national security. These tactics also apply to fighting drug lords, arms traffickers, rogue dictators, pirates, and any other threat posed by non-state actors. Interesting concepts, and worth thinking about. Kudos to Sheehan for putting things into perspective, and "outing" what he calls the 'counterterrorism-industrial complex.'

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