Terror Tactics

Sunday, 28 October 2012 - 10:46am IST Updated: Saturday, 27 October 2012 - 9:42pm IST | Agency: dna

Two recent books offer an intriguing look at how America figured out its plan of action against al-Qaeda and what happened the night Osama bin Laden was killed. America’s war on terror makes for good pageturners.

Book: Counter Strike
Author: Eric Schmitt & Thom Shankar
Publisher: St. Martin Griffin
Pages: 343
Price: Rs499

Book: No Easy Day
Author: Mark Owen
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 316
Price: Rs499

Until the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre on September 9, 2001, the USA thought it was a security behemoth that was ready for the Third World War. In fact, on that unforgettable day, American military commanders were busy conducting an exercise to counter a stimulated nuclear strike across from a rogue state. None of the senior military-intelligence leadership had imagined airplanes with full tanks could become weapons of mass destruction.

Among the plethora of reporters covering the aftermath of 9/11 were Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker of the New York Times. Schmitt covers the American intelligence community while Shanker has a body of work covering the American military and the Pentagon. The authors, besides using their reporting, also had access to key intelligence and military personnel, since Western democracies have strict de-classification regimes that make reporting a little easier for American journalists. The access Schmitt and Shanker enjoyed ensures the authenticity of their material in Counter Strike: The Untold Story of America’s Campaign Against al-Qaeda.

Schmitt and Shanker have tracked how US military and intelligence travelled the difficult road to re-shape themselves for a new unconventional enemy, one that used terror as its primary weapon. Till 9/11, few in the intelligence community knew about the al-Qaeda despite the fact that the strike against the US Navy destroyed USS Cole had been carried out by the terrorist group in 2000. Schmitt and Shanker detail how old strategic thinkers like Tom Schelling, 80 years old when 9/11 happened, used old doctrines to meet the new enemy.

The value of Counter Strike lies in the rich detail it offers, showing how synergy between the military and the intelligence community can produce excellent results. These are lessons that the architects of India’s security apparatus could pick up to re-shape a moribund, dysfunctional system that continues to be plagued with systemic failures.

Schelling and his colleagues were pioneers of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) policy, which made clear that any attack on USA would spark an immediate and terrible response. The challenge for the military and intelligence community was to use existing principles and structures to counter the elusive enemy.

The answer, the authors say, came from Matthew Kroenig, a PhD student, and Bruce Pavel, Kroenig’s mentor in the Pentagon and a Cold War warrior. They pointed out that terrorists, unlike conventional threats, needed more nuanced deterrence. Kroenig’s research detailed the factors that mattered to the average terrorist and the 2005 study would become the central theme of a key presentation made to President Bush that would set the US military’s agenda for the next decade.

The result was that the American intelligence and military forged partnerships in the war against terror. The secretive and elite US Special Forces worked with civilian operatives and CIA and National Security Agency analysts, which was virtually unheard of before 9/11. The real time intelligence that these collaborations produced led to successful operations.

Operation Neptune Spear, conducted on the night of May 1, 2011, is arguably America’s most famous success. When members of the secretive SEAL Team 6 rappelled down Black Hawk helicopters onto a three-storey house in the military town of Abbottabad in Pakistan, the US reaped the benefits of the new military and intelligence machine.

Mark Owen’s No Easy Day is a slam-bang recount of Operation Neptune Spear, which marked a successful end to the 10-year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. Mark Owen is a pen name for Matt Bissonnette, a member of the SEAL Team 6. No Easy Day suffers from the author’s biases and takes an uncritical approach. For example, Bissonnette casually mentions the Special Forces regularly use the prescription drug Ambien to calm their nerves, as though this is a perfectly normal practice.

It should be kept in mind that Bissonnette’s is a very narrow perspective of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He exhibits no understanding of the complexities of the conflict or the challenges faced by the command and leadership. Bissonnette is also not very fond of President Obama and the Democrats, which is ironic since the Navy SEALS were created in 1962 by a young Democrat President, John F Kennedy.

What Bissonnette describes in detail is his involvement in the raid and how it was conducted. It also reveals nuggets, like the role that the CIA played in tracking down Osama and how the agency led the operation. While No Easy Day has its limitations, it remains a key account because it is (hopefully) an authentic record of a turning point in America’s war against terror. It is not a scholarly work and there aren’t any footnotes or bibliography that will aid the serious reader. But it could easily pass of as your average Robert Ludlum thriller, with Bissonnette as a real-world Jason Bourne.

If you’ve read the long report of Operation Neptune Spear that came out in The New Yorker last year, there’s nothing new in No Easy Day. (Interestingly, the position that Bissonnette claims for himself in SEAL Team 6 is portrayed by a different Navy SEAL in The New Yorker piece.) Mark Bowden’s new book on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden may throw up more discrepancies. If you’re looking for a serious account of Operation Neptune Spear, Bowden (who wrote Black Hawk Down) is your man. Bissonnette, predictably, is no Bowden but he does tell the story of the manhunt of the century.


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