Reporters recall early War on Terror

by Sasha Dudding | 1/23/12 11:00pm

Although the United States knew very little on 9/11 about Al Qaeda many top-level government members asked "Al who?" when told about the attacks its counterterrorist strategy has since evolved to include the entire government, veteran New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker said in a lecture in the Haldeman Center on Monday evening. The lecture, titled "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda," discussed their recently published book of the same name.

As a senior writer for The New York Times, Shanker covers terrorism and national security. He has taken numerous reporting trips to Iraq and Pakistan, where he spent time with American troops, and has shared two Pulitzer Prizes. Schmitt, a correspondent for The New York Times, covers the Pentagon and, like Shanker, also spent time with American troops in the Middle East on several occasions.

These experiences have given the authors "a rare perspective on the American war effort," associate director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding Chris Wohlforth said in her introductory remarks.

In the first of many turns at the podium before an audience of about 100, Schmitt noted that the book focuses on where the United States began its counterterrorist efforts and the direction it has taken since.

"To really understand where we are today, you have to understand where we were on 9/11 itself," he said.

For years after the attacks, the United States acted under the assumption that if a large enough number of terrorists were killed, Al Qaeda would be crippled. This basic approach began to change in the following years, Shanker said. Former President George W. Bush did not convene the National Security Council to discuss the broader strategy, so counterterrorist approaches did not begin to change for some time. Two Pentagon officials began to shift the basic thought processes of the time.

"They cracked the code and found out that, for example, terrorists really value their chances for success," he said. "Personal reputation is very important to their leaders, so the U.S. began attacking that in very clever ways."

Other lines of attack also opened up once the government and the military changed the way they thought about the structure of Al Qaeda, according to Shanker.

"Al Qaeda really operates like a corporation," he said. "Call it Al Qaeda, Inc."

Osama Bin Laden and the loyal militants at the bottom of the structure could only be captured with traditional military force, but the rest of the organization is not willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. These members must be dealt with using a counterterrorism model based on the deterrence strategy employed during the Cold War, according to Shanker.

This "new deterrence theory" allows for a more nuanced and effective approach to stopping terrorist organizations, according to Shanker. It is the most significant change to occur in antiterrorism strategy since 9/11, but academics as well as Bush were reluctant to accept it, he said.

"Bush wanted to be the War on Terror president he didn't want to be the deterrence president," Shanker said. "That was too wimpy. It wasn't Texas' enough."

Beginning in 2005, this deterrence theory was applied to missions against Al Qaeda cells and top operatives, and brought about a number of successes, according to Schmitt. Faced with a constant flow of suicide bombers imported from the Middle East and North Africa for missions in Iraq, the American military ceased to attack individual bombers, but instead went after religious leaders who reassured the men that they would be rewarded for their actions, Schmitt said.

"One by one, these key figures who blessed these attacks started disappearing," Schmitt said. "Suddenly, young men weren't willing to go through with the attacks."

New information became available following a 2007 operation in Iraq that led to the capture of computers containing the "Al Qaeda Rolodex," which were then used to target specific countries, according to Shanker. While improved information and tactics have helped the U.S. government successfully capture Al Qaeda operatives and ultimately Bin Laden himself last May, threats still remain, he said.

"If you think of Al Qaeda as a corporate structure, they have developed franchises over the last decade," Shanker said.

The growth of "homegrown terrorism," wherein Americans become radicalized and commit terrorist acts, is also a significant concern, especially because it is harder to detect and prevent, he said.

"At the end of our book, we make some conclusions," Shanker said. "One of those is that we will be attacked again. The goal is to push that day as far into the future as we can."

The government has been successful in delaying this, but the public would benefit from being prepared for such an attack, according to Shanker.

"If there is going to be another Western attack, it's incumbent upon our leadership, starting with the president, to instill a greater resilience in this country," he said.

United States President Barack Obama has addressed the issue in speeches, but other efforts should include a deeper cultural understanding of Islam among the public, long-term development aid to countries such as Pakistan and continuing military attention to the Middle East, Schmitt said.

Attending students and professors said the discussion of U.S. counterterrorism efforts was thought provoking.

"It was really interesting how the U.S. military has spent a lot of time reevaluating its approach to terrorism," Karl Schutz '14 said. "I thought it was reassuring."

Retired government professor Roger Masters noted that the mention of "evolutionary biology" as it relates to the American approach to counterterrorism is relevant, especially in regards to the initial strategy of kill and capture.

"Revenge is an innate instinct," he said.

Throughout the day, Schmitt and Shanker attended a government and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies class. They met with the Dickey Center's student-run journal World Outlook and the War and Peace Fellows, according to Sharon Tribou-St.Martin, events and communications coordinator at the Dickey Center.

"It was great to meet such a diverse group of students," Schmitt said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

He plans to return in the future, as his son will be a member of the Class of 2016, he said earlier in the lecture.

Shanker echoed his sentiments, and added that thinking about the government's improved approach to counterterrorism is an "opportunity for students to consider government service," he said.