Q & A with Eric Schmitt

By: Interview by Lars Lilleby

On the 6th of December 2011, Eric Schmitt, the co-author (with Thom Shanker) of Counterstrike, visited the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey to talk about his new book. Eric Schmitt is a senior writer who covers terrorism and national security issues for The New York Times and has shared two Pulitzer Prizes. During his visit to NPS, Norwegian Army Major Lars Lilleby conducted the following interview:

Lilleby: In your new book you are talking about the new U.S. strategy against terrorists – deterrence – a strategy well known from the Cold War. How does Al Qaeda react to this strategy and will this strategy work against other and smaller terrorist groups around the world?

Schmitt: I think this type of approach can work against any kind of network terrorist organization, in that you are both looking at nodes of the terrorist network to identify the vulnerabilities and susceptibilities that it has and then apply a strategy and approach that tries to go after that. In our book, the type of deterrence we talk about is Al Qaeda specific but it could be adapted to other organizations, too, in terms of identifying organizations that do not have physical things that they value. Classic deterrence is how you can hold physical things at risk. And, in Al Qaeda's case, we talk about the virtual values, things like honor and prestige and the individual's standing within the "Umma" or the Islamic public, and how you undermine those types of things and develop strategies to go up against that. As for Al Qaeda's response, it's hard to say, it's not like people have gone and asked Al Qaeda leaders, "What do you think of the new deterrence structure?" I don't think it's quite that clear and I think they're still very much involved, and even more involved in the kinetic fight on the ground. The ideological fight in terms of combating the narrative that we see; this is kind of a subtler approach that Al Qaeda perhaps hasn't adjusted to yet.

Lilleby: What implication will this "new" strategy of deterrence have for the future of combating terror and would you recommend other countries follow this approach? Also, what role will U.S. allies and partners have in this new strategy against terrorism?

Schmitt: Well, I think American allies are already playing a part in this strategy. I think they are adapting certain elements of this new deterrence strategy in their own fight against terrorism. This is something that can be applied against Al Qaeda wherever Al Qaeda is showing up, whether it's in the affiliates in North Africa, East Africa, Somalia, Iraq; these are all approaches that can be used there. I think the long term focus is that it has to be a resilient strategy, but flexible and supple and able to adapt as the enemy itself adapts. And if there are new elements that are considered new values that they hold, the United States, or its allies, have to be nimble enough and flexible enough to identify those new values and to target those as well, as part of any new and expanding deterrence strategy.

Lilleby: In your chapter "Exploitation of Intelligence" you talk about a new approach in the use and sharing of intelligence. How well has this worked and does this help explain why the U.S. eventually got hold of bin Laden in Abbottabad?

Schmitt: I think, ultimately, the raid in Abbottabad in Pakistan culminated almost a decade's worth of improved intelligence sharing, improved coordination between the intelligence committee, the Special Operations community, the military, and many other agencies of the United States government and other governments as well. I think what that raid showed was that the goal after 9/11 was breaking down some of the walls and sharing more intelligence, at first within the United States government, then expanding that, and being able to share outside the U.S. government. Now, there are still, to this day, restrictions on what the United States shares outside of the so called, "5 I" community of its closest allies. Even with other NATO allies it doesn't share everything that it has. So, there are still certain restrictions that could hamper counterterrorist activities, but I think the record, since 9/11, is much improved and the Abbottabad raid underscores this new kind of success.

Lilleby: In your book you talk about two operations, the Taji and Sinjar operations, both in Iraq. These operations were major intelligence breakthroughs in the war on terror. Why were those operations so significant and is this information still valuable today? What would you say are the key takeaways from these operations?

Schmitt: The Taji raid was important because it yielded what was basically the blueprint for Al Qaeda in Iraq's counterattack against the American surge in 2007. It laid out where they were going to deploy their forces and essentially how they were going to attack the American and Iraqi forces. But it also gave some really interesting insights into what they were going to target to try and undermine the credibility of the new Iraqi government. They were going to target bakers, for instance, because baking fresh bread is part of everyday Iraqi life. They were going to try to target the garbage collectors in the hopes that garbage would pile up in the streets and people would become more and more angry and frustrated with their government's lack of ability to carry out essential public services. Taji revealed everything, from tactical positions on the battlefield to these more interesting ideas. Sinjar was important because it provided new insights into the pipeline for suicide bombers into Iraq.

Lilleby: General McChrystal, the commander of these successful raids, has said we need to share all of this information. Is that still going on? Or is it something he brought forward, and when he left we lost that?

Schmitt: No, I think it's still going on. Stanley McChrystal, who was then the head of the Joint Special Operations Command, did some revolutionary type thinking in terms of this. He really broke down many of the walls, certainly within his own organization so that people were sharing information in a real time way. Take the Sinjar raid. It is the best example of a raid by JSOC forces. It was on this little dusty camp, on the Syrian/Iraqi border, and what they ended up capturing is what we call the Al Qaeda rolodex. It is a very detailed account of the suicide bombers who were coming through from Syria into Iraq and countries all over North Africa and the Middle East. In the book, we talk about how Al Qaeda was as anal in its record keeping as the Nazis were. So you had the name, the hometown, and all sorts of details about each individual suicide bomber who was coming through this pipeline. McChrystal recognized the value of what his forces captured and recognized that it wouldn't be enough just for him to hold onto this and parse it out, but that if he put it into the hands of the State Department it could be much more effective. He declassified most of that information, gave it to the State Department whose diplomats could then go country by country and present the information from the Sinjar files to these nations and say, "Look, this isn't American propaganda, these are your own records. These are the photocopies and records from these individuals. And while you might not agree with American foreign policy, some of these people, if they're not killed on the battlefield in Iraq, they could come back and be a threat to your country. So you need to take this seriously." The upshot of it was that the suicide pipeline really was choked off by over 75%, as General David Petraeus
told us.

Lilleby: Many critics of deterrence say that it only works against rational sovereign state actors. In your opinion, what are the challenges of using this strategy against non-state actors like Al Qaeda?

Schmitt: Clearly, there will always be elements of a terrorist network like Al Qaeda that are not deterrable. We're not saying the strategy applies to everybody. Osama bin Laden, for instance, was probably undeterrable. There are certain suicide bombers that are probably undeterrable. But there are many others that we identify in our book that are enablers, the financiers or the gunrunners who are in it for economic reasons. There are others who maybe aren't as committed jihadis as they thought. If you can undermine and question some of the values they have, that will cause them to either not go through with the attack or delay a bombing or force them to use a different route, a different method, a different type of explosive that maybe is less effective. So, I think it does have that kind of impact.

Lilleby: Are there any signs that Al Qaeda is responding to this new strategy?

Schmitt: In one sense, one way they're responding is their deep concern for civilian casualties. For instance, we've seen a lot of Al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, issue edicts, basically proclamations, that tell people to be very careful to not carry out many attacks that kill civilians, saying that these are very bad for public relations; it's bad for our business because it's not as if you're killing security forces or Americans, you're killing our own people, and that ultimately will make us very unpopular with them. There's a recognition that this can be used against them in counter-messaging campaigns and so I think that's one area where they have responded and tried to counter some of the more violent trends that cost civilian casualties.

Lilleby: The operation against bin Laden in Abbottabad was a huge success, both in terms of taking out UBL but also because of the amount of intelligence that was captured there. Has Al Qaeda recovered from that? And how will these events affect the organization and its strategy in the future?

Schmitt: In many ways, the core leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan was suffering even before the raid and are suffering more now because a few more of their leaders, most notably bin Laden, were killed, so it makes their ability to plan and execute attacks against the United States or Western interests much harder. Also they've spent so much of their time worrying about their own survival that they can't spend much time on the attack.

Lilleby: This implies we are dependent on making such significant captures of information and intelligence from time to time?

Schmitt: Absolutely. There will be new exploitation operations that go on that cause the enemy to go in different directions and evolve. There will be new targets for the U.S. and its allies to go after and hopefully capturing or intercepting communications and intercepting other types of intelligence caches that will give them the information to allow them to then carry out operations, whether they're kinetic or psychological operations. As General McChrystal has said, it's all about the fight for intelligence right now; that's what this war on combating terrorism is really all about.

Lilleby: One chapter in your book is dedicated to Pakistan and the problems the Pakistanis face. Is the key to success in Afghanistan how the Pakistanis approach their domestic problem? What would be the best U.S. response to these problems?

Schmitt: The United States has spent many years trying to persuade, cajole, and threaten the Pakistanis to do more to wipe out these safe havens. Pakistan has either been unable or unwilling to do that completely. Pakistan has been a very valuable ally in going after Al Qaeda elements, particularly senior leaders of Al Qaeda right after 9/11 in some of its cities. It's been much more reluctant, however, to go after some of these groups, such as the Taliban or the Haqqani network that they view as proxies for their interests in Afghanistan after the United States leaves in the next few years. Everything in Pakistan is viewed through the prism of India, and so right now the Pakistanis are very concerned that if the United States leaves it will leave a void in Afghanistan. India is already making inroads, both economic and political, and they will in effect encircle Pakistan; that's their great fear. Right now, the longer term goals should be to try and get Pakistan to recognize that India does not pose an existential threat to the nation. That is very hard to get through right now, so the United States and Afghanistan are having to come up with a Plan B, and that is, if the Pakistanis aren't able or willing to combat these militant elements, then the U.S. along with the Afghans will try and build a stronger, more effective ring of defenses along the border to try and contain the problem inside Pakistan. That hasn't worked so far, as we've seen in some of the recent bombings in Kabul, which shows the Taliban's ability to infiltrate and carry out attacks right in the heart of the city, right against the U.S. embassy and headquarters. So they've got a long way to go.

Lilleby: What then would be the best U.S. response to these problems?

Schmitt: In the short term, the United States has basically said, "We have to take measures into our own hands," so the drones have become a very important tool and tactic in combating Al Qaeda, not only in Pakistan, but places like Yemen and Somalia, now too. But the drones are just a tactic; they're not a long term strategy. I think the longer term strategy is to persuade and help these countries train their own forces—police, security forces, military forces—to combat these extremist threats so the U.S. and its allies don't have to do that. Indigenous forces are usually better equipped in general to do this; they know the culture, they know the language. Their intelligence gathering ability is better from human sources and human intelligence, not necessarily technical intelligence. And so, if the U.S. can step back and rather than having to fight all these battles by putting troops in foreign countries, particularly Muslim countries, can instead help these countries fight the battle themselves more effectively, I think that's the longer term plan. Short term, very tactical, more drone strikes; longer term, help build up the capacity of these indigenous forces.

Lilleby: Many officers in the U.S. and other countries criticize journalists and the media for being too fast and eager to publish "news" from groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan. From our perspective, too much of this "propaganda" is based on rumors and not facts. Journalists often claim that they evaluate all their sources carefully and adhere to a high standard of integrity regarding what's true. What are your comments about this?

Schmitt: As journalists we'll always have to be careful no matter where the information is coming from; if it's slanted or pure propaganda. Certainly, we've gotten familiar with the type of statements the Taliban makes. If there's a bombing, for instance, who's responsible for the bombing, how large the casualties are, all these kind of things and so it may be that the only source of reporting or information, so this has to be very clearly laid out in our reporting. We have to be clear that this is only what the Taliban claims, that the government may have a totally different response. I think as long as journalists offer the appropriate caveats and warnings to readers, viewers, or listeners to say, "Hey, look this is what they're saying but they don't have a good track record. You don't want to necessarily believe them. But you don't want to necessarily ignore it all together because there may be kernels of truth in these things, there may have well been an attack. There may well have been a drone that went down on the Iranian-Afghan border. Now, did the Iranians shoot it down? Did it crash for mechanical reasons or other reasons, we'll get into that." But the fact is something did crash. Some surveillance aircraft crashed. That's important news to get out. But it's also just as important to get to the facts surrounding what happened. That's true with anything that happens in dealing with terrorist organizations.

Lilleby: In the epilogue of your book you say that "it will be impossible to end terrorism" and that terrorism will always be there. You are probably aware of the idea that there have been waves of terrorism. In your opinion, how long do you think this wave of religious terror will last and what will dominate the next wave?

Schmitt: It's hard to predict how long these waves will last, but there are some positive trends that suggest that at least Al Qaeda may be on the way down. Now, whether some other religious form of terrorism takes its place or not and continues the wave in general is harder to say. But, optimistically speaking, there are American officials who believe that if they can kill or take out about half a dozen of the top leaders in the next few years that they will have been able to diminish the capability of Al Qaeda, and its franchises. What comes next, I think, is the realm of cyberspace. Terrorists, so far, have not used cyberspace in an offensive way; it's been mostly a safe harbor for them where they can plan their attacks, where they can raise money and recruits. They actually haven't used it in an offensive way against the United States or others; that has been more the realm of state-sponsored groups, the countries themselves. I would look to cyberspace as perhaps an upcoming area.


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