The Written Word: Counterstrike

By: Dr. James J. F. Forest

It is only natural that practitioners and policymakers have grown weary from the myriad criticisms published about U.S. counterterrorism strategy within the last decade. Whether laying blame for why the United States failed to capture or kill Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001, vilifying the intelligence community for perceived failures of imagination, or serving up saucy details of supposedly private conversations in the White House, authors and their publishers have enjoyed much success and publicity from their criticism-laced best-sellers. By contrast, a well-written, non-ideologically motivated analysis of U.S. counterterrorism efforts that inspires hope and optimism has been all too rare.

But now, New York Times national security correspondents Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker offer an important counterweight with their new book, Counterstrike. While focused on people and strategies that most Americans have never heard of, it is also written with the sensibilities of journalists who know how to make complex topics readable. Their interwoven stories and interesting characters are made all the more compelling upon realizing that the events they describe really happened.

Drawing on their impressive access at all levels of the government, the authors describe how the U.S. government has quietly developed and implemented a counterterrorism strategy that integrates kinetic and nonkinetic instruments of national power. The SOF and counterterrorism community will especially appreciate the book's robust description and analysis of modern, networked, asymmetric threats. Schmitt and Shanker also aptly illustrate the absolute necessity of working closely with other countries (both officially and unofficially) to identify and utilize new ways of diminishing Al Qaeda's capabilities to organize or inspire terrorists attacks. There can be no doubt that Al Qaeda is an enemy of the world, not just the United States, thus the crucial importance of partnering in a global effort to constrain the financing, safe havens, and ideological support that gives oxygen to the terrorist movement.

Readers should pay special attention to the authors' discussions about the application of deterrence theory to defeating Al Qaeda. For me, this is where we find the real meat of the book. The authors ask, "What do terrorist groups hold dear?" Then they answer, drawing on the work of Matthew Kroenig and Barry Pavel—two big thinkers at the Pentagon who realized that terrorists do have certain kinds of physical and virtual "territory" they worry about protecting. Examples include operational mobility; personal glory and reputation; chances of operational success; dependable supporters, weapons, finances, in-group trust and cohesion; family well-being; and safe havens. But perhaps the most important terrain terrorist groups try to defend is the ideological: the history books are littered with the skeletons of groups that were unable to secure lasting resonance for their ideologies. Thus, the authors devote an entire chapter to the important and evolving effort to counter Al Qaeda's message.

Knowing what terrorists value, and what they worry about, highlights the kinds of organizational vulnerabilities that can be exploited to influence their behavior and diminish their capabilities. This kind of thinking about terrorism—in which nuance, patience, and context have primacy over the use of more dramatic kinds of "warheads on foreheads" instruments of warfare—will be welcomed by many in the counterterrorism community. It is also a kind of thinking that will very likely give the average American a sense of optimism about the eventual demise of Al Qaeda. Having served as Director of Terrorism Studies at West Point (2004–2010) and now as a Senior Fellow at Joint Special Operations University, I've read widely and written and taught courses about a lot of topics relevant to the readers of CTX. Counterstrike is the first book I have read that provides such a well-researched, engaging, accessible, and insightful account of how the U.S. has been quietly and successfully exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities of a terrorist network.

While the book generates optimism about the eventual, inevitable demise of Al Qaeda, it also serves as an important case study for an international audience of scholars, policymakers, and practitioners of counterterrorism. My only criticism of the book is that although the authors explain how the U.S. has adapted Thomas Schelling's Cold War deterrence theories for the fight against Al Qaeda, there is virtually no reflection on the implications of these theories for combating other significant terrorist groups. Surely there are ideas and lessons that can be drawn and incorporated into the fight against terrorism elsewhere in the world, particularly in places like Colombia, Lebanon, India, Algeria, Pakistan, Kashmir, Indonesia, and the Philippines, among others. Despite the many ideological differences that animate terrorists around the globe, they face common challenges in attracting members, maintaining financial and logistical support, and—most importantly—in achieving anything worthwhile through the use of violence. Governments must use every tool at their disposal, including the theories of deterrence as described in Counterstrike, to make these challenges increasingly difficult for the terrorists, to the point where they implode and then decay into oblivion, like countless other terrorist groups throughout history.

In sum, this book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on what can be called influence warfare, a way of conceptualizing the multi-faceted struggle to shape perceptions and behavior in an age of globalized information technologies. The authors have an important story to share, and they do so in a way that readers in many countries will find engaging and accessible. In additions, the book highlights the kind of sophisticated thinking about terrorism that true CT practitioners will surely appreciate.

About the Author(s): Dr. James J. F. Forest is a Senior Fellow for the Joint Special Operations University and an Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He served on the faculty at West Point for nine years, including as Director of Terrorism Studies 2004-2010 in the Combating Terrorism Center. E-mail:


Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against al-Qaeda. (New York: Current Events), 2011. ISBN: 978-0-8050-9103-8.

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