by Loch K. Johnson
Oxford University Press, 2011, 564 pp., $34.95
Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa’ida since 9/11
by Seth G. Jones
W.W. Norton, 2012, 544 pp., $27.95
Spying may be the second-oldest profession on earth, but the intelligence world sure isn’t what it used to be. At his 2006 confirmation hearing to become CIA Director, Michael Hayden warned that 24-hour news cycles were dragging intelligence agencies into chasing after today’s events rather than thinking about tomorrow’s threats. Unless the CIA could set aside talent to think more strategically, Hayden cautioned, the United States would be endlessly surprised—and not in a good way. Six years later, information is moving even more furiously, making its way to more countries than ever before, linking, liking, texting, tweeting, downloading, clicking and friending. We now live in a world of instant communication but delayed understanding, where everything is linked but the nature of those connections is harder than ever to discern.
Fortunately, two insightful new books may help us: one by Loch Johnson, a leading intelligence scholar and former House intelligence committee staffer, and the other by Seth Jones, a RAND terrorism expert and former adviser to U.S. Special Operations Command. Johnson examines U.S. intelligence reform efforts in the 1990s through the prism of the Aspin-Brown Commission, where he served as an adviser to its late chairman, former Defense Secretary Les Aspin. Jones focuses on al-Qaeda’s terrorist waves and U.S. countermeasure waves from 1998 to the present, examining the strategies and schisms within jihadism and America’s responses to them. Each author examines a different aspect of the terrorist threat, but their broader aim is the same: to take a step back in order to offer a more strategic view of U.S. intelligence, counterterrorism policy, and how the al-Qaeda threat has morphed over the past twenty years.
ohnson has a unique vantage point, having served as a staffer on three key intelligence bodies: the Church Committee’s investigation into intelligence abuses in the 1970s; the newly formed House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that resulted; and the Aspin-Brown Commission, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon review of the “efficacy and appropriateness” of U.S. intelligence activities in the post-Cold War world. Johnson’s depth of knowledge and experience show: The Threat on the Horizon is both an insider’s account of one commission’s faltering reform efforts and a scholar’s examination of key intelligence issues as they played out during the mid-1990s. He covers the nuts and bolts of commission operations—the scope papers, the commissioner meetings and retreats, the staff’s research, Aspin’s untimely death and its implication. Along the way, Johnson includes sidebars that explain arcane aspects of intelligence policy, such as the National Intelligence Estimates process and types of congressional oversight, his long-held personal fixation. Some of these tangents are illuminating, but many are distracting. In particular, the organization charts and lengthy discussions of Soviet weapons estimates bog down a far more interesting drama.
The politics driving this commission is the most riveting aspect for general readers and national security wonks alike. Johnson reports that Aspin seized on the idea of a presidential inquiry to stage his political comeback after the Somalia “Black Hawk Down” debacle forced him to resign as Clinton’s Secretary of Defense. Republican Senator John Warner insisted on making the inquiry a joint congressional-presidential commission, the better to defeat attempts by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others to abolish the CIA in the aftermath of the Cold War and the Aldrich Ames spy scandal. Two commissioners, Tony Coelho and Stephen Friedman, had almost no knowledge of intelligence but had either fund-raised or given generously to Bill Clinton’s campaign. The National Security Agency managed to get three of the 17 commissioner slots, the most of any single agency. “This had all the markings of a major lobbying coup for the NSA”, writes Johnson. Unsurprisingly, none of the commission’s 39 suggested reforms threatened NSA’s core interests. Meanwhile, as the Aspin-Brown staff labored away, the new CIA Director, John Deutch, the House Intelligence Committee staff, a Council on Foreign Relations task force and other groups raced to deflect and set the intelligence reform agenda in a different mold.
The politics were intense, but the policy discussions were also serious. Johnson chronicles commissioner debates about a host of key issues, including covert action, declassifying the intelligence budget, bolstering the power of the CIA director, improving human intelligence and fostering greater coordination across agencies—many of the same crucial weaknesses the 9/11 Commission later found to have contributed to disaster. Commissioners also engaged in wide-ranging discussions with a who’s who of national security leaders, including William Perry, Robert Gates, Brent Scowcroft and Bobby Ray Inman. For students of history, Johnson’s notes of these sessions offer a valuable record of how leading thinkers viewed intelligence reform before 9/11. Gates, notably, thought “the three worst reform ideas” were creating a director of national intelligence separated from the CIA, weakening or abolishing the CIA, and making arbitrary cuts in the intelligence budget. By the time he became George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense in 2006, the CIA had been weakened substantially with the creation of the Director of National Intelligence in 2005.
In the end, the Aspin-Brown Commission suffered the fate of most blue-ribbon panels, fading into obscurity with few results. In March 1996 the New York Times pilloried its effort for leaving “a flawed system essentially intact.” The Commission, for example, recommended that the total intelligence budget figure be declassified, but never asked what the appropriate post-Cold War intelligence spending level should be. Similarly, its report offered a few ideas to strengthen the CIA Director but did not seriously consider reshaping his role in any fundamental way or granting him the greater control over budgets and personnel needed to knock bureaucratic heads together. Its rather tepid reforms did not get far, thanks to vigorous Pentagon opposition.
Aspin-Brown was hardly alone in this regard. During the 1990s, 12 nonpartisan reports examined intelligence and counterterrorism, issuing 340 intelligence reform recommendations. The great majority of them (268 recommendations, or 79 percent of the total-) produced no action at all. Only 35 were fully implemented before 9/11, and these turned out to be the weakest reforms, such as a suggestion that we further study the problems.1 Johnson’s treatment of the commission gives the play by play story of how Les Aspin went from aspiring to so much to achieving so little. But it does not explain why. It leaves the reader to wonder whether the commission fizzled because the issues were so complex, because Aspin died before its conclusion, or because the politics throughout made radical reforms impossible before 9/11.
Seth Jones’s Hunting in the Shadows in many ways picks up where Johnson leaves off. While Johnson focuses on U.S. intelligence reform efforts to adapt to the end of the Cold War, Jones examines the ebb and flow of al-Qaeda attacks against Americans that began in the 1990s. He argues that this period can be divided into three waves of terrorism and American response.
The first terror wave started in 1998, with al-Qaeda’s bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and ended with the 9/11 attacks. Throughout this period, bin Laden’s organization was centralized, training operatives and devising and executing plots from its sanctuary in Afghanistan. It would not last long. Just weeks after 9/11, a U.S. “reverse wave”, led by CIA clandestine operatives and special operations forces, toppled the Taliban and began capturing and killing key al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere over the next two years.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda adapted, launching a second major terrorist wave in 2003. The Iraq War enflamed Muslim resistance, enabling a newly decentralized al-Qaeda to partner with affiliated groups (most notably Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq), which carried out major attacks in Iraq, Madrid, London and elsewhere. A second reverse wave began around 2006. Zarqawi’s brutality against Iraqi civilians led to the Anbar awakening, drone strikes killed several key leaders, and intelligence successes led to a number of foiled plots.
The third terrorist wave hit between 2007 and 2009, led largely by the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its charismatic American-born propagandist, Anwar al-Aulaqi. It featured failed attacks against the United States by the Christmas Day underwear bomber and the Times Square truck bomb plot, as well as successful ones, such as Nidal Hasan’s Fort Hood attack, which killed 13. It came to an end in 2011, when drones and SEALS killed Aulaqi, bin Laden and scores of other terrorist leaders throughout al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
The idea that terrorist movements rise and fall in wavelike patterns is nothing new: David Rapoport pioneered the concept more than a decade ago.2 But Jones offers three new contributions. He attempts to develop a causal thesis about how these waves fluctuate; he applies the wave framework to al-Qaeda in particular; and he derives policy implications for the future.
Jones sees al-Qaeda’s waves as a function of three factors: U.S. counterterrorism strategy, al-Qaeda’s strategy, and the ability of third party states, such as Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, to deny terrorists sanctuary. In many ways, he writes, al-Qaeda’s battle with the United States and its Western allies is a war “in which the side that kills the most loses.” Terrorism has declined most when the United States has used a “light footprint strategy” focused on clandestine activity and special forces rather than invasion; when al-Qaeda has embraced a punishment strategy targeting civilians rather than government officials and collaborators; and when local governments have developed sufficient capacity to deny terrorists safe haven.
This framework is both smart and irritating. It is smart because it begins to tease out the dynamic interaction between the United States, al-Qaeda and third-party states in the war on terrorism, and because it starts to impose much-needed analytic order on nearly two decades of disorderly events—myriad terrorist attacks, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, variable turmoil in the Arab world and more besides. But the framework is also irritating because, rather like a proverbial Potemkin village, there’s nothing much behind the impressive façade. It garners almost no attention after the first chapter.
The story that Jones really wants to tell is about al-Qaeda’s operations, personalities, decisions, shifts and internal ideological conflicts over the past twenty years. He does so masterfully, drawing from court records, press reports, personal interviews and a wealth of declassified documents from West Point’s Harmony program, which makes public documents obtained by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters about the inner workings of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Jones skillfully illuminates the ideological debates and schisms within al-Qaeda, inside the larger jihadi movement and across the Muslim world.
For Jones, many of the most important and overlooked battles have been ideological, not kinetic. He shows just how much terrorist leaders, both before and after 9/11, fought over ideas through dueling books, papers, carefully crafted letters to one another, and press appearances. Of particular importance is the split between Sayyid Imam Abd al-Aziz al-Sharif, the chief ideologue and leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was once his deputy and went on to become bin Laden’s right hand man. Sharif had long argued that indiscriminate violence, particularly against civilians, was un-Islamic, while Zawahiri had contended that violence was justifiable and a sound part of a legitimate jihad. After 9/11, Sharif ignited a debate that went largely unnoticed by Western audiences, including American officials. Sharif excoriated al-Qaeda’s attack on American civilians, comparing 9/11 to a “trick of Lucifer” by “treacherous, backstabbing people” who were part of an uneducated fringe group hijacking Islam. Sharif was no friend of the United States; he supported jihad against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, opposed America’s support to Israel and condemned the invasion of Iraq. Yet Jones writes that his split with Zawahiri “indicated profound and irreconcilable differences between two venerated Islamic fundamentalists about the role of jihad and the legitimacy of violence.” This could have been exploited by the United States after 9/11, but it never was.
Jones couples this fascinating foray into ideological debates with gripping descriptions of some of the world’s most notorious terrorists. By doing so he adds nuance to men who are more often known solely by the horrific acts they have either committed or authorized. Muhammed Atef, one of al-Qaeda’s significant early leaders, had a striped beard that “made him look a bit like a skunk.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, dubbed by some analysts “The Forrest Gump of terrorists”, is revealed to be a lavish savage who frequented go-go bars, liked to party, tipped generously, and reportedly buzzed a tower with a rented helicopter to impress a female dentist he was dating—all this when he was not plotting grisly attacks or beheading innocent American journalists. Zarqawi is described as a “rock star” endowed with a magnetic personality and an unlikely obsession with Kraft cheese. He would carefully unwrap each slice and savor every bite, while still insisting on sharing his precious stash with the lowest-level fighters to preserve his “man of the people” image. (There isn’t much that’s particularly funny about terrorism and counterterrorism, but this is a clear exception.) Zarqawi also won popular support with his do-it-yourself brutality, bragging that he beheaded kidnapped American businessman Nicholas Berg with his own blade. Jones goes beyond events and into these terrorists’ minds, using their letters, diaries, published writings and other sources to create a more complex portrait of their lives, motives, self-interests, quirks and contradictions.
n contrast to this vibrant picture of al-Qaeda, Jones’s treatment of the U.S. side of the story is incomplete and, ultimately, distorted. By narrowly defining U.S. counterterrorism policy in military terms—invasion versus “light footprint” operations, for instance—he skims over the controversial wiretapping, detention and interrogation policies that played central roles in the U.S. counterterrorism effort. Jones also pays little attention to organizational weaknesses in the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies that led to 9/11 and continue to hinder counterterrorism efforts today. Where his treatment of military strategy is well sourced and well rounded, his analysis of U.S. intelligence agencies is spotty and thin. His analysis relies heavily on interviews with two senior FBI officials, Philip Mudd and Art Cummings, whose glossy, glass-three-quarters-full views of intelligence agencies’ adaptation and success are taken at face value. In one of the few passages discussing the FBI’s struggle to adapt to the post-9/11 era, for example, Mudd says that the press had it all wrong; the Bureau’s big problems were neither its limited intelligence capabilities nor its law enforcement culture, but rather training, resources and financing technology.
Chalking up FBI adaptation troubles to training and technology resources may be Mudd’s view, but it is certainly not the prevailing one. The bipartisan 9/11 and WMD commissions both found deep-seated analytic and cultural weaknesses throughout the U.S. intelligence community, including the FBI. Many analysts inside the FBI agreed with them, and many complain even now that they still struggle in an organization that does not yet prize intelligence collection and analysis as an end in itself.
What’s more, the idea that the FBI was somehow starved for technology resources after 9/11 is downright laughable. Between 2001 and 2009, Congress allocated more than $500 million to improve the Bureau’s antiquated technology systems. (Congress might have been persuaded to act earlier had FBI Director Louis Freeh considered technology a priority. He didn’t, ordering his own office computer removed because he saw no need for it.) The FBI’s first round of post-9/11 technology “improvements” wasted $200 million dollars, wound up several years behind schedule and ultimately had to be scrapped in 2005 because they did not work. Congress was outraged and FBI Director Robert Mueller exasperated, calling the Bureau’s technology modernization program his “greatest frustration.” The electronic records upgrade that Mueller declared an urgent priority in 2001 was finally completed in 2012.
Hunting in the Shadows is thus half of a tour de force. Jones’s assessment of al-Qaeda is exhaustively researched and illuminating. For those interested in understanding U.S. intelligence challenges in counterterrorism, however, more hunting remains to be done.
1See my book Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11 (Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 35.
2Rapoport, “The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11”, Current History (December 2001).