Lessons of the Counterterror Campaign in the Digital Age (Opinion)
Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with his fighters in Mali
July 4th, 2012
12:01 AM ET

Lessons of the Counterterror Campaign in the Digital Age (Opinion)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of opinion articles about national security by participants in the upcoming Aspen Security Forum. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event which is taking place from July 25-28 in Aspen, Colorado.

Philip Mudd served as the FBI’s deputy director for national security and, prior to that, spent most of his career at the Central Intelligence Agency. He held various positions and was eventually named the deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Mudd is now a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

The counterterror campaign has evolved markedly during the past decade, from the centrally-directed al Qaeda plots of 9/11 through the rise of affiliated organizations in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia and, now, to the homegrown phenomenon in the United States and elsewhere. In each of these cases, the combination of effective counterterror operations and broad rejection of al Qaedaist ideology has hollowed the threat: al Qaeda’s core is struggling; with few exceptions (the Sahel, for example), affiliates are either in remission (Indonesia) or suffering serious setbacks (Somalia and Yemen); and homegrowns are prolific in number but limited in the strategic threat they pose. Meanwhile, with economic setbacks across the world, the rise of China, and questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions, questions unrelated to the al Qaedaist threat of the first decade of this century are appropriately crowding out counterterrorism in the national security arena.

The lessons of how U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement developed tactics during this long campaign, though, likely will be more enduring. Like international terror groups, emerging threats - organized crime, drug cartels, human trafficking groups, and child pornography rings - have common characteristics. All are led by a central cadre (a leadership network) of criminals who communicate, travel, and manage finances. Increasingly, each of these elements that make up organized networks is trackable through the digital trails that we all leave behind during everyday life, from bank transactions to e-mail and other messaging traffic on the Internet. And these are the same types of trails that U.S. security entities so successfully tracked during the counterterror campaign and the effort against foreign-fighter networks in Iraq and Pakistan/Afghanistan.

The conversations about these networked, next-generation threats in the homeland often do not include references to the counterterror fight, which is more often seen as led by distant, overseas networks, seemingly separate from the cross-border problem of Mexican cartels. These networked problems, though, are not independent. The lessons of the past - how we assemble interagency teams that can combine network mapping of digital information with real-time intelligence and drone imagery - should become the doctrine of the future. The efficiency of the interagency teams in warzone centers of intelligence activity such as Iraq and Afghanistan are lessons for how the U.S. government, when the elements of national power converge under clear chains of command and strong leaders, can combat the new, 21st century networked threats, from the Mexican border to East European criminal enterprises. Adversaries cannot beat the digital supremacy of America’s national security agencies, if that supremacy supports interdiction (military, intelligence, and law enforcement) that can act on this intelligence in real-time.

The question for the future, then, might not be whether the lessons of the counterterror war can inform future campaigns, but instead how we apply these methodologies in different environments. In some cases, the lethal force that made this intelligence fusion so effective in Iraq and Afghanistan obviously would not be acceptable or appropriate; in others, adversaries might operate in urban areas that are difficult to penetrate. And there will be the inevitable, and appropriate, questions about what kinds of intelligence collection are suitable for in open societies. But rather than see the counterterror campaign against al Qaeda and its sympathizers as a war that will one day fade, we should consider it as a template for how to look at this new age of global, networked, non-state actors and how similar they are to the adversary that we so effectively crippled after 9/11, using intelligence fusion to devastating effect. The wars of the past should be consigned to the past; the lessons of those wars remain relevant.

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