DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross, who's off this week.
Among the frustrations American officials have confronted in battling al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are that unlike past enemies, they don't have defined territory to attack or a set of clearly defined rational interests that could form the basis for negotiation or deterrence.
But our guests, New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, write in their new book that American military and intelligence analysts have developed some innovative approaches to the war on terrorism, many aimed at stopping attacks before they happen.
Techniques include hacking into jihadist websites, undermining al-Qaeda's message to young Muslims, and disrupting financial networks that fund terrorist plots. And perhaps most important, intelligence gathering has been dramatically expanded and integrated into military operations.
Eric Schmitt is a senior writer for the New York Times, covering terrorism and national security issues. He has embedded with troops in Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan and has twice been on reporting teams that won the Pulitzer Prize.
Thom Shanker is a Pentagon correspondent for the paper who often reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Their new book is called "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
Well Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker, welcome to FRESH AIR. This is a story about America becoming smarter in the battle against terrorism and Islamic radicals. Clearly, we were not a country that was ready in 2001. And I'd like you to begin by just talking a bit about the notion of deterrence, how it made sense in the Cold War but was more problematic when considering an adversary like al-Qaeda.
Mr. THOM SHANKER (Co-author, "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda"): In the immediate aftermath of the terror strikes on 9/11, America responded with a very understandable, very sort of military strategy. It was capture and kill again, a very understandable response, but it became very obvious over the ensuing months that there was no way to simply, through warfare alone, to, you know, counter this new type of adversary, which was global terrorism and al-Qaeda in particular.
And so a group of analysts working deep within the bowels of the Pentagon and at the various regional commands began looking for a broader, more holistic strategy. And actually, Dave, they turned to the history books and looked back at Cold War-era deterrents that had kept a tense nuclear peace, but a peace nonetheless, with the nuclear-powered Soviet Union over the decades.
And they began looking at elements of classic deterrence that could be applied to this new kind of enemy.
DAVIES: Right. And, of course, back in the Cold War days, the notion was to make it clear to the Soviets that were they to launch a nuclear attack, they would suffer an overwhelming retaliation and thereby deter it - you know, mutually assured destruction. It wasn't going to work.
Now, in cases like al-Qaeda, you don't have a state actor. It doesn't defend a particular territory. And I guess the prevailing view was, you know, they are religious fanatics that simply aren't going to be -aren't going to follow a rational course. What are some of the ways that these thinkers came to believe that a different kind of deterrence made sense?
Mr. ERIC SCHMITT (Co-author, "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda"): Well, Dave, what happened was, this eclectic band of thinkers at the Pentagon looked over this history of the Cold War deterrence, and they found that while you couldn't necessarily deter the suicide - every suicide bomber or the hardcore al-Qaeda leaders say, Osama bin Laden - there were those around the terrorists, the enablers, the financiers, the logisticians, the gun-runners, that the terrorists relied upon.
And these people you very much could deter. These people were in it largely for the money, largely for the success of their operation. And so the strategy became what are some of the tactics and operations you can use against these enablers, putting pressure on them, that would thus enable the Americans in this case, counterterrorism experts, to disable, disrupt or even destroy some of these terrorist networks.
DAVIES: Yeah, and maybe convince suicide bombers that the heavenly delights they are expecting might not be there.
Mr. SHANKER: Well, that was certainly one of the counter-messaging efforts of the United States government, which was to put out there, and even more importantly to have respected elders of the Muslim community say that killing innocents will not get you the heavenly rewards that the terrorists have promised.
But they also made an important decision that these new principles of deterrence probably would be less effective against a person after they'd already strapped on the suicide vest, because they've already made the commitment, and they certainly knew they couldn't deter an Osama bin Laden or someone like him.
But as Eric said, you could deter the people in the middle. I mean, you know, it takes a network to carry out a terrorist operation, and not everyone in that network is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
And as our book describes in particular, you look at the gunrunners, the weapons suppliers, the explosives buyers, and most importantly the financial backers. There's some very interesting missions carried out in Afghanistan to go after the financial networks that transferred money for the terrorist operations.
Now, the American military in '09 and 2010 shut down a handful of these just to show what they could do. But more importantly, they went to scores more of these financial houses and money transfer markets and said, hey, if you continue to do this, your family will suffer a significant loss of the quality of life. Is that what you want?
And that's, Dave, how you achieve a long-term deterrence value, because it shut down the money flow for months.
DAVIES: These were the Hawallah operations that transfer money across international boundaries?
Mr. SHANKER: That's exactly right. It's a cultural norm there. It's based on trust and family ties and networks where you can hand off money to someone in one town and then your contact can pick it up in another town just based on a handshake. So there's no international record-keeping of the kind that Treasury and law enforcement can follow. So they had to find a new way to threaten the quality of life of these Hawallah operators to prevent them and deter them from financing terrorist operations.
Mr. SCHMITT: There's another example in our book that's interesting, and that is the American military discovered in some of the operations combating terrorist organizations in the northern part of Iraq that the suicide bombers there, before they carried out their bombings, would have their, basically, attacks blessed by an emir.
And once the military discovered that and they targeted the emir, they essentially killed the emir, it would disrupt this terrorist suicide bombing network for some time until you could get a new emir. So again, you're disrupting and delaying these attacks as a way of disrupting the network.
DAVIES: Now, of course you write that in the early years after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration was focused on Iraq and focused on a kill-and-capture strategy to deal with al-Qaeda and other Islamic radicals.
But I was a little surprised to read that one of those in the government who really sought a more flexible, integrated approach to terrorism was Donald Rumsfeld. What was his role?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, as I like to say, just because Rumsfeld says something doesn't make it automatically wrong.
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Mr. SHANKER: He's the sort of fellow who offended a lot of people in the bureaucracy, and he definitely gave general officers the wire brush treatment, and history will judge whether his decisions were historically right or historically wrong.
But one thing about Rumsfeld that is true, when he couldn't solve a problem, he expanded it, and dealing and assessing the fact that America seemed to be creating more terrorists than it was either capturing or killing, he was the first to sort of say there's got to be a bigger way of looking at this. How can we expand our discussion to perhaps come up with a new way of looking at the terror problem?
DAVIES: And you write that, I guess - was it, 2005, he arranged a briefing with President Bush at his Crawford ranch. Do you want to give us a sense of what his message was and what the outcome was?
Mr. SCHMITT: That's right, and again, this goes back to this eclectic band of thinkers deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, Dave, that were working away on this new notion of new deterrence. And it just so happened that they were working away on this at a time when Rumsfeld had gotten a briefing and was very frustrated at the time that there wasn't any - kind of any new real thinking going on in this area.
And Douglas Feith, who at the time was undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, the Pentagon's top policymaker, he knew what was going on in the bowels of the Pentagon, in his shop, and the thinking there, and he immediately said we've got to rush this up to the secretary. We've got to get this thinking to him quickly. This is exactly the type of new idea that he's looking for.
So in just a matter of weeks, what had been just a conceptual idea that was being fleshed out was quickly drafted into a presentation for Rumsfeld, who took it down to Bush and laid it out for him at Bush's ranch.
Now, to be sure, Bush was somewhat skeptical about this, but Rumsfeld was insistent in kind of pushing this, and this was something they continued to work through the work through the Pentagon.
DAVIES: Now, I was interested to read in your book that there were efforts, I think this was in the Bush administration initially, to open some line of communication with Osama bin Laden. What do we know of that effort?
Mr. SHANKER: In the days and weeks after 9/11, there really was an effort to in some ways reach out to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda senior leadership, to replicate the sort of dialogue, on a much smaller scale, that the U.S. had with the Soviet Union.
So the intelligence community very quietly tried to get messages to bin Laden through the family financial network, through family members themselves, some of whom were very open to carrying a message because they were embarrassed or bothered or humiliated by what al-Qaeda was doing, and some of the family members of course were not as receptive.
At the end of the day, and Eric and I spoke with some of the intelligence officials directly involved in this effort, the answer from bin Laden was utter silence, and the effort was dropped.
DAVIES: And what was the message to bin Laden: Please call back?
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Mr. SHANKER: It was an effort to describe in some ways, you know, the kinds of retaliation the U.S. would consider for future attacks. It was trying to again deter any future al-Qaeda attack by making clear the punishment that would be carried out. Because if you read bin Laden's dialogue before 9/11 and in the days afterwards, he thought the U.S. was a paper tiger and was afraid to respond. And I think in many ways that was what inspired them to go for this incredibly bold and horrible set of 9/11 attacks.
DAVIES: And I'm just curious, I mean what sort of retaliation could they have threatened against a guy whose location they didn't know?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, as you saw, I mean classic deterrence was carried out. The United States invaded Afghanistan, which was his territory, and while the goal would have been to capture or kill him, they certainly did rout him from his safe haven. That was actually a classic case of retaliation.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker. They are both veteran correspondents for the New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guests are Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, both veteran reporters for the New York Times. They've covered national security issues for many years. They have a new book called "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
Well, in the later years of the Iraq War, I mean you write that America was getting smarter about and more flexible, bringing a more integrated approach to dealing with terrorism. And a lot of this involved the military and intelligence communities working together more effectively.
And you describe an operation - I believe this was December of 2006 in Iraq - that you say changed the course of the war. There was a First Lieutenant Garry Owens Flanders that led this relatively unassuming mission. What happened that night?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, they were just out on a routine patrol because the IED networks had been really causing terrible havoc and loss of life in the region. But they realized that when they set up their static patrols, cars didn't come by because all the Iraqis in the belt north of Baghdad were supporting the insurgency.
So rather than having static patrol, this young lieutenant decided he would out-guerrilla the guerrillas, and he began setting up a mobile checkpoint. And one evening in December, just as you said, Dave, they stopped a car, just, you know, it was a Mercedes out driving, and it was after curfew.
And as they approached the car, the driver leapt from the vehicle and began running away and then self-detonated. He was wearing a suicide vest. And they captured the occupant of the car and a briefcase full of thumb drives and files and all of that.
What they found really was the al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia battle plan for how to counter the surge that had just been ordered. It showed the safe houses, it showed where all of the weapons were stored, and it also showed that al-Qaida really understand the Iraqi people more than the Americans did, because among the chief targets that al-Qaida in Mesopotamia was going to attack during the surge were the bakeries, because buying fresh bread every day is a sign to the population of a good life, and they were going to attack the garbage men, because they wanted the garbage to pile up to show that the American effort was failing.
And using this sort or really serendipitous capture by this young lieutenant, General Ray Odierno, who was commanding the day-to-day operations of the surge, was able to reshape his entire force footprint. And he's described this seizure almost like, you know, the ability of the Allies to break the Enigma codes of the Nazis during World War II. It gave him total visibility into the al-Qaeda battle plan.
DAVIES: And I gather that if this same raid had happened a couple of years earlier, that they might not have taken advantage of this treasure trove of intelligence. What had changed?
Mr. SHANKER: It used to be that the intelligence community would stay back in Washington. They'd wait for the reports to come back, and they'd be back here safe and sound and all that.
Well, you know, given the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the global nature of this threat, intelligence analysts were pushed forward. So they were on the ground. There was actually an officer of the NSA, which is the code-breaking arm of intelligence, who was at the headquarters when this material landed. So he could immediately begin sorting it and looking through it.
And they'd also installed - and it sounds like such a small thing - a giant electronic pipe from Iraq back to the United States. I mean, think about the frustration all of us have with our home Internet, when it's slow or it goes down. Well, actually, the American military is not perfect. They actually were having communications difficulties during the early years of the war.
But they had just installed this giant Internet classified pipeline so they could move vast materials of data back and forth. If that had not been in place, there's no way they could have cracked this cache of intelligence quickly enough to do any good.
DAVIES: So you've got a military that realizes that the briefcases and the hard drives really matter and the technical capability to go through all of that data that's in Arabic.
Now, you also describe this raid at a place called Sinjar in Iraq near the Syrian border. This is really fascinating. Describe what this was all about, what led to that operation.
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, again, this was an operation again, serendipitous. It's a little town near the Iraqi-Syrian border, where a Special Operations team raids this camp, really, that - it's full of jihadists.
And what they come up with is essentially the al-Qaeda Rolodex, the index of the foreign fighters that are coming in primarily from Syria into Iraq and the countries they're coming from.
And one of the interesting things about this story, Dave, is the idea of how anal, really, al-Qaeda is about its recordkeeping and excruciating detail about the names of these individual recruits, where they're coming from, their home towns, and the countries they're coming from.
Well, this became a very important tool for the U.S. government to use, and it was turned over to an interesting guy, a retired general, Dell Dailey, who had been the head of several Special Operations commands. And so he came from a very experienced background as a military operator.
But he, at the time that this information came forward from Sinjar, was the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator. So what he was able to do was go to these countries armed with this information, Sinjar files, and go one by one through these countries and basically confront - and he carried the weight of a former (technical difficulties) operations command general, a three star Army general with him. So he could go to some countries essentially as General Dailey and use his military connections to show them exactly where these recruits were coming from in the country.
DAVIES: And I guess this is sort of an interesting kind of corollary to the, you know, the deterrence doctrine. He goes to Saudi Arabia, he goes to Jordan, and he tells them how many suicide bombers are coming from there, and what does he tell them then that makes them act? Why is it in their interest to do something about this?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, he simply reminded them of something that has stung America over the decades, which is blowback, that if you don't take care of problems emanating from inside your country, even if at that point in time those young men are making jihad in another country, they will eventually return, those who don't kill themselves, or they will inspire others who will come back as hardened veteran terrorists.
And they will come home, and they will bring that problem back to your soil. That in essence was what General Dailey told them.
DAVIES: The other fascinating part of this story is the decision by General Stanley McChrystal on how to handle this data. Explain what he did.
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, what McChrystal did was basically look at this information, which was collected by Special Operations forces, and typically in a raid like this, it would remain within highly classified channels. It might be shared within the government, the intelligence community, but it would be held very tightly.
What McChrystal did, he said no, no, we need to act on this quickly, and one of the - the only way we can do that is to essentially make it public. And so what he did was he took the information to the West Point Combating Terrorism Center and said we want you to publish this, basically in an open forum, to allow everybody to analyze this information.
It was really an unprecedented step by McChrystal, who was really a visionary thinker in this way, but it got the information out there quicker, had many more eyes analyzing this information in a much broader way, and again reflected the idea that it needs a whole-of-government approach to combat terrorism, not just the very narrow bands that existed certainly prior to 9/11.
DAVIES: Now, this reminded me of WikiLeaks. I mean, was he literally making public safe houses, names of operatives, destinations, tactics, all that stuff?
Mr. SHANKER: It was scrubbed quite a bit more. The information that was released was really an ink spot of what communities had produced the young men who then traveled through Syria into Iraq to be either suicide bombers or simply to become foot soldiers.
It was scrubbed of anything that might have given an operational knowledge of what the U.S. knew at the time, but what it did, it gave General Dailey the ability, you know, to an open source and with countries that were not allies of ours.
I mean he went to Libya, for goodness sake, but to say, hey, we didn't make this up; this is honest to goodness raw data seized from al-Qaeda, this is not a propaganda campaign. And he would not have been able to share that with all of these allies, partners, and some countries who aren't friends, if General McChrystal had not decided to declassify the entire trove.
DAVIES: And do we know what the impact was of these efforts?
Mr. SHANKER: Yeah, General Petraeus told us on the record that there was no single operation during his entire period of command that cut down the numbers of suicide bombers as much as this whole-of-government effort that was led by General Dailey using the seized intelligence.
So you know, other than the raid on the camp that killed the terrorists there, there was no other kinetic aspect. It was all about translation, assessment, pulling together an exploitation through diplomatic channels to stop suicide bombers from flowing from Syria into Iraq.
DAVIES: And was there a notable decrease in suicide attacks?
Mr. SHANKER: Absolutely. It dropped to about one-tenth of what it had been before.
DAVIES: Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt are veteran reporters for the New York Times. Their book is called "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda." They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross, who is off this week.
We're speaking with New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker about innovative strategies developed to fight al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. In their new book, Schmitt and Shanker report that some years after the September 11th attacks officials moved beyond a kill-and-capture strategy to a more integrated approach, aimed in part at disrupting terrorist networks and inhibiting their ability to recruit and train new followers. The book is called "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
So you write that by the end of the Bush administration there was certainly much better coordination among the military and intelligence. There were smarter approaches to the issue of terrorism. You know, in January of 2009, Barack Obama is inaugurated. How did his approach to this problem differ from President Bush's?
Mr. SCHMITT: In many ways when president Obama came into office he picked up on many of President Bush's counterterrorism policies and strategies. What was interesting to note is that the biggest difference was probably between the first and second Bush administration where some of the real major changes began in the thinking and evolution of how you combat terrorism. It really started in the second Bush administration. So there was a great deal of continuity from Bush to the second Bush administration into President Obama's first administration.
President Obama, of course, embraced the CIA drone strikes, drone strikes used in Pakistan, and actually expanded them. He had certainly continued the policy that started with the Bush administration of closing down the black sites, the detention sites.
But important enough was the effort by President Obama to work more closely with allies in dealing with counterterrorism issues, in working to combat not only the flow of fighters, as we've talked about, but the flow of money, for instance, that comes out of ally countries in the Middle East or in Europe. And so I think in many ways there were many of the allies in these places were working more closely with the Obama administration as they came in.
DAVIES: And he consciously tried to undermine the notion that America is waging a war on Islam. He went to Cairo and gave that speech, talking about America's, you know - the importance of American relations with Islamic countries and its respect for Islam. And there were efforts to in effect undermine al-Qaida's message. And this was not something that Obama did for the first time; it was done before then. But I wonder if you can just talk a little bit about that. First of all, what were some of the things that were tried that didn't work in this area, the counter-messaging approach?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, in many ways beginning in the Bush administration there was a push to talk about how good the United States was. And if you could only polish the American image in the Middle East suddenly everybody would see how well-meaning the United States would be and want to be just like us - just like the United States. And again, it reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of how the United States was being interpreted there.
The United States was seen, of course, initially as the country that was the victim after 9/11 and had wide, you know, wide world global support for that. But when the United States moved into Iraq during the Iraq war, much of that sympathy dissipated and soon turned to anger and hatred against the United States and in many ways was generating more militants and it was before.
It continued to have the problem of being seen as an ally of Israel. And so you had the distrust of the United States in this way. So rather than combating the message that al-Qaida was putting out - and it was a very simple but effective message, that is the United States and the West in general is at war with Islam. Instead the United States and many of its policymakers at the time were trying to burnish the American image.
It wasn't until again, later in the Bush administration and then continuing on in the Obama administration that there was a significant shift. And that was to go after the underlying message of al-Qaida and to undermine its credibility. And to point out through credible voices in the Muslim community - not through American voices, which would taint that message, but through credible Muslim voices - to point out that the vast number of casualties for instance in suicide attacks and other bombings in places like Iraq and Afghanistan were innocent men, women and children - Muslims themselves. And so this became part of became still an evolving counter-messaging strategy by the United States. And it's still one of the weakest links in this whole counterterrorism strategy, however.
DAVIES: Are there some other, I don't know, tricks they've used, some other strategies that they've employed that have been more effective?
Mr. SHANKER: It's difficult to gauge the effectiveness of a lot of these things because you can't really do public opinion polling among...
Mr. SHANKER: ...the jihadis, but some that the military and the intelligence community feel are worthwhile, there's a system whereby native Arabic speakers will go onto chat rooms that are popular with either jihadists themselves or potentially radicalized young people who could join the jihad. And what these Americans and their agents do in Arabic online is sort of pose questions, try to foment a discussion. They don't really state propaganda themselves but they say hey, did you see the bombing at that market in pick your country, Jordan or Iraq or Afghanistan? And I'm troubled, my friends, about the number of innocent members of our Islamic community who were killed. Can someone please explain to me how this is in keeping how is this al-Qaida attack in keeping with what we believe?
And so they hope to raise those questions to help these young potential jihadis come to their own conclusions that this is not the path they want to pursue.
DAVIES: Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt are veteran reporters for The New York Times. Their new book is called "Counterstrike."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guests are two veteran reporters for The New York Times, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker. They've covered national security and military affairs for many years. Their new book is "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
Now you write also about cyber war. And I'm interested to hear not so much in defending the country from a cyber attack, but in the efforts of the administration to deal with jihadist websites. Give us a sense first of all of what these websites are like and what their roles are in these campaigns of terror.
Mr. SHANKER: Well, it's very interesting to return to our, the original theme of our discussion, Dave, which is can deterrence be applied? You know, terrorists don't have territory and they don't have targets you can readily see. So, in fact, the Internet is their classic safe haven. It's where they live and operate. It's their air and land and water. It's where they recruit. It's where they do their fundraising. It's where they do their propaganda. It's actually also where they do their operational planning and where they issue orders.
So if there is a domain of combat that the American military and intelligence community have to attack that's where they find the terrorists. And so it is a huge priority and one that has not been written about or understood very well before.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things in the book is that the military loves to create new groups tasks force and committees with long acronyms. And one of my favorites is the one for the for, you know, the Internet war, the Strategic Operational Planning Interagency Group for Terrorist Use of The Internet," which could be pronounced SOPIGTUI(ph), I guess. They did form this inter-agency group to take this on. And there were some interesting dilemmas that they faced. I mean, you know, do you take down the site? Do you milk them for data? Do you use them to sow disinformation? Do you want to just talk a little bit about some of the debates on how to approach that task?
Mr. SHANKER: Sure. And the reason this crazy organization was created because they needed some grownups in the room to settle very, very deep and heartfelt separations of views. If you are an operational commander in Iraq or Afghanistan and one of these terrorist sites is putting out information, which it does, about how close you have to stand and at what angle to be able to penetrate a soldier's bulletproof vest. Or what's happened in Iraq, one of the websites for an insurgent group called the JRTN was posting the polling places, the exact locations ahead of a national parliamentary election. That was a targeting list. They wanted those sites attacked. So if you're a general on the battlefield and this is on the Internet that is a clear and present danger to your troops and to the mission.
At the same time, the intelligence community might say now wait a second. This is just a honey pot of great information. We see who comes to the site. We see who stays on the site. We can follow them back to other websites. And this might let us understand more about how this network operates and we can do greater harm to the terror network if we let this site run and keep learning from it. So you have huge knockdown, drag out debates with the operational commander saying take the site down and the intelligence community saying no, we want to leave it up.
DAVIES: I guess in some ways that's akin to what happens in a lot of criminal investigations where - and in terrorist investigations whether you're following someone who might do something dangerous. Do you arrest them or do you keep an eye on them and see what you can learn about a wider network? Was this debate ever resolved or was it simply a tension that has to be managed?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, there is a system now to resolve it and so it's case specific. In the case of this JRTN website that was putting up really, you know, dangerous information before the election - and it wasn't just the polling places, they were having all of the jihadi porn you hear about, the decapitations and all of that. General Odierno did win the debate on that and the server was taken down. And there's a very interesting footnote on this story, Dave, which is that the server carrying the website was based in the United States.
Now they had millions of pages on their site. They could never have known what it was. So it wasn't even cyber warfare or sending poison electrons to take it down. They sent some guys in suits from Commerce or Treasury or the local police department to show the Web server what was on his site. That person pulled the plug and it went down but, of course, it popped up again in Southeast Asia on a server there about a month later.
Mr. SCHMITT: Dave, what's interesting and the book also shows in addition to the fights inside the government over cyber that Thom's just described, these same kind of fights were going on inside the FBI, for instance. And again this shows an evolution about what was happening within the counterterrorism community.
As you pointed out, in the criminal justice field it used to be certainly the FBI prior to 9/11, if they're looking at a possible suspect they're going to collect enough evidence and at the time they get enough evidence that somebody a person they suspect has committed a crime they'll arrest them.
Well, an important sea shift takes place in the FBI and certainly years following 9/11 in that they're asked, they're directed by the president to now become the country's premier domestic intelligence agency. And so now not only do they have the responsibility of arresting potential criminals but now they are essentially an intelligence agency gathering information on criminals - in this case potential terrorists. So they're faced with the dilemma of tracking individuals who might be a part of terrorist networks and usually at the point where they might walk in and bust the guy and arrest that person they're now saying no, no, let's wait. Let's let this guy play out and see if he'll take us to other nodes in this network so we can understand the full scope and scale of this network.
And every morning now at FBI headquarters where director Bob Mueller convenes his top aides they have a list of a couple of dozen individuals they're tracking every single day watching and they're having to make that call: When do we move in on this person? When do we think we've exhausted our resources in terms of monitoring and surveillance to think we now understand that network as best we can? Because the fear is, of course, if you arrest somebody, roll them up too soon you may have missed sleeper cells, you may have missed parts of the network that could come back and carry out terrorist attacks.
The concern now is, as we move more and more toward the threat of domestic terrorism, is that that span between somebody who becomes radicalized who may just think or go online and think about carrying out terrorist attacks to actually carrying out an attack is becoming much shorter. And it's very hard and very difficult to monitor and to gauge if you're law-enforcement in the United States now.
DAVIES: Now are there cases where American intelligence officials were able to get on to these jihadist websites and in effect imitate commanders and post phony orders? You both co-authored a piece in -recently that mentioned this and that created some stir, some attention.
Mr. SHANKER: Yeah, it certainly they did. What the American military intelligence can do is forge the watermarks or certification, if you will, of official al-Qaida postings because they don't what people going online and, you know, pretending to be them. But, you know, American cyber technology is so advanced that they can have a near perfect re-creation of an al-Qaida message.
And what they're doing from time to time is going on to jihadi websites and posting conflicting and contradictory orders, statements that raise doubt about who the jihadi should follow and who is really in charge, and is this person still alive? Are they, you know, still in control? And the goal is to really disrupt the entire network by sowing distrust and dissent and confusion, and we've been told that they've had some great successes at that.
DAVIES: And I was also surprised to read that - in the book, that some terrorists are using video games to communicate with one another. Explain this.
Mr. SCHMITT: Yes. What you've got in these kind of games is the terrorists have essentially adopted the language of the games itself and turned that into a kind of code so that you go online and you're following a game like this. And while it may seem to anyone else as if you're just playing this virtual game, for the terrorists, they've created a whole - idioms that go with this. And...
DAVIES: And just to clarify, we're talking about these massive, interactive online games where hundreds of thousands of people across the world can be interacting in real-time online in this game, right?
Mr. SCHMITT: That's right. So the challenge now for the nation's code breakers at the NSA is to try and figure out, well, who is on this. Is it terrorists? And when they're playing these games, what exactly are they saying in this coded language? And it's posing one of the biggest challenges today, because as Thom said before, this is really the domain of the terrorists in the cyber world.
Mr. SHANKER: And what it's done is it's shown, really, that the terrorists are a learning adversary. I mean, they now understand that, you know, the NSA and other code breakers can pick up on keywords in emails or cell phones. You know, those words change a lot, but, you know, whether it's a wedding or something else, they can scan the global cell phone networks and find those. But the technology doesn't yet exist to decode if there's 100,000 gamers on at one time and they're all talking about this exploding or that attack, it's almost impossible to differentiate what's a high school kid having fun with his friends and what is a jihadi plotting an attack.
SCHMITT: Dave, this gets to another one of the points we make on the book and how one of the big changes since 9/11 is just not only the volume of information that's being sucked up by various intelligence platforms - be they satellite and imagery or eavesdropping on communications. But then it's the ability of supercomputers to crunch all this information in much shorter timeframes to give the operators a chance to then react to this information in a much faster way, so that you - if you pick up information, whether it's a cell phone conversation, you now have databases that can link those individuals on the cell phone conversations to everyone else they've been talking to over a period of months.
And suddenly - within a matter of minutes, perhaps - you have a vast profile surrounding an individual. And you can deploy whether it's commandos, armed aircraft or drone strikes, or perhaps just more surveillance over that individual in a much faster way. And it gives the commanders in the field and policymakers here in Washington a much broader array of options to deal with terrorists.
DAVIES: Well, I guess it was - as you were finishing your book, or maybe after you'd submitted the manuscript, that Osama bin Laden was killed by that American team, and you have an epilogue in the book which describes it. And I'm wondering how you think the killing of Osama bin Laden has changed the game for, you know, for Americans fighting terrorism?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, obviously, it's had a dramatic effect and an initial impact. And that you can't discount the significance that bin Laden had, not only as the operational and spiritual leader of al-Qaida, but this sense that this is a man who had, up until his death, had defied the West, had defied the United States, continuing to put out video - more likely audio releases - and that there was a sense that he was almost untouchable, that he and Zawahiri, his number two, remained above the fray, even as their number three commanders, their operational commanders and their rank-and-file were killed. And he was an inspiration in the Middle East and to those in the Muslim community and the jihadi community who followed him.
His death now and the way he died really punctured that, and it showed the vulnerability that he had and that the leaders now of al-Qaida had and the way he was killed, living in a safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan in relative comfort has also been used to mixed effects by the United States in their counter-messaging campaign.
There's still a long way to go, though, in this battle. As Thomas said, there have been there may be tactical successes, and this is obviously one of the most important ones in the last 10 years. But al-Qaida, the ideology remains quite virulent. And more important, perhaps, the al-Qaida affiliates, the branches of al-Qaida beyond the tribal areas of Pakistan that have sprouted up - most notably in Yemen, which right now U.S. counterterrorism officials say is the - it poses the greatest threat to the United States, as well as adherence in Somalia and northern Africa and even some resurgence in Iraq.
So even though bin Laden is dead, the main al-Qaida infrastructure and operation in Pakistan has been dealt a severe blow, there's still a long way to go you for you can count out the terrorists right now.
DAVIES: Thom Shanker, you want to add anything to that?
Mr. SHANKER: Well, I would just say that, you know, as Eric described, it's going to be a long, hard battle. And I think the terrorist community is shifting. While there's still a desire for an attack of mass casualties like on 9/11, and while terrorist networks are seeking a weapon of mass destruction, absolutely, they're changing to a strategy of multiple, smaller attacks.
Think of it Dave, as throwing pebbles into the cogs of the Western economic machine. If you throw enough pebbles, some will get through, and those cogs will stick. Think about the printer cartridge attack that al-Qaida in Yemen attempted, the group that Eric was just talking about. That attack was caught. It was aborted. It didn't happen. But the idea of sending explosive printer cartridges on commercial air prompted hundreds of millions of dollars in excess spending on security, disrupted transportation for days. So even though that attack was a failure, it was a propaganda success for the adversary.
And so what the United States and its allies have to do is to be ready for the next attack, but to respond with resiliency and even a shrug of the shoulders. Because another attack is going to come, and denying the adversary victory is all about the United States and its and its allies picking up - not the next day or the next week - but picking up that day and moving ahead. That's what denies terrorists a victory.
DAVIES: New York Times reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt. Their new book is called "Counterstrike."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're speaking with Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker. Their new book is "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
You write about the growth in homegrown extremism, Americans who are attracted to, you know, jihadist groups and some of them have gone to Pakistan or Yemen and have been trained and come back. And it's interesting that in the first years after the 9/11 attacks, we didn't see this so much. You know that it was around 2009 that you saw more of this arising. Did the officials you talked to have an explanation for that?
Mr. SHANKER: Part of this is just an evolution, I think, and that first of all, the Muslim community here in the United States is much better integrated socially and economically than, say, those communities in Europe or the Middle East which had been the target for most of the al-Qaida propaganda.
But as time goes on, the al-Qaida message became more nuanced and more effective. And particularly with the rise of an American-born cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico, practiced here in the United States, fluent English speaker. He has now emerged as one of the key spokesman. He's now in hiding in Yemen. But his propaganda - all in English, and targeted at the English-speaking world - has been very effective.
If you look at the number of these so-called homegrown attacks, whether it's the Major Nidal Hasan in Fort Hood, Najibullah Zazi, the so-called subway bomber, the attempted subway bomber in New York City, and many, many others. These have all been affected by Anwar al-Awlaki. Another is a guy from North Carolina named Samir Khan, who is the editor of an English-language online journal called Inspire, which has got very, a very slick production - again, aimed at the English-speaking audience.
So I think the - al-Qaida understands now, as they've moved to this dual strategy that Thom talked about of still preparing for the mass casualty attack, if they can obtain weapons of mass destruction. They're now trying to inspire individuals, particularly over the Internet and here in the United States or in parts of English-speaking Europe, to carry out attacks of all sizes and kinds, however they may be. And this is what really poses one of the biggest challenges to American intelligence and law enforcement now, is how to detect.
It's one thing if you have a cell, a terrorist cell that has multiple parts. And any part of that, if you detect it, you can pull the string and it'll unravel. If you're only talking about individuals, one or two perhaps who are basically radicalize over the Internet and inspired to attack on their own and they have the wherewithal to do so, many times these online journals that al-Qaida in Yemen, for instance, are producing give you tips exactly how to produce ricin for instance, or try to...
DAVIES: That's the substance that was going to be used in the plot in London that was thwarted.
Mr. SCHMITT: Exactly...
Mr. SCHMITT: ...a deadly poison. Or just on how to carry out a simple, small explosive attack. It's basically a how-to guide for the individual terrorist out there. This is very difficult to detect and to thwart if you're in American law enforcement.
DAVIES: We're coming up on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I'm curious what, if anything, you're hearing from your sources.
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, counterterrorism experts are telling me that while the 10th anniversary of 9/11 may seem to pose an obvious target for al-Qaida, what they fear, actually, is that al-Qaida will know the various defensive measures that'll be taken around the world and will actually wait a month or so afterward when, presumably, defenses are lessened to carry out any kind of attack.
The concern here is, though, that the copycats, some of those new extremists that are being radicalized over the Internet may see it as a great time to carry out its own kind of individualized attack. So while you may not see any large-scale attack from an al-Qaida or al-Qaida affiliate, there could well be threats made by individuals seeking to make a statement of their own on 9/11.
DAVIES: Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. SCHMITT: Many thanks, Dave.
Mr. SHANKER: Dave, it was an honor to be here. Thanks for all the great questions.
DAVIES: Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt cover military and national security issues for The New York Times. Their new book is called "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.