US Counterterrorism Counterstrikes: Five Important Takeaways

The news that U.S. Special Forces commandoes carried out nearly simultaneous counterterrorism raids on Saturday has briefly illuminated a shadow war the United States continues to wage against Islamist terrorists around the world. A snatch-and-grab “rendition” operation in Tripoli netted long-time Al Qaeda operative Nazhi Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai (better known as Abu Anas al-Liby), who carried a $5 million bounty on his head for participating in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, was further confirmation that the United States has a long memory in terms of terrorist manhunts. By contrast, the direct assault on an al-Shabab headquarters in Somalia by Navy SEALS was a response to the recent deadly attack by the terrorist group on an upscale shopping mall in Kenya that killed more than 60 civilians.  Taken together, the two U.S. counterstrikes reveal important elements of the Obama administration’s evolving counterterrorism strategy. Some early takeaways from the raids to follow:

Counterterrorism, Not Counterinsurgency

As the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on over the past decade, Washington was periodically transfixed by a heated debate between advocates of a holistic counterinsurgency strategy versus those arguing for much more limited counter-terrorism operations.  The former required large numbers of U.S. boots on the ground to protect civilian population centers, nurture governing institutions and conduct nation-building operations. The latter involved small, multi-agency task forces led by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that target individual terrorist and insurgent leaders for death or capture.

The news of the nearly simultaneous U.S. commando raids this past weekend drives home just how decisively advocates for a limited counter-terrorism strategy have won the argument.  Though it might prefer that transitional societies move in the direction of democracy, Washington has indicated there are severe limitations on how much it is willing to invest in that process after expending so much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan, with decidedly unsatisfactory results. For the foreseeable future, the United States will clearly counter a metastasizing Islamist terrorist threat by expanding globally the “Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze and Disseminate” counterterrorism model of operations that JSOC honed to a lethal edge in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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