The Covert War Against International Terror
The Covert War Against International Terror
When President George W. Bush first outlined the war on terror within days of the September 11 attacks, he predicted that rooting out terrorists would include both "drama visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success," and that "many [would] be involved in this effort, from FBI agents, to intelligence operatives."10 His prediction was borne out by the first death to occur in the war on terror in Afghanistan. In an inmate rebellion at the military prison at Mazar-e Sharif, captive Taliban and al-Qaeda members killed Johnny Micheal Spann, an intelligence officer with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Spann was there as part of a cooperative effort between that agency and the U.S. military to interrogate prisoners for information leading to more arrests. In the words of New York Times reporter James Risen, "The fact that the first American to die in combat in Afghanistan was an intelligence officer and not a uniformed soldier serves to underscore the scope of the [CIA's] role in the war in Afghanistan."11
Indeed, CIA officers trained and provided logistical and intelligence support to American armed forces during the war in Afghanistan. Special Forces units known for covert operations, such as the U.S. Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) and the U.S. Army Green Berets, have also played an important role there and in the larger war on terror. Their activities are in some respects similar to the CIA's, including training other nations' antiterrorism forces in covert operations, but focus more on conducting secret missions to track down terrorist leaders and cooperating in joint covert missions with other countries.
The Role of Special Forces
The "visible" wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began with aerial bombardment, but the military campaign had actually started much earlier, when Special Forces soldiers infiltrated those countries to assess the situation there. For example, within days of September 11, a small group of Green Berets, assigned to an effort known as Task Force Dagger, were already operating in Afghanistan. They did groundwork typical of Special Forces officers, including working secretly to acquire information that
could be used to assist larger military efforts, such as the location of weapons and the condition of roads. They also carried out missions to destroy terrorist property and arrest or kill individuals before they could mount any further attacks.
Another effort, known as Task Force K-BAR (named after a type of military knife), included SEALs and Green Beret commandos. This force fought "secret battles," according to journalist Mark Mazzetti, "to root out terrorism throughout the country [operating] in a murky world where success is sometimes hard to measure and outright victory even harder to declare."12
While hundreds of bombs were dropped in an area known to have been used as a camp by al-Qaeda, the SEALs of Task Force K-BAR set up camp in the nearby town of Khost. There they watched and waited for any information that might allow them to zero in on a terrorist hideout and launch a lightning raid. Additionally, after each bombing run against a cave complex
at Zhawar, they scouted the area for evidence and to hunt down any remaining al-Qaeda operatives. Among the things they found were caches of weapons and expensive communications equipment as well as what Mazzetti describes as "a terrorist classroom decorated with pictures of New York City and tourist landmarks around the world. Al-Qaeda recruiting posters hung on the walls, one depicting a serene Osama bin Laden surrounded by fighter jets and a plane crashing into the World Trade Center."13
Special Forces operations like Task Force K-BAR begin when agents slip in under cover of darkness to stake out the chosen target. After this reconnaissance, a decision is made as to the best way to move on the target. In the case of the al-Qaeda complex at Shkin, in eastern Afghanistan, four miles from the Pakistan border, more Special Operations troops and marines were brought in by helicopter. They launched a raid that resulted in thirty arrests and the seizure of caches of weapons and explosives. Another raid at the town of Yaya Kahil was the largest Army Special Forces direct-action mission since the Vietnam War. There, a ninety-minute raid by approximately one hundred soldiers yielded stockpiles of weapons, satellite phones, and computers holding information about al-Qaeda operations, and seven suspects were taken prisoner.
Support of Ground Troops
The success of Special Forces soldiers early in the campaign minimized later ground troop involvement in Afghanistan, resulting in extremely low loss of life among American troops. As author Robin Moore points out, "Most people think it took 5, 000 to 40, 000 US troops to free Kabul. They are vastly mistaken—fewer than 100 American soldiers were on the ground when Kabul fell."14
The approximately four thousand American soldiers arriving in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban were used in limited capacities. The first was as a guard or cover force at terrorist camps that had been seized by Afghan fighters and whose occupants had been killed or captured. While Afghans rifled through these bases for evidence of terrorist activities and plans, as well as clues to the whereabouts of terrorist leaders, U.S. Marines stood ready to prevent or counter sneak attacks on the Afghans by those loyal to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In the Tora Bora campaign, American soldiers also participated in searches of camps and caves whose occupants had fled. The success of these tactics in avoiding casualties was near complete. Only one U.S. soldier was killed in the Tora Bora search of late 2001 and early 2002.
After the Taliban fell, some American troops and Special Forces officers remained, but their numbers are not clear. In 2003, as part of the cooperative arrangement with the Karzai government, sweeps for terrorists and rebels continued to occur, using various combinations of Special Forces and ground troops from both countries. In March 2003, Operation Valiant Strike was undertaken on the Pakistan border, where small numbers of suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives had been attacking Afghan government posts. Several were arrested in Operation Valiant Strike, and a number of munitions caches were discovered, including rocket-propelled grenades,
land mines, and mortar rounds, evidence that terrorism is still a threat in Afghanistan.
The Role of the CIA
The Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Central Intelligence Agency also provides undercover support to military operations in the war on terror. The SOG is a civilian agency but shares many of the same goals and activities as the military Special Forces, although on a much smaller scale. (A total of approximately forty-four thousand officers serve in
the Special Forces units of the armed forces, compared with only several hundred in the SOG.) Special Forces and SOG operatives are similarly trained in guerrilla warfare, infiltration of hostile nations, and covert communication.
Because they play such similar roles in the field, considerable friction has arisen between the CIA and the military over defining the limits of their respective activities. Military officials argue that the CIA should limit itself to collecting and supplying intelligence for the marines, navy, and other branches to use. The CIA disagrees, claiming that working outside of the military bureaucracy gives SOG operatives more flexibility and creativity in the field, and enables them to react more quickly and independently. As a result, the CIA argues, the SOG is in the best possible position to undertake covert operations to track down terrorists.
However, the CIA was not founded for the purpose of undertaking secret missions. The Central Intelligence Agency was established after World War II to ensure that events such as the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor did not happen again, in the belief that an adequate spy and intelligence network would have uncovered and thwarted the Japanese plans. Thus, the CIA's major responsibility became overseas intelligence gathering, to complement the FBI's efforts inside the United States. With the establishment of SOG, journalist Douglas Waller reports, the CIA moved "beyond the realm of collecting secrets to intervening forcibly in the affairs of foreign states."15
However, the CIA's record was embarrassingly poor and often morally troubling, including botched assassination attempts on foreign leaders Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and Fidel Castro of Cuba, and support of coups to overthrow governments the United States opposed. As a result, the SOG's role, and the CIA's budget for covert operations, had been greatly curtailed in recent years in the belief, summarized by Waller, that "billion dollar spy satellites collected intelligence more efficiently [than the CIA] and without embarrassing the US."16
A Revitalized SOG
That was all to change after September 11. Many analysts felt al-Qaeda had succeeded in its coordinated, devastating attacks because of a lack of intelligence of the sort that can only be provided by well-trained and highly skilled covert operatives working undercover inside terrorist groups. Addressing this lack, the CIA began increasing the number of undercover agents and their extent of operations around the world. The SOG has, as a result, become one of the CIA's main contributions to the war on terror. Today several hundred SOG officers are in place in Central Asia, North Africa, East Asia, and Pakistan. SOG speedboats can put operatives on shore and small SOG jets can fly agents anywhere in the world on only a few hours 'notice. SOG cargo planes and ships deliver agents and equipment wherever they are needed. This investment in human operatives has come about as a result of what Waller calls a clearer understanding that "technology has its limitations. Satellites, for instance, can't see inside buildings [and] phone taps can't capture an enemy's every move."17
The new emphasis is once again on the individual agent working undercover to develop intelligence. "Name a country anywhere, and [the CIA] can identify with a few phone calls four or five people who will have a variety of skills to go into that country…. We have the ability to hide in plain sight, get in and get out before anybody figures out who we are,"18 an unnamed CIA source recently told Time magazine. Using such tactics, CIA agents have played a central role in apprehending al-Qaeda members in a number of successful operations all over the globe, often in cooperation with police and intelligence agencies of the countries where the terrorists were hiding.
"America's Cops Overseas"
One additional arm of the government involved in covert activities in the war on terror is the Diplomatic Security Service, or DSS, a branch of the Department of State. The twelve hundred
agents of the DSS are both Foreign Service professionals and sworn law enforcement officers, responsible for the security of diplomatic staff overseas. Since its founding in 1985, DSS agents have been "America's cops overseas," according to international law enforcement expert Samuel Katz, who refers to them as having "badges without borders."19 Their job is to protect embassy staff, serve as bodyguards to diplomats, and advise ambassadors on matters of security.
In recent years, however, the job of a DSS agent has increasingly involved terrorist tracking and apprehension because many acts of terrorism since the 1990s have been attacks on embassies. On August 7, 1998, for example, car bombs exploded at the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people. A radical Islamic group linked to Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the attacks. One day later the DSS established a website link that collected hundreds of tips as part of the State Department's multimillion-dollar rewards program for information leading to terrorist arrest.
The DSS has also been credited with playing a role in tracking down an Iraqi connection to a failed attempt to bomb the U.S. embassy in Manila and in the search for terrorist mastermind Ramzi Yousef, who is accused of planning the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Though its activities are often overshadowed by FBI and CIA operations, the DSS continues to play a direct role in the war on terror.