Defeating Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves

I recently finished reading Michael Sheehan’s new book Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves. It jibes with much of what I think about terrorism and terrorism counterstrategy, but there’s more than that to recommend it.

Sheehan has extensive, on-the-ground experience in counterterrorism operations and policy in the federal government, in the military, at the UN, and in New York City, where he did the work that he is obviously the most proud of. The book overflows with recollections and opinions from someone who has been working on fighting terrorism for many years. This focus almost guarantees differences of opinion with someone like me, whose focus is limited government and protection of liberty, but the differences are profitable to explore.

For example, Ben Friedman and I both credited the recent Rolling Stone article arguing that domestic terrorism threats are overblown. Much derision has been poured on domestic terror threats like the “Lackawanna Six” and their obvious incompetence. But Sheehan has a different take:

The case of the Lackawanna Six is an interesting one. To some, these were just some suburban boys who were wanna-be jihadists—certainly not terrorists. But let’s take a closer look. Six young men who grew up in Lackawanna, New York, a small town outside of Buffalo, were inspired to form an al Qaeda cell by a man named Kamal Derwish in the spring of 2001… . All six went to Afghanistan and attended the al Qaeda camps, where they met bin Laden and were very much aware of his responsibility for the East African bombings and that of the USS Cole.

Derwish, a proven fighter and recruiter, was meanwhile sent on to advanced training. While he was gone, it appears that the others’ enthusiasm waned. They returned to the United States, while Derwish, upon completion of his higher training, went back to Yemen. In Yemen, Derwish found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time… . No one knows what that cell might have become if Derwish had returned to the United States to organize them. But these were not the innocent travelers that they’ve been portrayed by some to be.

A good point, and the foundation of Sheehan’s theme: crush the cell. Relative incompetents like the Lackawanna Six and the “muscle hijackers” of 9/11 can be pretty dangerous when activated by a well-trained leader like Mohammed Atta. An essential part of counterterrorism is to crush the cell before they reach that stage.

How do you do that? Sheehan has lots to say about how not to:

Soon after 9/11, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was created, and a new building was constructed a few miles down the road from the CIA to house its staff. But that wasn’t enough. Later, Congress created the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI), whose staff was charged with supervising and integrating all other intelligence-gathering agencies: more bureaucracy to manage the swollen intelligence monolith. It was a classic Washington solution to a problem: create a new agency, hire more bureaucrats, and increasingly outsource the work to contractors.

The cost of these new organizations is absolutely staggering, but I’ve yet to see how they’ve appreciably helped the so-called war on terror.

Instead of all this bureaucracy, Sheehan argues for focused intelligence work, about which he has a lot of stories and information to share. There are gems (and a few lumps of coal) throughout the book.

Insight into the economics of security shines through, for example, when he tells the story of the intense inspection his rental car gets at the entrance to the Marine Annex near the Pentagon, comparing it to the Sheraton across the street:

[S]ince 9/11, the military has had an almost unlimited budget … . The Pentagon cites the targeting of U.S. military facilities as the reason for tight security. But hotels have been attacked by terrorists around the world as well, and at least as often as U.S. military bases. But because the hotel has to pay for its own protection, security there is almost nil.

From the coal department, Sheehan casually endorses a national ID card, saying it would “go a long way in controlling who we allow in our midst.” His is not the only good, insightful book on counterterrorism I’ve read that throws in a pro-national ID sentiment at the back end. I think that, given time to do it, folks who recognize the futility of inspecting every shipping container or patrolling every inch of our land and sea borders would recognize the same dynamics at play in trying to use a national ID system for security against terrorism.

But that difference and differences on signals intelligence and eavesdropping are things to work on and discuss as we join in defeating a key product of the terrorism strategy: self-injurious overreaction. Time and again in his book Sheehan emphasizes the importance of avoiding fear and overreaction while crushing terror cells. This is a notion about which lifelong security people and advocates for limited government can speak in unison.