The false assumptions of US intelligence
Washington - US counter-terrorism officials were taken by surprise by al-Qaeda’s swift resurgence after the killing of Osama bin Laden, a “decapitation” they expected to weaken the organisation and hasten its defeat. So says the CIA’s former deputy director, Michael Morell, in a just-published book.
The unexpected turn of events outlined in The Great War of Our Time points to a long-standing but flawed assumption in Washington that an enemy force loses strength and cohesion when its leader is removed. That assumption is popular both with US political leaders and the public but it has proved more often wrong than right.
In the case of bin Laden, US intelligence misjudged both his role in al-Qaeda and the resilience of his organisation, according to Morell.
Before the May 2011, US raid that killed him in Pakistan, US intelligence had seen bin Laden as al-Qaeda’s “chairman of the board” while the day-to-day running of the organisation was left to his deputy, writes Morell. He adds that documents captured in the raid showed that, in fact, bin Laden “had not only been managing the organisation… he had been micro-managing it” and was still involved in planning attacks and with al-Qaeda’s growing offshoots around the world.
But the worst of the “analytic missteps” listed by Morell, who worked for the CIA for 33 years, was the intelligence community’s assessment of the “Arab spring’s” effect on extremist groups.
“We thought and told policymakers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage al-Qaeda by undermining the group’s narrative. Our analysts figured that the protests would send a signal throughout the region that political change was possible without al- Qaeda leading the way and without the violence that al-Qaeda said was necessary,” he said.
Instead, in the turbulence of the “Arab spring” and its aftermath, jihadists flourished across the Middle East and North Africa and the Islamic State (ISIS), once an al-Qaeda splinter group, emerged as the most vicious and militarily most effective of the groups active in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. ISIS is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a man high on the American kill list who was reported incapacitated in an air strike last year but surfaced in mid-May with an audio message after months of silence.
There are no reliable figures on how many senior and mid-level leaders of extremist groups have been killed in raids or air strikes. A congressional hearing in March was told that half of the ISIS leadership based in Iraq had been eliminated.
Which prompts a question: Is killing terrorist leaders enough to destroy their organisations?
In most cases, the answer is no, according to studies by Jenna Jordan, an international affairs professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Looking at a dataset of 298 incidents in which terrorist leaders from 92 organisations were arrested or killed in six decades from 1945, she concluded that “decapitation does not increase the likelihood of organisational collapse”. In a follow-up study focused only on al-Qaeda and its affiliates, she came to the same conclusion.
In his book, Morell points to the heart of the problem, “Terrorists are very easy to remove from the battlefield but stopping the recruitment of new terrorists is a nearly impossible task.” Stemming the flood of new recruits would require an effective campaign to counter jihadist propaganda. But the United States has fared badly in the propaganda war, a fact US President Barack Obama acknowledged at a February conference meant to find ways of dissuading disenchanted young Muslims from joining extremist groups.
Obama contrasted “often boring” material produced by US government agencies with “the high-quality videos, the online magazines, the use of social media, terrorist Twitter accounts” designed to attract and brainwash young Muslims in cyberspace. But despite Obama’s backing for innovative American countermeasures, the United States remains outgunned and outsmarted on the propaganda front.
ISIS and other groups are estimated to put out around 90,000 tweets and social media postings a day, way more than the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication, the small US State Department unit charged with influencing Muslims in cyberspace. Officials privately blame the disparity on a stingy budget and bureaucratic bickering over the tone of the messages