Al-Qaida Remains a Threat Despite U.S. Success Against Terrorism, Official Says
By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 6, 2013 Despite U.S. and allied successes against terrorists, Al-Qaida isn't going away soon, the assistant defense secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict said today.
"Those are the folks who are really committed to kill us in large numbers," Michael A. Sheehan said, adding that he expects al-Qaida to remain a threat for at least another 10-20 years.
However, he said, it's important to keep in mind how successful the U.S. and its allies have been in the fight against al-Qaida over the past 12 years. Much of that success is due to the efforts of special operations forces, Sheehan said.
The 9/11 terrorist attack was al-Qaida's third strategic attack against the U.S. government in 37 months, he said. Since then, they have been unable to conduct another strategic attack on the U.S. government, Sheehan said. Although there have been several tragic "lone-wolf" attacks, he said, they were isolated and not strategic.
In order for al-Qaida to conduct strategic-level attacks using lone-wolf operatives they would have to maintain a much higher operational tempo or conduct much more massive attacks, Sheehan said.
The distinction is significant, he said, because terrorism is intended to attack the psychology of its target. "If we exaggerate the threat, we empower them," Sheehan said. "It's important to never underestimate your foe, but it's also equally important not to over-aggrandize them in order to give them power over our communities."
It's vital to acknowledge successes, he said, both to prevent terrorism from holding sway over the community, and to recognize what tactics are working as the threat and our strategy evolves.
The threat posed by al-Qaida has evolved since the 1990s, Sheehan said, but only to a certain degree. The organization is generally very consistent in where and how it operates, he said. Following the 9/11 attacks, however, they found themselves under enormous pressure. Countries in which they had previously operated with impunity were no longer safe havens, Sheehan said. Their ability to move personnel, material and money was also restricted, he added.
Those sanctuaries were what allowed al-Qaida to conduct three strategic attacks within 37 months, Sheehan said. "We can never allow al-Qaida again to enjoy that kind of sanctuary," he said.
"After 9/11, we put enormous pressure on the network everywhere," Sheehan said. "Primarily through intelligence focus on the network, and we're going to continue to need to do that."
The military, particularly special operations forces, has a central role in both denying al-Qaida sanctuary and disrupting its network, he said. As part of its ‘advise and assist’ mission, special operations will continue to partner with host nations to build their capacity to pursue al-Qaida, Sheehan said.
"In Yemen ... we've worked with the Yemeni government to help them push al-Qaida out of its comfort zone," he said. "Remember, about two years ago they were controlling about 30 percent of Yemen's territory. That was unacceptable."
"In my view, [special operations] should be thinking about how it can not only help countries with counterinsurgency and stability operations to deny sanctuary, but also its role in helping regional organizations do so," Sheehan said. Very small numbers of advisers can "bring up the game" of peacekeeping forces, he added.
As the U.S. backs away from direct action, over the next ten years the advisory role of special operations forces will once again become its central focus, Sheehan noted. "It's fundamental to our mission of denying sanctuary to [al-Qaida] and other terrorist groups around the world."
This combination of tactics has worked to push al-Qaida out of its bases elsewhere around the world, he said. In Somalia, through the efforts of African Union forces, al Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate, lost control of the cities and now are left with only the most remote areas to operate out of, Sheehan said.
While denying sanctuary to terrorist groups may seem like a version of Whack-a-Mole, he said, "Whack-a-Mole, in my view, works -- because terrorists aren't plastic things that pop up again. When you kill them, they don't come back. Yes, somebody else may come back, but that guy is probably less effective, less trained, and by the way, knows his buddy before him got ... killed." When a terrorist network is under pressure, it will be unable to conduct strategic operations, Sheehan said. "It's not by luck that we've been safe in the United States over the last ten years," he noted.
Special operations forces have two specific skill sets that make them strategic assets, Sheehan said. "[They have] to be the best fighter -- run faster, shoot straighter, infiltrate in the hardest environments -- as an individual combat operator. At the same time [special operations forces] ... have to have language skills, cultural sensitivity, and ability to advise."
"That's an art," Sheehan said. "We can teach that in courses, but it can only be honed with multiple deployments downrange," he added.