Nowadays the term "terrorism" infiltrates most discourse on security and defence policy, reflecting the degree to which terrorism has become a global security concern and also the political legitimacy that came from branding one's opponent a "terrorist" after the declaration of the global war on terror. "Counterterrorism", then, could mean a wide variety of things, depending on what we define as "terrorism". But over the last few years, in the U.S. military at least, it has come to have a very specific meaning: operations launched by Special Operations Forces, George W. Bush's favourite branch of the military, against terrorist networks in Iraq, South Asia, and beyond.
The idea behind counterterrorism operations is simple, but to understand them you need to understand the nature of the threat they aim to counter. Iraq is the best example to consider because it was here that counterterrorism operations had their greatest impact. Many analysts credit the operations for contributing significantly to the turnaround in the security situation there, and military historians will be studying the lessons for years to come, as they are already doing in U.S. military journals.
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Around 2006, when Iraq was at its worst, of the many security challenges that stood out, one was paramount. This was al-Qaeda in Iraq, a foreign-led organization spread across the Sunni triangle which had squandered most of its popular legitimacy but continued to operate thanks to the general chaos, Saddam-era arms caches, external aid, and an urban environment which made it easy to hide. Al-Qaeda in Iraq's modus operandi was - and still is - high-profile bombings designed to have the maximum destabilizing effect on the country. Their victims were overwhelmingly other Iraqis, which explains their dearth of popular legitimacy; dubbed takfirists ("excommunicators") by the Shia and most other Sunnis, they believe that anyone who does not follow their cause is not a true Muslim and is hence a legitimate target.
In 2006 and 2007, as the surge in forces arrived and Iraqis wearied of al-Qaeda in Iraq's brutal tactics, hundreds of thousands of members of armed groups started to nail their flag to the U.S. mast, joining the Sons of Iraq militias (the U.S. military also called them "concerned local citizens") that aimed to drive al-Qaeda out of their communities. While a lot of Sunni armed groups were ultimately reconcilable and would accept the central Iraqi government, al-Qaeda were impossible to pacify by political means. They, who did not even want to share the land between the two rivers with most other Iraqis, were certainly not interested in talking to the occupier. When conventional coalition or Iraqi forces moved in, they went underground or fled to the suburbs. And they continued to stage spectacular bombings, undermining the security gains and destabilizing the country's delicate sectarian mix.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq gets the appellation "terrorist" because it has never shown any interest in the political process, but only in mass-casualty attacks on civilians. A group like the Mehdi Army, by contrast, is regarded as a "militia" and not a potential target of a counterterror campaign. Because al-Qaeda in Iraq were irreconcilable, they had to be destroyed - whereas the Mehdi Army was to be accommodated - which posed the most difficult security challenge in Iraq over the last few years. How do you destroy a well-funded, well-armed terrorist network spread across multiple cities? Countries have tried before, and faced extreme difficulty - just look at Northern Ireland, or Vietnam, or the southern Philippines. Counterterrorism operations are the U.S. military's new-fangled answer to the problem.
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Counterterrorism operations aim to disrupt and destroy an organization's capacity by striking at its top-tier members. The theory was that while there would always be enough sympathizers and low-level members to keep the terror network operating, only a concerted and sustained campaign against its top personnel had a chance at destroying the organization's capacity to regenerate. The aim was effectively to eliminate its institutional memory, expertise, and prestige. As we all know from the popular cliche, if you kill a terrorist leader then another one will simply take his place; and the U.S. military knew this from bitter experience after they killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, formerly the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But what about if you killed 50 - 75% of its bomb-makers and 25% of its leaders in a month, and then the next month you did it again, and then the next month you did it again?
It sounds like a tall order, but this was the basis of counterterrorism operations in Iraq. The starting point was intelligence provided by Iraqis, which began pouring in after the troop surge convinced locals that they could trust the enlarged U.S. military presence to stick around long enough to protect them from insurgents angry that they had co-operated. As coalition and Iraqi forces fanned out over Baghdad and its environs, walk-in rates at combat outposts skyrocketed. The sudden decision by so many Sunni groups to side with the government also proved pivotal, because many of these groups had formerly co-operated with al-Qaeda in Iraq and knew things about it. The military also began using Predator drones much more frequently and effectively to generate video intelligence.
All of this intelligence generated lists of targets. Counterterrorism concerned itself primarily with what the military calls "high-value targets" - bomb-makers, financiers, and terrorist leaders. These were the things that held the terrorist network together. At night, small groups of coalition Special Operations Forces - not only American, but also the British and possibly the Australian SAS - and their Iraqi counterparts would raid the house of a high-value target and harvest all the information they could from the location. This information would come in the form of cellphones and laptops which al-Qaeda in Iraq needed to hold its network together but which became the bane of its existence.
After securing one location, the forces would feed the information back to headquarters and set off to the next target, which more often than not was identified using the information harvested at the first location. In this way, dozens of individuals in numerous locations could be struck in one night, maximizing the element of surprise and hence the damage inflicted on the network. This was known as "time-sensitive targeting", and it was one of the major innovations of the Iraq war. It made use of the mobility and flexibility that only special forces could supply; as U.S. military doctrine notes, "such operations are often time-sensitive and rely on surprise, security, and audacity, and frequently employ deception to achieve success". Bob Woodward, who has classified knowledge of the intelligence-gathering methods used in the operations, said their innovation is comparable to the Manhattan project.
Sometimes, conventional forces would be sent into a city or suburb with the express purpose of scaring the terrorists inside and making the cellphone network light up as they contacted their friends; monitoring of the network would lead to the generation of new target lists. And as al-Qaeda in Iraq's top-tier leadership was decimated, the second- and third-tier members who took their place were even more likely to make foolish errors such as this. Whole segments of a city's al-Qaeda in Iraq network could be wiped out in one surprising night, and if the individual members and cells wanted to stop providing the coalition and Iraqi forces with the addresses of their buddies then they had to cut off all contact with them. Lacking the popular support to swim like fish among the general population, this meant isolation and doom.
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A counterterrorism campaign like the one carried out in Iraq needed a number of factors to make it possible. Firstly, it was important that the target group was secretive and split into small cells among a larger population; the tactics would not work if the threat was a larger, more conventional militia like the Mehdi Army - although the same tactics did work against the Iranian-sponsored "special groups" that split from the Mehdi Army and perpetrated some of the worst bombings against coalition forces. Al-Qaeda lacked hundreds of fighters to defend its compounds, which was why small groups of special forces could take them out.
Secondly, this sort of counterterrorism campaign required widespread leverage to operate and to engage local citizens in lethal firefights. The U.S. military had this in Iraq thanks to the co-operation of the Iraqi government and the United Nations mandate which authorized the coalition presence in Iraq and allowed it to conduct combat operations and detain individuals in pursuit of Iraqi stability. The same sort of leverage did not exist for the British in Northern Ireland or for the U.S. counterterrorism assistance mission against the MILF in the Philippines. Officers serving there after a tour of duty in Iraq have been quoted as saying that if they were allowed to do there what they had done in Iraq, then the MILF's life expectancy would be measured in days - however, local political conditions do not permit it.
Thirdly and finally, counterterrorism successes like the one in Iraq required the support of a competent conventional force to secure the population and the cities in general. These missions were an adjunct and not a replacement for normal military operations; only because al-Qaeda in Iraq existed in an adversarial environment could it be so effectively isolated and destroyed.
For all these reasons, the success in Iraq is unlikely to be repeated in Pakistan anytime soon, because the CIA's Predator strikes and the occasional special forces raids into the country's tribal areas do not benefit from any of these factors: the local population is generally not sympathetic to the strikes, political conditions do not permit a sustained campaign, and the area is not secured by friendly security forces. The cases are as apples and oranges, and some other solution will have to be found to target what are currently the world's scariest terorrist threats.
You can read more about counterterror operations in Iraq in books like Linda Robinson, Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq and Bob Woodward, The War Within: A Secret White House History. I expect further details will also be revealed in the forthcoming book by Kimberly Kagan, The Surge: A Military History.
Also on the war in Iraq:
Our tomorrow starts today: one minute to midnight in Iraq
Iraqi-U.S. status of forces agreement
Refusing to run: the U.S. troop surge in Iraq
Sons of Iraq