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Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves

Simply put: this is a damn good book about fighting al-Qaeda, especially when one considers it was written by a member of the US counterintelligence establishment. It has shortcomings especially if one is, as I am, disturbed by some of the author's proposed counterterrorism solutions (more "random" searches, wiretaps,etc.). Still, there is a gem of informed and corrective common sense on just about every other page. (An update to this review may address many of those.)

For the most part, however, Crush the Cell is an authoritative counterpiece to post-9/11 hysteria, bigotry, and foolishness

In essence, the author of this just-published book, whose career has gone from Special Forces military through the State Department to directing the New York City police's counterterrorism program, tells us that al-Qaeda is a nothing more or less than small but dedicated group of sincere fanatics whose occasional bouts of luck and competence are more often frustrated by the overall quality of being serial bunglers. They can still do severe harm, and an intermittent 9/11, but they are hardly a massive civilizational threat.

Sheehan manages to sidestep the underlying and necessary questions of whether bad policies help breed terrorists or, more likely and more harmfully, help create an environment of support. He concentrates his narrative and polemic on ways to destroy and disrupt the individual operating cells of the organization. Despite eschewing underlying political questions, he does put to rest any notion of a grand war of civilizations and is also able to directly take on the lefty, and sometimes neocon, view that disenfranchisement drives al-Qaeda members. No, Sheehan replies, they are what they appear to be: ideological fanatics, and often from privileged backgrounds. They should be taken at face value, even if they latch on to real grievances. (Sheehan actually knows all that Deobandi and Salafi Islamic sectarian background stuff.)

Along the way, Sheehan gives a good ground level history of al-Qaeda, its people, and its actions. We also get treated to some discussion of other groups of domestic or international US counter-terrorist interest from abortion clinic bombers, McVeigh militia types, and Hezbollah. (We can debate the use and abuse of the term terrorist at another time.) In the case of Hezbollah, the author goes against prevailing apocalyptic paranoia to concede that they, and their supporters in Iran itself, have outgrown small bombing operations and hostage taking, and are increasingly influenced by larger political considerations, and tactics. Sheehan also is aware and informs his general American readership that cooperation between Hezbullah and al-Qaeda is very unlikely given these facts and their religious differences, which are of fundamental significance to a group like al-Qaeda. Sheehan also considers Syria to be not, or no longer, a participant or supporter of anti-American terrorism.

Sheehan's main institutional targets for criticism include the Department of Homeland Security the creation of which he sees as a political sop to large contractors and special interests, and he feels they should leave counterterrorism to the FBI, the CIA, and local forces. These organizations, he feels, should cooperate better, and cites examples from his own experience of organizational biases cramping solid cooperation.

In terms of operations, the author contends that the old fashioned steps of human intelligence-gathering via informers and infiltrators has been overlooked, as well as joining that effort to good signals intelligence (electronic spying), and the accessibility to that intelligence being made available to authorities with a need to know. The goal is to "crush the cell", to destroy the individual terrorist operative unit -- and not to fight wars in Iraq, wage a struggle of civilizations or spend billions on security pork. Sheehan reports having set up several local informants through the New York City police, but claims this should have been done more overseas. He was involved heavily in the initial successful roundup of USS Cole bombers in Yemen.

He also favors expanding wiretap powers. Whatever hidden agendas may underlie that dangerous expansion of government powers, Sheehan is persuasive that there is no evil conspiracy against liberty driving most supporters of expanded electronic tracking powers: he argues that monitoring international conversations in real time is less important for the content of the conversations, which may be indecipherable or mostly insignificant, than for the ability to track a person's location and identify associates. A good idea? Maybe, maybe not, but not one which is inevitably a camouflage for permanent erosion of personal protection.

Some interesting details (though a longer discussion is needed to cover most insights and bon mots): in El Salvador's civil war of the 1980s, one US soldier ran an independent andrather successful counterinsurgent operation practically with his own personal petty cash and nurturing of informants. This is a good illustration of how easy it is to buy support or assistance in poor societies (that is not Sheehan's direct point but it's revealing info on how empires really work effectively -- bribery being more useful in the long run than raw force.) Sheehan also notes, in passing, injuries and death to Salvadoran government troops in the 1980s, most of which came from. . .hang on now.... improvised ... explosive ... devices!

Live and not learn.

The book has enough information and accessible style to appeal to the general reader, and enough technical detail to please the acronym-obsessed real or wannabe soldiers, cops, and counterspies. Sheehan occasionally lapses into that odd baby-talk that military and law enforcement types seem to fall into: "the bad guys"(!) There is also a borderline bigoted comment when the author says that a hypothetical undercover agent in Sudan should, among other indicia of authenticity, "smell Sudanese". I couldn't help wondering if another of the author's ideas -- that embassies should function even during wartime so as to allow conduct of espionage -- would mean that a hypothetical Nazi-era agent in Germany would have to be sprayed with sauerkraut. Still, lapses of this type are rare and well-outweighed by the informative background and anecdotes, and the repeated corrections of the hysterical and bigoted cries of war and fear.

The book may be marred with the tendency of a part-memoir to not engage in enough self-criticism, which should be the case for someone involved in issues ranging from the civil war in El Salvador through the USS Cole investigation to the Clinton Administration reactions to al-Qaeda and the post 9/11 Freedom Tower controversy. Also, one might be forgiven in suspecting that the book is a sort of a long cover letter to a future Democratic US President seeking a leading counterterrorism job in a new Administration. Alot of gushing praise for Madeleine Albright and the Bloomberg mayoralty, for example, and nothing nice about Governor Pataki.

Sheehan was also the guy personally responsible for the random searches of bags in the New York subway. He won against the ACLU and is too little disturbed by the implications of such surveillance (which even if necessary or useful shouldn't be too glibly embraced), And he is honest in admitting openly that officers understood that "random" did not really mean random, but meant, ahem, cough cough, suspicious persons; ill-described, but definitely not to concentrate on little old white ladies. Still, while Sheehan's programmatic steps may at times be questionable, his analysis of the tactics of counterterrorism is well-done, and he does feel and state that things like torture are unnecessary.

Troubling most of all is the aforementioned avoidance of the grand question, which may be tactically wise to avoid but it remains the core one to consider ultimately. That question: To what extent are past and present political and other foreign interventions a causative or aggravating factor inviting violent targeting of America? You can crush one, two, or more cells, but there'll be more if there is fertile ground to recruit or nurture and protect fresh ones. Do they hate us, at least in part, because of what we do, not who we are? The answer is -- and you heard it here not first -- sadly, yes, and it is no more inaccurate or unpatriotic to say that than to say that race-based slavery caused the Civil War. It is not self-flagellation, it's self-help to say it.

Reforming that reality is the best, if not only, way to ensure that crushed cells stay dead and others do not come along to replace them.

Posted by Matthew Hogan at May 4, 2008 11:28 PM
Filed Under: 18th - 20th century , Gulf , Iran , Iraq , Islam , Levant , Political Islam , Society & Culture

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Good review. On blowback; I am occasionally baffled by Americans who trumpet their unwavering support for Israel, yet balk at the notion that by this they share Israel's wars and enemies.

On this: Despite eschewing underlying political questions, he still is able to take on the lefty, and sometimes neocon, view that disenfranchisement drives al-Qaeda. No, Sheehan replies, they are what they appear to be: ideological fanatics, and often from privileged backgrounds. They should be taken at face value, even if they latch on to real grievances.

It seems to me that the moneyed core is barmy, yet its footsoldiers are frequently deeply invested in such political grievances. Does Sheehan make that distinction?

Posted by: Klaus [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 18, 2008 09:56 PM

Oh please. Israel is peripheral to al Qaeda. He's got this caliphate notion, into which retaking Israel obviously fits in. But it's a piece of his larger dream, not his central focus.
I've got a feeling he targets the US only because it's the biggest obstacle to this dream. Also, because beating up on the US is a nice way to feed his ego. Which is both infantile and banal.
The core of al Qaeda is similar in many many ways to committed old-line leftist revolutionaries, most particularly Che, who was also firmly middle-class in his upbringing. White middle-class on top of that, which in the context of Latin America, where Indians and mestizos outnumber whites, is saying something.
Osama picked Afghanistan because it's a landlocked Moslem country in the middle of a bunch of other Moslem countries. This is the same reason Che chose Bolivia. Indeed, I have a feeling it's why Dubya picked Iraq; look at a map, and you realize that country is as close to landlocked as it gets without actually being landlocked.
Infantile revolutionaries tend to think similarly, it seems.

Posted by: pantom at May 19, 2008 10:36 PM

I'd combine and adapt the two comments above. It is true that al-Qaeda is at the top level and for the most part attractive to people who like the idea of a global cause, rather than local ones. It is interesting that al-Qaeda people tend to come from places directly ruled by Muslims (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan) and not areas under genuine local grievance against non-Muslims (bosnia, chechnya, kosovo, palestine, and iraq), most of whom have far more real things to do, and problems to face, than occasional disjointed anti-American crimes, rhetoric, and gestures. In fact, such localized conflict people can occasionally have public spats with alQaeda and get sick of them easily (Hamas v al-Qaeda, Muslim Bros v. al-Qaeda, the Sunni Iraqis v al-Qaeda).

But grievances against the US, like Palestine, allow the sea in which the "revolution" swims to exist, to use a Maoism. I dont think binLaden and such folks target the US because it's an obstacle, but because primarily it generates funds/support/attention, and helps motivate recruits and gives some satisfaction to do so.

Al qaeda's real targets are existing Muslim regimes, especially Saudi Arabia. That's who they realistically expect to overthrow and defeat with their existence and tactics, with support gained via a visibly violent anti-Americanism that is deep rooted due in part to several real grievances with some understandable roots.

So, yes, while they are ideologues for whom Israel and even the US are peripheral, the anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism they appeal to is genuine and central to the target audience, and is also relatable to US (and Israeli) actions.

The leadership and footsoldiers both appear to be primarily from communities that are NOT oppressed because they are Muslim or by non-Muslims, however.

In that regard, al-Qaeda is more about revoutionary purist salafism than anti-Americanism or anti-infidelism (including anti-Israelism). But anti-Americanism pays the bills and generates the publicity, and stimulates some recruiting.

Posted by: matthew hogan at May 20, 2008 09:30 PM

Has someone here had second, third, ... nth hand account of an actual Al-Qaeda "operative"? This is a real question, not a conspiracy theory rhetorical one. Every Al-Qaeda theory I've seen so far ultimately find its source data at either the US administration, or sensationalist tapes/websites. I find both unreliable.

I mean, I could build a chain of information from Algerians who would tell you about some Algerian terrorists by name, killed, emprisoned or out in the hills. I know Tunisians who could tell you about banned, hidden or dead, Islamists. Same with Egyptians, Palestinians... I can get you personal stories - though with the reliability of 2nd, 3rd, etc. hand transmission, but still - put names, motives, IOW get info and then build theories.

In the case of Al-Qaeda, it just sounds so ghostly, with theories only based on other theories or media hearsay. I'm really curious as to whether anyone can actually claim expertise on them.

Posted by: Shaheen [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 21, 2008 12:15 AM

Good point, considering how US Homeland Security has terrible problems actually getting anyone convicted in court. Before 9-11, I don't think AQ's claim to fame was anything more than the embassy bombings in Africa and USS Cole. The lucky strike on 9-11 blew their numbers, power and influence out of all proportion, to the befinit of the Bush administration's agenda. Since then, many local groups have just tagged themselves AQ, without changing anything in particular. Iraq is an example, Algeria now another.

So I guess it would be nice to know how many terrorists Michael Sheehan has actually caught.

Posted by: Klaus [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 21, 2008 03:59 AM

Sheehan was involved directly with the USS Cole investigation, and his descriptions of the Cole operation do NOT make AQ sound like a dynamic force of untold scores of expert saboteurs. (Most of those caught and convicted have been released by Yemen, or escaped, since then, reflecting that political sympathies make the "sea of revolution" work.)

As to Shaheen's point, indigenous Saudi's in the know say they exist and there is a supportive subculture.

But as one can tell it is small and insular, considering that WTC bomber group number one (1990s) planner and WTC 9/11 planner are like uncle and nephew or something.

Also local folks and FBI did nail Shaikh Omar and Ramzi whatshisname, those were the kinds of efforts and people Sheehan was associated with, not AQ always but their ideological and literal relatives (also the Indonesian guy). Mostly he makes clear that old fashioned police work did it.

Posted by: matthew hogan at May 21, 2008 09:08 AM

I'm not saying they don't exist.

There was this ETA episode in Spain where it was wreacking havoc, with several murders across cities. When they caught the murderers, they were just a couple of isolated losers on a moped trying to give themselves some sense of importance. Can you build any theory about how to catch an organization's members, or about its ideology, etc., when all it's made of is a bunch of losers who sometime pop up and might have some luck in their criminal activities.

Unless someone shows me data anyone can verify by themselves - which is easy to do in many other cases of Islamist terrorists/guerrillas/you name it - my impression is that this whole AQ thing is a political and media industry based on intellectual wanking with some spotty facts thrown in, rather than an active structure with a uniform ideology you could model.

I agree with your (Sheehan's) point about good ole police work being effective in general. But to apply it to AQ is like trying to track a brand name applied to about every possible psychotic crime rather than tracking actual people.

Posted by: Shaheen [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 21, 2008 02:55 PM

"Unless someone shows me data anyone can verify by themselves . . ."

September 11, 2001

USS Cole

Kenya, Tanzania

There is -- or has been -- an organized group with a coherent ideology and somewhat centralized planning. I think that's reasonably self-evident. They are not huge, and do not have tentacles everywhere, and insurgents one might assume could be allied with them, with real local issues (eg Hamas) outnumber them and tend to avoid them and even come into conflict with them.

Occasionally with good planners and execution, the AQers score a big "spectacular" kill but they are not a pervasive presence.

Alot of the local stuff happening in the world is home grown and has nothing to do with AQ. Probably still quite a bit less than a 50-50 chance of any kind of AQ cell in USA for example, in my guess.

The author contends that three levels must combine to make alQaeda operations work. The central leadership, a critical mass of foot soldiers and a competent local organizer/franchisee (e.g. Atta). This doesnt happen often and probably requires a lunar eclipse or two to pass.

But I think an alQaeda franchise has clearly been a real operation with defined people and practices and bank accounts and operations centers and cash-holders. It's just nothing like the existential threat or far reaching force it is alleged to be by fear-mongerers, official or otherwise.

Posted by: matthew hogan at May 21, 2008 09:45 PM

Shaheen, I've got to be cautious about stating this without getting long interviews in the future - thus no details - but I've met people who were definitely al-Qaeda footsoldiers in Saudi. I've also met 'fellow travellers' from Yemen and Algeria in Europe and North America. Turkey seems to have most of those groups much more locked-down, and the terrorist groups active there - mostly Turkish Hizbollah, (BDO) Greater East Raiders and the (PKK-aligned) Shahin [or 'Hawks'] - seem either infiltrated by the state or being used as pawns of the 'deep state' military actors.

Nonetheless, the expertise I've seen with false passports and technology/weapons expertise is beyond what people pick up from reading spy novels or open source literature. Even the book 'Inside the Jihad' (penname: Omar Nasiri, the Moroccan-Belgian who went from passive GIA to GSCE spy to training in the Afghan camps) details quite considerable training. Those I met and knew briefly were neither lunatics nor stupid, although their ideology was Salafi-jihadi (not a fan, as those who know me have heard already) and their global ambition was loony-tunes, they're not as tactically stupid as they're made out to be, or as some Arabs - even Lebanese who should know better from Hezbollah - argue: "Arabs are too incompetent to pull off these attacks."

Hizb managed simultaneous attacks up and down the coast of Lebanon, meticulously planned and still opaque to Western intelligence (the Marine base bombings, as Bob Baer and Michael Scheuer have admitted, are still unattributable directly to Mughniyeh, although he's the main suspect).

My belief is that there are credible threats to America and that competent methods - not overblown rhetoric - are what's needed to confront alQ. As much as that might incline me to be intrigued by Michael Sheehan's argument on the face of it, however, I agree enough with matthew hogan's libertarianism to think that wire-tapping is not a great solution.

Cory Doctorow, an ex-colleague of mine has argued the flaws with those kind of security methods more capably than I:
"the Paradox of the False Positive. Here's how that works: imagine that you've got a disease that strikes one in a million people, and a test for the disease that's 99% accurate. You administer the test to a million people, and it will be positive for around 10,000 of them – because for every hundred people, it will be wrong once (that's what 99% accurate means). Yet, statistically, we know that there's only one infected person in the entire sample. That means that your "99% accurate" test is wrong 9,999 times out of 10,000!

Terrorism is a lot less common than one in a million and automated "tests" for terrorism – data-mined conclusions drawn from transactions, Oyster cards, bank transfers, travel schedules, etc – are a lot less accurate than 99%. That means practically every person who is branded a terrorist by our data-mining efforts is innocent."

Posted by: dawud at May 21, 2008 11:30 PM

the anonymous (mistaken) post can be deleted... thanks

Posted by: dawud at May 21, 2008 11:32 PM

911 or USS Cole is not the kind of data I'd be looking for. Anonymous' data is: people that you or I could trace with minimal effort.

My initial point(s): if one is talking about AQ, you're either talking about a nebulous brand name, in which case saying "average AQ operative is rich/poor, driven by ideology of Qutb/Ninja Turtles etc." is baseless because there's no such a thing as an average AQ operative to begin with. Or you're talking about a very specific organization, which needs a much better definition (unknown to yours truly) than its common usage implies, and therefore shouldn't be so out of reach (though granted, Gulf things are out of my known areas).

Rest of the stuff written here is interesting, just thought I'd make it clear to go past the conspiracy idiocy assumption I got in replies.

Posted by: Shaheen [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 22, 2008 02:51 AM

"Terrorism is a lot less common than one in a million and automated "tests" for terrorism – data-mined conclusions drawn from transactions, Oyster cards, bank transfers, travel schedules, etc – are a lot less accurate than 99%. That means practically every person who is branded a terrorist by our data-mining efforts is innocent."

Rather more than one person in a million is a terrorist or would-be terrorist, actually, Dawud, though not an enormous number so the priciple still holds. The whole point of automated "tests" isn't to find terrorists but to find where to look for terrorists with a higher likelihood of finding them. Unfortunately that's still difficult so there's a tendency to assume they're ipso facto terrorists just because they fit some criteria.
A complication with Al Qaeda is that they're a brand as much as an organisation. People do things and truthfully claim they were inspired by Al Qaeda even if AQ never heard of them. Do they count as AQ members?

Posted by: Roger at May 22, 2008 07:01 PM

"(the Marine base bombings, as Bob Baer and Michael Scheuer have admitted, are still unattributable directly to Mughniyeh, although he's the main suspect)"

For obvious political reasons, the US and Israel still insist that Hizballah were responsible for the Marine Barracks bombings, just like they insist they bombed the Jewish centre in Buenos Aries. However, there's little hard evidence to link them to either crime. In fact, many observers feel Hizballah - an organisation which barely existed at the time of the Beirut bombings - was highly unlikely to have been the culprit. Juan Cole believes that, in a stroke of massive irony, the guilty party was Dawa, a Shiite group which now forms part of the "democratically elected Iraqi government".

Posted by: Murphy at May 24, 2008 09:56 AM

I'm somewhat taken by the "radical loser" theory of jihadi bombers in a Western context, where the bombers usually have a university-level education and often a decent job even, and where the rejection they experience at the workplace is what sets them off big time, because it happens despite their having given their all and done their best to fit in.

In a way, the few jihadi bombings we've seen in Europe seem to me to mirror mall shootings in the US: A way for little souls to leave their mark, in the vein of Herostratos. (And I gotta say that is a weird American - but very American - phenomenon.)

Posted by: Klaus [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 24, 2008 07:08 PM

Great discussion. On al-Qaida, class and coming from solidly Muslim-ruled countries I think much of the analysis around al-Qaida is too focused on its Saudi, Wahhabi etc "origins".

In fact, except for bin Ladin himself, who provided money and the Central Asian connection, most of the early ideology as well as the experience with urban terrorist tactics appears to have come via al-Jihad al-Islamiyya in Egypt -- Zawahiri's group. And there, the background is a bit different: conservative middle-class students growing up in the context of the transition from Nasser to Sadat, with world-view input from radical leftism (and via Palestine), and grieveances against a failing secular society.

Posted by: alle at May 29, 2008 09:00 AM

pantom -- Osama picked Afghanistan because it's a landlocked Moslem country in the middle of a bunch of other Moslem countries.

Don't you think Soviet invasion had something to do with it? Otherwise, the Che comparison is not so bad. Bin Ladin's motivation seems simply to be fighting where fighting needs to be done until the battle is won, which won't be in his lifetime. Rather like Che.

shaheen -- My initial point(s): if one is talking about AQ, you're either talking about a nebulous brand name, in which case saying "average AQ operative is rich/poor, driven by ideology of Qutb/Ninja Turtles etc." is baseless because there's no such a thing as an average AQ operative to begin with. Or you're talking about a very specific organization, which needs a much better definition (unknown to yours truly) than its common usage implies, and therefore shouldn't be so out of reach (though granted, Gulf things are out of my known areas).

Frankly, I think you should be talking about both. There is no contradiction in having a central al-Qaida network of a few hundred operatives, which formerly ran extensive logistical ops, but since 2001 mostly hides in a cave; AND having most actual attacks performed by people whose contact with this network are minimal to none. Just off the cuff you have:

- Al-Qaida central: bin Ladin & Zawahiri Ltd, which is now mostly about claiming credit for local initiatives, producing ideology & propaganda, and maintaining contacts with other networks, and keeping itself alive as a source of inspiration. Before 2001, they were more of a core of the network, with training camps & financing etc, and they may yet become again.

- Al-Qaida joint-ventures: in Iraq, in the Maghreb, etc. This is former al-Qaida prospect groups with their own leadership and local dynamics, that have emerged in particular conflicts (US invasion, Algerian war) and have been absorbed into al-Qaida after agreeing to its ideological and political line; they remain locally-run but try to move into the greater Jihadist scene by exchanging combatants (esp. recruting for Iraq) and merging their propaganda effort with that of al-Qaida central.

- Al-Qaida prospects: groups like Zawahiri's al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad before it became al-Qaida/Iraq, and GSPC in Algeria before it became al-Qaida/Maghreb; or perhaps the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army in Yemen, the GICM in Morocco, and lots of other groups that are fighting a local battle but trying to become part of the wider franchise (for hope of support, for ideological reasons, or to broaden their appeal).

- Local groups, that are not really aiming to become part of al-Qaida, but work along the same ideological lines and may maintain (or want to maintain) relations with some facet of it. Like the Shamil Basayev bunch in Chechnya, or Ansar al-Sunna in Iraq.

- Spontaenously evolved mini-cells run on ideology & Internet surfing, esp. the "radical losers" of Klaus in the West, with or without support from some wider network.

... and you could go on. Of course there is no "average al-Qaida operative" between these levels, not in any meaningful way, and it could lead terribly wrong to look for that.

Posted by: alle at May 29, 2008 09:34 AM

article you may find interesting:

'Why are so many Jihadis engineers?'

quotes relevant: "Look, we did not say engineers have a terrorist mind-set... Read More—please write that. We said that engineers tend to be politically to the right and more conservative than other graduates. You can therefore infer that their radical fringe is closer to those of religious groups.” ...
The paper cites evidence that engineering graduates are much more religious and politically conservative than those pursuing other courses of study. “People gravitating toward engineering already have those views,” says Hertog. “Engineering seems to attract a larger share of people drawn to rule-bound systems, compared with other scientists who primarily work on open-ended questions and might be more skeptical.”

The paper suggests that the trend is also driven by professional disenfranchisement. “The effect of the lack of opportunities was intensified by the corrupt, state-driven job allocation,” the researchers wrote. In other words, Hertog says, after having earned an elite degree you’re frustrated having to drive a taxi or sell vegetables, just because you lack powerful friends.

Posted by: dawud at September 4, 2008 04:42 PM

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