SPP: What we like to do is kind of just get an idea of what it is that you do and tell us a little bit about your background, how you got to where you are.
Thom: Sure. I’m Pentagon Correspondent for the New York Times, which is one of the greatest jobs in the known universe. I get to spend my days at the Pentagon talking to really interesting people about really interesting problems. I also spend a lot of time overseas with the deployed force, whether in the combat zone of Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as in areas where the troops are deployed in places where combats not underway such as Germany or South Korea or other places around the world.
I spent quite a bit of my career overseas. I spent almost as much of my adult life living under communism as under any other form of government. I spent more than a decade living in the former Soviet Union, in communist Eastern Europe, and also spent two years based out of Sarieva covering the world in former Yugoslavia.
SPP: What had you living over though was it work or how’d that come about?
Thom: Exactly. Yes it was always as a correspondence but 15 years with the Chicago Tribune. Now I’ve been with the New York Times for almost 15 years. And I would not recommend going to such horrible places on your own. You definitely want to have the backing of a major institution if you’re going to be spending your days in a conflict zone.
SPP: I completely understand and I have to say that your job does sound like a fantastic one. How do you manage to get to be the Pentagon Correspondent for one of the largest newspapers in the country?
Thom: Well I’ve been interested in military affairs for a long time; in fact my wife likes to tease me that my very first byline was about the technical advance of the Israelites who passed Pharaohs forces only to a meteorological event of the parting of the Red Sea. I didn’t find that on a computer but chisel it into stone or wrote on Papyrus for a really long time. Always interested in foreign policy, got into national security in grad school, and as I said I’ve lived in places where I’ve been on the receiving end of this stuff. I joked that my five years living in Moscow my tax dollars were paying for nuclear missiles that were pointed at me.
SPP: Wow! That is living on the edge of you sit I must admit.
Thom: Exactly right. I always wanted to ask for a refund on that portion of my tax check that paid for those Persian 2 missiles because I really did not want to pay for my own nuclear annihilation.
SPP: Yes I don’t blame you. Well it’s funny that you mention that. I didn’t know that you lived in the former Soviet Union and things like that, but I do want to talk about your book which is extremely interesting and just came out it’s called “Counter Strike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda”. And the reason I kind of mentioned the thing about Soviet Union is because you do talk a lot in the book about how the Cold War kind of changed, or I guess assisted in the way we have dealt with the terror threat. And I guess that that is because of your background.
Thom: Well that’s exactly right. I sort of entered the whole post 9/11 world with all these tools and experience and set a personal nightmare that were shaped by the Cold War and the tense nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. And of course after 9/11 there was this very understandable focus by the Bush Administration on capture or kill as the only way forward. Send troops out, send assassins out, send the bombers out, but after a couple of years it just became clear that you can’t kill your way to victory against a global movement like violent religious extremism.
I was just talking to a lot of former professors, former colleagues and just looking over my own writings and I realized that the classic Cold War deterrence might still have some answers to apply to the War on Terror and began reporting that with my colleague Eric Schmidt from the New York Times. What we found is that actually there were some analytic thinkers deep in the Pentagon that some of the military commands who were trying to apply those parts of deterrence from the Cold War that might make sense in the post 9/11 world.
SPP: It’s so interesting because I used to always ask my history teachers, because I was never a big history buff and I used to say “What is history good for? It’s stuff that’s happened in the past?” Now the common answer is always you have to learn from your mistakes and learn from things that have happened in the past. And this seems like an instance where you believe that truly came to fruition and was a big part in the way we handle this.
Thom: Well it certainly was and it’s funny you say we learn from our mistakes, if so we’d all be geniuses because we all make so many mistakes I’m afraid we don’t learn from them often enough. I did take the US government several years before it realized that its tactics were actually creating more militants than it was taking off the battlefield. Because they were so clumsy and so oppressive they were actually creating more Jihadists or at least setting the conditions from more extremism by its very action.
And the challenge in applying Cold War deterrence to terrorism is pretty obvious, and in fact Bush in ’03 and ’04 said that deterrence doesn’t work against these millennial terrorist who want to blow themselves up. And the challenge is that terrorists don’t really hold any territory that you can put at risk. During the Cold War you can aim all those US nuclear missiles at that Kremlin, at Soviet military bases, at their missile silos, at their factories, at those nice dotches that they have on the Black Sea for all their bull short ballerina girlfriends. I mean you can hold those at risk and affect the behavior of the Soviet leadership.
Well terrorist don’t have territory literally, or not much of it. And it’s true that many of them can’t be deterred by threatening death from the top end of Bin Laden was going to be what he was no matter what and once you strap on a suicide vest it’s too late. But what these analysts found is that there really are things that you can put at risk and change the behavior of potential terrorist. You can put at risk their chance for success because they would rather not carry out a mission than fail.
You can put at risk their financial networks; you can put at risk their networks for smuggling and running guns. And so little by little the US government allies got smarter about what a terrorist network is and what it needs to operate. And so even if you can’t kill the committed leadership or the committed suicide bomber there are a lot of people in the middle who support terrorist causes but aren’t ready to die for the cause. And that’s the financiers, the gun runners, the people who rent the safe houses. And if you threaten them with a certain kind of retaliation you can actually influence their thinking to get out of the business and that’s classic deterrence.
SPP: So when did you notice the first change in these tactics? What was really the tactic that got the US government to realize that we needed to go about this in a different way?
Thom: Yes the real change probably began happening in the 2004 to 2006 timeframe. There’s one example that really proves how this works. It doesn’t take a lot of money to be a terrorist but does take a lot of money to be a terrorist network. And money in the Islamic world, especially places like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, banking is not the central way that terrorist move money. They move their money through these things called Hawala networks. These are family run businesses with associates in many countries.
So you walk into a Hawala in Country X and you want to transfer money to a friend or family or terrorist guide in Country Y. So you give the guy the money in Country X, you pay a service fee and you walk out. That guy then calls his associate in the other country says “I have this much money, here’s who’s going to pick it up”, and off you go. Kind of like an informal Western Union based on relationships, very hard to track, not a lot of paperwork. And that’s why terrorist use it. Well in Afghanistan where this was really funding a lot of the terrorist and insurgent violence the American military shutdown a couple of the Hawalas but there are thousands of them. I mean they occupy buildings, they’re big and small, and they simply couldn’t shutdown all of them. But what they did they went into these Hawala networks and said to the owners “Nice business here, nice wife, nice family, nice house, nice garden”, sort of the Tony Soprano thing. And they said “You know what, we know that you have a business that includes terrorists financing and regular financing. If you want to keep the nice house, the nice garden, the nice life stop doing business with terrorist, otherwise we will shut you down.”
And that is literally deterrence in the classic sense. You are threatening retaliation for action you want to change. They found that it changed a lot of the behavior of these Hawala networks and they dried up so much of Al Qaeda’s money that recruits were actually having to pay their own transportation and training costs. So it really worked.
SPP: In the book one of the things I love is how in depth you can go and the knowledge you have about numerous, I don’t know if I’d call them turning points, but just large events that have occurred in this War on Terror. Can you look back to any of those and say it’s the single largest, whether it be an amount of information we gathered or a bust we made, or things like that? Is there one that sticks out in your mind?
Thom: Yes well there are a couple that we write about and at that level our books sort of divides the way the military looks at the world. You have the tactical operations in the field. You have the operational changes like the understanding of terrorist networks. And then at this strategic or top level we have the story about the search for a coherent strategic doctrine for the War on Terror parallel containment and deterrence during the Cold War.
And so you’re asking about some of these tactical case studies and one of my favorite happened in Iraq just before the surge in 2006. And I love it because it’s just his little platoon of Calvary guys out doing what they do best. They’re patrolling the streets of Northern Iraq, which is the hotbed of Al Qaeda affiliated terror, improvised explosives, suicide bombs and all that stuff. And one night they surprised this car that’s out after curfew. They stopped the car. The driver gets out, runs away, self detonates, blows himself up leaving on a pair of nice shoes and sort of his shin bone there on the sidewalk. And then they catch the guy who’s in the back and he says that he’s been kidnapped, but he’s not handcuffed, he’s not roughed up, and he has a briefcase with him.
Well they get all this material and it turns out to be literally the Al Qaeda battle plan for how they want to counter the surge that is moving into Iraq, this vast increase of American forces that was ordered to try to turn the war effort around. Because this time 2006 Iraq is on the verge of Civil War and it’s fueled by the Al Qaeda terrorist and the Shiites and the Militias and the other Sunni insurgents. And what they found was maps that were hand drawn by Zarqawi himself the Head of Al Qaeda in Iraq. And they found all the attack routes. They found where the arms caches were. They also found some really diabolical plans.
Al Qaeda was going to attack bakeries in Baghdad because buying fresh bread every morning is a sign of the quality of life. They were also going to blow up garbage trucks and kill garbage men because they wanted the garbage to pile up so the people in Baghdad thought there government was falling apart and couldn’t serve them.
Some of our sources compared the seizure of the Al Qaeda battle plan to cracking the enigma code during World War II that showed all the German ship movements. And it allowed General Adriano who was then commanding the day-to-day operations of the surge to move his entire force placement around to stop Al Qaeda specific actions, which he did of course very successfully. All because of this one Calvary platoon with the lucky hit one night in north central Iraq in 2006.
SPP: Had we been fighting more sophisticated with a sophisticated army you could argue that doing cyber attacks and hacking into their networks and stealing their plans would be a lot easier than what we’ve had to do so far where saying stuff’s hand drawn on paper, carried in a briefcase. What strategy besides a blind luck strategy of let’s pick out persons AB&C and hope they have information on them, did the US military implement to really try to go out and seek this information?
Thom: Right. Well there’s another case study we write about happened on another September 11 actually, September 11, 2007 when the American military had been watching this smuggler’s camp along the Syrian border with Iraq. And this was the route that all the foreign fighters were coming in to make Jihad against the American government and the American military and the Iraqi government. And it’s interesting to note Iraqis did not want to be suicide bombers, they wanted to live for another day, so all the suicide bombers were coming in from overseas.
So they had put predator drones and all kinds of interesting ISR collection data overhead and they realized that this was the most important smuggling route for Al Qaeda. And they hit this place and they hit it hard. And what they got there became known as the Al Qaeda rolodex. I mean it was a list of where every suicide bomber from across the Middle East in North Africa was from. Who recruited them, who inspired them, who bought their tickets, and all that? They said it was called the Al Qaeda Rolodex. It was fortunate because Al Qaeda in kind of a pathological way is anal about keeping documents as were the Nazis.
This was a really interesting data on about 800 suicide bombers who had come into Iraq. So what do you do with it? The US can’t invade all these countries, Saudi Arabia and Libya and Egypt where the suicide bombers were coming from. They couldn’t invade Syria which was the transit point. So what the officer whose commander that sees this material decided, the officer was General Stanley McChrystal, he decided to declassify this information so it could be used.
And it was all compiled in dossier form and it was given to the Senior State Department Ambassador for counterterrorism who took this data to each of the countries from which the suicide bombers were coming. And he could say “Look, we’re not making this up these are your passports, these are y our internal travel documents, these are copies of airline tickets bought in your country that show that your citizens are making Jihad in Iraq.
Now you may not care if they hurt the American forces or the Iraqis but some of these are not going to end up being suicide bombers, they’re going to be the guys who learn how to make the bombs. They’re going to be the guys who learn how to organize attacks. And some day they’re going to come home and they’re going to be committing terrorism on your soil. So even if you don’t like the US it’s in your interest to stop this. And General Petraeus who was the Commander in Iraq at the time said this effort did more, this diplomatic effort, this exploitation of intelligence, did more to halt suicide bombing than any military action of the entire war.
SPP: Wow! That’s incredible. And it’s one of those things that as somebody who just only has the ability to get their information by watching the news one of the things that I’ve picked over the years is that if there’s any real silver lining in all of this it’s that as a country and all of our agencies we’ve learned to kind of work together. And then it seems from what you’re saying we’ve also been able to do that globally. Would you say that’s correct and that we’ve kind of finally been able to pass information through the agencies in an efficient manner?
Thom: Well certainly more efficient than 9/11 and so it’s sort of a glass half empty, glass half full. To be sure many of the walls or silos or cones that divided the US government before 9/11 are quite a bit down. I mean before 9/11 the spies didn’t trust the soldiers, the soldiers didn’t like working with the diplomats, nobody shared intelligence. That has improved greatly even though it’s still not perfect. But certainly the trend lines are in the right direction.
What’s going to be interesting as the budget is trimmed over coming years because of the global economic meltdown and its resources, money and all that become more scarce, it’ll be interesting to see whether these inter agency competitions pickup again.
SPP: Also on this subject I’m wondering how is it that we have here in America, not only avoided another large attack since 9/11, but specifically a nuclear threat like a dirty bomb or something. To me it seems so impossible to track all of these people, not even track them but to be able to disrupt them enough where they can’t just go into a stadium or a train station or somewhere that’s going to do God forbidden more damage than was done on 9/11. It seems impossible and I don’t know. I mean I always assume by now we would have our second large attack. What’s your take on that?
Thom: Well everybody had assumed that and I think that what Eric Schmidt and I describe in “Counterstrike” is sort of the Darwinian process, if you’ll let me use that phrase. The US government has gotten better and adapted and evolved and the terrorist are adapting and evolving. The difference is the US government has to be good every day and lucky every day. The terrorist only have to be good and lucky every now and then. And it’s true that since 9/11 there hasn’t been a mass casualty attack. And what this says is that the US government at large has pushed off the day of the next attack. Because we say another attack is certainly coming, but that day has been pushed off, and perhaps the severity has been lessened.
And we breakdown the current threat into three categories Al Qaeda senior leadership based in Pakistan is very much damaged, especially with the death of Bin Laden. Even so they still very much want to carry out a mass casualty attack, an attack of mass affect, whether that be nuclear or chemical or biological or radiological, sort of what you said hand grenade wrapped with Iranian or something. And then you have the affiliates who actually are the greater risk today. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, or in the Islamic Murgab, these sorts of places, they have not etched from the capability of carry out a mass casualty attack but they’re very clever.
Think about the Underwear Bomber over Detroit. Had he been able to set off his underwear he would have brought down an entire airliner over Detroit. It would have been a terrible thing even if not on the scale of 9/11. Al Qaeda and Yemen also were the ones who sent those printer cartridge bombs through commercial cargo airliners. And even though they were found that failed attack shutdown the cargo industry for a couple of days, forced very expensive improvements in security, probably costing the industry several hundred million dollars in response to a failed attack that only cost $4000 thousand dollars.
So terrorsy that is a victory. They’re throwing pebbles into the cogs of the western economy trying to just cause mischief. So even if a tactic fails tactically can be a strategic victory. And then the third line of threat of course is the homegrown, self-radicalized, lone wolf Jihadist. Someone very hard to find, mostly because they get inspired by the internet, they don’t really tell people what they’re doing. They only popup when they’re actually ready to commit and act and the law enforcement community’s very worried about that in America.
SPP: You know this definitely goes right into the fact I wanted to ask you, how do we continue to fight this war given, like you said the amount of money it takes? I mean for a $4000 dollar printer or ink cartridge attack it’s going to cost us hundreds of millions, it almost seems unsustainable. So I’m trying to figure out what do you think is going to happen in the future given the amount of money we have to pour into being lucky and catching that one guy or that one cell, or something like that.
Thom: That’s a really great point because it truly is unsustainable. Putting aside what you think about the war in Iraq, I know it’s hard to do but just for a second all of the listeners of this podcast, the war in Iraq was defended, was described by the Bush Administration was being about terrorism. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction could link up with Al Qaeda for an existential attack on the US.
So what did the US do? Invade with a 150,000 troops. I mean using 150,000 troops for a counterterrorism mission is completely unsustainable just as you say. So the US needs to get more agile, more efficient and leaner, which is what you see the evolution to using unman drones carrying out attacks. Small groups of special operations forces either training a local security force to defend its own country or going after high value targets like Bin Laden in Pakistan.
The most important thing to make the war against violent extremism sustainable is for the American people to adopt an attitude of resilience. I mean every attack, even those that failed, cannot so shock this country that we spend unnecessary amounts of money and take unnecessary legal or military or intelligence steps against the enemy that has failed. I mean look at Israel or even Britain, after attack people mourned what happened but they get up and they return to business. That kind of resiliency of the public psyche is really only long term sustainable strategy to combat terrorism.
SPP: That was actually going to be my next question. I wanted to shift the focus from Al Qaeda for a second and focus on the American psyche. Do you see us in the foreseeable, near future, as getting that confidence back that we had prior to September 11th where we didn’t walk down the street worrying that something was going to happen? I mean I know here in DC we just had an earthquake a couple of weeks ago and immediately the first thing that I thought was happening was we were getting bombed. I mean a) because we never get earthquakes in this earthquakes in this area often, and b) because September 11th only happening 10 years ago. But I mean do you see us getting that confidence back?
Thom: Well it’s interesting. In our valedictory interview with then Defense Secretary Bob Gates, he said that one of the things that made him saddest was that America had become a fearful country. And just as you said we are not a fearful country by nature, but 9/11 did that to us with all of the literal costs and psyche costs that followed. So the most important thing is for the American people to realize that we can recover, that we’re a strong country, and that no single attack is going to be an existential assault on everything that we stand for. But it’s also up to the politicians.
I mean you mentioned being here in Washington, I mean it’s such a polarized political environment right now that on issues of counterterrorism Democrats, Republicans, left/right are looking for weakness politically and rhetorically, rather than looking at what is best for the nation. And in more traditional times politics stopped at the water’s edge and when it came to discussing international threats Democrats and Republicans came together.
And that’s why it’s so important at the top level for the President to be honest with the American people to say “We are going to get attacked again. There’s no way to prevent every attack. And when we’re attacked we will do everything we can to respond and recover, but it’s up to you to be resilient.” But no President can say it that literally because his political opponents will say “Ah-ha within that resiliency he’s talking about how weak we are and how he’s going to fail.” And so that kind of discussion is not an environment that will lead to the kind of improvement in attitudes that you’re asking about.
SPP: I know we’re jumping around a little bit here but I wanted to tap into your expertise a little more. Do you think it was the right choice to invade Iraq? And then really regardless of the answer, how did this actually help us to capture Saddam?
Thom: I mean clearly had US not invaded Iraq Saddam wouldn’t have been on the run and sort of hidden in his hiding hole. I mean look when the US decides to invade a country and commit sooner or later we’re going to reach objectives like capturing Saddam Hussein. But I will leave it up to the history books to decide whether that overall war and the vast cost of human life and blood and treasury were worth it. I mean the two sides of the argument are pretty clear.
On the one hand Saddam was not a nice guy and all the Iraqi people now at least have the opportunities to pursue a freer and democratic way of life. At the same time, you look at what happened with the Arab Springs and might those reforms and changes have happened internally over time without an outside invasion, again that’s just a hypothetical that nobody can answer.
SPP: We’re about at the 25 minute mark.
SPP: I really appreciate the time that you’ve given us. It’s been a great conversation. I know our listeners will love it. Again your book is “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign against Al Qaeda”. It’s a wonderful book. Do you have any other Web sites or anything else out there that you would like to plug?
Thom: Yes I mean our book site is www.counterstrikethebook.com and we post all of our speaking engagements and the reviews and other things. In fact we will link to this podcast if you send me a link once it’s up.
SPP: Oh absolutely and we’ll do the same. We truly appreciate your time.
Thom: Well it was a great discussion. Thanks so much for your interest. I really appreciate it.