Special Ops and U.S. Counter-Terrorism Policy


When an incident of international terrorism occurs against the citizens, facilities or interests of the United States, American decision makers have recourse to five broad instruments of counter-terrorism response: political and diplomatic measures; economic sanctions; overt military strikes; covert operations; and law enforcement action. These five offensive methods of response are not mutually exclusive; they overlap in many areas and U.S. decision makers often opt for a combination of measures. However, law enforcement action — the investigation, apprehension, trial, and conviction of terrorists — is the standard approach used by the United States government today in response to anti-U.S. acts of international terrorism.

This criminal justice approach to countering terrorism has had numerous successes through the years. For instance, in 1993 following a concerted investigative effort, U.S. authorities uncovered a terrorist plot to bomb major landmarks in the New York City area and assassinate prominent officials. They arrested Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (also known as the “Blind Sheikh”) and nine co-conspirators in the plot that included attacks on the United Nations building, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, and the FBI’s New York field office. Rahman and his fellow defendants were convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from 25 years to life imprisonment.

Law enforcement action also led authorities in the Philippines to uncover a terrorist plot to bomb U.S. airliners in 1995. In addition to prevention, this particular case also achieved accountability: One of the plotters was Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. FBI agents later arrested Yousef in Pakistan. Other notable arrests and convictions include the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) terrorist Mohammed Ali Rezaq for the 1985 hijacking of Egypt Air 648, during which the terrorists shot two Israelis and three American passengers in the head; the Japanese Red Army terrorist Tsutomu Shirosaki for the 1986 attack on the U.S. embassy in Jakarta; Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, for the 1988 destruction of Pan Am 103; and the recent conviction of four followers of terrorist financier Usama Bin Ladin for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Despite such successes, critics of the criminal justice approach question the overall utility of law enforcement action in combating terrorism. For instance, they assert government prosecutors are hamstrung by stringent evidentiary criteria that limit the introduction of specific incriminating information that would compromise sensitive intelligence sources and methods. More important, they argue that those convicted are often low-level operatives while the masterminds behind the terrorist operations generally escape unscathed. And they have a point: Bin Ladin and other senior terrorist ringleaders remain at large.

If the apprehension and prosecution of terrorists is to remain at the center of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy, the United States should act to strengthen and improve this core response, which it is doing on various fronts. The success of the criminal justice approach, for instance, draws heavily on diplomatic engagement. The United States is working to establish or affirm extradition treaties with allies, win support for additional Legal Attaché offices and form cooperative measures to bolster host-nation counter-terrorist forces and capabilities. Its success also depends on U.S. interagency cooperation, especially with the intelligence community, to fill knowledge gaps, exchange ideas and provide timely terrorist threat information, such as warning. Toward this end, a more formalized working relationship between the FBI and the agencies of the intelligence community has developed over the past several years. The continued effectiveness of the criminal justice model also is linked with its ability to disrupt terrorist organizations financially. Accordingly, greater cooperation with financial institutions, both domestic and worldwide, that hold or transfer funds used by terrorists should be a goal.

While these measures in support of law enforcement action are key in the fight against terrorism, the United States also should employ an additional offensive mechanism with greater frequency to bolster criminal justice as a method of counter-terrorism: special operations.

The U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has as one of its 10 specified activities the function of counter-terrorism. According to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report, SOCOM has the task of applying “highly specialized capabilities to preempt or resolve terrorist incidents abroad, including (1) hostage rescue, (2) recovery of sensitive material from terrorist organizations and (3) direct action against the terrorist infrastructure.” The GAO document further defines direct actions as “short duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions to (1) seize, destroy, or inflict damage on a specified target or (2) destroy, capture, or recover designated personnel or material.” Accordingly, special operations offer myriad response options to American decision makers and are effective counter-terrorist tools in their own right. However, U.S. counter-terrorism officials should employ special operations more often — particularly in light of their direct action mission to capture designated personnel — as a critical adjunct to conventional law enforcement action to further facilitate the apprehension and prosecution of terrorists.

During the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking, the Palestine Liberation Front terrorists, after failing to compel the release of imprisoned comrades from Israeli jails and subsequently killing a U.S. citizen, surrendered in exchange for safe passage from Egyptian authorities. The United States, however, decided to intercept the plane carrying the terrorists, force a diversion to Sigonella airbase in Italy and, using special operations forces, seize the plane and apprehend the terrorists. Due to both Italian intransigence and lack of political will, a standoff between U.S. commandos and Italian soldiers at Sigonella thwarted the mission.

Despite its ultimate failure, the mission was well conceived and reflected a synthesis of the two faces of terrorism: The United States activated a highly trained special military unit to counter the terrorist threat, reflecting terrorism’s threat to national security, and directed that unit to apprehend the terrorists with the ultimate goal of facilitating their arrest and prosecution, thus highlighting the criminal nature of the anti-U.S. attack.

Today, U.S. counter-terrorism policy offers increased prospects for the successful intersection of the criminal justice approach and the ‘power’ approach of special operations. Presidential Decision Directive 39 (PDD-39), which sets out U.S. counter-terrorism policy, notes: “If we do not receive adequate cooperation from a state that harbors a terrorist whose extradition we are seeking, we shall take appropriate measures to induce cooperation. Return of suspects by force may be effected without the cooperation of the host government …” Although FBI agents and their law enforcement counterparts in the State Department have achieved success in this mission, the counter-terrorist units of the U.S. special operations community have specialized capabilities, training and equipment that may allow them to operate more effectively than law enforcement agents in the non-permissive, threatening environments in which terrorists often seek refuge.

While actual cases of the use of U.S. counter-terrorist units often remain shrouded in secrecy, U.S. decision makers should employ special mission military units with greater frequency to apprehend anti-U.S. terrorists abroad. Although this action would leave the criminal justice approach at the core of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy, which no doubt would irritate critics of such an approach, it would bring the United States closer to nabbing the masterminds behind anti-U.S. attack
s, increasing the efficacy of its core counter-terrorism response.

Michele Malvesti is a former terrorism analyst with the Department of Defense and a current Ph.D. candidate at the Fletcher School. This article was reported in The Fletcher Ledger (www.fletcher ledger.com) on Sept. 10, 2001.

Resources for HLS STudents and Affiliates

Counseling and Crisis Management:Students should contact the following resources:

  • The Office of Student Life Counseling in Pound 309 (495-2967)
  • The Law School Health Services in Pound 12 (495-4414)
  • The University Health Services in Holyoke Center (day: 495-2042, night: 495-5711)
  • Life Raft is a group which provides support for those in the Harvard community who have suffered losses (495-2042).
  • The United Ministry at Harvard & Radcliffe (495-5529).

Emergency financial assistance for travel and other needs:Please contact www.hlcentral.com.Blood donations:

  • The local chapter of the American Red Cross asks those willing to donate blood to wait until Monday, and then call (800)468-3543 for information.
  • Or, you could call the office nearest you: Boston: (617)315-0700Framingham: (508)875-5275Melrose: (781)665-1351Peabody: (781)531-2280Quincy: (617)770-2600Waltham: (781)642-7000

Monetary Donations:

  • The Sept. 11 FUND has been established in New York for victim relief. Send donations in care of the United Way of New York City, 2 Park Ave., New York, NY 10016. (212)251-4035.
  • The New York Police & Fire Widows & Childrens Benefit Fund was founded in 1985. Its address: Box 3713, Grand Central Station, New York, NY, 10163.
  • Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston has established a special fund for victims of terrorism both here and in Israel. You can send a check earmarked for that fund to CJP, 125 High St., Boston, Mass., 02110.
  • The Salvation Army is accepting checks earmarked for the Salvation Army Response Attack on America fund. The address: 147 Berkeley St., Boston, 02116. Donations can also be made by credit card — call (617)542-5420, extention 417 — and on the Internet (www.salvationarmy-ma.org).
  • To give to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, call (800)435-7669; Spanish speakers may call 800-257-7575. Or, donors may make contributions directly at Citizens Bank or FleetBank.
  • Customers of Stop and Shop stores can make contributions to families of victims at the register or at customer-service windows via the chain’s just-established American Heroes Fund. All the money will go directly to aid, and Stop and Shop will match up to $1 million in customer donations.

Other donations:

  • The Salvation Army in Massachusetts is collecting the following items requested by its New York affiliate: bottled water; canned meats; peanut butter and jelly; and adult clothing (particularly jeans, shirts, underwear and socks; new, sized and marked) for use by emergency personnel.
  • Currently, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency is discouraging callers to its emergency response line (800-293-4031) from going to New York to donate their services, saying that it is keeping a list of names and numbers but prefers to wait for a specific request from New York. The Massachusetts Medical Society is also maintaining a list of volunteers while awaiting further word from the crash scenes. Health professionals seeking more information can consult www.massmed.org. A Boston Fire Department spokesman said it also is awaiting a request for the sort of specialized help it would provide. The Red Cross survives on the help of volunteers, but spokeswoman Mary Thang said that only those already trained as disaster volunteers would be able to help immediately.

Information provided by the Boston Globe, the Office of Student Life Counseling and HL Central.

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