How Special Ops Copied al-Qaida to Kill It

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    One of the greatest ironies of the 9/11 Era: while politicians, generals and journalists lined up to denounce al-Qaida as a brutal band of fanatics, one commander thought its organizational structure was kind of brilliant. He set to work rebuilding an obscure military entity into a lethal, agile, secretive and highly networked command — essentially, the United States’ very own al-Qaida. It became the most potent weapon the U.S. has against another terrorist attack.

    That was the work of Stanley McChrystal. He is best known as the general who lost his command in Afghanistan after his staff shit-talked the Obama administration to Rolling Stone.

    Inescapable as that public profile may be, it doesn’t begin to capture the impact he made on the military. McChrystal’s fingerprints are all over the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite force that eventually killed Osama bin Laden. As the war on terrorism evolves into a series of global shadow wars, JSOC and its partners — the network McChrystal painstakingly constructed — are the ones who wage it.

    These days, McChrystal travels around the country to talk about his leadership style. His insights reveal a lot about how the JSOC became the Obama team’s go-to counterterrorism group. “In bitter, bloody fights in both Afghanistan and Iraq,” McChrystal has written, “it became clear to me and to many others that to defeat a networked enemy we had to become a network ourselves.”

    McChrystal’s career also reveals a second irony: At the moment of his greatest ascension, to overall command in Afghanistan, McChrystal couldn’t take his own advice.

    McChrystal declined to speak for this article. He’s working on a book, due out in 2012, that will probably shed some light on his tenure at JSOC. This piece is drawn from his speeches, interviews I’ve conducted over the years with special operations and intelligence veterans — usually off the record — as well as two insightful new books: Counterstrike by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, and Top Secret America by Dana Priest and William Arkin.
    The Networked Ninja

    The historical problem that special operations forces had, in the eyes of high-level policymakers, is that they weren’t ninjas. U.S. commandos trained constantly, but they didn’t have much combat experience during the 1980s and ’90s.

    When the Clinton administration reviewed its options for attacking al-Qaida’s Afghanistan safe houses in 1998, President Clinton vented frustration: “You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaida if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”

    JSOC certainly knew how to rappel. The problem was it often didn’t know where to rappel, or where to send its helicopters, or who the enemy was.

    In 2002, a JSOC AC-130 gunship came to relieve a team of commandos who’d come under attack while hunting Taliban leaders in Uruzgan province. The fire it directed against its targets was so heavy that the low estimate of civilian deaths, according to the Afghan government and included in the official U.S. Central Command report on the incident, is 48. Hundreds may have been killed.

    JSOC had minimal intelligence capabilities. The CIA, the agency that knew Afghanistan the best and led the hunt for al-Qaida, distrusted it. It was hived off from the conventional military, whose low-level commanders could be left to deal with angry civilians after one of JSOC’s raids in Afghanistan or Iraq. McChrystal took command in 2003, began examining al-Qaida, and had something of a revelation.
    “t became increasingly clear — often from intercepted communications or the accounts of insurgents we had captured — that our enemy was a constellation of fighters organized not by rank but on the basis of relationships and acquaintances, reputation and fame,” McChrystal remembered recently in Foreign Policy. “We realized we had to have the rapid ability to detect nuanced changes, whether the emergence of new personalities and alliances or sudden changes in tactics.” Think Bruce Wayne getting inspired by a bat to strike fear into the hearts of criminals.

    McChrystal set to work, as he put it, building JSOC’s network. One key node: CIA. During a January speech, he recalled how he needed CIA’s help getting intelligence on a Taliban leader he was hunting. CIA was secretive, compartmentalized and suspicious of other organizations meddling in its affairs — exactly what JSOC used to be like.

    So McChrystal took the rare step of going to CIA headquarters, hat in hand. As it turned out, CIA just needed a promise that JSOC “wouldn’t go across the border” into Pakistan, jeopardizing its own operations. McChrystal agreed, the intel flowed, and the Taliban commander was killed.

    It was the beginning of a new relationship between JSOC and the vast spy apparatus the U.S. built after 9/11. CIA operatives and analysts would visit McChrystal’s base of operations in Balad, Iraq, to plan joint missions.

    And not just them: Satellite analysts from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, regional experts from the State Department, and surveillance specialists from the National Security Agency were the next people McChrystal effectively recruited. McChrystal spent his commander’s discretionary fund not on better guns, but on purchasing bandwidth so that all the nodes of his network could speak to each other, sometimes during missions.

    Veterans of JSOC remember that as crucial. An NSA-created linkup called the Real Time Regional Gateway allowed operatives who seized scraps of intelligence from raids — a terrorist’s cellphone contacts, receipts for bomb ingredients, even geolocated terrorist cellphones — to send their crucial data to different nodes across the network. One analyst might not appreciate the significance of a given piece of intel. But once JSOC effectively became an experiment in intel crowdsourcing, it soon got a bigger, deeper picture of the enemy it was fighting — and essentially emulating.

    “If you look at JSOC, you’re looking at arguably the single most integrated, most truly joint command within the U.S. military,” says Andrew Exum, who served in the Army’s Ranger Regiment in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 and who advised McChrystal as a civilian in 2009. McChrystal and his brain trust “were seeking to do and succeeding in doing what many commanders and diplomats and government officials talk about: tearing down the walls that exist between various departments, agencies and military units.”

    It also helped mitigate JSOC’s most horrific mistakes.
    How Special Ops Copied al-Qaida to Kill It | Danger Room |