The recent devastating attacks in Sri Lanka have shocked the world. Current information indicates that at least 253 people were killed in bombings at three churches and three hotels on Easter morning in three separate cities on the South Asian island. Hundreds more were wounded, and total casualties may ultimately be determined to exceed a thousand. Additional explosions that occurred as police investigated the attacks and warnings that more suicide bombers may be at large, have only added to the psychological impact.
Sri Lankan authorities have implicated two local Islamic groups in the attack. The sophistication of the bombings and their coordination, however, suggests something more than a homegrown plot. ISIS has claimed the attacks and released a video that purports to show the attackers pledging to martyr themselves. The backgrounds of the known suicide bombers also show significant international travel and, for some, education abroad. The feeling is palpable that what we have just seen is another large scale, well-planned attack, on the pattern of Mumbai or Paris.
It seems an opportune and appropriate time, then, to consider where we are in the so-called “war on terror,” where we are headed and what we must do going forward.
The “war on terror” is not over
Let’s begin with a few statements of fact:
This war is not over. It is not about to be over. Ever since 9/11 we have gone through a succession of phases in which we were purportedly about to achieve victory and close the books on Islamic terror. They were all wishful thinking. No such end is in sight. We fought Communism worldwide for fifty years before the wall came down. This war will last at least as long, perhaps, much, much longer. It is time to stop thinking of finite timelines and accept the fact that we will be fighting this enemy for as far as it is possible for us to see into the future.
This war is not about the status of the West Bank, Israeli settlements, American troops in the Middle East, Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq, the legacy of British colonialism or American imperialism. We are not somehow responsible for the evil with which we are faced. No amount of self-loathing or apologies for the “misdeeds” of our forefathers will make any difference whatsoever regarding the challenge with which we are faced.
This is a war with a fanatical enemy, a twisted, obscene perversion of mainstream Islam, with which there is no compromise and no reasoning. We are at war with an ideology, an apocalyptic, extremist theology, which seeks world domination. As it burns its way through the failed states of the world, its leaders will grab ahold of every idea, every cause and every perceived injustice they can to recruit adherents and motivate jihadists. That does not change the fact that they want ultimately only one thing – complete and absolute victory and the conversion of the entire planet to their sick excuse for a faith.
This war is not about territory. The enemy will secure safe havens. The enemy will lose safe havens. Every time it is driven from an area it has secured, however, it will shape-shift, morph and regroup. Driven from Syria, ISIS has already found new areas in which to regroup, change tactics and adapt. The enemy is nimble, resourceful and absolutely committed. There is no end to the places on this planet where young men and women can be recruited, brainwashed and transformed into suicide bombers and assassins.
Dealing with a generational conflict
The implications of these facts are profound. Faced with a generational conflict, we must adopt measures that are affordable and sustainable. We cannot bankrupt ourselves seeking solutions, which are cost prohibitive. The solutions we find must be ones which we can sustain for decades.
Faced with an enemy that lives in the shadows, changes shape and can move easily across borders we must utilize tactics that allow us to hunt in those shadows and follow the monsters plaguing the planet into the back alleys and remote mountain ranges of the world. Our DOD-centric approach to fighting terrorism, with its hallmark drone bases, elite, special operations forces and cutting-edge technology may be impressive. It is, relative to the task at hand, far too slow, too bureaucratic and too cumbersome for this war. By the time we have appropriated budgets, paved runways and shifted troops around the globe the enemy has moved elsewhere, changed form and focused on new targets. Like some lumbering giant we stagger along behind – ponderous, unwieldy and often searching in vain for something or someone to strike with our overwhelming firepower.
Necessity for quality intelligence
This conflict is ultimately, first and foremost, about intelligence and it will be won or lost based on the quality of that intelligence. The suicide bombers in Sri Lanka, left unmolested to complete their planning and stage their attacks were capable of mass murder on a monumental scale. The same relative handful of individuals detected in advance and targeted by police would have posed a minimal threat and been quickly eliminated or apprehended. This is not unique. This is the rule. We act in time or we are relegated to playing catch up and reconstructing events after the fact.
Press reports have suggested that there may have been some Indian intelligence reporting prior to the attacks, which was ignored by the Sri Lankans. If so, that would suggest that the intelligence was likely poorly sourced and short on details. That is, unfortunately, all too common in the world of terrorism worldwide. Reporting, when it is available, is so generic that it is of almost no use in actually preventing an attack.
At least though the Indians may have had some inkling as to what was about to happen. All indications are that we had none. An intelligence community the likes of which the world has never seen, equipped with technology that boggles the mind and virtually unlimited financial resources, was blind to an attack that devastated a nation, and which must, given its complexity, have been planned for months. That doesn’t mean simply that we did not have access inside the small group of individuals who carried out the attack. It means as well that we had and likely still have no access inside the much larger, broader transnational organization that trained, armed and directed them.
Which brings us to the final fact to be considered. This is a war of intelligence, but our intelligence is inadequate. We build carrier battle groups and giant bases, because we are good at it, and it provides the appearance that we are accomplishing something. In the same way, in the world of intelligence we build new buildings, rearrange lines on organizational charts and pay layers of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. and around the globe to attend meetings, churn out briefing slides and give the illusion that we are making a difference.
Former CIA Director Brennan’s signature achievement, when he was not spying on the President-elect, was to shuffle desks at Headquarters and rename offices. In the wake of the recent Sri Lankan attacks, current CIA leadership responded by trotting out the organization’s new Instagram account and posing online puzzles for the public to solve. These are the things that seem important to men and women who have spent their careers riding desks at home and climbing the corporate ladder.
Gathering intelligence not building bureaucracies
What we do not do nearly enough, is the hard, dirty, dangerous work of penetrating terrorist networks, recruiting sources and providing the warning intelligence that would save lives. We do not need new organizations, billions more in funding or yet just another reorganization of the intelligence community. We need a focus on results and mission accomplishment. We need people at the senior levels of the intelligence community who have run operations, recruited terrorist sources and taken the fight to the enemy, and we need them empowered to demand results, cut process and sharpen the spear. We are at war. W e need people who understand that and know how to win.
We also need to hurry. There is no magic barrier that keeps what just happened in Sri Lanka from coming to our shores. The next wave of attacks may be right here at home unless we do what it takes to provide the critical warning and save lives.