Skip to comments.War Plan Part 3: North American Theater of Operations
Posted on 09/26/2001 5:56:51 PM PDT by Axion
Part 3: North American Theater of Operations
2355 GMT, 010926
Although the United States has renewed its focus on homeland defense following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, true security will require the United States to implement a continental defense system with Canada and Mexico. In the meantime, Washington must face the challenge of countering what may be a more rapid tempo of terrorist operations.
The Sept. 11 attacks on the United States effectively created a North American theater of operations. There are three goals in this theater: the identification and capture or liquidation of the remaining members of the attacking group; the determination of whether other attack groups are currently present within North America; and the prevention of penetration of North America by other groups.
A North American theater of operations is a more useful concept than focusing only on the United States. The United States has vast, virtually unprotected borders with Canada and a long, ineffectively protected border with Mexico. Access to either Canada or Mexico creates innumerable opportunities to penetrate the United States.
Any attempt to create an effective defensive perimeter along these two frontiers would, apart from issues of cost and economic efficiency, take an extremely long time to put into effect and would divert substantial manpower from other missions. Therefore, a perimeter defense of the United States is untenable.
In a sense this was already recognized during the 1950s, when the United States established its air defense system. It was understood that a defensive perimeter that began at the Canadian frontier would be entirely ineffective. Therefore, the United States induced Canada to join in the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), which move the air defense perimeter farther north to include Canada, essentially creating a continental perimeter.
NORAD is conceptually a model for the current situation. The significant entry points into North America are at airports where international flights are permitted to land. Those airports, along with some maritime facilities, are North America's interface with the world.
There are a finite number of such facilities, and it would be possible to reduce the number if need be. These airports are the control points through which attackers pass. They are the primary security screening point, and once past them attack teams can rapidly disappear into the general population and move into the United States almost at will.
If Canada and Mexico are unwilling to integrate their international arrival security systems with that of the United States, the situation rapidly becomes unmanageable. True frontier security is impossible in the United States in any meaningful time frame. Any airport that accepts international flights but is not part of an integrated screening process immediately obviates the ability of the United States to effectively screen attackers prior to entry.
Creating a notional North American theater of operations -- instead of focusing on a definition of homeland defense that is concerned mainly with the United States -- therefore removes any possibility of a perimeter defense. It is then necessary to think and operate continentally rather than nationally.
With the concept of NORAD as a model, a continental defensive system against Al-Qa'ida and other groups needs to be implemented. Obviously, this interacts with other issues dividing the United States and its neighbors. Canada is deeply concerned about protecting its sovereignty, while Mexico has fundamental issues concerning migration with the United States.
These are serious challenges in transforming the notion of continental defense into an operational entity. It may even become impossible to implement a full system because of these issues. Implementing such a system, however, will become the first test of the coalition the United States is seeking to construct. Inducing Canada and Mexico to create a continental screening system for entrants is the foundation of any workable system of homeland defense. It is unclear that such a model would be sustainable for an extended period of time without a substantial shift in Canada's and Mexico's political culture. Nevertheless, it is the essential prerequisite for American homeland defense.
Attacking North America
The first and most obvious question is whether Al-Qa'ida intends to launch further attacks against the United States and, if so, when these attacks might occur and what their targets might be. This is a question that involves not only intentions but capabilities, and also creates an interesting reversal. In warfare, capabilities are normally far clearer than are intentions. In this case, the reverse is true. Al-Qa'ida's intentions are fairly clear. Much less clear are their capabilities.
The most striking fact to consider is that the Sept. 11 attack involved 19 people who were prepared to go to their certain death. That is a large number of people demonstrating a willingness that is normally exceedingly rare. The operation was obviously risky. If defeated it could lead to the loss of all 19 to no effect. One would expect Al-Qa'ida to hedge its bets to some degree. Certainly, we would think that they would hold some reserves in place for alternative or follow-on operations.
If that assumption is true, then it would be reasonable to suspect that there are other groups available for follow-on operations, also manned by some number of suicidal operatives. The alternative theory, that this was a single-shot attack, does not cohere with the operational style we have observed from bin Laden in the past.
His previous strikes have utilized limited operatives and have been designed to use up all resources in one fell swoop. Thus, in planning for possible failure, Al-Qa'ida would have had to create multiple units. This is an unsettling thought, since if the additional units approximate the first unit in size and expertise, then we can assume that follow-on operations could be on the same order of magnitude.
On the other hand, in planning for a successful operation we would expect that the additional units were already in the United States. We know that the first cell entered the United States quite some time ago, married up with its cash supply and proceeded to obtain resources.
We also know, as Al-Qa'ida had to know, that entering the United States following a successful or even failed attack would become enormously more difficult. In addition, the time needed for planning follow-on operations meant that there could be little control over the tempo of operations.
Given this, there are two assumptions that must be made for North American defense at this time:
It is not clear whether these groups were aware of each other at all or, if aware, to what degree they had contact with each other. It is similarly unclear whether they maintained ongoing contact with Al-Qa'ida outside the country.
Clearly they were able to evade U.S. security and intelligence during this operation. There are several potential explanations for this. One is a massive intelligence failure on the part of the United States. Another is that Al-Qa'ida has developed a sophisticated understanding of how U.S. intelligence works and has developed protocols for evading them. A final explanation is that communication between task forces and command centers were either totally eliminated or kept to an absolute minimum.
Undoubtedly all three are partially true. But the attackers could not count on an intelligence failure, nor could they trust their understanding of U.S. intelligence systems. The one process that they could rely on would have been severing contacts with their home base early in the process and then permitting contacts only on the most intermittent basis manageable.
In the extreme form, it is possible that after being deployed with a general mission no further contact was made with Al-Qa'ida. This would mean that personnel movements and money transfers took place months or even years ago. It is also possible that bin Laden knew that these groups were operational, but for security's sake he did not know precisely what they were going to do or even when they were going to do it.
There is evidence that indicates some degree of ongoing coordination, particularly the recent killing of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, which appears to have been coordinated with the attack. However, the basic assumption that the attackers escaped detection because they minimized interaction would still hold true.
Even more likely is the assumption that each task force was kept deliberately in the dark about the others. Each group may even have been told that it would become activated if and when a major and unmistakable action -- or two, or three and so on -- took place.
That would mean the current roundup of suspects would be the ground support team from the first group of attackers, along with others who had brushed up against them. The final mission of the ground support group might be to deliberately provide information leading to their arrest so that they could point the finger in several fruitless directions, overloading U.S. security forces and diverting them from the search for operational teams.
We have already dealt with some of the operational principles of the attackers in Part 1 of our special report this week. It is sufficient to point out that in the past attacks have been widely separated by time and place and have differed as to target time and means of delivery. However, in our view precedent is not a determining factor in this case. The prior missions were preliminaries. This is clearly the main bout. Different rules apply.
Al-Qaida's goals lead to the expectation of a strategic campaign that is designed not only as a terror campaign with a psychological warfare goal but also as an attack on American infrastructure, designed to degrade the functioning of the American economy and place pressure on U.S. national command structures.
It follows that two parallel campaigns will be waged:
In parallel there will be a third campaign, which we might call a disinformation campaign. Al-Qa'ida has specialized in confusing U.S. intelligence by constantly signaling attacks where none came. One of the most effective of these has been permitting the capture of attack plans that either exist simply as contingency plans or planning documents, or which are deliberately fabricated to force high levels of alert along with defused attention.
One of the ongoing characteristics of bin Laden's attacks is that they are staged at completely unanticipated moments. The targets may have been signaled in the past but only in the context of endless additional signals, so that the truth is buried in a grave of lies. Therefore, there will be constant alerts and signals, but the attacks will continue to be unanticipated.
This is the challenge for Al-Qa'ida now. Truly unanticipated attacks require time so that defenders relax. The new groups of attackers know that there could be a security failure on their part and that they might not have time. They also want to maintain a tempo of operations that drives home the weakness of the United States in the Islamic world. That argues for a more rapid tempo of operations, covered by more intense disinformation. This also creates a massive challenge within the North American theater of operations.
Defending North America
In a certain sense, the North American theater is more an investigative and police operation rather than a military one. The three major countries in North America provide their citizens with legal rights and protections against state action. Apart from the inherent need to respect those rights, one of the obvious goals of any special operation is psychological warfare, to drive a wedge between a combatant state and its citizens. Using military methods to combat the threat would mean treating the population as potentially hostile. Apart from the public response to such a posture, using military rather than police methods would mean a transformation of the state's perception of its relationship to the public. That would have substantial long term consequences.
That said, an aggressive investigative methodology is required, one that can achieve extraordinary goals-identifying and liquidating special operations task forces hiding within the general population, as well as in identifiable sub-groups such as the Arab-American community. A high degree of discrimination and restraint is therefore required in all operations against the attackers, the type of discrimination that is normally in the sphere of the police.
Another reason for discrimination has to do with economic and social efficiency. Security and efficiency are in many respects competing values. The greater security measures there are in place, the longer it takes to carry out certain functions. For example, increases in security at airports can dramatically increase the time and cost involved in travel, since time is frequently money.
Indiscriminate security measures can be highly effective, but frequently at the cost of economic degradation. Since one of the strategic goals of the attackers is clearly economic degradation, each additional quantum of security must be measured against the resulting economic cost. This also argues against a broad security regime and for a highly discriminatory one.
This also obviously creates an environment in which the attackers have extensive opportunities to evade security forces and mount attacks. The central problem with a security approach is that it is defensive, reactive and inherently inefficient. It gives the attacker the initiative. It is also fiendishly expensive, both in direct costs and indirect costs of efficiency. Moreover, it is an interminable operation, since it does not definitively deal with the problem.
The initial response is to try to find the center of gravity in some state that can be subdued. This is certainly a more efficient war-fighting strategy. Bu the problem is that, as we have argued, it is not clear that attack forces already in the United States, or even those planning to infiltrate, are heavily dependent on outside support, once money is transferred into America. Eliminating the home base and the host country does not necessarily end the war-fighting capability of forces already deployed.
Money is the great enabler, and obviously the United States has targeted the cash supply of the enemy. The weakness with this strategy is that it will attempt to trace a path of money that is possibly several years old. In a sense, this strategy has more strategic than tactical promise.
Finding the large pools of cash is more likely than finding the small quantities that have been allocated to ongoing operations. That money has been moved so many times and so much of it has been turned directly into cash that it will be impossible to shut down launched operations using this tactic. Recall that some of the pilot-trainees used cash to pay for their tuition. The attackers also seem to have moved around quite a bit. Finding the money on a tactical level is extraordinarily difficult.
Thus, on a strategic level, over the coming years, attacking the money supply might well represent the elegant solution to the problem. However, on a tactical level, and in the immediate future, while it might yield some information on individuals and groups, it is unlikely to undermine operational capabilities. The cash may no longer even be in the banking system
The central problem is that there are strategic solutions available that may not impact the tactical situation. That leaves the United States open to unacceptable threat levels without clear counters. At the very same time, successfully closing in on the attack forces increases pressure on them to act quickly, to use it, or lose it if you will. Since all attack groups, except the bombing group, are expended in the operation, the closer investigators come to the attackers, the more likely they are to trigger the attack they were hoping to deter.
Since the target set is elusive and elastic, a purely defensive posture is the best option, but we have already seen its limitations. This creates a double bind situation, in which strategic solutions do not yield tactical solutions, while effective tactical solutions increases the risk of attacks.
The likely solution will be a two-tiered strategy. The strategic tier, primarily located in the intercontinental theater of operations, will attempt to break the back of follow-on operations not yet deployed in North America. The tactical tier will focus on an aggressive attempt to break into existing attack forces already deployed in the United States, using information drawn domestically and from other theaters.
We expect that security will be a process rather than a solution. That is to say, the American mindset that is inherently casual about the dispersal and hardening of key infrastructure will shift over time. The tendency in the United States has been to create economies of scale by concentrating infrastructure, both military and civilian.
Petrochemicals, transportation hubs, power generation and endless other examples come to mind. The problem with concentration was made obvious on Sept. 11. It is a principle of security that dispersal and redundancy create a survivable system. That coupled with active security systems decreases, but doesn't eliminate the possibility of enemy attack.
It is not simply the immediate time cost of security procedures that will have to be absorbed by the economy, but also the costs of restructuring infrastructure to reduce vulnerability and increase the speed at which systems recover. Interestingly, the cost may actually stimulate rather than degrade the economy, which is not the case with purely passive security procedures that absorb unrecoverable time.
The most difficult issue will be determining whether follow-attack forces have been deployed and then identifying their members. This is not a random population. Previous attackers were all Muslims and, it appears, Arabic, drawn primarily from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is not clear that they were all using the cover of existing Arab communities. From reports, it appears that many moved away from intensely Arabic communities, moving into the broader population.
This makes them geographically harder to track. The locus of operations cannot be boiled down to six or seven defined areas. At the same time, it makes it possible to identify potential operatives. This immediately poses a fundamental moral dilemma. Most Americans of Arab descent are guilty of nothing but association: they share an ethnic identity. At the same time, it would be absurd to pretend that African-Americans or Swedish-Americans are as likely to be operatives as Arabs.
Without a degree of profiling, the entire process becomes immediately hopeless. If security forces must pretend that they don't know what they do know, which is that the most likely suspects are Arab, they will dissipate limited resources very quickly. The likely population must be targeted. It must also be understood that this will inevitably lead to excesses. Overzealousness and stupidity are as present in the FBI as in any public or private entity. There will inevitably be cases in which reasonable and decent boundaries are overstepped.
There will be an inevitable pushback from the targeted community. There will also be a pushback from other sectors of society as the inconvenience and cost of security is recognized. It is not clear that, over time, American society is capable of accepting the limitations of increased security. This will be particularly true if the tempo of operations remains at current levels and we see one major action per year. As Sept. 11 drifts into the past and if attacks abate, the sense of urgency needed for the security may dissipate.
In some important ways, operations in the North American theater will be the most difficult to carry out. Sealing off the continent is a daunting task, even with seamless cooperation from Mexico and Canada. Most difficult of all will be determining conclusively whether there are any other forces operating here and liquidating them if there are.
It is not clear that the first group had definitive knowledge of follow-on groups. It is not clear that conventional investigations will uncover more than the remnants of the first group. Indeed, it seems that the most important information for fighting the war in North America will have to be gathered outside of North America, in what we call the intercontinental theater of operations -- the back alley intelligence war -- where someone, somewhere, might know what is needed.
In the meantime, Al-Qa'ida, if its units are in place, retain the advantage of stealth, and therefore the advantage of determining the time, place and tempo of operations. It is imperative that this advantage be taken from them. It is not clear how the advantage can be seized, or as important, whether seizing the advantage will trigger a more intense response.
We have managed to round up hundreds of Islamic malcontents through a big game of "Six Degrees of Separation" and, golly gee, most of them had something to do with some aspect of this operation. That does not sound like a world-class compartmentalization of knowledge. Yet, because we let our airports become cesspools of political hackdom and corruption, and our LEAs highest accomlishment to date was burning a bunch of 7th Day Adventist heretics in the Texas desert, we get 7000 dead people and Lower Manhattan in ruins. If the only dead were the towelheads and our LEA buffoons they would just deserve each other.
Bottom line: STRATFOR is making these people out to be smarter than they are, and boy were we dumb!
So it appears that the CIA officers were working on their "diversity quilts" while Bin Laden's operatives were working on their pilot's licenses. Like I said earlier.....what a friggin' joke.
In the meantime, Al-Qa'ida, if its units are in place, retain the advantage of stealth, and therefore the advantage of determining the time, place and tempo of operations. It is imperative that this advantage be taken from them.