Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


On Counterterror Operations

Shakespeare stated, “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts…” (Shakespeare, 1623). In the theater of counterterror operations, many performers and masters of trades are used during operations. Intelligence planners and operational personnel work together to produce a safe society the world over. Often resembling a three-ring circus, with its many moving parts, those who participate in such operations work toward the common goal of dealing with the threat of both foreign and domestic terrorism. Though international and domestic counterterror tactics differ, the ultimate goal remains the same:  the security of the homeland and America’s interests. Throughout the coming pages this paper will attempt to differentiate between the foreign and domestic strategy, tools and tactics used by United States agencies, and the military.

In the last hundred years when faced with threats from abroad, the United States had dispatched its military to quell the threat. Through superior strength and resolve, the United States, along with its allies, have repeatedly stopped the march of tyranny and corrupt ideologies across the globe. Each campaign was directed towards a ruling party whose goal was to gain dominance. Though these wars progressively brought human brutality to another level, they were conducted while generally adhering to Just War theories and maintained the minimum interpretations of the rules of the Geneva Convention.

This, however, has not been the state of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The might of the United States military and its allies have found it difficult to operate in the face of unconventional means of warfare used by terrorist groups and insurgent fighters in the Middle East. Though this guerilla manner of fighting has created challenges for the United States military, it has presented new opportunities for the United States to disrupt terrorist and insurgent fighter operations.   New tactics have been developed to exploit the weaknesses of this style of warfare.

            Special Operation Units (Spec Ops)

The United States military is perhaps the greatest consumer of comprehensive international intelligence. This is due to the wide range of intelligence gathering needs it must use for its operations. To meet this expansive intelligence demand, each branch of the military designs and operates intelligence gathering and analysts for their specific operational needs. Much of the intelligence gathering for the United States military is conducted by Special Operation Units (Spec Ops). Elite units, such as the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), are often called to infiltrate enemy-held regions where no other agency or military personnel would be able to (Military.com). This gives the intelligence community access to intelligence that would normally be out of reach. Often tasked with capturing high value targets, these Spec Ops units are trained to conduct on-site interrogations. These effective Spec Op unit members are a vital tool in counterterror operations. The end result plays a critical role in disrupting both foreign and domestic terrorist activities.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

The FBI, which performs much of the federal counterterror investigations, has become a regular face in the military operations in the Middle East. In the last few years, the FBI has begun leaning heavily on intelligence to guide investigations. The opening of the Joint Regional Intelligence Group (JRIG) proves their desire to gather and use as much intelligence as possible (Downing & Mayer, 2012). The GWOT has provided a greater reach to the FBI. Tools once only used in domestic investigations are now being used alongside troops in the field. This method proves invaluable when domestic investigations lead agents to the Middle East. Simply put, the GWOT has expanded the FBI’s investigative authority.

            Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)

Any war comes with a high cost. From a strict dollar value the GWOT spent approximately $1.28 trillion between September 11, 2001 and May 2, 2011 (Osama Bin Laden’s death) (Stein, 2011).  Though the United States most certainly has outspent al-Qaeda and the Taliban combined, the cost of waging a war against the United States is not cheap. As these terrorist and insurgent groups have searched for ways of funding their operations, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has found its place in counterterror operations.

In 2012 Afghanistan was considered the number one provider of opium poppies to the heroin drug trade in the world, and 2013 was set to be a better year for the farmers (Londono, 2013). With over $7 billion spent in counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan, the drug trade is still flourishing. In fact, the “insurgents have fought particularly hard to regain lost ground…” (Londono, 2013) in areas where poppies grow well. Afghanistan’s deputy counternarcotics minister put the problem into perspective when he stated, “The drug economy is fueling terrorism and destabilizing the region…” (Londono, 2013).

This global problem has given the DEA a window of opportunity. While dealing with counter-narcotics operations within the United States, the GWOT has allowed them to operate as a major source of the War on Drugs. As they investigate and take down heroin cartel leaders they are slowly tightening the funding on which the insurgents and terrorists groups depend for their operations. Though not a perfect system, the DEA has become yet another tool that the United States can use to disrupt terrorist operations.

It is important to note that the military and agencies that were discussed above are only a small part of the vast counterterror force; however, no matter the agency, military installation, or covert operations being conducted by unnamed agencies, the strategies remain the same. Within the GWOT the mission objectives are consistent across agencies and disciplines: to disrupt and destroy those who plan and execute terrorism for the security of the homeland.

The function of counterterrorism must be refined when turning attention to domestic counterterror operations. The uniqueness of liberties upon which the United States of America was built requires government entities to tread cautiously when conducting counterterror investigations and operation tactics. The desire of the Founding Fathers of the United States was to bring harmony for the safety of its citizens from both government entities and illicit activities. As threats have evolved in the modern era, lawmakers and law enforcement agencies alike have been challenged to keep the balance the Founding Fathers established while maintaining homeland security. For this reason, many tactics used in the international theater are not used in counterterror operations within the United States.

The greatest difference between foreign and domestic counterterror operations deals with the amount of evidence needed to detain an individual. In international non-citizen and military operations, suspects are not entitled to the rights extended to domestic operations. Domestic “questioning” quickly evolves to interrogation on the battlefield and warrants for arrest stateside become a “snatch and grab” operation of suspected terrorists. The differences between the two counterterror operations should be strongly upheld. Either tactic should be allowed to bleed between the two theaters of function.

In the majority of cases, domestic counterterrorism reflects a “trickle down” approach in operations. Investigations often begin once a known terrorist group or individual becomes associated with a domestic group or individual. In many foiled terrorist plots that have been made public, individuals from the United States have been witnessed making contact with known terrorist organizations (McNeill, Carafano, Ph.D., & Zuckerman, 2010). Once an individual is flagged by agencies, counterterror joint task forces on federal, state and local levels must work collectively to begin investigating and tracking the potential terrorist’s actions and movements. It is at this point in the investigation where the PATRIOT Act has gone a long way in assisting agencies.

The PATRIOT Act has become an invaluable tool in the counterterror arsenal. When conducted properly the Act has stood the test of congressional investigations and court hearings alike as a unique and effective asset to domestic investigations. The Act serves to bolster the strength of warrants issued. United States investigators are now able to continue to track and investigate suspected terrorists no matter where the investigation leads. The Act’s scope is broad enough to reach terrorists trained in counterintelligence while still following the spirit of civil liberties that Americans still enjoy (McNeill, 2011).

Armed with the Act’s investigative authority, United States agencies are able to track suspected terrorists around the world even when many travel to the Middle East for training. Agencies such as the NSA and the CIA continue to monitor the individuals who are under investigation. Then, armed with the intelligence gathered by agencies, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security begin taking an active role in the apprehension of the terror suspect.

It has become apparent, by studying successful counterterrorist operations, that the FBI attempts to insert undercover agents into the planning stages of terrorist plots.  Often posing as an al-Qaeda operative, the agent is able to direct and handle the suspect’s preparations. The suspect is given enough room to implicate himself all the while remaining under the supervision of the undercover agent. This way the public is never in danger from the individual desiring to commit terrorist acts.

Such operations require cooperative measures from state and local authorities.  It is imperative that all levels of agencies have a minimum standard of training when dealing with counterterror tactics. Beginning with intelligence gathering, law enforcement agencies should be trained in recognizing possible terrorist actions and assets. By training local law enforcement agencies who are constantly on the streets of America with the knowledge of counterterror intelligence gathering, they are equipped with knowledge that would be invaluable to joint operations.

Throughout American culture there is a call slowly gaining strength for international counterterror operations to cease and the government’s focus to be directed only on the homeland. A society tired of constant war operations and seeing loved ones deployed halfway around the world have caused many to rethink their belief in global security. Many are remembering George Washington’s farewell address when he stated that America “must derive from [the] union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries… which opposite foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues would stimulate and embitter” (Washington, 1796). Simply put, former President Washington meant that the United States’ involvement in foreign conflicts does not strengthen America as a whole and should not be entered; however, in the over two hundred years since his address, technology has made the United States’ global presence a necessity. Combine this with the understanding that taking the battle to the terrorist’s homeland is a strong argument to maintain robust counterterror operations on a worldwide scale.  This may be one reason that there have been no large scale terror attacks in the United States since 9/11. With the abundance of American soldiers in the Middle East, terrorist groups do not have to traverse the globe to deliver their jihad to Americans. This theory will be tested as the withdrawal from the Middle East continues.

Counterterror operations are far from simple. Whether operating within the United States or abroad, the manpower associated with a single operation is staggering. It is only with strong training and continued cooperation across all levels of government agencies that counterterror operations will continue to be successful.




Downing, M., & Mayer, M. (2012, October 3). Domestic counterterrorism enterprise: time to streamline. Retrieved from http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/10/domestic-counterterrorism-enterprise-time-to-streamline

Londono, E. (2013, November 9). Afghan opium-poppy market blooms as U.S. forces leave. Retrieved from http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2022222190_afghanpoppiesxml.html

McNeill, J. B., Carafano, Ph.D., J. J., & Zuckerman, J. (2010, April 29). 30 terrorist plots foiled: how the system worked. Retrieved from http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/04/30-terrorist-plots-foiled-how-the-system-worked

McNeill, J. B. (2011, February 10). The PATRIOT Act and the Constitution: five key points. Retrieved from http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/02/the-patriot-act-and-the-constitution-five-key-points

Military.com (n.d.). Spec Ops profile: Intelligence Support Activity. Retrieved from http://www.military.com/special-operations/intelligence-support-activity.html

Shakespeare, W. (1623). As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII [All the world’s a stage]. Retrieved from http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15740

Stein, S. (2011, May 2). From 9/11 to Osama Bin Laden’s death, Congress spent $1.28 trillion in War on Terror. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/02/osama-bin-laden-dead-war-on-terror-costs_n_856390.html

Washington, G. (1796, September 19). Washington’s Farewell Address 1796. Retrieved from http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp

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