By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2013 – Counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen demonstrate the value of “small-footprint” approaches and building partner capacity, the Pentagon’s special operations chief said yesterday.
Michael A. Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, spoke here about the threat of terror in those and other countries during remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s 24th Annual Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium, which ended yesterday.
Sheehan pointed out the defense strategy released in January 2012 called for “innovative, low-cost approaches” in widely distributed counterterrorism efforts. In the year since that guidance was issued, such approaches have brought good results, he added.
“A year ago in Yemen, al-Qaida had taken over vast swaths of territory … and was really threatening the state in Yemen, and also threatening to re-establish some capabilities that were very problematic,” he said. “Over the past year, we’ve made great progress in Yemen.”
With the support of U.S. special operations forces, he said, counterterror efforts there have “turned the corner.”
Somalia also shows progress over the past year, he said, with al-Shabaab, a terrorist group that controlled large parts of the country, pushed out of the major cities.
“They haven’t gone away,” he added. “They’re a persistent group. … [But] you can see in our strategies, our policies and programs in Yemen and Somalia, some of the components of how our strategy might look in the months and years ahead.”
Sheehan said while terror groups are known to spread and metastasize, the three traditional areas where al-Qaida is an entrenched threat are the mountainous area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Yemen, and in East Africa.
“Those three traditional areas … have been and will continue to be areas of al-Qaida persistence,” he said. “Fortunately for us, we’ve been able to batter them in all of those three areas over the last 10 or 11 years with a great deal of success.”
The measure of success against terror groups is their inability to mount strategic attacks, Sheehan said. He credits constant pressure on al-Qaida with diminishing that organization’s ability to train and equip terrorists.
“Some people say we’ve been a little bit lucky, with the underwear bomber and other incidents that haven’t quite gone right for al-Qaida, but I’d say it’s more than luck,” he said. “Because we put more pressure on them around the world, because it’s more difficult for them to train and deploy operatives, they make more mistakes.”
Sheehan said the failed May 1 bombing in New York’s Times Square demonstrated his point. Faizal Shazad, an American citizen later sentenced to life in prison for the bombing attempt, failed, Sheehan said, because “he was trained by the Pakistan Taliban. He couldn’t get to al-Qaida.”
The bomb Shazad created didn’t work, and he had no network to support him, Sheehan said. “He also wasn’t a suicide bomber,” the special operations chief noted. “Why? Because he wasn’t in those camps long enough to be indoctrinated.”
The factors that caused the attack to fail weren’t just luck, Sheehan said, but “the result of enormous pressure put on the organization, that prevents them from planning, training and launching skilled operatives.”
Maintaining that pressure against al-Qaida and similar groups is a task U.S. special operations forces and partner militaries are focused on around the world, he said. If such groups find sanctuary and a place where they can act with impunity, he warned, they can rebuild their strategic capability.
New and evolving terrorist threats are emerging in Syria and North Africa, Sheehan noted.
In Syria, where Bashar Assad’s government forces and the people have battled for two years, Sheehan said, the al-Nusra Front is “very closely associated with al-Qaida … and we believe they are trying to hijack [the] struggles of the Syrian people … and perhaps put their own agenda on a post-Assad Syria.”
In Africa, the Maghreb region along the Mediterranean Sea and the Saharan area of the Sahel “are of major concern to us,” he said.
Libya, he added, is “awash with weapons,” while Mali was the scene of a Tuareg tribal rebellion that was hijacked by al-Qaida and other affiliates, who gained control of an area about the size of Texas in the country’s north.
The French have had great initial success in pushing back al-Qaida advances in Mali, Sheehan noted, but the whole northern part of the continent is seeing increased terrorist presence and involvement.
“All these groups share a similar al-Qaida narrative. … In many ways, al-Qaida is seeking to rebrand itself and diversify into Africa, because they’re able to find, in those ungoverned spaces, the sanctuary they need … to become strategic,” he said.
Northern Africa has the four elements al-Qaida needs to do just that, Sheehan said: ungoverned space, terrorist groups, weapons and funding. Countering al-Qaida requires both direct action and security force assistance, Sheehan said.
“In the long term, we recognize that we can’t solely rely on precision strikes to defeat enemy networks and foster the kind of stability we need in these regions,” he said. Such stability can best be established by aiding friends, partners and allies, he added.
Special operations forces play a major role in security force assistance as well as in direct action, Sheehan noted. Security force assistance takes two approaches, he explained: training local forces to control border areas and deny space and sanctuary to terrorists, and training specialized counterterror forces.
U.S. special operations forces have, throughout their history, focused largely on training host-nation militaries, Sheehan said.
In Somalia, he noted, “the African Union and a multinational force led by the Ugandans … did a darn good job, and we helped them. Their job was to control space … and push al-Shabaab off.” Meanwhile, he added, other units focused on high-value targets and other leaders of the organization.
“Coupled together, we had a strategy that worked,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan acknowledged that a partnered strategy holds risks. Other countries may embarrass the United States, or U.S. forces could get pulled into other conflicts, he said. But the risk of inaction is greater, he added, as it holds the danger of al-Qaida or other groups developing a strategic attack capability.
Special operations troops understand those risks and have the experience and maturity to manage them, Sheehan said. He noted security force assistance is a “classic” role for special operations forces.
They can deploy to far-flung places in small numbers to protect U.S. national interests and to work with partners “to continue to crush al-Qaida,” he said.