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Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda Hardcover – August 16, 2011
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Insightful… Counterstrike… is not just another book about Sept. 11, Iraq or Afghanistan. Rather, it focuses on the various military and civilian agency responses to terrorism [with a] strong portrayal of the many unheralded United States victories…. Americans should take comfort in this book's reminder that their government can adapt to meet threats as they change, keeping them safer--if not necessarily safe--from terrorism. (Daniel Byman, The New York Times)
There is a flood of 9/11 books now coming onto the market, but Counterstrike by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker of the New York Times should be atop the list of anyone curious about how the U.S. government has grappled with the challenges posed by al Qaeda. (Time.com)
Counterstrike' provides a detailed look at the changes that have occurred and the personalities behind those decisions, as well as the complicated global chessboard of terror networks and sympathetic governments that made adaptation so vital. (The Boston Globe)
This eye-opening account of how the U.S. government has vastly upgraded its counterterrorism efforts since Sept. 11 reminds readers that while the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates persists, so does the American will to strike back. (Joshua Sinai, The Washington Times)
In Counterstrike, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, reporters for the New York Times, warn that another catastrophic terrorist event is inevitable, but their behind-the-scenes account of the evolution of U.S. counterterrorism strategy gives officials the highest marks… Counterstrike is a glowing portrayal of the American intelligence community. (Robert D. Crews, San Francisco Chronicle)
Masterful … A fast paced, gripping story… A well reported, well written dive into the arcane world of counterterrorism over the past decade… [Counterstrike] is a significant contribution to our body of knowledge regarding our campaign thus far in the 'Long War' against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups. (Michael Waltz, Foreign Policy)
A must read… After ten years of conflict comes a book that, with amazing clarity, tells how the strategy for the "War on Terror" has dramatically evolved… The authors capture the successes, the failures, the opportunities and the still-lingering gaps over the past decade and look ahead to the nation's future challenges. (Military.com)
The book [Counterstrike] sheds light on offensive U.S. cyber operations almost never discussed by U.S. officials. (Bloomberg.com)
New York Times correspondents Schmitt and Shanker review events after 9/11, focusing on government and military counterterrorism experts who convinced administration ideologues to switch gears… [A] reassuring argument that, after an expensive and massive effort, terrorism seems on the decline. (Kirkus Reviews)
A remarkable detective story by two of the nation's best reporters. With meticulous research and fine storytelling, Counterstrike reveals who, what, when, where, and why in describing the long campaign by the United States government to demolish Al Qaeda and ultimately to kill Osama bin Laden. (Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of An Army at Dawn)
Counterstrike lays bare the provocative new ideas that are driving the war on terrorism. Generals often talk about changing the hearts and minds of people in faraway lands, but Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker reveal the importance of changing the hearts and minds of America's defense strategists. This is a groundbreaking intellectual history that is also a great read. (Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill)
Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker dig deep to tell the story of the covert campaign to defeat Al Qaeda, from the CIA to the Pentagon. Counterstrike is a richly reported work that is a seminal account of the battle between America and Al Qaeda since 9/11. (Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda)
Filled with amazing characters and details, Counterstrike traces the evolution of America's strategy for stopping the next attack. It's a fascinating story and a great read, too. (Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War)
Counterstrike scores a direct hit. Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, two of America's most respected national security correspondents, provide pathbreaking reporting on and incisive analysis of the secret war against Al Qaeda after 9/11. This cogent history of America's elusive search for a strategy - essential reading for specialists and concerned citizens alike - should inform our national debate on how best to counter this most urgent threat. (Lee H. Hamilton, former congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission)
Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker have written a brilliant and important account of America's battle with Al Qaeda. It is an exceptional work in that it truly addresses strategic issues and not just the tactical fight. There are critical insights and recommendations provided in this book that make it a must-read for all those who want to understand how we must deal with this complex threat. (General Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (retired))
About the Author
Eric Schmitt is a terrorism correspondent for The New York Times and has embedded with troops in Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan. Schmitt has twice been a member of Times reporting teams that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Thom Shanker, a Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, routinely spends time embedded with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shanker was formerly a foreign editor and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, based in Moscow, Berlin, and Sarajevo.
Top customer reviews
The principal theme of Counterstrike is how in the course of the past decade "the government's force of professional counterterrorism analysts has grown from a group small enough to know each other's phone numbers to a vast army linked by supercomputers processing thousands of bits of data in nanoseconds." And, by no means incidentally, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process.
Schmitt and Shanker reveal without editorial comment the strong contrast between the management styles of our last two Presidents: "While Bush showed an apetite for tactical and operational details -- [for example,] the number of spies working against Al Qaeda in Pakistan . . . -- Obama wanted to understand the strategic nature of the threat and demanded to know when his personal orders were required to break through resistance across the intelligence and security community to make things work at the tactical and operational level." The bureaucratic squabbles, most notably during the tenure of Secretary of Defense Runsfeld, are another theme that stands out.
However, the overarching theme of Counterstrike is the gradual maturation of American counter-terrorist policy in the opening decade of the 21st Century, shifting gradually from one bent simply on using brute force to kill or capture terrorists to a much more sophisticated and broad-based policy of deterrence drawn from the playbook of the Cold War. As Scmitt and Shanker report, "Deterrence -- updated, expanded, even redefined -- is now official American policy for countering Al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist organizations."
At first blush, deterrence might seem futile against an enemy willing, even eager, to die for his beliefs. However, as Schmitt and Shanker reveal, there is a wide range of tactics available to delay or prevent terrorist attacks. Among these are multifaceted techniques such as cyber-warfare to disrupt the communications and financial transactions of the Al Qaeda network and creative actions by local CIA or military officers. (In the most amusing of the latter, American officers first set high bounty prices on Al Qaeda commanders, then lowered them to imply that the terrorists' importance had declined; soon, to prove their continuing importance, the terrorists revealed their locations by striking out against the Americans in impulsive and foolhardy ways. The result, of course, is that they were then either killed or captured.)
So, there is considerable substance in Counterstrike. The discussion of how deterrence policy evolved into the U.S. strategy against Al Qaeda is especially illuminating. Unfortunately, the structure and writing style don't enhance the reader's experience. The book is slow going, consisting largely of one long expository paragraph after another, relieved only by lengthy quotes from some of the hundreds of individuals the authors interviewed. Schmitt and Shanker might have benefited from a few lessons in nonfiction writing by a master of the craft such as Tracy Kidder, Erik Larson, or even Bob Woodward.
Every time the book started to get interesting to me, there would be an overtly political jab at Bush or Rumsfeld that would sour any potential enjoyment of the book. He also gives a complete pass to former Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano, who clearly was in way over her head as director.
Had the author simply taken a matter-of-fact type approach with respect to politicians, I would have enjoyed the book much more. At a time when most Americans have had enough of the media openly cheering for liberal Democrats and their foreign policy failures, the book can't hide the author's left-leaning agenda.
This is the first book (that I am aware of) to describe these efforts, and it does so in great detail, pulling together all of the bits and pieces of these efforts and presenting them in a fast paced and gripping story.
We are generally familiar with how our country uses unmanned drone aircraft to surveil our enemies and strike at them in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This book describes how complimentary efforts of the intelligence community have become even more important.
This work was led initially by individuals who recognized after 9/11 that there was a need for new ideas to transform these bureaucracies. There was recognition that tactics of deterrence, used successfully in the Cold War, could be adapted for the war against terrorism. Quietly and behind the scenes, they developed new techniques for our efforts against terrorism, which have had great impact.
Here are some samples of the stories given in the book to illustrate this:
- Information obtained from thumb drives captured in December, 2006, which outlined Al Qaeda strategy against the recently launched surge in Iraq. The Al Qaeda targets included bakeries, and garbagemen, because they wanted garbage to pile up to show that the U.S. was failing. Knowing this, the U.S. was able to anticipate the effort and head it off.
- Capture of an extensive Al Qaeda members listing, and the decision by the military to share the information throughout the intelligence and military communities, allowing far more use of this data by a variety of agencies and thus resulting in a significant reduction in the number of suicide bombers.
- How we are able to go on to jihadi websites and post information and orders that are indistinguishable from legitimate orders issued by Al Qaeda leadership, resulting in dissent and confusion among the terrorists.
This book is enjoyable and fast paced to read, and in contrast to many other books written about our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it may actually lead to some optimism as we ask ourselves whether or not the war on terrorism is winnable, or not.