TSG IntelBrief: Counterterrorism from 20,000 Feet
February 22, 2016

Counterterrorism from 20,000 Feet


Bottom Line Up Front:

• The February 19 U.S. airstrike against Islamic State targets in western Libya is only the latest in what has become a counterterrorism campaign fought largely from the air

• There are reports that the strike, which targeted Noureddine Chouchane, among other fighters, may have inadvertently killed two Serbian hostages 

• In the absence of on-the-ground human intelligence, the reliance on signals intelligence and visual coverage of targets minimizes but does not eliminate the odds of killing innocents

• The U.S. has conducted counterterrorism air and drone strikes in at least seven countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen—all of which have since seen terrorism threats worsen. 


While the root drivers of terrorism and violent extremism rest firmly on the ground in countries like Libya, the most common U.S. tactic for countering significant terror threats is in the air. The disconnect between ground causes and airstrikes, which has steadily widened in the nearly 15 years since the 9/11 attacks, is the result of two trend lines converging: one geopolitical, one technical. The February 19, 2016 airstrike by U.S. F-15 jets against a suspected compound of the so-called Islamic State in Sabratha, Libya, is the latest example of this trend, which shows no signs of returning to the ground in the near future.

The first trend line is the increasing or continued collapse of states such as SyriaIraqAfghanistan, and Yemen, and the inability of their respective governments to effectively stem the tide of violence and extremism—even with significant U.S. assistance or direct support. On paper, Afghanistan should be the best case scenario of the seven countries in which the U.S. has been conducting varying levels of air and drone strikes, in that there is a relatively supportive local government with which the U.S. can partner militarily. Yet by nearly all measures, Afghanistan is facing the worst extremist threat since 2001, due to the levels of corruption, tribalism, extremism, and poverty that defy even the most well-funded external countermeasures. Since the corrosive conditions on the ground are so persistently frustrating, airstrikes are the increasingly preferred option. 

In countries such as Syria or Libya, where the United States has no acceptable government partner, the U.S. military must work, at best, with smaller groups—as it does in northern Syria—to defeat extremist threats. In these countries, the internal divisions and the scope of the conflicts are so wide that airstrikes have become an expensive way to buy time until local conditions improve. The strikes can address serious terror threats in isolation, but the reach of the problem exceeds the tactic’s grasp.

The Sabratha airstrike is an example of how difficult it is to create lasting change with only one counterterrorism tool. The U.S. likely had few—if any—partners or personnel on the ground in Libya from which to collect intelligence. The strike, which reportedly killed 49 suspected terrorists—including Noureddine Chouchane, implicated in several recent attacks in Tunisia—was in one way a clear counterterrorism success. Yet there are reports that two Serbian hostages were also killed in the attack. A Pentagon spokesman said the target area had been under continuous coverage for weeks and there had been no sign of hostages or civilians. In January 2015, a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan also killed an American and an Italian hostage, whom the U.S. had no idea were in the target area, despite extensive drone coverage and signals intelligence.

The second trend line driving the increased reliance on drone and airstrikes, beyond the increased need for them, involves improving technology and the remarkable granularity of coverage. Drones, in particular, have gained increased flight durations and widened the array of optics and weapons. The ability to maintain persistent coverage over a dangerous area lacking sufficient capable partners on the ground has improved significantly in the last decade. This improvement provides a glimpse at the long-desired ‘full situational awareness’ in relatively denied areas. However, as seen with the deaths of hostages and civilians, this promise remains unfulfilled, though efforts to avoid civilian deaths are substantial. Improving the capabilities of counterterrorism airstrikes as the region continues to destabilize will only become more problematic.


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