An Unusually Hard Target

Originally published in New York Times
May 3, 2011

It has taken 10 years to find and attack Osama bin Laden because of the inherent difficulty of getting actionable intelligence on a single individual who is well-versed in the arts of concealed movement, operational security, and the careful and disciplined use of electronic means of communication. In other words, it is generally very hard to find and act against senior and experienced terrorist leaders. Osama bin Laden had been operating in sophisticated ways since the 1980s.

Capturing or killing a high-value leader through a targeted strike requires knowing where that individual will be at a particular place and time in the future. An operation then must be planned and launched, which is not an instantaneous process. Time is required to travel to the site, among other things. The difficulty of knowing not where someone is, but where he will be when the strike force arrives, makes targeted strikes very difficult.

Bin Laden was an unusually hard target; others will be easier. But the amount of time and effort required to go after any such leader puts a real limit on the ability of U.S. forces to conduct many such operations rapidly. Given the number of high-value targets out there and the difficulty of striking each one, a strategy to disrupt, dismantle and defeat terrorist networks that relies, as some have advocated, exclusively on such targeted raids is bound to fail. Terrorist networks like Al Qaeda, furthermore, can replenish their leadership faster than we can target them.

It was hard to find Bin Laden in Pakistan; it can be even more difficult to find and strike terrorist leaders in lawless areas such as in Somalia and parts of Yemen where they increasingly flourish. Targeted strikes of this kind are an important tool in our arsenal against terrorists, but they can be only one tool.

The very difficulty we encountered in finding and killing Bin Laden should warn us against the danger of seeing in such operations a magical, low-cost, small-footprint silver bullet for the problems we face.