You can be certain there were groans across the parts of the counterterrorism community last week following the U.S. raid in Syria that killed ISIS’s “Chief Financial Officer,” Abu Sayyaf, and several associates. This is not because the raid went badly, but because policymakers would have demanded analysts across the IC explain his importance to ISIS and what his death would mean to the organization.
This sounds like a reasonable request, but pull back the curtain a bit and you’ll see the answer is rife with bureaucratic politics that can undermine the overall analysis. I saw this play out repeatedly as a counterterrorism analyst following events in the Middle East.
Consider the political optics of the raid. Syria is a big foreign policy problem for the Obama administration, which has faced consistent pressure from critics in both political parties to, among other things, “do more” there. The administration, officially or not, has permitted the military to act as the U.S. government’s lead policy arm in the country. The military wants to show results, prompting it to arrest or kill strategically important people. This in turn places pressure on military and intelligence analysts to identify strategically important people to either kill and capture. Because of the bureaucratic momentum, these targets subsequently become the shiny bouncing object that the herd follows. And the more important the target, the more important the lead analyst becomes.
Once the target is captured or killed, analysts are then expected to write memos for their bosses, including the President, assessing the impact of the target’s removal from the organization. A typical intelligence assessment usually goes something like this, “So-and So’s death will significantly degrade ISIS’s operations in X location, leaving the network without a leader to oversee and coordinate its operations in the region.”
But the truth is that it’s rare for a single raid to perform profound and permanent damage to a terrorist organization. When one strike does indeed have a strategic impact, it often takes months or even years for the consequences to play out. For example, the successors to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) founder Abu Mu’sab al-Zarqawi, who U.S. forces killed in 2006, were so unlikeable and allowed their group to become so violent that it partly sparked “The Awakening”—groups of young Sunni fighters organized to throw out extremist elements in the country.
Now imagine taking a contrarian stance and instead saying to the President something to the effect of, “thanks for authorizing this very dangerous raid, Mr. President, but it may not make a big difference because there’s at least a dozen more like him who may do a better job than he did.” In my experience, that analyst was typically ignored, never got published, and was generally skipped over for promotion.
As a result, very few analysts wanted to be “that guy.”
Beyond the bureaucratic pressure to produce instant analysis, the analyst is also often asked a usually unknowable question—to predict the future of an organization in the absence of a single leader. There are so many inputs that could generate a counterfactual assessment—the organization without the leader—that the final product is barely more analytically rigorous than a simple guess.
All that said, policymakers are forced to make decisions with incomplete information. Since intelligence analysts must view their job as a customer-focused business, they must provide some useful context to support those policy discussions.
So in the interest of fairness, how might I answer some variation of the question of what will happen to ISIS with the removal of Abu Sayyaf? I’d probably aim to identify the indicators that would help us measure the impact of his loss on the organization—for example, the amount of money his cell is able to raise after his death—and what we’re doing to collect on or observe those indicators.
The analysts should also be on the hook to follow up with a piece about those indicators, and whether a change in metrics suggests the removal did actually harm to the group. This is difficult to do in the fast-paced intelligence cycle, which can be as short as a few hours, but when done well can provide some degree of value to policymakers.
I’m also well aware it’s much easier to pontificate about improving the business of current intelligence when you’re not facing very short deadlines and phone calls from both annoyed managers and National Security Council staffers. The bureaucratic momentum to produce can be powerful. But the IC will serve its customers and the American public much better if it avoids giving answers to questions it can’t possibly know. Moreover, policymakers could better serve themselves by declining to ask questions that, if they thought about it for a few minutes, they would already know the answer.
Kevin Strouse ran for Congress in 2014 in Pennsylvania’s 8th District after serving as an analyst for the CIA and as an Army Ranger who deployed Iraq and Afghanistan. Kevin lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his wife Amy and two young children, Walter and Charlotte.
photo: In a studio at CIA Headquarters on May 3, 2011, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta gives a television interview about the operation that killed Usama Bin Ladin. (CIA)