The Strategy Page describes the unseen infrastructure built since September 11 designed expressly to fight the terrorist foe. The enemy, like the U-boats of the 20th century, believed they were beyond the reach of a blind and helpless foe. And they were for a time. But combatants through history have adapted and the U.S. military was no exception. It responded like the designers of sonar; by building a path to the enemy and finding ways to obtain data and combine it into a picture which negated the enemy advantage. The story begins in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For years, every night in Iraq, about a dozen known bad guys were hauled in. Some of these men gave up their buddies, or incriminating documents or other evidence (often fingerprints) would do it. Since about 2005, U.S. troops were fingerprinting every suspicious character they came across. The guy they turned loose several years earlier for lack of evidence, may end up on a wanted list today because his prints were now found all over some warm weapons or bomb making materials. Prints can even be lifted off some fragments of exploded bombs.
The army and marines have been doing the same thing police forces and corporations have been doing for over a decade; taking data from many different sources and quickly sorting out what all the pieces mean. It’s called fusion and data mining, and it’s a weapon that is having a dramatic impact on what many thought was an unwinnable war.
Continuing the analogy of the submarine, the U.S. military was sending pings into the depths. But comparing it to a more modern kind of ping is also appropriate. What combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere allowed America to do was break into the network. The romantic and conspiratorial labyrinth of the Jihad obscured the fact that topologically it was nothing but a network, no different in the abstract from a telephone system or the Internet. Americans knew how to break into those, and once they knew how to think about the al-Qaeda problem, they would inevitably break into that too.
Al-Qaeda could not prevent Americans from pushing into multiple parts of the network and to begin what might be compared to traceroutes on the system.
By accepting combat, al-Qaeda was doing more than just feeding its combatants into a meat grinder. It was giving the United States access; providing them with starting point after starting point from which to run a traceroute. Nodes which might be disconnected or inaccessible from one point of access would suddenly become visible from another. It had always been a truism that one of the most important fruits of combat was information about the enemy, but that was never truer than after 9/11.
What was worse for al-Qaeda, America began to redesign its operations not only to inflict casualties but to acquire information. One “factor in this trend was the parallel growth of raiding and command techniques. American troops developed organizations, equipment and tactics that enabled them to rapidly and safely (for both the raiders and the arrested) go after suspects in dense residential areas (or farms in rural areas).”