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Counterterrorist Tales
Michael Sheehan remembers 30 years of fighting bad guys.
11 July 2008

Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves, by Michael A. Sheehan (Crown, 320 pp., $24.95)

Why hasn’t al-Qaida attacked us at home since September 11? Explanations range from the paranoid and bizarre (9/11 was a CIA plot) to the nervous and suspicious (sleeper cells are just biding their time, waiting to conduct another spectacular attack). In his new book, Crush the Cell, Michael Sheehan, the NYPD’s former deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, provides insight based on nearly 30 years of experience dealing with such threats. As Sheehan sees it, the absence of subsequent attacks results from the vigilance of our security and intelligence agencies, which are no longer asleep at the switch, and from al-Qaida’s lack of sophistication and depth. Contrary to popular belief, al-Qaida operatives are mostly “bunglers” who tend to succeed only when no one is paying attention. Al-Qaida, Sheehan informs us, is not robust enough to sustain a series of attacks over time to achieve strategic effects.

That isn’t to say that al-Qaida has been defeated or that the threat has passed. Sheehan recognizes the lethality of jihadists and believes that we are in the middle of a generational conflict. As the NYPD’s point man on terrorism, he understood that radical cells “across the United States and in Western Europe . . . had people within their ranks with the education and professional experience needed to acquire very dangerous materials and transform them into terrorist weapons.” These materials included radioactive isotopes like cesium-137 and cobalt-60 (both prevalent in medical machines) as well as biological and chemical materials. In short, the danger is real, and we will have to confront al-Qaida and other similarly situated terrorist organizations for many years to come.

The path to ultimate victory, Sheehan writes, is through continued vigilance. There is no substitute for “finding and crushing the cells—at home and abroad.” This is best accomplished through small teams of highly skilled intelligence operatives and “door kickers” who can do their work unimpeded by large, slow-moving bureaucracies. We should empower these teams to hunt for terrorist cells, take appropriate risks, and neutralize those cells before they can attack.

Sheehan is highly critical of the massive government bureaucracies created following 9/11 to take on al-Qaida: the Department of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Counter Terrorism Center. They’re insufficiently aggressive, Sheehan believes, and like all bureaucracies, they tend to divert resources from cutting-edge efforts while seeking new ways to justify their existence. Their experts tend to develop threat assessments based on theoretical scenarios that target our innumerable vulnerabilities. Sheehan sees little value in these exercises; in fact, to the extent that they drive massive investment in dubious defensive measures—“opening up all of our containerized shipping, strangling our petrochemical industries with regulatory requirements, and barricading ourselves and our government institutions behind barriers”—they can actually do more harm than good.

What we need instead are leaner organizations and more intensive studies of what al-Qaida is actually saying and doing. Such reports would allow counterterrorism officials to make realistic predictions about where threats are and to deploy countermeasures more wisely and cost-effectively. That’s why Sheehan built an analytical team at NYPD whose job was to sift through research on global terrorism attacks, looking for the New York angle.

Sheehan develops his themes through a series of short stories, which he punctuates with practical lessons. The reader often feels like a patron at the local pub, listening to a grizzled old-timer’s conversation. Each story is compelling—Sheehan has enjoyed a career of adventurous and high-profile postings—even if they don’t all hang together. And herein lies the problem with Crush the Cell: it lacks a coherent narrative. Just like the old-timer in the pub, Sheehan tells one story, starts another, poses questions without answering them—and moves on. His approach leaves the reader wanting to know more.

At various points, for example, Sheehan extols the value of intelligence collection and of intensively monitoring domestic “hot spots” in Muslim diaspora communities. At other points, though, he warns against “making the problem worse with ill conceived anti-Muslim statements, policies, and programs.” One would like to understand better how to achieve the difficult balance between the need to know and the need to maintain legitimacy—and (what is perhaps more important) the perception of legitimacy. In another case, he examines the growing tension between the U.S. and Iran and questions whether and how Hezbollah, an Iranian surrogate, might attack on our shores. Would it use the existing support structure that helps operate other criminal enterprises in the U.S., or would it infiltrate more highly trained operatives without any connection to the support structure? Sheehan poses the question but never tells us what he thinks. Perhaps he is saving his answer for another venue.

Despite these shortcomings, Crush the Cell presents a fascinating insider’s view of how America is responding to threats like al-Qaida. Sheehan prides himself on providing hard-nosed, realistic advice, untainted by political considerations. His approach is refreshing in today’s partisan political environment. Anyone who wants to know more about what our government—at all levels—is doing to defeat al-Qaida should read what he has to say.

Tim Connors is an adjunct fellow in the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Policing Terrorism and a partner in PJ Sage, Inc., a security consulting firm.

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