As the U.S. withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, many analysts feared the intelligence community would lose its vast counter-terrorism capabilities in this turbulent country that had been the springboard for Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack. 

At the time, the Pentagon and the Biden administration, however, assured the world that America could still launch counterterrorism strikes from U.S. bases in “over the horizon” places like Qatar, Kuwait and elsewhere on Al Qaeda, ISIS-K, or other terrorist threats should they manifest themselves in the Taliban Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

President Biden stated on Aug. 16, 2021: “We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”

White House Press Secretary Jack Kirby similarly stated: “There isn’t a part of the Earth we can’t reach if required, and we do not always need a presence on the ground to effectively strike. It is more difficult, to be sure, but it is not impossible — as we have proven in other places.”

This claim was treated with skepticism by many. Senator Marco Rubio, for example, stated: “We have not heard anything from President Biden’s team that resembles a real plan because over-the-horizon is rhetoric, not strategy.” 

I was similarly skeptical. Having myself worked for the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center to track the movements of Taliban and Al Qaeda suicide bombers in Afghanistan’s Regional Command East, I knew that our greatest assets in the war against the terrorists were our indigenous Afghan allies. But our August 2021 troop withdrawal led to the sudden and unexpected collapse of the allied Afghan government, Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Directorate of Security.

Brian Glyn Williams and his driver in Afghanistan in 2003. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Glyn Williams

Many of these frontline allies were either evacuated or forced to go into hiding as the vengeful Taliban hunted them down. Spy networks that had taken two decades to build were destroyed in the process and it appeared that America had lost not only its frontline CIA counter-terrorism stations in Afghanistan, but its vital spy assets.

The remarkable victory in killing the most wanted man in the world, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, in a Reaper drone strike in the heart of Taliban-controlled Kabul on August 1 would, however, seem to vindicate the president’s belief in America’s “over the horizon” counter-terrorism capabilities.

Whether the elusive Al Qaeda leader was located via human intelligence spies still operating in post-American Afghanistan or technical intelligence, the fact that the CIA was able to track down a wanted terrorist in a remote land and kill him from afar is testimony to its remarkable ability to maintain and project its counter-terrorism capabilities. 

President Obama congratulated Biden on the killing of Zawahiri, tweeting “It’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan.” Biden said Monday that when he withdrew troops from the country, he “made the decision that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect America from terrorists who seek to do us harm, and I made a promise to the American people, that we continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We’ve done just that.”

A similar policy of long-distance successful counterterrorism has played out in the pro-American, democratic Kurdish lands of northern Syria, which President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned to a Turkish invasion in mid-October 2019. Despite the chaos stemming from Trump’s unforced U.S. troop withdrawal and abandonment of our CIA intelligence gathering stations and stalwart Syrian Kurdish allies in the war on ISIS, the CIA and Pentagon were subsequently able to locate the elusive Islamic State leader Caliph al Baghdadi. Iraq-based U.S. Delta Forces were then able to launch a dangerous long-distance heliborne raid on his compounds in western Syria’s Idlib province and kill the most wanted man in the world on Oct. 27, 2019.

After the killing of 13 Marines and 170 Afghans in a devastating ISIS suicide attack on the Kabul International Airport during the chaotic Aug. 2021 evacuation of Afghans, a visibly upset Biden — who had followed through on Trump’s controversial troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban signed in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020 to end America’s war in Afghanistan — responded with emotion. The president threatened ISIS, saying, “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” He also promised, “We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose and a moment of our choosing. Here’s what you need to know. These ISIS terrorists will not win.”

Once again, there were skeptics of the Pentagon and the CIA’s ability to make the elusive ISIS terrorists pay for their devastating attacks on U.S. troops when America was in a phase of retrenchment from Syria, Somalia and Iraq (where Trump drew down troops) and Afghanistan (where Trump also drew down troops and Biden finished the process by withdrawing the last remaining 2,000 U.S. “force multiplier enablers”).

But remarkably, al Baghdadi’s successor as ISIS caliph, Ibrahim al Qurayshi, was similarly located in a compound in the same Turkish dominated western Syria region and killed in a risky Special Forces heliborne strike launched earlier this year on Feb. 4.

Once again, America was able to execute a terrorist in an over the horizon strike that demonstrated tremendous intelligence gathering capacity combined with an unrivaled long-distance force projection capacity.

There have been other successful commando and drone strikes on ISIS or Al Qaeda franchise terrorists operating in the vastness of the Syrian desert, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. 

But the most notable one was the killing of Osama bin Laden in a risky raid ordered by President Obama deep into Pakistan on May 1, 2011, which was not sanctioned by the “frenemy” Pakistani government. 

All these remarkable successes speak to robust intelligence gathering being married to state-of-the-art long distance killing technology and Special Forces capabilities. The killing of these and many other high-value targets clearly demonstrate that America no longer needs to occupy foreign lands in Bush-era, costly “Shock and Awe”-style invasions to take out terrorists operating in them.

Advanced platforms such as the unrivaled killer drone, the MQ-9 Reaper (which can fly 1,150 miles and deliver small precision guided munitions like the R9X Hellfire “Ninja”) or “Ginsu Knife” missile (which does not carry a warhead but instead is armed with six knives that cut up its target without creating a blast that can kill bystanders) can stalk terrorists in their sanctuaries far from U.S. bases. 

As the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command and CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center develop more advanced homing beacons to geolocate terrorist suspects, and elite forces perfect the sort of long-distance heliborne raids that led to the death of Bin Laden, America’s over the horizon counterterrorism strategy offers a low cost, effective, precise alternative to the costly (in terms of lives lost) multi-trillion dollar “Big Wars” of the early 2000s.

Brian Glyn Williams is a professor of Islamic History at UMass Dartmouth and author of Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda. He worked for the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center in Afghanistan.

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