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Gangs No Longer: Reassessing Transnational Armed Groups in the Western Hemisphere
By Douglas Farah and Marianne Richardson | May 24, 2022

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Executive Summary

Strategic Perspectives 37

MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) in the Northern Triangle of Central America and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC; First Command of the Capital), based in São Paulo, Brazil, are both tier-one criminal/political/military threats to the stability of the Western Hemisphere.1 These groups—no longer gangs but community-embedded transnational armed groups (CETAGs) in the pantheon of nonstate armed actors—are becoming more deeply enmeshed in the global drug trade, the body politic, and armed conflicts in the hemisphere. These CETAGs, rooted and enduring in their communities of origin, are likely to expand across the hemisphere and are driving multiple types of corruption that President Joe Biden in December 2021 vowed to fight as a core U.S. strategic interest.

This paper compares MS-13 and PCC as particularly enduring variations of nonstate armed groups and assesses each group’s evolution and impact on U.S. core interests in the region. It focuses on five aspects of MS-13 and PCC composition and behavior: objectives, constituencies and alliances, capabilities, markets, and impact. Key findings include:

  • Objectives: Both groups aim to become major criminal enterprises embedded in the state.
  • Constituencies and alliances: Both groups are rooted in their communities. Both are rapidly amassing formal political power and seeking new alliances with each other as well as state and nonstate armed actors. Both groups have also reached a tacit understanding with the regime of Nicolás Maduro and other allied criminal structures operating in Venezuela to acquire cocaine and weapons. While the PCC has a significant social media presence, MS-13 does not have such an outreach program.
  • Capabilities: Both groups control territory as a primary claim to legitimacy, and both have largely replaced the state as the arbiter of power across most of the areas where they operate. The PCC has a greater capacity as a multinational economic organization with a wider global reach than MS-13. The PCC also carefully cultivates a public image through spectacular bank and jewelry heists and deliberate social media influencer campaigns. MS- 13 is less strategic about its public image and less dedicated to social media messaging.
  • Markets: The PCC reaches beyond Brazil as a sophisticated, multicontinental cocainetrafficking structure and completely controls Brazil’s booming internal cocaine market. Its franchises operate in Bolivia, Paraguay, Europe, Africa, and beyond. In contrast, MS-13 is far less involved in the transnational drug trade and remains largely confined to northern Central America and the United States, with a growing presence in Mexico and Belize.
  • Impact: MS-13 poses an existential threat to the governments of El Salvador and Honduras and more directly challenges the United States. The PCC is not yet at this stage. Available evidence indicates that the PCC has most successfully penetrated state and local governments and has yet to meaningfully leverage its power against the Brazilian state.

An important first step is to combat corruption and its root causes as well as transnational organized crime. Both are strategic priorities for the Biden administration in Latin America. This effort should be combined with cross-regional law enforcement to fight the PCC’s growing presence in Africa. The United States should assist its Western Hemisphere partners to establish closer relationships with allied governments on the African continent and bring shared benefits of new information and lessons learned that could help inform a coordinated multilateral response.

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Toward Military Design: Six Ways the JP 5-0’s Operational Design Falls Short
By Andrew L. Crabb | April 14, 2022

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Colonel Andrew L. Crabb, USMC (Ret.), is Professor of Operational Studies and Planning at the Joint Special Operations University.

Force Reconnaissance Marine with Command Element, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, sets security perimeter on starboard bridge wing during visit, board, search, and seizure exercise aboard amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown, South China Sea, September 6, 2020 (U.S. Navy/Taylor DiMartino)
Force Reconnaissance Marine with Command Element
Force Reconnaissance Marine with Command Element, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, sets security perimeter on starboard bridge wing during visit, board, search, and seizure exercise aboard amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown, South China Sea, September 6, 2020 (U.S. Navy/Taylor DiMartino)
Photo By: U.S. Navy/Taylor DiMartino
VIRIN: 220414-D-BD104-1019

The day after Kabul fell to the Taliban, a combatant commander reportedly went to his J5 and told him to come back within 48 hours with data on the effects that the loss of Afghanistan would have on the future of military planning. While the veracity of this account cannot be directly verified, the rumor—and the speed at which it spread—speaks to the coming scrutiny that joint planning is sure to undergo from multiple quarters. The refocus on strategic competition/crisis/conflict (among the United States, Russia, and China) and the rise of gray zone operations, along with the persistence of irregular warfare, all demand that our methodologies for conceiving and planning keep pace with the rapid evolution of our operation foci.

Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Planning, is the metronome for conceiving and planning joint operations. It paces operational thinking and is the go-to resource for all joint force commanders, planners, task leads, and action officers. While JP 5-0 informs curricula at our intermediate-level education and advanced military studies institutions, it also crucially serves to inform and educate those who have not had the opportunity to receive intermediate-level education or advanced military studies. In many joint and unified commands, those individuals make up a sizable portion of typical joint planning groups, operational planning teams, and other boards, bureaus, cells, centers, and working groups. Therefore, it is vital that JP 5-0 remains relevant, practical, and creative.

Although the latest version of JP 5-0 (December 2020) has many laudable updates and improvements, the section of chapter 4 (on operational design) that addresses conceiving and expressing our operational ideas falls short in important ways. Simply put, to reach the lofty goals of understanding and addressing complex military problems, while preparing joint planners for the aforementioned challenges, chapter 4 of JP 5-0 must be redesigned and republished.

What follows are six key areas for revision; however, before exploring the shortfalls, we should make certain we understand both how JP 5-0 defines operational design and the methodology for its application.


In 2006, when JP 5-0 first added operational design to the planning publication, it was a huge step forward for joint doctrine. Operational design is envisioned both to precede and to complement the joint planning process (JPP). Whereas JPP applies “procedural rigor” to the planning process, operational design gives joint planners a more flexible tool to initially conceive prospective solutions for complex operational problems.1 Per JP 5-0, operational design “provides a framework for coordinating the operations and activities of the joint force within space and time to achieve strategic objectives.” Since the introduction of JP 5-0, successive editions—up to and including the December 2020 edition—have continued to refine and improve the operational design concept.

The operational design methodology calls for planners to progress through the following steps:

  • understand the strategic direction and guidance
  • understand the strategic environment (for example, policies, diplomacy, and politics) and the related contested environments
  • understand the operational environment and relevant contested environments
  • define the problem—that is, create shared understanding and plan for uncertainty
  • identify assumptions needed to continue planning (for example, strategic and operational assumptions)
  • develop options (for example, the operational approach)
  • identify decisions and decision points (external to the organization)
  • refine the operational approach(es)
  • develop planning and assessment guidance.2

In other words, planners must understand the problem within their strategic- and operational-level milieu. They can then develop solutions, drawing on the 13 elements of operational design, to form an operational concept or “operational approach.”3

Shortfalls of Operational Design

Now that we have a basic understanding of what operational design means in the JP, we should examine the six main shortfalls that limit the utility of the chapter on this concept.

Shortfall 1. Operational design does not educate joint members on the history or purpose of design.

Result. Planners unfamiliar with the background or purpose of design will not be able to fully grasp its creative application.

Design movements, sometimes called the applied arts, arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to infuse artistic expression and creativity into the dull industrial goods of the era.4 The idea of creative processes preceding scientific engineering rapidly spread across many artistic and industrial communities. The goals and purposes of these design movements varied, but the common attribute was a desire to harness creativity and artistic expression to produce things that were beautiful, clever, and useful.

Architectural design, industrial design, and graphic design are a few movements that are at least somewhat familiar to the layperson. Many in the U.S. military, sparked by Israeli General Shimon Naveh, took up the design torch in reaction to what they saw as the limitations of the JPP and its cousins in the branches of the Armed Forces (for example, the U.S. Army’s Military Decision-Making Process and the Marine Corps Planning Process). These limitations included a belief that JPP stymied creative thinking, promoted blind adherence to a process, and was a process that was inappropriate for complex, unclear, or unbounded problems.

A short introduction to the purpose and background of design and how operational design evolved from those early concepts would give joint planners of all grades and experience—especially those who have not attended advanced military schools—the necessary context to appreciate its purpose and application. Such an addition would inform and motivate planners as they move forward to creatively solve the daunting challenges that exist in the joint military domain.

Shortfall 2. Operational design does not educate joint planners on the nature of complex problems and problem-solving.

Result. Joint planners will not understand the attributes of complex problems and the general approaches to solving them.

At the joint level, military planners encounter challenges that are complex, diffuse, and opaque. In their groundbreaking 1973 work “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber described such complex problems as “wicked.”5 Wicked problems are characterized by “those complex, ever changing societal and organizational planning problems that you haven’t been able to treat with much success, because they won’t keep still. They’re messy, devious, and they fight back when you try to deal with them.”6 Wicked problem sets (as opposed to “tame” or straightforward problem sets) defy easy characterization; solutions are unapparent and elusive, and the challenge itself may even be intractable (conditions changed, but the problem never truly resolved). Often, they are problems that reside in and among human societies and the networks of the human domain. These networked difficulties have links among and between one another that produce direct second- and third-order effects and indirect cascading, compounding, and cumulative effects.7

Joint military problems could arguably be among the most wicked problems that humans encounter. In the joint community, action officers are often told to analyze and propose solutions to myriad wicked problems. Just a few examples could include situations as diverse as planning in a time-sensitive crisis, deliberate planning in development of a new regional campaign plan, establishing a partner-nation’s navy, reorganizing a joint command or directorate, or even reconciling two opposing factions in an assigned area of responsibility. All take place in the human domain and deal with complex, fluid, and interconnected problems that may not have a readily apparent solution.

Chapter 1 of the new JP 5-0 dedicates four paragraphs to the topic of “understanding problems” but is mainly focused on constructing a “problem statement.” Chapter 4 dedicates quite a bit of discussion on how to dissect and analyze the environment that houses the problem. These inclusions are commendable, but our problem-solvers must understand the characteristics and leading scholarship of complex problems and general approaches to problem-solving.8 Another short section on the topic would greatly improve chapter 4.

Shortfall 3. Operational design does not educate joint problem-solvers on creative thinking and cognition.

Result. Joint planners will not understand how individuals think, how groups collaborate, and how both are often captive to perspectives and biases.

As noted when discussing the previous shortfall, joint force commanders expect planners to be doctoral-level problem-solvers. Unfortunately, we are asking our planners to think individually and facilitate thinking at the group level without first educating them on the traits of individual and group cognition. There are whole disciplines dedicated to cognitive psychology, design, and problem-solving. A short addition to chapter 4 should include topics such as intuitive vs. cognitive decisionmaking, understanding how biases skew perspectives, cognitive dissonance, the value of intellectual empathy, and even on arcane but interesting topics such as the principles of Gestalt theory.9 By thinking about thinking, our planners and problem-solvers would be better prepared individually and collaboratively to lead groups through the cognitive hurdles of joint problem sets.

Shortfall 4. Operational design does not incorporate stratagems and deception as one of its components.

Result. Joint planners will undervalue the use of operational-level deception; planners will be unable to anticipate, identify, and forecast our adversaries’ deception.

The beginning of chapter 4 outlines operational art and the elements that commanders and staff wield in its application. Operational art is “the cognitive approach used by commanders and staffs—supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment—to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, means, and risks.”10 If operational art is the synthesis expressed in warfare’s application, then the guideposts that structure such thinking are the elements of operational design. Unfortunately, the 13 elements of operational design contain no references to stratagems, deception operations, operational artifices, or military ruses. The idea of confusing the enemy as to our true aims and intentions is entirely absent in the stages of operational conception. At the operational level, actions in the operational environment and military information support operations that use stratagems and deception. The intent is that they lead the enemy to take actions that favor our own ends. Deceiving our enemies and obscuring our intent is a mindset that needs to be developed in all joint force commanders and staffs. Application should happen early in the conception of a campaign, not added as an afterthought or merely a checked box or used as an operational band aid. Although the Joint Staff has placed enough importance on military deception to devote an entire publication to it (JP 3-13.4, Military Deception11), JP 5-0 does not include deception in the operational design process.

Our adversaries clearly understand its import—Russian General Valery Gerasimov’s “New Look” doctrine incorporates deception and denial at every level of warfare (for example, the “little green men” who took over the Crimea in 2014).12 China’s People’s Liberation Army has been long known to incorporate Sun Tzu’s theories into its unrestricted warfare doctrine, including the mantra that “all warfare is based on deception.”13 Our military planners should understand that, in every aspect of warfare, stratagems and deception are foundational concepts that must always be considered in the design of our operations. Give stratagems and deception the consideration they deserve by making them elements of operational design so that they are correctly promoted in operational thinking, theory, and the nascent stages of our commanders’ and staffs’ planning efforts.

Shortfall 5. Operational design is focused on solving operational problems.

Result. Joint planners will not be equipped to resolve nonoperational problem sets.

In a military planning manual, it seems only logical that the authors would present a methodology centered on military operational planning. In the real world of military staff work, joint planners are presented with innumerable complex problems that are not centered on a military operation. Joint force commanders and planners are often tasked to design solutions to address such wicked problems as poverty, lack of a training regimen, and conflict resolution. These are just the tip of the wicked military problem iceberg. Our military problem-solving doctrine (as currently expressed in JP 5-0’s chapter 4) should be broad and flexible enough to allow our planners to assess and reason through any complex problem.

Shortfall 6. Operational design promotes an “operational approach” process that is inadequate for complex operational environments.

Result. This methodology will work well only for binary force-on-force operations in ordered environments.

The operational design process outlined in JP 5-0 culminates in the production of an “operational approach.”14 Simply stated, the operational approach is the joint force commander’s concept of the operation. JP 5-0 devotes limited discussion to how joint force commanders and planners develop an operational approach, implying that commanders and planners can tap into the “elements of operational design” to conceive one. Chapter 4 does provide a tool for developing an operational approach: the center of gravity (COG) analysis.15 In a state-on-state conventional conflict, in an ordered operational environment, the COG methodology works well to identify the enemy’s main strength and the critical factors that underpin it. In this situation, the COG identification and analysis is an invaluable means that can lead to the conception of a valid operational approach to defeating the adversary and achieving the endstate. Unfortunately, the COG process has limited usefulness when it comes to facing and accounting for multiple adversaries, neutral parties, and unknown actors in a disordered and chaotic operational environment.

The COG process assumes that defeating an armed adversary is the central obstacle to achieving the desired endstate. In disordered and chaotic operational environments, defeating an armed adversary may at best be beside the point and at worst counterproductive. In such a situation, centering an operation on the destruction or neutralization of multiple adversaries’ COGs could simply inject more chaos and complexity into a fractured system (for example, Mexico’s “war” on its drug cartels16). The 2017 JP 5-0 correctly mentioned that COGs exist only for “unitary systems” and also noted that irregular warfare may lead to different analyses about where to focus efforts.17 While leaving out a detailed examination of ordered vs. disordered environments and references to irregular warfare, the 2020 JP 5-0 does correctly note that “without a well-defined threat, there will often be no enemy or adversary COG.”18 Unfortunately, the discussion ends there, offering no further guidance for developing operational concepts in these irregular problem sets.

JP 5-0 should keep the COG methodology for binary operational problems, but it needs to address where the COG methodology is appropriate and where it may prove limited or detrimental to our objectives. It also needs to speak clearly and plainly to the challenges of operations in chaotic operational environments and irregular operational problems.

The Solution to the Shortfalls

If we accept that the six shortfalls are valid, then it is clear we need to redesign and republish JP 5-0’s chapter 4. We must not focus solely on operational problem sets; instead, we should adopt a flexible system that encourages creativity, while also developing implementable, practical solutions. In short, we need “military design.”

Military design would provide context on the background of design, educating readers on the nature of complex problems and how people reason to resolve them. It would foster creative and practical solutions (for example, incorporation of military deception). Military design would not be limited to solving binary, operational planning problems; instead, it would discuss the planning and problem-solving methods for a wide variety of conventional and irregular operational problem sets. Finally, because military design would be open-ended and flexible, it would enable joint planners to reason through both operational and nonoperational problems.

There are truly dozens of ways to express different design processes. We already have the JPP—do we really need another lengthy, linear, and iterative process? Is there another way we can encourage creative thinking?

A simplified, open-ended problem-solving practice would harness the creative and cognitive abilities of our planners. Like Archimedes in his laboratory, planners—via continuous conscious and unconscious introspection and possibly through collaborative exploration of the problem—eventually could have their own eureka moment and devise a solution. Building on my previous thoughts on operational design, I would advance that military design be considered a practice, not a linear process.19 In other words, military designers should continuously assess and reassess the problem through what may be five key elements of problem-solving. Planners can visit and revisit these cognitive vantage points sequentially or as the planner gains insights into each:

  • contextualize the problem
  • conceive the desired condition or outcome
  • identify sources of resistance to achieving the outcome
  • identify ways to mitigate resistance sources
  • express the solution.

JP 5-0’s updated chapter 4, “Military Design,” could and should keep the excellent contextual information on operational planning while addressing all the previously mentioned shortfalls. The result would be a military design practice that is simple yet broad enough to address any challenge: operational problems (symmetrical/ordered and asymmetrical/disordered), nonoperational problems, clearly defined problems (told what to do but not how to do it), and opaque and wicked problems (no agreement on the issue’s makeup or way forward). The result would be an exponential improvement in joint problem-solving. It would inspire and fire the creative energies of joint force commanders and planners. The only question that remains is should we rename JP 5-0 as Problem Solving & Planning. JFQ


1 Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Planning (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, December 1, 2020), III-4, available at <>.

2 JP 5-0, IV-2–IV-3.

3 The 13 elements of operational design are objectives, military endstate, center of gravity, effects, culmination, lines of operation, lines of effort, decisive points, direct and indirect approach, operational reach, arranging operations, anticipation, and forces and functions. See JP 5-0, III-75, fig. III-23.

4 Deborah Ascher Barnstone, Beyond the Bauhaus: Cultural Modernity in Breslau, 1918–33 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 81–107, available at <>.

5 Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4, no. 2 (1973), 155–169.

6 Tom Ritchey, “Wicked Problems: Modelling Social Messes with Morphological Analysis,” Acta Morphologica Generalis 2, no. 1 (2013), available at <>.

7 Edward C. Mann III, Gary Endersby, and Thomas R. Searle, Thinking Effects: Effects-Based Methodology for Joint Operations (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, October 2002), available at <>.

8 Foundation for Critical Thinking Web site, available at <>.

9 Max Wertheimer, with a foreword by Kurt Riezler, “Gestalt Theory,” Social Research 11, no. 1 (February 1944), 78–99.

10 JP 5-0, IV-1.

11 JP 3-13.4, Military Deception (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, January 26, 2012), available at <>.

12 David Kilcullen, The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West (New York: Oxford Press, 2020), 163.

13 Sun Tzu, The Art of War (New Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books, 2021), 6.

14 JP 5-0, IV-14.

15 JP 5-0, IV-25, fig. IV-8.

16 “Mexico’s Long War: Drugs, Crime, and the Cartels,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 26, 2021, available at <>.

17 JP 5-0, Joint Planning (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, revised June 16, 2017), IV-43.

18 JP 5-0, IV-24.

19 Andrew “Buster” Crabb, “Joint Operational Design, Re-Imagined . . . ,” Small Wars Journal, October 26, 2020, available at <>.

Joint Doctrine Update
By The Joint Staff | April 14, 2022

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Joint Publications (JPs) Under Revision (to be signed within 6 months)

JP 3-01, Countering Air and Missile Threats

JP 3-03, Joint Interdiction

JP 3-15, Barriers, Obstacles, and Mine Warfare in Joint Operations

JP 3-20, Security Cooperation

JP 3-25, Countering Threat Networks

JP 3-33, Joint Task Force Headquarters

JP 3-42, Joint Explosive Ordnance Disposal

JP 3-52, Joint Airspace Control

JP 3-68, Noncombatant Evacuation Operations

JPs Revised (signed within last 6 months)

JP 2-0, Joint Intelligence

JP 3-0, Joint Campaigns and Operations

JP 3-04, Information

JP 3-07, Joint Stability

JP 3-35, Joint Deployment and Redeployment Operations

Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances
By James J. Townsend, Jr. | April 14, 2022

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Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances
Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances
Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances
Photo By: Harvard University Press
VIRIN: 220414-D-BD104-1018

Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances
By Mira Rapp-Hooper
Harvard University Press, 2020
272 pp., $27.95
ISBN: 978-0674982956

Reviewed by James J. Townsend, Jr.

James J. Townsend, Jr., completed a 34-year career in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy (2009–2017) and is now an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

The timing of Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper’s book, Shields of the Republic, could not be better. In my many years as a civil servant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, I would spend the first year of most new administrations explaining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the incoming political appointees. Democrat or Republican, old Pentagon hand or neophyte, most knew something of NATO, but they arrived with some preconceived notions that were way off. That said, by the end of an administration, we usually had some real NATO pros among the appointees. Unfortunately, after a new administration took office, we would have to start all over again with the new batch.

Today, however, all my successor must do is hand Shields of the Republic to the new Biden appointees and walk away.

This book is not just about NATO; it covers U.S. alliance relationships globally—and crucially in the Asia-Pacific. Rapp-Hooper, an expert on Asia-Pacific security and a recently named senior advisor on China at the Department of State, provides important insight on China’s rise and how the United States arrived late to understand the challenge we are facing today. According to Rapp-Hooper, alliances have never been more important as a way to address threats from Moscow and Beijing; however, with the rise of China’s and Russia’s turn toward aggressive, hostile behavior, the “Republic’s shields are now in peril.”

A highlight of Shields of the Republic is that it blends three key themes that readers would be wise to keep in mind as they contemplate alliances: the early U.S. experience with alliances (back to 1778) and how, but most important why, we broke with that experience to join NATO in 1949; the characteristics of alliances (how they work; how much they cost, both financially and politically; and the myths that surround them); and, finally, the relevancy of alliances today, especially after the Cold War and during this time of Great Power competition. She sounds the alarm that the West has much to do to adapt its alliance relationships in order to deter Russia and China today.

Rapp-Hooper points to an “incomplete post–Cold War transition” (a deeper dive into that transition would have been interesting) as the reason why today’s alliance relationships in Europe and Asia are not up to the job of addressing new threats from Russia and China. She uses the term competitive coercion to describe Russia’s and China’s use of asymmetric, nonmilitary conflict and coercion to undermine alliances in ways that do not trigger treaty provisions. To deal with this new challenge, NATO and other alliance relationships must devise new strategies and adapt their tactics.

She also uses the 4 years of the Trump administration to test whether isolationism or transactional approaches to foreign relations is the right tactic for the United States. Her use of counterfactual analysis helps shine a light on what the world would be like for an America without friends. Not to give her plot away, but Rapp-Hooper makes a winning case that America’s alliances have been remarkably successful in protecting the Nation and that the charges of allies taking advantage of a naive United States is bunk. A point she makes throughout the book (and that I also saw countless times) is that “Washington spent more on defense than its allies but got far more out of its alliances than any one of them did.”

At the same time, she urges the United States and its allies to avoid complacency when it comes to adapting to new challenges; failure to adapt will make alliances unable to withstand the stress of time and events. To help with this urgent task, her final chapter is full of meaty recommendations for NATO adaptation (some of which are already under way, such as including nonmilitary aggression as a trigger for Article 5), as well as ways to strengthen partners in Asia and to confront Chinese economic coercion.

I would take issue with some parts of this book, especially the view of Rapp-Hooper that Washington has “bifurcated the Alliance”—the United States can credibly support only the defense of Western Europe, but due to Russian local military advantages such as proximity, America “cannot be counted on to defend the Eastern European allies most in need of protection.” The “unhappy choice” confronting NATO between escalation and giving in to the Russians during a quick, local Russian assault—a choice between catastrophe and shattering the Alliance—would cause the United States to hesitate. I do not believe for a moment that the United States and NATO would hesitate to defend Central and Eastern Europe, and, since Crimea, NATO and the United States have been building up forces and readiness in Europe to do so. The United States and NATO have put skin in the game by deploying what are essentially “tripwire forces” in each Baltic state (and Poland, which would also come under attack), guaranteeing a response. Rapp-Hooper’s claim that “only local forces” are available to defend Baltic borders with Russia is not the case, and her use of a well-known but outdated 2016 RAND study, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank, to illustrate Baltic vulnerability should be reconsidered. Although her basic point that defending some allies from a quick Russian attack will be difficult, the cost of such an assault becomes higher for Russian forces each year and thus bolsters her case that Russia can be deterred if NATO is kept strong and credible. Rapp-Hooper’s assertion that “without using force against the lliance, Russia has eroded its unity and its capacity to assure members” would make for an interesting debate in the North Atlantic Council.

Shields of the Republic is an important and useful addition to the growing oeuvre dedicated to exploring how alliances work. This book will be especially helpful for those members of the joint force who are or will be working with allies in Europe or in Asia. Dr. Rapp-Hooper does a great job of myth-busting in a short and readable book that sets straight so many of the misconceptions held by those who come walking into the halls of government with every new administration. And she does more than just explain the problems that our alliances have today, she offers solutions that I hope find their way into practice. JFQ

The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed the War on Terror After 9/11
By Bryon Greenwald | April 14, 2022

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The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed the War on Terror After 9/11
The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed the War on Terror After 9/11
The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed the War on Terror After 9/11
Photo By: W.W. Norton & Company
VIRIN: 220414-D-BD104-1017

The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed the War on Terror After 9/11
By Ali Soufan, with Daniel Freedman
W.W. Norton and Co., 2020
594 pp., $17.95
ISBN: 978-0393343496

Reviewed by Bryon Greenwald

Dr. Bryon Greenwald is Deputy Provost at the National Defense University.

This declassified/unredacted version of Ali Soufan’s 2011 edition of Black Banners is a must-read for anyone interested in terrorism, the psychology of interrogation, bureaucratic politics, and the lessons of poor leadership. Soufan demonstrates how dysfunctional U.S. intelligence services were before and after 9/11. He also demolishes the argument for the enhanced interrogation—or torture techniques—authorized by the George W. Bush administration and championed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Black Banners ranks with Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower as key sources for understanding al Qaeda.

Soufan presents a personal account of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s detective work that went into uncovering attacks by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Although the book is generally chronological, Soufan weaves a tight narrative and freely jumps forward or backward in time to connect key events. A Lebanese American fluent in Arabic, Soufan joined the FBI on a bet with his college fraternity brothers; the United States is lucky he did. As Lawrence Wright notes, “Unfortunately, we have only one Ali Soufan. Had American intelligence listened to him, 9/11 might never have happened.”

On that subject, Soufan is unsparing. The CIA knew in January 2000 that al Qaeda operatives, including two eventual 9/11 hijackers, had met in Malaysia. The CIA stated that “they knew nothing” when the FBI asked about this meeting in November 2000, April 2001, and July 2001. The CIA did not notify the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or the Department of State that those hijackers also possessed U.S. visas. Thus, these men were not on any watch lists. They entered the United States and used their real names to get driver’s licenses, open bank accounts, and buy tickets for American Airlines Flight 77, the airliner they later crashed into the Pentagon.

After 9/11, the lack of team play continued, as the CIA exerted new Presidential authority to interrogate terrorism suspects. Unfortunately, the CIA had mothballed its interrogation program and, according to Soufan, had no institutional expertise. Instead, the agency hired two contractors, James Mitchell and John Jessen, who claimed they could get detainees to “talk” by applying an ever-increasing menu of harsh techniques. The CIA paid them $81 million, although they had never previously interrogated anyone or met an Islamic radical. That the Department of Justice and the White House sanctioned these techniques, even after Soufan proved them ineffective, signaled how seriously 9/11 traumatized the American policy apparatus and drove it to search for easy, if wrong, answers.

In newly declassified chapters, Soufan provides evidence of this trauma. In March 2002, the CIA asked Soufan to assist in interrogating Abu Zubaydah, the first high-level detainee captured by the United States. While not a member of al Qaeda, Zubaydah was an important terrorist facilitator. The CIA captured Zubaydah, disguised and wounded, in a shoot-out. Initially, the agency could not identify him and did not dispatch any interrogators. When Soufan arrived in Thailand to assist, a CIA officer remarked that “We all work for Uncle Sam” and let Soufan question Zubaydah without the agency’s support.

Soufan began not by causing Zubaydah pain, but by calling him by the nickname his mother had given him, which quickly convinced Zubaydah to cooperate. Within an hour, Zubaydah confessed to an ongoing plot. Soufan relayed that information to CIA headquarters, which thwarted the attack. Surprised at how fast Zubaydah cooperated, CIA Director George Tenet wanted to congratulate his agents. When told the CIA team was absent and that Soufan had obtained the intelligence, Tenet was furious and ordered his team to take over.

Meanwhile, after a James Bond–worthy undercover trip to get Zubaydah to a hospital for lifesaving treatment, Soufan’s rapport-building paid off as Zubaydah identified a photograph of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, verified his al Qaeda position, and credited him as the mastermind behind 9/11. When Mitchell took over, he stripped Zubaydah, exposed him to loud rock music, and kept him awake for 24 hours. Each time Zubaydah was instructed to “tell me what you know,” he was silent or asked, “What do you want to know?” After multiple failures, the CIA asked Soufan to restart the interrogation, which he did with notable success. But confirmation bias and bureaucratic zeal prevailed: Mitchell received new authorization for what were clearly experiments—not proven techniques—that included extended sleep deprivation, coffin confinement, and waterboarding. Zubaydah, who had trained to withstand worse, revealed nothing or simply lied to stop the torture.

Lying also enabled the torture to continue. The CIA falsely touted its techniques, claimed credit for intelligence Soufan unearthed, and knowingly issued incorrect information. Despite intelligence to the contrary, the CIA and the White House claimed that Zubaydah was the number 3 man in al Qaeda, but he was never a member. The CIA also maintained that after 30 to 45 seconds of waterboarding, Zubaydah gave up Jose Padilla, the supposed mastermind behind a plot to use a dirty bomb in an American city. In fact, the CIA waterboarded Zubaydah 83 times and obtained no new useful information. Zubaydah also confided that Padilla was not clever enough to mastermind anything. His supposed “plan” was to steal uranium from a hospital and swing it around his head in a bucket to enrich it. Perhaps most egregious was how the Bush administration linked Padilla, nuclear material, and Saddam Hussein together as it built a case to invade Iraq.

Some memoirists engage in self-delusion as to the value of their contributions. Soufan does not. Honestly written and corroborated by independent investigations into the torture of detainees, Black Banners is an extremely open, engaging history. It is essential reading for those who want to understand how al Qaeda and similar organizations operate, why torture does not work, and how ego and self-interest can cause leaders and those around them to abandon their principles. JFQ