Counterstrike The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda

Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the United States waged a "war on terror" that sought to defeat Al Qaeda through brute force. But it soon became clear that this strategy was not working, and by 2005 the Pentagon began looking for a new way.

In Counterstrike, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker of The New York Times tell the story of how a group of analysts within the military, at spy agencies, and in law enforcement has fashioned an innovative and effective new strategy to fight terrorism, unbeknownst to most Americans and in sharp contrast to the cowboy slogans that characterized the U.S. government's public posture. Adapting themes from classic Cold War deterrence theory, these strategists have expanded the field of battle in order to disrupt jihadist networks in ever more creative ways.

Schmitt and Shanker take readers deep into this theater of war, as ground troops, intelligence operatives, and top executive branch officials have worked together to redefine and restrict the geography available for Al Qaeda to operate in. They also show how these new counterterrorism strategies, adopted under George W. Bush and expanded under Barack Obama, were successfully employed in planning and carrying out the dramatic May 2011 raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed.

Filled with startling revelations about how our national security is being managed, Counterstrike will change the way Americans think about the ongoing struggle with violent radical extremism.


Praise for Counterstrike

"Insightful . . . [Counterstrike] is not just another book about Sept. 11, Iraq or Afghanistan. Rather, it focuses on the various military and civilian agency responses to terrorism [with a] strong portrayal of the many unheralded United States victories . . . Americans should take comfort in this book’s reminder that their government can adapt to meet threats as they change, keeping them safer—if not necessarily safe—from terrorism."—Daniel Byman, The New York Times

"Counterstrike’ provides a detailed look at the changes that have occurred and the personalities behind those decisions, as well as the complicated global chessboard of terror networks and sympathetic governments that made adaptation so vital."—The Boston Globe

"In Counterstrike, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, reporters for the New York Times, warn that another catastrophic terrorist event is inevitable, but their behind-the-scenes account of the evolution of U.S. counterterrorism strategy gives officials the highest marks . . . Counterstrike is a glowing portrayal of the American intelligence community."—Robert D. Crews, The San Francisco Chronicle

"There is a flood of 9/11 books now coming onto the market, but Counterstrike by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker of the New York Times should be atop the list of anyone curious about how the U.S. government has grappled with the challenges posed by al Qaeda."—

"This eye-opening account of how the U.S. government has vastly upgraded its counterterrorism efforts since Sept. 11 reminds readers that while the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates persists, so does the American will to strike back."—Joshua Sinai, The Washington Times

"Among the plethora of reporters covering the aftermath of 9/11 were Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker of the New York Times. Schmitt covers the American intelligence community while Shanker has a body of work covering the American military and the Pentagon. The authors, besides using their reporting, also had access to key intelligence and military personnel, since Western democracies have strict de-classification regimes that make reporting a little easier for American journalists. The access Schmitt and Shanker enjoyed ensures the authenticity of their material in Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Campaign Against al-Qaeda. Schmitt and Shanker have tracked how US military and intelligence travelled the difficult road to re-shape themselves for a new unconventional enemy, one that used terror as its primary weapon. Till 9/11, few in the intelligence community knew about the al-Qaeda despite the fact that the strike against the US Navy [that] destroyed USS Cole had been carried out by the terrorist group in 2000. Schmitt and Shanker detail how old strategic thinkers like Tom Schelling, 80 years old when 9/11 happened, used old doctrines to meet the new enemy. The value of Counterstrike lies in the rich detail it offers, showing how synergy between the military and the intelligence community can produce excellent results. These are lessons that the architects of India’s security apparatus could pick up to re-shape a moribund, dysfunctional system that continues to be plagued with systemic failures. Schelling and his colleagues were pioneers of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) policy, which made clear that any attack on USA would spark an immediate and terrible response. The challenge for the military and intelligence community was to use existing principles and structures to counter the elusive enemy. The answer, the authors say, came from Matthew Kroenig, a PhD student, and Bruce Pavel, Kroenig’s mentor in the Pentagon and a Cold War warrior. They pointed out that terrorists, unlike conventional threats, needed more nuanced deterrence. Kroenig’s research detailed the factors that mattered to the average terrorist and the 2005 study would become the central theme of a key presentation made to President Bush that would set the US military’s agenda for the next decade."—Saikat Datta, Daily News & Analysis

"But no other book I have read on strategy in the age of terror provides anywhere near as detailed and accurate an account of the process of the learning and adaptation that occurred in the aftermath of 9/11. No other book is as fair to the people trying to protect our country. No other book offers as many ideas about what fighting terrorism means for us as a society. Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker have done a great service in writing Counterstrike; it deserves to be widely read and discussed as we all seek to make sense of the new threats and how our government and society should respond to them."—Kori, Schake, Research Fellow, Defining Institutions (a Hoover Institution Journal)

"Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda explores the emergence of new strategic thinking in American counter-terrorism. Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker are two consummate national security reporters at the New York Times and their approach to this daunting subject is refreshing and important. Too frequently, discussions surrounding counter-terrorism policy (and law) emphasize tactics, such as drone strikes, at the expense of understanding counter-terrorism as strategy. Partly this is due to the nature of counter-terrorism, where, as the authors are well aware, tactics can take on strategic import. But the myopia is largely because excavating the strategic foundations of counter-terrorism is painstaking work and because telling a compelling story about backroom deliberations within large bureaucracies is vastly harder to pull off than reporting on this or that special operations raid. In Counterstrike, Schmitt and Shanker have succeeded at just that, producing an illuminating book about strategic decision-making within the American national security apparatus. Schmitt and Shanker begin by noting that the Cold War was defined by strategic thinking. Other than in specific (and often bloody) hotspots around the globe, the Cold War was waged by bureaucrats and their academic adjuncts, armed with formal models and the new science of deterrence. This is an intellectually compelling framing. Counterstrike is thus about the search for contemporary analogues to the Cold War strategic paradigm. And while a decade of counter-terrorism may not yet have yielded a Schelling or a Kennan, the tale that Schmitt and Shanker tell is an encouraging one. Over time, the national security bureaucracy has matured and deepened in its ability not just to carry out 'kill-or-capture' missions, but to understand how those operations contribute to the larger objective of deterring Al Qaeda. The precise contours of the 'new deterrence,' as the authors call it, have yet to be worked out. But Counterstrike supplies highly readable, personality-driven accounts of how officials from the intelligence, military and policy communities have proved wrong the naïve assumption that suicide terrorists are impervious to deterrence. Whether by openly declaring that state sponsors and financial backers of terror will be held accountable for the violent acts they underwrite, by becoming more savvy about undercutting Al Qaeda’s 'message' within Muslim communities, or by depriving terrorists of strategic victories by cultivating a more resilient American public, these officials have brought traditional deterrence concepts to bear on contemporary national security dilemmas . . . Schmitt and Shanker have written an important book, well-reported and researched, that has enriched our understanding of what counter-terrorism is ultimately all about. Unlike the Cold War, an agreed-upon strategic frame for understanding the threat of terrorism remains elusive. But Counterstrike reveals how, thanks to the efforts of mostly unsung government insiders in the intelligence, military, and law enforcement bureaucracies, American counter-terrorism is increasingly on solid strategic footing."—Sam Rascoff, Associate Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Center on Law and Security, New York University School of Law, Lawfair

"A fast paced, gripping story . . . A well reported, well written dive into the arcane world of counterterrorism over the past decade . . . [Counterstrike] is a significant contribution to our body of knowledge regarding our campaign thus far in the ‘Long War’ against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups."—Michael Waltz, Foreign Policy

"After the attack in 2001, no major terrorist strike has occurred on US soil. Eric Schmitt and Tom Shanker’s book Counterstrike does a fine job of putting together the changes that the US made in its doctrine against terrorism, collecting ground level intelligence, using technology to locate and kill terrorists."—Forbes India

"A must read . . . After ten years of conflict comes a book that, with amazing clarity, tells how the strategy for the 'War on Terror' has dramatically evolved . . . The authors capture the successes, the failures, the opportunities and the still-lingering gaps over the past decade and look ahead to the nation’s future challenges."—

"[Counterstrike] sheds light on offensive U.S. cyber operations almost never discussed by U.S. officials."—

"A remarkable detective story by two of the nation’s best reporters. With meticulous research and fine storytelling, Counterstrike reveals who, what, when, where, and why in describing the long campaign by the United States government to demolish Al Qaeda and ultimately to kill Osama bin Laden."—Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of An Army at Dawn

"Counterstrike lays bare the provocative new ideas that are driving the war on terrorism. Generals often talk about changing the hearts and minds of people in faraway lands, but Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker reveal the importance of changing the hearts and minds of America’s defense strategists. This is a groundbreaking intellectual history that is also a great read."—Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

"Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker dig deep to tell the story of the covert campaign to defeat Al Qaeda, from the CIA to the Pentagon. Counterstrike is a richly reported work that is a seminal account of the battle between America and Al Qaeda since 9/11."—Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda

"Filled with amazing characters and details, Counterstrike traces the evolution of America’s strategy for stopping the next attack. It’s a fascinating story and a great read, too."—Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War

"Counterstrike scores a direct hit. Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, two of America’s most respected national security correspondents, provide pathbreaking reporting on and incisive analysis of the secret war against Al Qaeda after 9/11. This cogent history of America’s elusive search for a strategy—essential reading for specialists and concerned citizens alike—should inform our national debate on how best to counter this most urgent threat."—Lee H. Hamilton, former congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission

"Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker have written a brilliant and important account of America’s battle with Al Qaeda. It is an exceptional work in that it truly addresses strategic issues and not just the tactical fight. There are critical insights and recommendations provided in this book that make it a must-read for all those who want to understand how we must deal with this complex threat."—General Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (retired)

"New York Times correspondents Schmitt and Shanker review events after 9/11, focusing on government and military counterterrorism experts who convinced administration ideologues to switch gears . . . [A] reassuring argument that, after an expensive and massive effort, terrorism seems on the decline."—Kirkus Reviews

In the Press

COUNTERSTRIKE by Eric Schmitt, Tom ShankerKirkus Book Reviews
Read the Kirkus Review of COUNTERSTRIKE The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against al Qaeda. Spectacular events such as Osama bin Laden's assassination make headlines, but this book makes a case that intelligence (both tactical and cerebral) leads the battle against international terrorism.

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


At the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City, Brigadier General Jeffrey Schloesser watched in horror—but not surprise—the sickening images from 6,500 miles away that flickered from the television screen. It was Tuesday afternoon, September 11, 2001.
Schloesser, a forty-seven-year-old former Army Special Operations helicopter pilot from Kansas, was one of a small number of counterterrorism experts in the military’s ranks. He spoke fluent Arabic and was steeped in Middle East politics and history, having earned a master’s degree from Georgetown
Read the full excerpt


  • Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker

  • Eric Schmitt is a terrorism correspondent for The New York Times, and has embedded with troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan. He has twice been a member of Times reporting teams that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

    Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, routinely spends time embedded with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was formerly a foreign editor and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, based in Moscow, Berlin, and Sarajevo.
  • Eric Schmitt Doug Mills, New York Times


    Eric Schmitt Thom Shanker

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