This is the fifth in a series of posts that tell the story of how Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) counterterrorism operations evolved in the Middle East and my role in orchestrating them. This is a story about powerful leadership lessons and experience I gained, experience that toughened me for future command and leadership positions.
It is also a story about developing hands-on operational concepts and techniques in complex international crime operations that prepped me for my next station in life, as Sheriff of El Paso County. Our county has seen a growing problem with foreign criminal elements: gangs like MS-13, drug cartels, and criminal illegal immigrants. I am the only candidate in this race with the background and skill set to tackle these complex and dangerous problems.
In this fifth post, I get down to business and describe the trial and error process of creating the counterterrorism mission OSI needed in the Middle East to prevent terror attacks like the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia.
Birth of Counterterrorism
So how did we go about creating a CT mission where none existed before? It truly was an evolutionary process, but it resulted in a solid CONOPS that is still in use today throughout the world. I am thrilled that the template we designed over two years in the Middle East survives as a legacy I left behind 11 years after I retired in 2007.
First, despite many agencies having some piece of the CT mission, few had developed a solid CONOPS for it. Approaches were all over the place. We decided to take things in what seemed like a logical progression at the time.
First came Surveillance Detection, then Countersurveillance, then Counterterrorism.
Surveillance detection is the business of spotting and identifying a hostile surveillance of friendly forces. It is primarily defensive in nature in that it seeks just to observe the observers. We weren’t too successful right away because we tried to spot people engaging in surveillance techniques WE might use. In other words, we thought the terrorists would operate the way we do.
We were wrong. We had to study whatever intelligence we could muster about how Middle East terror cells conducted business. What was their operational decision cycle like? Once we understood that, we could then look for their surveillance operations. It worked.
Within a few days of rethinking our SD CONOPS, we picked up on surveillance teams near Air Force bases in the AOR. The good thing was, it didn’t appear they had thought about us looking for them. They didn’t seem to know we were watching them.
We learned a great deal about how they worked in teams, communicated, made decisions, etc. We gathered valuable intelligence about vehicles and people. It then became time to step up the game.
We switched to a countersurveillance mode, an offensive posture to turn the tables on the terrorists. We’d follow them to their safe houses, recording who they met with, who their associates were, and so forth.
We also began to make our presence known, to interrupt their surveillance and planning cycles. I won’t go into too many details, but we threw them such major headaches that they had to revamp their own operations. That gave us new opportunities, the chance to see how they adapted.
During all this, the Air Force made the decision to move from King Abdul Aziz AB down to Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB) south of Riyadh. Abdul Aziz was in an urban environment which carried additional vulnerabilities. PSAB was in the middle of nowhere and the USAF could control access and provide for greater physical security.
Moving an air base is not easy, nor is it transparent. The logistics chain was huge and the signature we presented on the roadways was enormous. I recall expressing my concerns to the 3-star, noting that we relied on long caravans of vehicles to transport equipment through country. I told him we were using a 1960s approach to logistics in an urban warfare environment, and that our profile put us at risk.
He agreed, especially when I shared with him the intelligence we had gathered about surveillance operations in country. Terror cells WERE watching the convoys and it appeared they were readying for an attack. Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t a daily occurrence. We’d sometimes go weeks or even months between any excitement.
We decided to change our logistics approach to smaller, random movements with CS teams riding nearby. My folks had two jobs: SD to see who was watching the movements, and CS to harass and peel off the terror groups that were watching us. It was highly effective and fun. We’d operate like sheepdogs, keeping the friendly vehicles moving safely while cutting off and interrupting the bad guys who would follow us.
The net affect was to intimidate the terror cells into backing off our folks. We moved that air base successfully without a single attack. But we needed to do more. Simply harassing terror cells wasn’t enough. We had to start busting heads, as I called it back then.
We couldn’t do this alone, so we began working with trusted agents in the Saudi government. I developed a few good friends over there, one was a Lieutenant in Saudi military intelligence who saved me one time from a public caning in Riyadh during Ramadan. That’s a long and separate story in itself, and it involved me coming within seconds of shooting two Mutawa officers, the so-called religious police.
We had to shift from CS to counterterrorism. Armed with a treasure trove of intelligence about the cells and the personalities involved, we worked with the Saudis to do raids and make arrests. We stayed out of active enforcement and relied on them to do so, but we observed. Unfortunately, despite our many requests to conduct interrogations of the people they rounded up, they never gave us access.
We were able to confirm the Saudis beheaded nearly every terror member we had identified. While I preferred head busting, they favored head removal. It was still effective.
In the next post in this series, I will talk about the aftermath of the Khobar Towers bombing and the slew of oversight investigations. There were far too many times when it was clear our government was more interested in who to blame for letting it happen than it was in holding accountable those who made it happen. I got wrapped up in the oversight committees and did lots of testifying and answering questions.