Small Wars Journal

Potential Counterterrorism Contributions of the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Northern Command

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Potential Counterterrorism Contributions of the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Northern Command

Ronald W. Sprang

The United States is certainly no stranger to the term terrorism. September 11, 2001 will be forever engrained in the hearts and minds of the United States as one of the largest and most costly transnational terrorist attacks in history with an overall cost to the United States of 3.3 Trillion dollars.[1] This essay will critically analyze the contributions of both the Department of Defense (DOD) and U.S Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), in particular, can make towards defeating transnational terror organizations with a domestic U.S. presence. Three critical areas of emphasis for contributions of the DOD and USNORTHCOM will be addressed. First, I will address how the DOD and USNORTHCOM can most effectively collaborate with partner agencies to achieve unity of effort, purpose and command. Second, I will address how the DOD and USNORTHCOM should be organized and operate to effectively meet the challenge of transnational terrorist groups. Finally, I will demonstrate ways the DOD and USNORTHCOM can clearly adhere to the Posse Comitatus Act while still maximizing capabilities of the U.S. military and combat transnational terrorist organizations with a domestic U.S. presence.

In order to fully understand the contributions of the DOD and USNORTHCOM we must first define terrorism and transnational terrorism. Terrorism is, “the use of force by non-state actors that: (1) is intended to influence an audience beyond its immediate victims; and (2) violates the standards of discretion and proportionally for the use of force under the customary Law of Armed Conflict.”[2] Transnational terrorism is defined as having “spillover” implications for two or more countries.[3]

Interagency collaboration is an absolute necessity to combat the dynamic threat of transnational terrorist organizations. Interagency cooperation has expanded and must include a broader ‘whole of government’ approach including local governments, international partners, law enforcement, intelligence and even private industry.[4] The current season of fiscal austerity and military downsizing requires increased collaboration and cooperation in planning and execution across the DOD, USNORTHCOM and other agencies. Critical to the effort is facilitating effects across the operational environment while still maintaining the ability within all involved organizations to autonomously make and implement decisions.[5]

Multiple agencies need to participate in order to avoid inefficiencies, achieve unity of purpose and command to facilitate flattening of the organizational construct to enable timely information and intelligence sharing. Agency involvement must expand beyond the DOD and UNNORTHCOM to include, DOS, DHS, FBI, DEA, National Guard, Coast Guard, Border Patrol, local and state law enforcement agencies, National Intelligence agencies and international partners.[6]

The structure must focus across the levels of war of strategic, operational, and tactical and conversely with civilian agencies at the international, national, regional, state and local levels. Additionally it must be structured with the near, middle, and deep fights in mind to facilitate a layered defense and quick reaction to enable the application of the right capabilities, at the right time, across the war fighting functions[7]. The near fight includes all actions taken within the U.S. borders. The middle fight is along the U.S. borders. The deep fight includes beyond the borders in other nations.

Effective collaborative efforts need to be facilitated across all levels, horizontally and vertically, with representation from outside agencies and international partners within the USNORTHCOM headquarters, specifically within the J2 Intelligence Directorate, J3 Operations Directorate, and J9 Interagency Coordination Directorate. These representatives will act as conduits of information, intelligence and facilitate training and responses to transnational terrorist threat groups. Conversely USNORTHCOM representatives must also be present as liaisons with the international partners within the USNORTHCOM AOR.

The DOD and USNORTHCOM must be nested with the Department of Homeland Security and state and local law enforcement agencies and Federal Law enforcement. The sharing of intelligence is critical across the spectrum to enable timely response to a transnational terrorist threat. Liaisons from the DOD and USNORTHCOM across interagency efforts will enable faster information sharing and effective planning efforts to enable DSCA or international partners’ assistance. The critical function will be to enable intelligence sharing and clearing classification requirements to ensure intelligence is passed to state and local law enforcement agencies through coordination with appropriate interagency partners within DHS or the FBI.

The DHS Fusion Centers and Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) are a critical component for both collaboration and conducting operations. They function similar to an Army staff and operations center and facilitate intelligence sharing, maintain a common operating picture, and emergency response and management.[8]  The DOD and USNORTHCOM should have the ability to tie into the systems of the DHS and facilitate information sharing and transition intelligence from international partners’ liaisons into the DHS, FBI and DOJ representatives in the fusion centers. These relationships also facilitate DOD and USNORTHCOM execution of Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA) in the event of disaster support following an environmental event or transnational terrorist attacks.

The middle fight along the border is a critical area not only for terrorist infiltration across the border, but all operations must remain in the bounds of the Posse Comitatus Act.[9] Information and intelligence sharing needs to pass from USNORTHCOM liaisons and be shared through the DHS fusion cells and EOCs. The proper flow of information through these established systems will prevent any violations of Posse Comitatus, especially direct Service member involvement surveillance, searches and seizures. Additionally, it will allow for legal oversight at the command level through the DHS fusion centers and EOCs with a DOJ representative present. All actions taken against transnational terrorist group within the U.S. will be by a combined effort of local and state law enforcement partnered with the border patrol. USNORTHCOM can play a major role with international partners and ensuring collaboration happens across the border and intelligence is passed through to the DHS and law enforcement entities.

The DOD can make a significant contribution in the deep fight through the major combatant commands TSC programs and joint operations to disrupt and destroy transnational terrorist groups where they live, train, recruit and finance in failed or failing states. USNORTHCOM can also contribute to the deep fight by establishing relationships with international partners across the critical warfighting functions previously stated. International partner involvement through the joint staff can be reciprocated to the partner nations to maintain a steady flow of intelligence and training to facilitate mission command and intelligence structure, interoperability and relationships with key counter terrorism leaders. Additionally, the expansion and inclusion of interagency partners in these planning cells allow for integration, intelligence sharing, and collaboration with reach back through the DHS Fusion Centers and EOCs. USNORTHCOM can further facilitate with a SOCOM partnered Theater Support Cooperation (TSC) programs with Mexico and Canada tied to countering narcotics, transnational crime, and transnational terrorist groups. Additionally, the National Guard has a State Partnership Program (SPP) which facilitates TSC and can be applied to the transnational terrorist problem set to gain efficiencies and capability. SPPs leverage the National Guard as partners as part of a “whole of society” approach.[10] The TSC program needs to be tied to developing the DOD and USNORTHCOM partnership for mission command structure and architecture, intelligence sharing through Fusion Centers and EOCs with international partners, and a liaison training program. The Liaison program must include a focus for protecting classification of law enforcement information and classified materials enabling critical information passing in a timely manner.

Finally, I will address the strict adherence of the Posse Comitatus Act by the DOD and USNORTHCOM. All the above mentioned adjustments in systems for information and intelligence sharing, organization, and operations, focus on the mission command structure which facilitate collaboration, coordination and support.  Checks and balances exist within the joint staff, fusion cells, and EOCs within the other agencies and the DHS to prevent any violations of the Posse Comitatus Act while still maintaining a vibrant DOD and USNORTHCOM support. The DOD and USNORTHCOM’s only physical contribution will be to the efforts of international partners through TSC. The information and intelligence gleaned from these operations will still flow through the established systems and networks to facilitate operations along the border and inside of the U.S. by law enforcement agencies at the local, state, and nationally with the FBI and DOJ.

This essay critically analyzed the contributions of both the Department of Defense and USNORTHCOM can make towards defeating transnational terror organizations with a domestic U.S. presence. The DOD and USNORTHCOM can most effectively collaborate with partner agencies to achieve unity of effort, purpose and command through joint staff participation, the use of liaisons, and intelligence sharing through DHS fusion cells and EOCs. Next, the DOD and USNORTHCOM should be organized and operate across the near, middle and deep fights to support intelligence sharing and collaboration with both interagency and international partners. The deep fight also should have an additional focus of a USNORTHCOM TSC program to support training efforts of international partners across the AOR. Finally, the DOD and USNORTHCOM can clearly adhere to the Posse Comitatus Act while still maximizing their capabilities and worthwhile contributions of the U.S. military and combat transnational terrorist organizations with a domestic U.S. presence.

End Notes

[1] Shan Carter and Amanda Cox, “One 9/11 tally: $3.3 Trillion,” The New York Times, September 8, 2011.

[2] Jacob N. Shapiro and Rudolph P. Darken, “Homeland Security: A New Strategic Paradigm?,” in Strategy in the Contemporary World, 4th Edition, ed. John Baylis, James J. Wirtz, and Colin S. Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 269.

[3] B. Peter Rosendorff and Todd Sandler, “The Political Economy of Transnational Terrorism,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, (accessed April 01, 2016).

[4] Robert M. Gates, National Defense Strategy, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, June 2008), 17.

[5] Hans-Jurgen Kasselmann, “Civil-Military Cooperation A Way to Resolve Complex Crisis Situations,” Prism 4, No. 1, 26.

[6] Barrack Obama, National Strategy for Counterterrorism, (Washington, DC: Office of the President of the United States, June 2011), 13.

[7] Leon Panetta, Strategy for Homeland Defense and Defense Support of Civil Authorities, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, February 2013), 2.

[8] Department of Homeland Security, “Fusion Centers and Emergency Operations Centers,” (accessed April 4, 2016).

[9] The Posse Comitatus Act, Section 1385 of Title 18, United States Code, (accessed April 1, 2016).

[10] National Guard Bureau Division of International Affairs, J53, The National Guard State Partnership Program, Annual Report Fiscal Year 2013m January 2014.


About the Author(s)

Major Ronald W. Sprang is an Infantry officer currently serving in the U.S. Army. He has served in combat as a leader as a rifle platoon leader (OIF I), twice as a company commander (2xIraq deployments), and as a battalion and brigade operations officer (Afghanistan). He is currently serving as an observer/coach/trainer at the Joint Readiness Training Center and will be attending the School of Advanced Military Studies in June.