WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2012 — The United States hasn’t seen a large-scale terrorist attack since 9/11 because U.S. forces have crushed al-Qaida over the last decade, a senior Defense Department official said here yesterday.
Michael A. Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told an audience at a SOLIC symposium that the United States has the best military the world has known.
“I’ve heard it actually through my entire career that right now we have the best soldiers that we’ve ever had,” Sheehan said. “But what always made us good soldiers was not only the dedication [and] the training, but the equipment we had — particularly over the last 10 or 20 years. The technology and equipment, combined with the fierce warrior spirit that was developed, make us the greatest soldiers on the planet.”
Sheehan praised the private sector for its work on technological advances for the military, noting the opportunity the symposium provided for crossfeed between Defense Department and private-sector conferees.
“Quite frankly, you guys from the private sector — from the sector of American ingenuity –are the ones that bring that technological advantage to our soldiers on the battlefield that enable it to continue to be the most effective fighting force in the world,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan is a retired Army officer who served in a variety of infantry and Special Forces assignments. He spent three years of his post-Army career as the New York City Police Department’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism.
“While I was in New York, I was often asked by the people in that city, ‘Why haven’t we been attacked again? Why doesn’t al-Qaida just do X, Y or Z?’ ” he said. Sheehan said his answer was simple: al-Qaida wasn’t as capable as people believed, and U.S. forces have responded effectively.
“Al-Qaida wasn’t as good as we thought they were on 9/11,” he said. “I knew this organization well before 9/11, but quite frankly, the American people were asleep at the switch in U.S. government prior to 9/11. So an organization that wasn’t that good looked really great on 9/11, and everyone looked to the skies every day after 9/11 for that next attack, and it didn’t come.”
The terror organization didn’t have other operators in the United States besides the 9/11 hijackers and a few others, he said, so the widely expected follow-up attack never happened.
“But the other part of the equation is that we are better than we often give ourselves credit for,” Sheehan said. “And actually, the other reason is because we actually responded very, very effectively to crush al-Qaida immediately after 9/11 and continually for the last 10 years.”
U.S. forces were effective in expelling al-Qaida from Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, he said. “And what was so important about that operation,” he added, was several hundred [special operations forces] operators working side by side with the CIA and supported by the United States Air Force.”
This, Sheehan said, was a precursor for what would unfold over the next decade. “And I see as a precursor for the way forward,” he added, with the military working alongside another U.S. agency without worrying about turf battles.
Sheehan said al-Qaida’s eroded capabilities reflected in poor training that resulted in a failed car-bomb attack in Times Square in 2010.
“Think about Faisal Shahzad,” Sheehan said. “Here is a bomber with unique capability because he was an American citizen, worked on Wall Street and took multiple trips to Pakistan to get training in camps.
“But fortunately, he failed in constructing an effective bomb in Times Square,” he continued. “Why? In my view, because of the pressure that we put on al-Qaida and associated groups in that region.”
Sheehan said special operations forces will continue to do what has worked over the past 10 years, and that they will “get better at it.”
“We’re going to try to advance our operational capability and continue to stay ahead of them,” he said. “And you all in this room are part of that equation. You’re part of that equation — part of the dialogue that we need to have to stay ahead of this enemy.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)