Read: How al-Qaeda benefits from America’s political divisions
While McChrystal spent time with the various members of the fusion cell, I sat quietly in the back and watched. A small number of personnel from different agencies and military units were reading intelligence reports, shouting across the room, running between desks, and hopping on and off calls to various strike forces on the front line. I realized: This is how we’re moving faster than the al-Qaeda network.
I was late to the game, of course. The people in that fusion cell, and McChrystal’s senior leadership team, had appreciated the importance of this approach for years. They knew that the most easily exploited location on a traditional battlefield is where two lines meet. This can be a physical gap between units on the ground, or a gap in lines of authority between different agencies. When these gaps in communication are encountered, bureaucracy steps in to ensure deliberate, albeit slow, coordination. In Special Operations, we referred to these as “blinks”; moments when our eyes were closed, and the enemy network was safe to expand.
Our fusion-cell network was the answer. Under McChrystal’s leadership, we placed small teams of intelligence analysts from Special Operations, conventional military units, civilian intelligence, and law-enforcement agencies at key locations around the world, as close to key nodes in the al-Qaeda network as possible. They weren’t frontline operators, but they were only one step away from, and in direct communication with, those teams. Wherever al-Qaeda was around the world, McChrystal fought to place a fusion cell there as well.
These interagency teams were constantly scanning raw data from ongoing missions in the field, which they fused across their agencies. Each member of a fusion cell had the authority and responsibility to quickly connect with other fusion cells, in real time, without letting their home bureaucracy slow things down. The larger this global, interconnected fusion-cell network became, the more exponential its returns. While the visible fight was mostly centered on Iraq and Afghanistan, our network would grow to more than 70 discreet locations around the globe. If operators and helicopters were the muscle and skeleton of the fight against al-Qaeda, the fusion-cell network was its nervous system.
The fusion-cell network accomplished three major goals that no bureaucracy could keep pace with. First, it captured and shared raw intelligence from one location that could drive immediate action at another. Second, it gave a nonsiloed view of the fight so that crucial decisions about where to allocate resources—where to send operators, helicopters, surveillance drones—were made with one common operating picture. And third, it provided a real-time network through which best practices on one side of the fight could be shared with other units, immediately saving lives on the battlefield. To illustrate: In a single night, the information gleaned from a raid in downtown Baghdad could be sent directly to a team 200 miles away in Anbar, which would step off for a mission with additional resources that had been coordinated by frontline leaders, and crucial intelligence that had yet to reach higher headquarters.