War and the Four Constraints: The NEFA Files

In our last discussion, I focused on the four constraints that complicate how the United States Military fights its wars against violent, non-state actors. The constraints are operational, organizational, legal, and moral in their handicap. Because of these constraints, modern war fighters, law enforcement officers, and other domestic security authorities must face a multitude of complications in how they persecute, render, or arrest this adversary.

My objectives for this paper are two-fold. Primarily, I make a point that our adversaries, whether conventional and irregular, know about these constraints and will exploit them relentlessly in the planning and execution of their activities. Secondly, many of the cases that will be under review are from the NEFA files, a database contain terrorist attempts at conducting failed terror operations against the United States and abroad.

Thus, I will organize this paper into five sections which include a succinct review section about the four constraints and four whole sections devoted to unraveling the four constraints’ exploitation from our NEFA case files. Subsequently, within the last four sections, I will include three examples from NEFA and I will argue why the terrorists plotted to exploit the constraint in question.

Although there are many overlaps in the backgrounds, tactics, and strategic missions many of these homegrown terrorists, each are responsible for the exploitation of certain, key American weaknesses and all of them have been arrested, tried, and brought to justice.

Without further ado, I introduce you to the four constraints.

Section 1: The Four Constraints

The purpose of this section is to review the four constraints of operational, organizational, legal and moral in a general context and review. Much of the language found within this section has already been found within the previous paper, but I believe what is tantamount to this assignment is understanding how these constraints can be bent to better serve the strategic and tactical needs of the adversary.

Operational constraints derive from “the American way of warfare”, which apply to which targets might be taken under attack, how, and when. Operational constraints are a matter of political choice. Operational constraints have three sources: those which are strategically defensive; the relationship of military means to ways, ends, and risks; and lastly, reservations in the use of force. Our defensive strategic posturing, which seeks only to defend US territorial integrity of itself and its allies, may constrain the US in strategic decisions such as utilization of the first strike and therefore, its willingness to absorb the first blow before considering retaliatory responses. The second source relates to the means, ways, ends and risks of waging warfare which has much to do with our capabilities and willingness to utilize military means. Lastly, our reservation in the use of military force is another factor which relates to the intensity and proportionality of utilizing our armory, which defines how we react to force.

The second constraint is the organizational constraint. This constraint derives from the way the US government is organized and how it chooses to conduct its military operations. The separation of powers, federalism, and interactions between the federal and state governments, both the executive and legislative branches, and the structure of our four military branches can often have a debilitating effect on our ability to fight. Furthermore, our democratic form of government relies on public support, which is sensitive to casualties and political propaganda (or press mismanagement), especially the 24-hour news cycle. Lastly, another organizational constraint is when an ally conducts actions or policies within their national interest that may collude with ours.

Thirdly, a legal constraint is created from varying types of legal obstacles such as domestic laws and legal procedures; and broader international treaties such as protocols, conventions, legal opinions of international courts and tribunals, and other legal documents in which the US is a signatory. An important thing to remember is the way in which the US created its Rules of Engagement (ROE) is based on the Just War Theory. The Just War Theory is divided into two sub-categories: Jus ad Bellum (justice of the war) and Jus in Bello (justice in war), which are traditionally based on concepts of chivalry, laws of warfare, and ideals of defensive warfare. The concept of Jus in Bellum is applied before war and its rationale is to slow or deter mobilization of state’s military for combat. There are six in number and they include a just cause, last resort, proportionality, likelihood of success, right intentions, and legitimate authority. Jus in Bello, relates to how warfare is waged and prescribes how soldiers must fight with justice in the battlefield, the two of which are proportionality and discrimination. The latter concepts, in terms of importance to asymmetrical warfare are critical. Proportionality relates to what degree an arm response can retaliate and discrimination relates on how soldiers must discern enemy combatants from non-enemy combatants in war and hopefully avoid spilling the blood of the innocent.

Lastly, moral constraints are directly related to the American moral presumption against the use of force – which is related to our Judeo-Christian heritage or Enlightenment values. Ingrained into our DNA is a loathing to settle disputes through violence, thus in order for us to pursue war, the threat must be directly related to the survival of the United States or they must be characterized as evil incarnate such as Fascism in WWII, Communism in the Cold War, and Terrorism during the Global War on Terror. Similar to ends, ways, and means, moral constraints also constrain what doctrines, tactics, or armaments we choose to utilize in the battle space. Thus, the US has wisely chosen to disregard militant modes of warfare such as assassination, genocide, utilizing mine-fields, naval blockading, and state-sponsored terrorism which have been flexible and quite profitable to our conventional adversaries such as the Soviet Union and China.

Section 2: Operational Constraints

Firstly, we will concentrate on the operational constraint. From the NEFA files, many of the exploits against operational targets are those involving military installations, notably recruitment depots. For homegrown terror cells, these are apparent and readily available targets due to the ease of surveying these static targets, their local proximity, and their high probability of garrisoning many military targets.

One thing to remember about these exploitation operations are that their targeted installations aren’t particularly on war footing, being that their function is simply to recruit, train, or house military personnel. Another way to put it: they’re not forward operating bases with high security details; they’re as well protected as a local post office.

For my first example of this type of exploitation, I bring up the case of the plot to bomb a Maryland US Army recruitment depot by Antonio Martinez. Led by both a confidential informant and undercover agent, Martinez was led to believe he was involved in a bomb plot targeting the depot. When he triggered the false explosives, he was arrested on the spot.

Martinez was quite aware about failed attempts at homegrown terrorism since 9/11. He was concerned for his personal security and looked for an exit strategy. Both the CI and UC agent supplied him with false passports and assurance of this safety.

My second example is that of the Little Rock, Arkansas station shooting, in which the terrorism suspect readies himself with a sidearm, a sniper and an assault rifle before he attacks an Army/Navy recruitment depot. His kit also included binoculars, detailed maps of the military recruitment installations, and other military books. In his research, he made close study of other government installations such as post offices.

My last example is the most complex of these operational exploitation cases and it involves a cell of four homegrown members strategically planning raids on military targets in California. Two of the lead members of this cell met in prison and formed the JIS. The JIS’s members were close into becoming fully operational with goals of recruitment, strategic target acquisition of synagogues, military bases, and Israelis consulates; and financing planned out in a highly complex and sophisticated style before they were discovered and imprisoned.

It doesn’t surprise me that the operational constraint seems like an attractive weakness terrorists are willing to exploit. With a high degree of planning, a single cell member can create trouble for a government target when they least expect it.

Section 3: Organizational Constraints

The second constraint, which is the organizational constraint, is exploited expertly by terrorists who are likely to exploit certain organizational weaknesses within the United States government such as our democratic system, which relies not only on public support, but the ability of the different organs of the government to effectively work together to deter terrorism within US soil.

In this section, I will profile three cases that are believed to have exploited these organizational weaknesses whether by technological and sociological means or for the shear purpose of a propaganda victory. The three cases I have chosen to represent the exploitation of the organizational constraint are the Christmas Day Attack (12/2009), the Boston Cluster (10/2010), and lastly, the Attempted Bombing of New York Times Square (5/2010).

Umar Faruk Abdulmutaliab, otherwise known as the “underwear bomber”, was the terrorist involved in the attempted bombing of a US airliner flying from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Detroit, Michigan.  Before the plane was to land at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Abdulmutaliab spends twenty minutes inside the airplane’s restroom in order to detonate his 4-in, 80 gram bomb. Fortunately for the airliner, the bomb did not explode and the crew was able to detain the unsuccessful bomber, who was later arrested at the airport.

The organizational constraint exploited by the Christmas bomber was the inability for the authorities to identify and register the threat of both Abdulmutaliab and his small explosive. Organizationally, Abdulmutaliab was able to evade federal airport security and pointed out the inability for certain parts of the federal intelligence community to coordinate their intelligence collection efforts and databases to catch this crook.

The second case of the exploitation of the US organizational constraint is by the homegrown, Boston Cluster group of terrorists. According to NEFA, Tarek Mehanna and his accomplice, Ahmad Abousamra, were initially accused of making false statements about their third terror cluster-mate, Macdonald. However, the three cluster members were found to have hatched a plot to procure automatic weapons and attack a shopping mall within the United States.

The Boston Cluster ran a classic, homegrown terrorist cell of operators and they exploited the usage of the internet to indoctrinate themselves on tactical doctrine, Jihadist ideology, and social networking. Not only were they able to educated themselves on running this operation, they were able to communicate and procure funding from their parent organization, Shabaab al-mujahedeen, through the auspice of the internet. They believed that the internet would hide their identities, but unfortunately, they left a digital paper trail throughout the internet.

The last terrorist exploiter of the US’s organizational weaknesses is the May, 2010 attempted bombing of Times Square. The plotter decided to utilize a SUV as a weapon of mass destruction, with the attempted casualty count of at least forty Americans. The attempt failed, as the authorities had recognized an abandoned, parked SUV with smoke emanating from its interior. Having tracked down Faisal through the car’s VIN, they apprehended him at JFK International Airport.

This case is clearly flagged as an organizational exploitation because of its attempt to cause a high-value propaganda victory for the Taliban within American soil. Faisal, in his previous visits to overseas Taliban training camps, had recorded tapes and messages in English, which included a forty minute video. His attacks, were they successful, would draw worldwide attention due to their proximity to New York’s global media center. A propaganda victory for the terrorists would have nationwide repercussions for local, state, and federal governments because of their adverse effect on the media and public support.

Interestingly, all three attackers had used the informal ethnic Arabic Hawala “honor” trading networks in order to clandestinely fund their terror operations.

If the perpetrators of these attacks all had one thing in common, they used abused the organizational constraints of the United States for high propaganda value on top of their alleged civilian causalities were their attacks successful. These attackers clearly had pre-mediated plots that they believed were under the radar of the United States authorities. True, they were all arrested, but two of these plotters were found out because their plots had failed miserably and the means of their plots left a trail of evidence for the authorities to follow.

Section 4: Legal Constraints

The third constraint is legal and how homegrown terrorism cells exploit this constraint is their utilization of legal means of operation whether it is by legal commercial means of procuring their weapons of mass destruction, utilizing the legal protections, or exploiting a legal environment in order to continue terrorist goals and objectives.

My first example of a legal exploiter is the Khalid Ali Aldawasawri case in Texas. Aldawasawri believed he could legally procure lab equipment, improvised explosive triggers, and chemical ingredients in order to create a weapon of mass destruction. He obfuscated his identity as a Texas Tech chemist, bought the tools of the trade legally, and in fact, he did little to try to hide his trail. Fortunately, suspicious business owners of whom he was doing business with alerted the authorities to bring him to justice.

My second example of a legal exploiter is the plot to use hydrogen cyanide attacks from within the New York City subway stations. Five men from Bahrain had plotted to exploit legal commonly found items to create what they call a “mobtaker”, a device that imamates poisonous fumes asphyxiate its civilian targets. The materials used to fashion one of these contraptions include pierced paint can canisters, acidic materials, cyanide salts, and an improvised detonator. Additionally, the placement of the mobtaker is important and it must be placed where there is good ventilation and a population to exploit.

My third example of a legal exploiter is the Bly, Oregon cell of terrorists who decided to open a training camp in rural Oregon. Financed by an infamous London Cleric and sponsor of international terrorism, the cell’s operation was a highly sophisticated in that the plotters chose the location due to their legal laws on gun ownership and rights, had operational security features such as those involving passwords, and even an “ultimate jihad” seminars on topics such as those related to Islam and British law, fire arms and licensing, and lastly, those pertaining to pedestrianism and infiltration.

In this section’s conclusion, I have spoken about three NEFA cases in which the terrorists exploit our legal system in order to further their capabilities to do harm to our country.

Section 5: Moral Constraints

My last constraint relates to the moral constraint and within the context of the NEFA files are the most complex. This is because there is both an ideological component and a psychological component to how moral exploiters operated.

Firstly, I’d like to put some assumptions on the table. I stated earlier that United States Government has a high moral standard in how it follows moral codes and procedure in its war fighting. These moral codes involve the freedom of speech, religion and conscience.

For my first two examples of moral exploiters, they believe that it is within their rights as Muslims to abstain from fighting other Muslims in war. They also believe that they were wronged racially, professionally, or religiously by their military leaders and peers.

Major Nidal Hassan is the most infamous of these military sleeper agents. In November, 2008, Hassan opened fire at fellow soldiers at the Soldier Readiness Center within Fort Hood, Texas. After killing twelve soldiers and one civilian, Nidal suffered paralyzing wounds from responding civilian policemen’s defensive gunfire.

Nidal exploited the morality of the US Military’s equal opportunities policies and was heavily affected by homegrown Jihadist imam Anwar Awalaki, who helped Nidal plan and justify his attacks against the soldiers at hood.

Before the Nidal case, the case of Sergeant Hassan Akbar is another notable case of Jihadists infiltrating the military in order to do harm to the US. Akbar was raise under the auspices of the Nation of Islam, an American, militant Muslim organization. Billeted in a military base within Kuwait, Sergeant Akbar decried the active, imperial role the US has within Muslim countries. Having fragged two military officers, Akbar wounded fourteen other military personnel before he was arrested by military policemen.

My last case of a moral exploiter is the NEFA case of Abdullah al-Faisal. Faisal is different from the first two cases because he is a moral competitor with the United States and exploits those willing to listen to his sermons in order to further his Jihadist ideology, goals, and strategy.

I include him as my last and final case because his case is a combination of all four constraints, but he is notably a moral exploiter by his sole role as a scholar and religious figure.

Firstly, al-Faisal cites radical, Salafist imams, hate speech, and ideology in his international webcasts, which is an organizational exploit. Secondly, as a citizen of Jamaica he uses his first amendment rights to project his broadcasts, which is a legal exploit. Operationally, Faisal, like Anwar Alawalaki, advocates homegrown terrorists to resist apostate local authorities.

Moral exploiters, in my estimation, are the sneakiest of the bunch because of most of them are sleeper agents. There are patterns authorities can follow to uncover operational, organizational, and legal exploiters, but moral exploiters have both an uncertainty (you can’t just fire all Muslim chaplain from the Marine Corps, for example), immunity, and surprise. Because when they exploit it’s unpredictable.


In conclusion, I have explained the four constraints to American usage of military force. The four constraints are operational, organizational, legal, and moral and they play an important part in how America persecutes its adversaries. I have also utilized the NEFA files to give examples of adversaries that are willing to exploit these constraints and each exploiter has their own methods, tactics, and strategies to overcome the American way of war fighting.

I would also like to point out the weaknesses each exploiter also faces, some being more successful than others. Though all of the exploiter categories are highly secretive, the most dangerous is the moral exploiter because of his motives, his means, and the way he exploits others to his will. Operational, organizational, and legal exploiters are easily routed out due to their deliberate, secretive nature, but are still dangerous if their outcomes are successful, such as the Attacks of 9/11.

But don’t forget the constraints are there for a reason, we don’t ever want to become our enemies!

My NEFA Files


Plot to Bomb a Maryland Military Recruiting Station

The Little Rock, Arkansas Recruiting Station Shooting

LA Plot to Attack US Military, Israeli Government, and Jewish Targets


The Attempted Christmas Day 2009 Attack on Northwest Flight 253

Boston Cluster and Extended Connections

Attempted Bombing in Times Square


Khalid Ali Aldawsari’s Plot to Attack US Homeland with TNP Explosives

New York City Subway Poison Gas Plot

The Conspiracy to Establish a Jihad training Camp in Bly, Oregon


The Massacre at Fort Hood

Backgrounder: Sergeant Hasan Akbar

Abdullah al-Faisal: Extremist Ideologue with Influence in the West