May 26, 2018
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US needs comprehensive counterterrorism strategy

By Fred Hill

It happens every three months or so, and leads to a similar series of cartoons in various newspapers and magazines: The caption reads: “The reported No. 3 leader of al-Qaida, (in Pakistan, Afghanistan or elsewhere), has been killed or captured.”

The cartoons depict a series of FBI-posterlike images of terrorist suspects with a large X across each of numerous and similar images. At the top of most cartoons, the visages of Osama bin Laden and his No. 2 smile confidently.

Just two weeks ago, al-Qaida itself confirmed reports that its No. 3 operative, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the organization’s financial chief, had been killed by a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan.

It was, experts declared, a truly damaging blow to al-Qaida — and this time perhaps it was. But the success of such attacks does not seem to be reducing the threat of terrorism in that region, in Europe, Asia or the United States. Other committed terrorists step forward to take their place.

What these developments point to is the increasingly apparent reality that al-Qaida remains a serious threat because it has become a widely dispersed and resourceful network that can recover from numerous setbacks.

And a key aspect of that trend, the ability of al-Qaida and affiliated organizations to recruit radicalized adherents, combined with the increasing frequency of terrorist plots within the United States, is what concerns one of the world’s leading experts on terrorism, Bruce Hoffman.

Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor, recently wrote a devastating critique of U.S. counterterrorism efforts since 9-11 by both the Obama and Bush administrations.

His article, published in The National Interest in April, assailed both administrations for taking an essentially “fly-swatter” approach (my term) to a very grave threat and failing to develop a comprehensive and strategic approach to the problem.

“Bottom line: we don’t understand the enemy,” he wrote. Al-Qaida, he said, has developed a strategy of attrition, and seeks to flood already-stressed intelligence systems with the “noise” of low-level attacks while strengthening its own capabilities and expanding its recruitment pool — all the while, he implies, planning larger attacks.

Fortunately, he added, we have been lucky in that most incidents on American soil since 9-11 “involved clueless incompetents engaged in half-baked conspiracies.” But several have “evidenced the influence of an identifiable terrorist command-and-control apparatus.”

Hoffman does not oppose the use of drone aircraft to target terrorist leaders. He simply sees that as one tactic — one that can disrupt a terrorist network, but not a strategy that will neutralize it or undercut its recruitment around the world. For proof, he cites the failure of France to decapitate the Algerian terrorist organization by killing its leaders, and the failure of Israel to weaken Hamas despite assassinations of its founder, its political leader and others.

Hoffman calls for three specific measures to strengthen U.S. strategy — noting that both President Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and Congress, have failed to take any of them in the past decade when all were recommended by various authorities.

“The most basic requirements of an effective counterterrorism strategy,” he says, involve “anticipating, preempting and preventing terrorist operations,” and to do that we must “break the cycle of radicalization and recruitment that replenishes terrorist ranks.”

Step one would be to develop a “red team” capability in government to force officials to think “outside the box” — the same kind of thinking used to counter conventional wisdom in dealing with the Soviet threat. This already has been proposed by Rep. Frank Wolf, but not acted upon by Congress or either administration.

The second comprises legislation proposed by Rep. Jane Harman in 2007, to establish a national commission to study how to counter efforts by terrorist groups to recruit malcontents within the United States. It was passed by the House and not acted upon by the Senate.

And the third is to streamline the diffuse congressional oversight of the counterterrorism effort within the U.S. into the kind of clear, authoritative “Intelligence and Security Committee” such as that developed in Britain 15 years ago. This was recommended by the 9-11 Commission, but not acted upon.

Basically, Hoffman concludes, the U.S. cannot rely on a “kill and capture” emphasis in its counterterrorism strategy. “Until we recognize the importance of these vital prerequisites, America will remain perennially on the defensive.”

That is not where we should be nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks. Drone strikes and smart use of Special Forces can be effective instruments — and are producing results. But President Obama, and Congress, need to get their heads together and implement these sound recommendations to deal more strategically with the threat and the conditions that produce radical jihadists, especially those in the United States.

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign

correspondent for The Baltimore Sun in Europe and Africa, and later worked on national security issues for the

Department of State. His e-mail address is

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