Web Chat: The Ongoing War on Terrorism

After the success of the World Cup in South Africa, an attack by the Somali insurgent group the Shabab in Uganda served as a frightening reminder of how dangerous jihadist groups like al Shabab and al Qaeda remain. The attack took the lives of at least 74 people, but the death toll could have been higher had authorities not disrupted two planned follow-up attacks.

On July 21, Dan Byman answered your questions about the ongoing war on terror, U.S. strategies for dealing with terrorism abroad and the presence of militant groups in volatile nations.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:30 Seung Min Kim: Good afternoon. We’re here with the Brookings Institution’s Daniel Byman to discuss the continuing global war on terror. Welcome, Daniel.

12:31 Dan Byman: Thank you for having me.

12:31 [Comment From Jennie: ] Can you explain what triggered the attack by al Shabab?

12:31 [Comment From Susan: ] Was al Shabab tied to al Qaeda? Can you explain this connection?

12:32 Dan Byman: The Shabab in Somalia began as a local Islamist group focused almost exclusively on events in Somalia. The ideology was noxious, but America was not on their radar screen at first. Over time, however, this began to change. In part this was because they saw the United States (correctly) as backing the Ethiopian invasion that temporarily pushed the Shabab back. But they also radicalized on their own and began to develop links to the al-Qa’ida core.

12:33 Dan Byman: We don’t know how extensive these links are, and I have not seen evidence that the al-Qa’ida core “commands” the Shabab in any way. But there is far more interaction, and increasingly some cooperation. This does not bode well.

12:33 [Comment From Richard Schlesinger, CBS: ] What sort of reaction have you received to your article in the Atlantic “The Case For Calling Them Nitwits” and can you comment on what if any danger you see in under estimating the capabilities of the bad guys. Also (if you don’t mind a triple question) could you expand a little bit on how you would use the information we have about these guys against them.

12:34 Dan Byman: My co-author Christine Fair and I argued in the Atlantic that many terrorists are poorly trained (and some are involved in unsavory activities such as bestiality). This was meant as a corrective to the view that terrorist organizations are 10 feet tall.

12:34 Dan Byman: However, as we point out, some terrorists are skilled and well-trained. Also, poorly trained people can still kill many people either through luck or simply by picking up a loaded automatic weapon.

12:35 Dan Byman: All that said, our defenses need to be calibrated at both the high and low level — the low level attacks will be more common, but the sophisticated ones usually of greater impact.

12:35 [Comment From Lauren Strohmeier: ] Does this week’s Washington Post series on Top Secret America have any impact on the confidence of terrorist groups? Articles like this are important to hold government accountable, but is there potential to reach in to dangerous territory? Did it point out anything terrorist groups didn’t know about us anyway? Is this article simply a small detail in the global war on terrorism, or could it create a shift in thinking among groups or individuals wishing to harm the US?

12:37 Dan Byman: I do not know if there is a direct effect of revelations of problems in the U.S. military and intelligence system and the confidence of terrorist groups. And, as an aside, the Post series is superb.

However, skilled terrorist groups do carefully read Western media to understand their foe. They would, I think, be both proud and afraid — proud of the fear they’ve instilled, but also concerned about the scale of the U.S. effort.

I saw the article as useful in informing the public about the nature of intelligence in America today. It was not about the details of counterterrorism.

12:37 Dan Byman: I do not think it did harm, and in fact think it created a better-informed public on a crucial issue today.

12:37 [Comment From Alistair Burns, England: ] What effect do you believe the increased foreign assistance which the Obama administration is undertaking will have in the Middle East and North Africa? Do you believe that this approach will succeed, at least partially, in ‘draining the swamp’ in which terrorism festers and breeds?

12:38 Dan Byman: Foreign assistance can be useful to advance development and help foreign policy goals. However, we need to be careful when we think about it for counterterrorism. The linkages between development and support for terrorism are not clear (and, in fact, some research suggests that rising development can increase support for extremism). Most terrorists’ grievances are political, and development won’t solve that.

12:39 Dan Byman: Even worse, development can foster corruption and empowers the regime that usually delivers the development. The latter is not always a bad thing (in effect, development aid can be a payoff for more cooperation on counterterrorism). But we should recognize that development aid means that regimes are stronger, and thus have less need to democratize.

12:40 [Comment From Benjamin W. Lightle: ] What are the implications of groups such as the Algerian GSPC and al-Shabaab adopting the al-Qa’ida doctrine and taking their movements global? Can we expect to see more State Dept. declared terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, moving their goals from regional geopolitics (i.e. Israel) and into the globalized front of religious ideology?

12:41 Dan Byman: Hamas and Hizballah are both groups with a local (Hamas focuses on historic Palestine) or regional (Hizballah on Lebanon, Israel, and to a lesser degree historic Palestine or places like Iraq). Both of them are often hostile to al-Qa’ida, at times to the point of bloodshed. And both have had decades in which to change their focus and have not done so.

12:42 Dan Byman: Al-Qa’ida, however, has been good at taking local “salafi-jihadist” groups (Sunni groups with a particular interpretation of Islam that differs, say, from Hamas’ parent the Muslim Brotherhood) and moving them to a global focus. Around the world we’ve seen struggles that at first have local foci (Algeria, Chechnya, Kashmir, etc.) become part of a broader “Muslim” struggle. These local groups still are often primarily local, but their willingness to cooperation with the al-Qa’ida core has grown over time.

12:43 [Comment From  Alistair Burns, England: ] After 18 months of the Obama administration, do you believe that Obama has moved more to a European model of counterterrorism? Do you see his want of greater cooperation as a move to a more consensual style of Western counterterrorism?

12:44 Dan Byman: I do not believe there is a “European” model of counterterrorism. Some countries have pushed for efforts to work with local moderate Muslims, while others, such as France, are quite brutal and repressive towards anything that smacks of radicalism. Some European countries encourage multiculturalism, others assimilation, and still others neither.

12:44 Dan Byman: The Obama administration has tried to increase allied cooperation on counterterrorism, but under Bush it was often quite strong with regard to the al-Qa’ida core.

12:45 [Comment From Kevin Luong: ] How must America’s counterinsurgency strategy change in response to the increasing nuclear threat?

12:46 Dan Byman: I’m not sure I really see these two as directly connected in many cases. North Korea and Iran are the two nuclear countries of most recent concern, and Pakistan is also a problem. In Pakistan there is some linkage between a nuclear power and an insurgency. This is an incredibly tough issue — it requires superb intelligence on an ally’s nuclear program as well as a robust counterinsurgency effort.

12:46 [Comment From JamesKennedy: ] Considering the rise of al Qaeda-affiliated groups and other violent non-state actors in Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, should the U.S. even consider any policies that include engagement or dialogue with these organizations in an attempt to stem their growth?

12:48 Dan Byman: Engagement with al-Qa’ida of the Arabian Peninsula or a similar group is doomed to failure, as the U.S. and they are too far apart, and U.S. concessions to bring us closer are not in the U.S. interest.

However, the United States can engage the broader Muslim and Arab world. The hope is to decrease funding and recruitment opportunities for the radicals so they don’t look like Robin Hood but rather as the thugs they are. Much of this, in my view, depends on casting the radicals in a negative light rather than focusing so much on the goodness of the United States, which is suspect in many of the circles about which we care about most.

12:48 [Comment From  Sean Bennett: ] The recent troop surge in Afghanistan has been of questionable efficacy, but some might argue that even a stalemate over there keeps terrorists from our shores. Is this a valid counterpoint, in the long-run, or does the continued conflict exacerbate extremism in the Arab world and impose constraints upon our counterterrorism operations in the region? Ultimately, what is the best path forward in Afghanistan, in terms of both our national security and regional stability?

12:48 [Comment From Sean Bennett: ] One often hears of American military efforts to combat terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but what of the other programs? In terms of things like support for education and the economy, to what extent have these programs been effective? What are the major impediments to this struggle for the hearts and minds (and pocketbooks) of the populace?

12:51 Dan Byman: The presence of U.S. military forces in a Muslim country often (not always) has two big effects on local extremists, one positive and one negative. From an operational point of view, the extremists are often weakened, at times severely. U.S. forces help kill their leaders, work with the local government to arrest members, and so on. Over time, as in Iraq, this can hurt the radicals. On the other hand, the presence of U.S. forces can delegitimize a government and often serves as a rallying cry for fighters upset about the affront to nationalism (and who often don’t share al-Qa’ida’s religious agenda). The trick, of course, is minimizing the second effect and maximizing the first, and it often requires U.S. forces to be in the background.

12:53 Dan Byman: Other aid — for education, for development, and so on — is vital but also conditional. When aid is given without security, it often backfires. In insurgent-controlled areas, the insurgents, not pro-U.S. forces, get the resources and use it to build their power. However, when there is security then this sort of development is vital to build local capacity and to gain the goodwill of local citizens. This, in turn, strengthens local security efforts.

The U.S. military began to do this effectively in Iraq beginning in 2006. The military went from being supported by civilian agencies to the other way around — at least in theory. This was very effective.

12:53 [Comment From eefje: ] Why is the U.S. fighting terrorism and not the UN?

12:54 Dan Byman: The UN has passed resolutions on issues such as terrorist financing that have proven helpful in fighting terrorism. The UN, however, is largely a collection of its member states. It is ponderous, lacks intelligence, and in general is a weak security actor.

12:54 [Comment From Ramon: ] Do you believe that there are al Qaeda sleeper cells in the U.S.? Or do you believe there are disgruntled individuals in the U.S. who may sympathize with al Qaeda and their views that can be pushed over the edge to commit terrorist acts i.e. Ft. Hood and Times Square.

12:56 Dan Byman: Certainly there are disgruntled individuals in the United States who can be pushed over the edge. We’ve learned that the hard way. Al-Qa’ida has also allegedly sent some individuals to the United States (e.g. Zazi). This discovery is worrisome, as in the past those arrested for terrorism had little or no link to the al-Qa’ida core.

12:56 [Comment From Sean Bennett: ] Steven Cook recently wrote an overview of the challenges posed by a transition in Egypt to a new government, citing the dangers of intervention by either the Egyptian military or extremist groups. Do you find that an end to the Mubarak presidency would provide a substantial opening to extremists in the country?

12:59 Dan Byman: I do not believe that an end to the Mubarak presidency would provide an opening to the most extreme elements in Egypt. Egypt crushed the jihadist threat it faced in the mid-1990s. For now, there is little danger.

The bigger issue, however, is the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as the only organized and popular opposition force. The Muslim Brotherhood has at times used violence in its past, and many extremists passed through its ranks before moving on. Moreover, the group is hostile to the United States (though this does not mean it plans to do terrorist attacks) and opposes U.S. goals in the region.

So the problem is the U.S. has a choice between supporting an undemocratic regime and its undemocratic successors or pushing more popular rule and risking the rise of an anti-U.S. group.

12:59 [Comment From  Guest: ] Regarding your answer to aid/development issues, this seems to reflect directly on the decisions made at the recent donors conference in Afghanistan.

12:59 Dan Byman: I think there is a greater recognition that development does not proceed in parallel with counterinsurgency but should be integrated within it.

1:00 [Comment From Dave: ] What exactly are al Qaeda and other groups hoping to gain through their acts of terrorism?

1:02 Dan Byman: A mix of goals. Some of the goals are strategic: to push the United States out of the Muslim world, for example. Some involve punishment for supposed U.S. crimes against Muslims, U.S. support for Israel, and so on. Some are to help the group itself against its rivals. Groups like al-Qa’ida score points for acting, which is particularly exciting to young men, while moderates are criticized as endlessly talking with no results. Al-Qa’ida also hopes that US allies in the Muslim world will be weakened either because the US withdraws support or because the US will increase its presence and thus reveal to the Muslim people that their regimes are a bunch of toadies.

1:03 Dan Byman: To all this we should add revenge, as many of them have comrades or relatives who are dead or arrested. And we can add that some of the fighters know no other way or life and have no alternative.

1:03 [Comment From kofi mable: ] Col. Gadaafi recently claimed that al-Shabaab is a group of bandits with no leadership and no discussion can be imagined with the group. How credible could this observation be?

1:04 Dan Byman: The Shabab does have a leadership, but it is diffuse. It is hard to negotiate with it as it is both radical and not centralized. It also faces other jihadist rivals, which pushes it to further extremes.

1:04 [Comment From Randy: ] Clearly nothing western countries are doing can stop these groups from operating or pursuing violent strategies. is there anything westerners should do to be more effective at ensuring safety?

1:07 Dan Byman: Western countries are making these groups less dangerous. The steady toll of arrests, killings, and so on has made it far harder for extremists to operate. It’s hard to measure this, as the impact is on attacks that never occur, but there is no doubt in my mind that many government actions make us safer.

This is a tough topic, however, as it is easy to either be glib or alarmist. Terrorists do want to kill Westerners in large numbers. And some attacks will occur. At the same time, most of us would be safer if we didn’t talk on our cell phones while driving, exercised more, and so on. So I don’t think we need to change our lives fundamentally, but continued government efforts are appropriate in many cases.

1:07 [Comment From Sean Bennett: ] To what extent has the Sunni-Shi’a divide among extremists and even established governments hampered anti-American terrorism? Has the effect been positive overall or has it only worsened regional stability?

1:09 Dan Byman: The Sunni-Shi’a divide, which is not as bad as it was during the height of the Iraqi civil war around 2006, has mixed effects from a U.S. point of view. It is negative because it is a radicalizing force: people join groups and give them money as a result. From the U.S. point of view, it often acts as a diversion, with less focus on the U.S. and more on members of a rival group. For the Muslim world more broadly, however, this is a disaster and given U.S. interests involve stability and security in the region, the divide can be quite dangerous.

1:09 [Comment From Mike: ] Isn’t education really the path to preventing children in volatile regions from turning to militancy?

1:11 Dan Byman: Maybe.

Again, this is tricky. Terrorists are often quite well educated. (One study of jihadist terrorists in Western Europe showed that many had graduate educations and the average level of education was higher than that of the average American!) And educated people regularly turn to extremism.

I’d say the key is for education to be married with good government and broader economic opportunities. Individuals then have a chance to make their lives better without violence. This is good in and of itself and may dampen extremism. But education alone is not enough.

1:11 [Comment From wendy: ] So, where is Osama bin Laden?

1:12 Dan Byman: The conventional wisdom is “somewhere in the tribal parts of Pakistan.” I believe this is based on people repeating the conventional wisdom. Press reports I’ve read indicate that US intelligence has not had a good lead on his location for some time.

1:12 [Comment From miguel: ] Do you think the “war on terror” still actually exists? And does Obama have the right approach?

1:13 Dan Byman: There is still a large-scale effort around the world against al-Qa’ida-linked terrorism. This effort involves military and intelligence in ways often not used commonly in the past.

For me, the phrase “war on terror” was often shorthand for this, and it was very vague. In my view there is a lot of continuity between Obama and Bush on counterterrorism.

1:14 [Comment From  Benjamin Lightle: ] Could you briefly touch on some of the sources of funding for al-Shabaab? Are funds coming predominately from state sponsors or non-state associated individuals/groups?

1:14 [Comment From Benjamin Lightle: ] In light of the number of foreigners known to be present in Somalia and many being caught in transit, and the ease of joining al-Shabaab’s ranks- is the horn of Africa at risk of becoming what Afghanistan was in the 1980’s, a veritable gap-year destination for would be jihadists to go engage in combat?

1:15 Dan Byman: I have not seen a good report on Shabab funding. My impression is that it is a mix of illicit activities and “taxes” in Somalia, support from the Somali diaspora, and (limited) assistance from anti-Ethiopia countries like Eritrea. But I don’t know the amounts.

1:17 Dan Byman: The key to Afghanistan in the 1980s, in my view, was not Afghanistan but Pakistan. Afghanistan itself was a chaotic mess. It was a cause that drew people, but the organization, funding, training, and indoctrination occurred in Pakistan. When Somalia went haywire in the early 1990s, al-Qa’ida tried to set up a base there and it was a disaster. You need an area of relative peace as well as the war zone to inspire. When al-Qa’ida tried to operate in the war zone without such a base, they found themselves sucked into local conflicts and often extorted by larger militant groups.

So while I think Somalia does radicalize and is a source of problems, I believe the scale will be different.

1:17 [Comment From Sean Bennett: ] The Obama administration has announced that it is targeting American citizens suspected of direct and substantial aid to anti-American terror. Is this a wise decision, in terms of either fighting extremism and American rule of law?

1:18 Dan Byman: I am not a lawyer, so I will avoid commenting directly on legal issues.

Rather, I would say that this is a very difficult challenge with no clear policy answer. The ideal would be for the Yemeni government to extradite the citizen to face justice in the US. But that won’t happen. So we are down to bad options.

1:19 [Comment From Kevin Luong: ] How effective do you think the reforms in response to the 9/11 Commission report have been? Has the creation of the DNI and reorganization of the intelligence community improved the efficacy of U.S. intelligence? How could the intelligence community be improved further?

1:21 Dan Byman: The Washington Post series (particularly the first article) suggest that the information sharing is often harder post 9/11, though it’s hard for me to say whether that is due to the increase in the number of players in the counterterrorism game or due to the added layer of bureaucracy.

If there is to be a DNI (and General Clapper would be a good man for the job), he or she needs true power. This involves control over budgets and personnel. Without this, it is simply yet one more player in the game with an unclear mandate.

1:21 [Comment From Morgan Rauch: ] Given your comments regarding aid to governments, specifically those fighting insurgencies (i.e. Afghanistan), what our your thoughts on more donor money going directly to the Karzai government?

1:23 Dan Byman: We have to accept that most of the money going to the Karzai government will either be stolen directly or used to reward his supporters at the expense of other leaders. But so be it if it helps move Karzai in the right direction on other issues or if we know that at least some of the aid will get through to the right people.

1:23 [Comment From Sean Bennett: ] Has the extensive use of Predator drones been effective at undermining terrorism in the long-term? How do the ethical and legal questions factor into this? It seems to me that we may be trading short-term disruption of terrorist networks for long-term, anti-American anger from the populace.

1:25 Dan Byman: The drone strikes make it far harder for the terrorists to operate. They take out skilled leaders, who are always in short support for al-Qa’ida. They also make it harder for the group to communicate, as they are afraid to use their phones or trust large numbers of people — fearing that this would generate information that the US would use to kill their leaders. This makes it harder for the group to plan attacks. Also, leaders must spend much of their time hiding, which also diminishes their capabilities.

1:26 Dan Byman: The downside is that it angers Pakistanis and embarrasses the government (it shows that they are not able to provide security on their own). Interestingly, polls show that support for drone strikes in Pakistan is higher in areas affected by insurgent violence. That is to say that if you are living with the problem, you are more likely to want the drone strikes than if you are far away from it, when you can be indignant with fewer costs.

1:26 Dan Byman: However, the drone strikes by themselves are not a complete strategy. They keep al-Qa’ida off balance, which is good. But that is not enough.

1:26 [Comment From janet: ] Will the recently approved $7.5 billion aid package to Pakistan have as big an impact on the U.S./Pakistan relationship and support for terrorism as we hope?

1:27 Dan Byman: Nope.

It may move things in the right direction, and it will reduce some Pakistani government complaints. But Pakistan’s problems are so deep, and hostility to the United States so high, that even a high level of aid will not have a huge impact.

1:27 [Comment From Morgan Rauch: ] I think that religious extremism is the basis of terrorism today and thus one cannot change a militant faith based movement. Such movements can only ‘burn out’ by attrition, not by killing them but only when people stop joining these groups. That will take many years and much social and economic changes.

1:29 Dan Byman: Many terrorist groups draw on a mix of grievances and goals. Some are religious. Others are nationalistic. Still others involve the “coolness” factor of the group.

Killing or arresting group members is vital in order to show there is a price for joining and to show that terrorism is not succeeding. Individuals usually do not like to join losing causes.

1:29 [Comment From Amber: ] Do you think there will always be terrorists?

1:30 Dan Byman: Yes.

Terrorism is a tactic. Groups use it when they believe it helps them. We’ve seen groups use it for religious, nationalistic, Marxist, and other varied reasons. We can make it less common by punishing and delegitimizing it, but we won’t be able to stop it completely.

1:31 Seung Min Kim: And we’re going to wrap it up here. Thanks to everyone for joining us on such an interesting discussion. Have a great afternoon.