Six Years Later: Innovative Approaches to Defeating Al Qaeda

Daniel L. Byman

Chairman Tierney, Ranking Member Shays, distinguished members of the Subcommittee, and Subcommittee staff, I am grateful for this opportunity to speak before you today.

It is a truism widely repeated that the United States must think differently to confront the challenge of terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Yet, despite spending billions of dollars and the passage of over six years, much remains to be done before the United States is ready to meet its new adversary.

My testimony focuses on ways to improve the following aspects of U.S. counterterrorism: 1. use of force; 2. collection and employment of intelligence; 3. homeland security strategy; 4. information campaigns; and 5. diplomatic alliances. I conclude with a call for a more informed public debate—such as this hearing—to review the most controversial counterterrorism measures and develop a broad consensus on the appropriate measures.[1]

I. The Use of Force

U.S. uses of force can be divided into four types: limited retaliatory strikes; targeted killings of terrorist leaders; counterinsurgency; and regime change capabilities as a deterrent. Limited strikes usually fail or backfire, but the other three types of force are necessary for a robust counterterrorism capability.

Limited uses of force against state sponsors or terrorist groups themselves are mostly counterproductive. Most governments and terrorist groups view capitulation in the aftermath of a military attack as an unconscionable admission of weakness, particularly when the strike affects only a few people. For the Taliban to have surrendered bin Laden after the 1998 U.S. strikes on Afghanistan, for example, would have demonstrated to a highly nationalistic people that the regime caved in the face of outside pressure.

Difficulties multiply when force is used directly against terrorists. Terrorist groups themselves have few assets worth destroying. Training camps are rudimentary, and the weapons systems involved are small and easy to replace. There is a strong likelihood of significant civilian casualties, especially if air strikes are employed. Some terrorists deliberately put their facilities near hospitals and schools, targets that are off-limit for civilized nations. Even worse, the terrorists often retaliate. The 1986 air strike on Libya led Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime to conduct the Pan Am 103 bombing as well as a spate of smaller attacks. Perhaps most important, military strikes can make a terrorist group stronger. The 1998 U.S. strikes against al-Qa’ida camps in Afghanistan made Osama Bin Ladin a hero.

The targeted killing of terrorist leaders is at times necessary for the United States. Targeted killings, however, must be used carefully. They are a poor second to arrests, which are often an option for America; the United States has arrested many more top-tier al-Qa’ida leaders than it has killed. Moreover, the intelligence and military requirements of a sustained targeted killing, or even mass arrest campaign are often daunting, as the United States must operate globally. Even more important, the United States fights salafi jihadists in large part by working with squeamish European countries and wobbly Muslim ones, both of which disapprove of extrajudicial killing for ethical or political reasons, particularly if the attack is highly visible.

A third category for using force receives relatively little attention outside the immediate contexts of Iraq and Afghanistan but is a crucial task for U.S. military forces: fighting al-Qa’ida-linked insurgencies. Al-Qa’ida has many ties to local Islamist insurgencies, and countering the salafi jihadist cause in general at times require fighting them. Insurgencies enhance al-Qa’ida, extending its operations far beyond its own narrow location. Because al-Qa’ida can tap into these insurgencies for recruits, it can replenish its members as they are killed.[2] Insurgencies add legitimacy to al-Qa’ida. Muslims around the world endorse these local struggles—independence for Chechnya, opposition to Serb oppression in the Balkans, and so on—even though they might otherwise oppose al-Qa’ida’s ideological agenda and use of terrorism.

Although the United States has a central role to play in these battles in rare cases such as Afghanistan (and, should things worsen dramatically, tribal parts of Pakistan), whenever possible counterinsurgency is best done by local forces. The United States can play a critical role in integrating intelligence, improving communications, and most important, honing the tactical skills of local forces. Still, the United States cannot expect to enter these countries as local saviors. Even with the best of intentions, foreigners can generate a nationalistic backlash among local citizens who otherwise feel little sympathy for the insurgents.[3] Significant numbers of U.S. troops destroy the legitimacy of local governments and allow the insurgents to claim that they are fighting for the people against outsiders: a damning criticism.

The most important military units for this task will be special operations forces (SOF), which currently number around 50,000. SOF will train foreign troops to fight insurgents, liaise with local populations, help gather intelligence, and otherwise serve as the foundation for the military’s broader efforts against terrorism and insurgency. But counterinsurgency training involves more than just the allied army: it should include police, intelligence services, and paramilitary forces. This concept of “Foreign Internal Defense” can be resurrected and used once more against insurgencies. Building a strong police force is particularly important – usually much more important than aiding a military. Police typically are far better suited to defeating small groups, as they often know the communities well and are trained to use force discriminately.

Unlike the Italian Carabinieri or the Spanish Guardia Civil, the United States lacks a national police that has a paramilitary component, making it difficult to identify an obvious bureaucratic candidate for such an important training mission. The State Department is too small for a massive training mission, and programs in the Department of Justice are limietd. Thus the mission falls upon the Department of Defense, which historically has resisted the foreign internal defense mission.[4] One bureaucracy should be tasked to take the lead on this mission, and Congressional pressure should be focused on ensuring it remains a priority.

Finally, the United States must preserve the capacity to topple regimes that provide substantial support for foreign terrorists. Part of the reason that there are no current governments providing support for terrorists like the Taliban’s Afghanistan did is because governments fear a massive U.S. military response if they provide unconditional support for terrorism. Maintaining this fear is necessary to limit state support for terrorism.

II. Improving Intelligence

Countries dedicated to preventing terrorist attacks around the globe must view the preservation and enhancement of intelligence as a top priority. Although U.S. intelligence is regularly criticized for its “failures,” I believe that a key component of intelligence success—liaison with foreign services—has gone well since 9/11, and that the global intelligence effort against al-Qa’ida and its affiliates is strong. The bigger problem is limited domestic intelligence capabilities.

Although the United States should strive to improve its unilateral intelligence capabilities, for counterterrorism purposes these must at times take a back seat to liaison concerns. Foreign liaison is the single greatest element of successful counterterrorism. Only local governments have the numbers, legal authorities, and means of influence to comprehensively gather intelligence on the global salafi jihadist movement. If America attempts an independent operation abroad, be it a controversial attempt to recruit a foreign government official in Indonesia or a targeted killing operation in Pakistan, it must weigh any possible gains against the potential loss of government intelligence cooperation.

Nor can intelligence gathering be divorced from the issue of winning popular support, requiring attention to the information campaigns as discussed below. If allied governments are not popular (or not sufficiently feared), they will not be able to gather the necessary intelligence from their populace. Local residents may see terrorists as heroes—more Robin Hood than criminals to be arrested. In Pakistan’s tribal areas, bin Ladin remains far more popular than the United States, with local leaders clearly reluctant to provide information on his whereabouts.

U.S. intelligence capabilities are far weaker with regard to terrorism at home than they are concerning terrorism abroad. After over six years, the FBI still is far from being fully effective on counterterrorism. Ensuring a functioning domestic intelligence system must be a national priority. If we fail to gather accurate intelligence, we will not allocate resources properly, and the result will be both a tremendous waste of resources and glaring gaps in intelligence. Most important, we will miss opportunities to disrupt plots before they reach fruition.

At the very least, the United States should explore options for separating the FBI’s intelligence function from its other operations, either by creating a separate agency that focuses exclusively on domestic intelligence or by placing the domestic intelligence function within the Department of Homeland Security. Creating a separate agency makes the most sense on paper, but American suspicions of the very idea of “domestic intelligence,” even if the new agency’s powers were the same as those already given to the FBI, might make this a political non-starter. But DHS already has a mandate to reach out to the private sector and other areas outside the government. Moreover, because DHS is not a law enforcement agency, it does not threaten American citizens and appears less menacing to key communities in the United States.

III. Bolstering Homeland Security

The current terrorist threat to the United States is real but not existential. However, too many analyses emphasize the worst possible case, and too few consider the very real limits of our adversaries and their objectives. It is tempting to say that too much preparation never hurts and that a steady drumbeat of fear is necessary to prepare for what is, in the end, a dangerous movement. But excess preparation is costly. At the very least, it can waste tens or hundreds of billions of dollars that could be better spent on fighting terrorists abroad, or for that matter, on domestic programs or a tax cut. Many terrorist preparation measures carry a considerable human and civil liberties cost. Strict immigration barriers prevent foreigners from studying and visiting our country, which in turn increases hostility to the U.S. government, perhaps even enhancing the potential for anti-U.S. terrorism.

Much state and local spending is done without a formal risk analysis that looks not only at the consequences of a successful attack, but also at the likelihood of the attack occurring in the first place.[5] Enterprising bureaucrats and legislators also use the counterterrorism label to justify their pet programs, ranging from anti-poverty (so terrorists don’t take advantage of despair and anger) to gun control and even to prescription drug benefits (citing the “terror” you would feel if you did not have access to your medication). The opportunity costs of these new foci are considerable. After 9/11, the FBI decreased spending on drug trafficking by 60 percent. Today the FBI and federal authorities focus less on gangs and on domestic terrorist groups (such as white supremacists), even though drugs and gangs have not become any less serious a problem.[6]

The United States should try to think like the terrorists and allocate its defenses accordingly: what targets would resonate with the overseas audiences the salafi jihadists seek to impress. National leadership is an obvious target (and one that is already well defended). Military bases are also targets as attacks on U.S. military forces are a feather in al-Qa’ida’s cap because they avoid the opprobrium that comes with attacks on civilians. Other targets, such as nuclear and chemical plants and dams, warrant a prominent place on the defense list because of the possibility of mass casualties. Even if they are lower on the salafi jihadists’ target list, they deserve extra scrutiny. Defenses should be concentrated on cities that have an international profile–Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles.

An important question to ask is “what are we not defending?” If the answer is that we want to defend all plausible targets, we will fail. Our effort will be overstretched, poorly coordinated, and inordinately expensive. In most low-priority cases, the standard defenses already in place for crime and accidents would suffice. If we overextend our defense networks to include all low-tech targets, we will reach the point where defenses will simply break down—a problem that many proponents of endless spending on homeland defense seem to miss.

Whether we try to defend all targets or not, some attacks will occur. If the passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 63 had been a little less alert (or Richard Reid, the “shoebomber,” had been a little less stupid), there would have been many dead Americans. At some point, the attackers will be either exceptionally skilled, as they were on 9/11, or simply lucky, and Americans will die. Defenses can reduce the overall risk of terrorism, but they cannot eliminate it.

Perception Management and Societal Resilience

An important but often ignored part of homeland security is perception management. As scholar John Mueller contends: “The costs of terrorism commonly come much more from hasty, ill-considered, and over wrought reactions (or overreactions) to it than from anything terrorists have done.”[7] After 9/11, Americans flew less and took fewer vacations, which led to massive job losses in the aviation and tourism industries. As Mueller further notes, the anthrax attacks that killed five people in 2001 have cost the U.S. Postal Service $5 billion: a billion dollars per death.

In the United States the biggest risks are psychological, political, and economic. But because of the high level of fear that already exists, politicians sometimes overreact to terrorism, and, even fan the flames of fear. Instead, government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security should counter these fears by reinforcing the true odds of dying from a terrorist attack. To avoid frightening people, public alerts should be used sparingly. Since 9/11, alerts have been issued in response to intelligence chatter such as threats suggesting attacks on transatlantic flights or during major sporting and political events. Each alert creates panic, and yet at the same each desensitizes the public to the real threat.

A particularly important perception that should be countered is the threat from chemical, radiological, and non-infectious biological weapons such as anthrax. Typically these weapons kill far fewer people than explosives. Yet as the anthrax attacks in 2001 demonstrated, they can instill fear throughout the country. A constant message that reinforces the limited damage of these weapons would offset their psychological power. As they fight misperceptions about the risk of terrorism, U.S. leaders should also focus on building societal resilience.

American Muslims: Our Biggest Ally

Currently, the United States enjoys an overwhelming advantage in the war on terrorism: a supportive American Muslim community. The European experience demonstrates the problems that can arise if resident Muslims are discontent. Unlike in Europe, the Muslim community in the United States is not a fertile ground for radicalism. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by infiltrators from abroad, not home-grown terrorists. Many American Muslims are educated professionals who are well integrated into American society. Often, they have higher average incomes than do non-Muslims. Polls taken shortly after 9/11 indicated that the vast majority see U.S. efforts after 9/11 as directed against terrorism, not Islam.[8] The various plots uncovered since 9/11 have all involved small, disconnected groups and individuals rather than a larger, country-wide network. Several appear to have been discovered with information volunteered from the local Muslim community.

But American Muslim suspicions of the government are growing. Because of measures taken to interview Arab-Americans and to fingerprint and photograph immigrant men, many in this community believes they are being unfairly harassed. Efforts to monitor nongovernmental organizations that may have links to terrorist groups have drawn criticism for interfering with Muslims’ religious obligation to contribute to charity.

These perceptions have made it difficult for police to increase trust between the community and local authorities. As one police officer lamented: “Suppose I get a call about suspicious activity. I have to respond, even if it’s based on prejudice. If I show up, the Arab American feels he is being profiled and trusts the police less. If I don’t show up, I get an angry call or complain that I am not doing my job. It’s a lose-lose situation.”[9] These suspicions can severely hamper counterterrorism efforts. In the worst case scenario, they could inspire Muslims to turn violent. But more likely and more important, the Muslim American communities might present an obstacle rather than an asset to domestic intelligence. As one police officer noted: “We can’t afford to alienate them. Otherwise, we cut off our sources of information.”[10]

To improve ties to the community, several obvious steps should be taken. These range from promoting cultural awareness among the ranks of the FBI and police to being more available to community leaders who wish to communicate their concerns. Police officers and the FBI should strive to work with community leaders, particularly the leaders of the religious community.

Before new counterterrorism measures are announced, we should consider how these measures will be perceived in the Muslim community. When possible, measures should be designed in consultation with local communities and implemented with their cooperation. Short-term and tactical benefits of tactics such as increased fingerprinting of immigrants must be weighed carefully against the possible negative externalities of these efforts. In the end, a supportive and loyal Muslim American community is far more valuable for counterterrorism than any particular piece of intelligence or law enforcement tool.

IV. Improving Information Operations

Since 9/11, the United States has expanded its public diplomacy to win support for U.S. policies. In an attempt to be reach a young audience, the United States has created an Arabic language rock-and-roll radio station (Radio Sawa) and a satellite news station (al-Hurra). Both try to advance a more balanced picture of the news than local media outlets. In addition, through official trips and appearances on regional media such as the satellite news station Al Jazeera, U.S. officials try to explain controversial U.S. policies to skeptical audiences. The response to the U.S. effort has been tepid at best. Images of the Palestinian intifada, devastation in Iraq, and the testimony of poor treatment of Muslims who have visited America easily overshadow these well-intentioned efforts.[11]

The salafi jihadists are far more aggressive, creative, and visceral in their approach to propaganda than the United States. They post vivid images on the internet, deliver fiery sermons in mosques, and spread their message of destruction through word of mouth. Not surprisingly, study after study finds that the United States is losing the war of ideas to the salafi jihadists.

In contrast to al-Qa’ida, we do not integrate the war of ideas into our actual policy decisions. In the highest echelons of the National Security Council or other top decision making bodies, there is no post dedicated to winning over hearts and minds of our friends and our enemies. The closest position is the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. But this person has to compete with a wide range of diplomatic concerns within the State Department, to say nothing of the rest of the national security bureaucracy. American policy is thus shaped without consideration of how people around the world are likely to perceive it. Rather than consider worldwide reaction before a policy decision is made, diplomats try afterwards to spin the issue in a way that reflects favorably on the United States. The unfortunate result is that the United States fails to take advantage of opportunities to present itself in a positive light.

An obvious first step is to recognize that U.S. relief efforts in the Muslim world have a strategic as well as a humanitarian purpose. Responding to the Tsunami’s devastation in Indonesia or that of an earthquake in Pakistan wins friends and counters negative perceptions of the United States from doing the right thing. We cannot anticipate any particular disaster, but as natural disasters occur regularly we can plan to quickly seize upon the next one to show that America’s heart is in the right place.

Another way to win over key audiences is to woo non-violent Islamists as well as business leaders and media figures. This goal may seem obvious, but it is exceptionally difficult to implement. We cannot assume that “you’re either with us or against us.” The reality is that if you are not with the United States, you are not necessarily with the salafi jihadists. Some Muslims may dislike the United States because of its policies in Iraq and support for Israel; others might abhor U.S. social policies and support for area despots. AEven so, it does not mean Muslims want salafi jihadists in their midst. Reaching out to these audiences may involve bringing these people to the United States for trips and tours, thus increasing their interaction with U.S. officials. A Heritage Foundation report sensibly recommends increasing scholarships to future elites as a way of shaping the next generation.[12]

The United States should be realistic about the possible outcome of such outreach efforts. Rather than expect these officials to become friendly to the United States, we should assume that, at best, they will be more willing to support their local governments against the salafi jihadists, and less likely to view those who use violence as a necessary evil. If the Islamists and other elites themselves were to meet occasionally with U.S. officials or if they were to visit the United States periodically, local governments’ ties to the United States would no longer be seen as a blanket endorsement of U.S. policies. But, to gain more traction with these audiences, the United States would have to make policy concessions – something it so far has been loathe to do, often for good reasons.

Going Negative

Even more important than reaching out to non-violent Islamists is changing the terms of the debate in the Middle East. Rather than focus on supposed U.S. crimes, the debate should center on the very real brutalities of the salafi jihadists. The United States can highlight the victims of terrorism, particularly those who are Arabs, Muslims, or children. For the moderates and even some extremists, no matter how noble a cause al-Qa’ida claims to represent, these victims are off limits. Governments such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Algeria have conducted successful information programs that have discredited the salafi jihadists with many domestic audiences, which often oppose specifics of the salafi jihadists’ agenda and worry about violence and social chaos.

Washington and its allies should also play up the salafi jihadists’ aversion to traditional Islamic practices. Salafis oppose all forms of syncretism and what they see as idol worship. Salafi jihadists take this aversion one step further and often declare more spiritual tendencies within Islam, such as Sufi movements, to be heretics. They may also desecrate graves and shrines, believing them to be idol worship. In Pakistan, salafist groups have often alienated other Muslims by their extreme stands. Because folk customs are widely practiced in the Islamic world, highlighting this hostility will decrease support for the radicals.

Initially these measures will have only a limited effect on the salafi jihadists. Over time, however, recruits and funds will diminish, and communities will be more likely to lend a hand to the police than provide a hiding place for terrorists.

Bureaucratic Changes

To better wage the war of ideas, the United States should undertake a series of bureaucratic changes. One shift is to elevate voices for public diplomacy in parts of the government beyond the State Department. Rather than force diplomats to work with policy after it has been formulated, the policy’s effects on the Muslim street should be considered before is drafted. But while public diplomacy must be integrated at the national level, much of the actual ideas and implementation should be done at the local level. Embassy officials in particular are well-positioned to determine what messages will and will not work in their country: what plays in Morocco may not play in Indonesia.

V. Diplomacy

International cooperation is vital to the war on terrorism. Whether we bomb Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, work with Thailand to capture local al-Qa’ida members, or press the United Arab Emirates to halt its citizens’ financial support for salafi jihadists, all efforts require assistance from allied governments.

For the purpose of effective counterterrorism, the United States must restructure its foreign policy to make new alliances possible and strengthen old ones. The most important thing the United States can do is identify and court new partners. For the purposes of the war on terrorism, our list of key allies should shift. Britain, Canada, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey remain high on the list of essential allies, just as they were during the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War eras. Now that the U.S. focus is on al-Qa’ida and the broader salafi jihadist movement, China, Japan, and South Korea are lower on the list, though they remain vital for non-terrorism issues. Several new countries have emerged. Before 9/11, Afghanistan, Jordan, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen were not considered allies (and Afghanistan, of course, was an enemy). Now they join the list of countries essential to fighting terrorism. The most important new partners are India, Indonesia, Iraq, and Pakistan, all of which are at the center of the struggle against terrorism.

In only a few of these countries does the United States have embassies large enough to reach out to all important government agencies, develop contacts among local elites, and woo the broader population. Both the money and personnel devoted to these countries should be increased. In addition, the United States must improve its reach outside the capital, working with local officials and elites and developing a better intelligence base in remote parts of the country.

Given the vital role allies play, improved intelligence sharing is essential for success against terrorists. But because intelligence is easily compromised, agencies generally oppose sharing sensitive information with multiple partners. Unfortunately, information sharing with allies reflects a Cold War counterintelligence environment in which a highly skilled adversary sought to exploit any weakness. Not surprisingly, the United States has moved fitfully on intelligence sharing even though Washington has greatly expanded the number of partnerships and the volume of information exchanged. Al-Qa’ida too is skilled, but its counterintelligence capabilities are a shadow of the Soviet Union’s. Perhaps more important, al-Qa’ida is likely to exploit information gained from public sources—newspaper articles and court records. Information sharing procedures should be loosened to reflect this different counterintelligence environment—in contrast to the past, guarding against a spy among our ranks is less important than ensuring that critical information does not leak from careless or politicized officials.

To ensure the quality of the intelligence that the allies provide, counterintelligence against allied security services is vital. Washington must be sure that allies are on board and that the information being passed to Washington is complete and accurate. It is vital for the United States to know if allied services are withholding information or, even worse, if they have been penetrated by al-Qa’ida.

A Better Debate

Many of the most sensitive issues for counterterrorism today—renditions, expanded wiretapping authority, new judicial procedures, targeted killings, and so on— lie in the gray area between the rule of law and the nation’s security. The merit of these measures depends not only on an objective determination of the threat, but also on how much Americans are willing to sacrifice: a political rather than policy question. An honest debate would serve our country well, and thus I particularly welcome hearings like these, even though the subject matter is grim.

To succeed in the long-term, counterterrorism policies must be politically viable for decades. I do not know who will win the presidential election in 2008, let alone in the years to come, but I do know that in the next 25 years the United States is likely to have both conservative and liberal leaders. Policies that sway with the political winds of the day will suffer from inevitable beginners’ mistakes and transition costs. Moreover, those who implement them will be hesitant as they will correctly fear that they may be hung out to dry should political circumstances shift. As a result, policy should rest on a large degree of consensus and on well-informed and unbiased debate, even though this will be difficult to forge in today’s political environment.

[1] This testimony draws heavily on my recently released book, The Five Front War: The Better Way to Fight Global Jihad (Wiley, 2008).

[2] The ability to recruit and replace lost cadre is vital for successful terrorist organizations. Kim Cragin and Sara A. Daly, The Dynamic Terrorist Threat: An Assessment of Group Motivations and Capabilities in a Changing World (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2003), 34-36.

[3] For a discussion on the nationalistic backlash outside occupiers face, see David Edelstein, “Occupational Hazards: Why Military Occupations Succe