June 1, 2008  

The counterterrorism paradox

Put the terrorist threat in perspective

Almost seven years after the 9/11 attacks, the primary military manifestations of America’s global war on terrorism are the seemingly interminable campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet there is little evidence that these operations are doing much to reduce the international terrorist threat to America’s homeland, people and interests.

International terrorism cannot be neutralized through large-scale employment of armed forces. What these wars have demonstrated is that the U.S. does not possess a clear understanding of the threat environment, nor does it have an effective overall strategy or appropriate military forces to mitigate this threat. America faces a threat that is globally diffuse and adaptable. It is, therefore, necessary for the U.S. to adopt a subtler strategy that enlists the aid of allies around the world, and develop similarly subtle forces to counter terrorist groups abroad.

The U.S. is in the paradoxical situation in which al-Qaida-type international terrorism is the most direct security threat, but this threat is less significant in strategic military terms. It is essential to keep this threat in perspective. The Soviet Union, armed with thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons, presented an existential danger to the U.S. Although terrorists clearly have the potential to kill U.S. citizens in large numbers and disrupt American prosperity through low-technology but innovative and highly effective means, the damage that they can inflict is orders of magnitude less than that which the Soviet Union posed or some hypothetical future peer competitor would pose. That is not to understate the destruction that terrorists can cause or the importance of countering international terrorism. The proliferation of modern communications and weapons technologies has placed increasingly destructive capabilities at the disposal of more people worldwide, ensuring that the potential for terrorist attacks capable of killing hundreds or thousands will be an enduring threat to American society. Given that the basic responsibility of the U.S. government is to protect American citizens’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, deterring and countering terrorist attacks must be a priority in any U.S. defense strategy.

However, the terrorist threat is not one that can be deterred or countered in the conventional sense. Threatening states can be contained through networks of security alliances with other states; in war, their infrastructure can be targeted for destruction and their military forces defeated by superior arms. State leaders generally have something valuable to lose, such as their own political power, should they to go to war and be defeated, rendering challenging other states or alliances of states with significant military capabilities an unattractive option. But when facing al-Qaida, an amorphous clandestine network of extremist individuals with a predilection for suicidal attacks on American and allied citizens, none of these conditions exist. Al-Qaida usually resides close to civilian populations that either are acquiescent or openly sympathetic to the terrorist cause, and within states that lack the capacity to confront the problem. The U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban regime and elimination of terrorist bases in Afghanistan in 2001 was a defeat for the main terrorist threat facing the country, but a July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) found that al-Qaida has “protected or regenerated key elements of its [U.S.] homeland attack capability, including: a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and key leaders.”

That is problematic enough, but al-Qaida and other terrorist groups increasingly may not need even this minimal infrastructure. As the same NIE states, “globalization trends and recent technological advances will continue to enable even small numbers of alienated people to … mobilize resources to attack — all without requiring a centralized terrorist organization, training camp, or leader.” Groups with aspirations to attack Americans or their allies may be increasingly formed via online communication and information-sharing. The U.S. intelligence community assessed in 2006 that “the global jihadist movement is decentralized … and is becoming more diffuse” as “self-radicalized cells” sprout independently in European countries’ Muslim diaspora populations to carry out attacks such as the bombings of transportation systems in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. As former CIA officer Marc Sageman describes, the new generation of radical Islamist terrorists has not “been trained in terrorist camps” and probably has no direct links to al-Qaida Central. Rather, they are self-recruited, “self-financed and self-trained” individuals already living in Western countries who “form fluid, informal networks” through the Internet, a phenomenon known as “leaderless jihad.” These diffuse cells may be too small and unsophisticated to perpetrate such a complicated action as happened on Sept. 11, 2001, but they have already demonstrated the ability to carry out effective attacks. Therefore, although the most lethal terrorist threat may be hiding in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan and needs bases to develop effectively, the more immediate threat lies within America’s most capable allies in Western Europe.

In the face of this danger, America’s military operations since 2001 have failed to adequately address the problem and in some ways have actually been counterproductive. Afghanistan was handled well early on, with special operations forces and covert operatives linking with local friendly forces to defeat the Taliban and target al-Qaida bases with significant help from precision strikes by U.S. warplanes. The invasion of Iraq was of questionable value mainly because there was little evidence to suggest that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a significant supporter of al-Qaida or other terrorists directly threatening America. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military became deeply involved in nation-building and counterinsurgency roles aimed at rebuilding these countries into strong allied states capable of combating terrorism. The strategic objective of these campaigns has been akin to Thomas P.M. Barnett’s recommendation in “The Pentagon’s New Map” that the U.S. can best defend itself from international terrorism by shrinking the world’s “Non-Integrating Gap” — the countries of the world that are cut off from globalization’s benefits of good governance and high standards of living and, thus, are apt to become breeding grounds for terrorists. Through military intervention in “Gap” countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Barnett’s strategy assumes, the U.S. can help reintegrate them into the prosperous modern world order and thereby prevent them from producing or harboring terrorists.


This strategic vision has some merit, but it overlooks three key problems. First, terrorists are not necessarily products of political oppression or poor living standards in the Third World. Many of al-Qaida’s leaders and operators are from reasonably privileged or well-to-do backgrounds and have experienced life and education in America or Europe. Secondly, although there is clearly the potential for terrorist havens in failed states around the world, al-Qaida-associated terrorist cells are capable of operating clandestinely in well-developed countries without supporting bases. Finally, large-scale military interventions as advocated by Barnett and practiced by the U.S. military generate resentments that help fuel international terrorism. According to U.S. intelligence in 2006, the “Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” The increased U.S. military presence in the Middle East in direct combat roles confirms terrorist narratives of an American war on Islam and generates popular sympathies in the Muslim world for their cause. This state of affairs puts U.S. policymakers in a very difficult position. On the one hand, there is a need to prevent the establishment of terrorist safe havens in ungoverned parts of the globe and to eliminate key terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden who most likely are hiding in those ungoverned regions. On the other hand, military actions in failed states do little to counter or prevent attacks by diffuse Western-grown cells, and visible uses of military force to “shrink the Gap” inflame popular resentments that inspire potential terrorists.

The best way to approach the challenge of countering international terrorist groups is a lower-profile global strategy focused on cultivating strong alliances with foreign governments and their security forces and then working with and through them. Rather than getting caught up in the sweeping righteous rhetoric and overly ambitious objectives of the global war on terrorism, the U.S. should take a moderate and subtle approach to a moderate and subtle threat. Terrorism worldwide is a violent political strategy to influence governments to change policies and peoples to change their ways of life; therefore, the most important role that U.S. forces can play around the world is to improve the capabilities and resolve of allied nations to counter terrorist groups that exist on their soil. Where there are governments struggling against terrorist groups that require assistance, the U.S. should offer support in the form of training their security forces, advising them on operational strategy and tactics for hunting down terrorist groups, and equipping them to ensure that they have the necessary edge in firepower over their enemies. At the core of this strategy is the recognition that unilateral American military power will not solve the problem, that there never will be enough U.S. forces to maintain order and counter terrorism in all of the world’s trouble spots, and that large-scale U.S. military interventions in certain parts of the world generate resentment and hostility that helps the cause of international terrorist groups. The guiding principle for the “train, advise, equip” model is to minimize the visible U.S. role. Therefore, allied governments, rather than the U.S., must take the lead in countering the terrorists and adopting a political strategy to undermine any popular sympathy for them. The military aspect described here is only one aspect of support for allies beleaguered by terrorism. U.S. foreign aid personnel and diplomats must assist in cooperatively developing broader justice, social and economic reforms to undercut support for terrorism among alienated populations. There is potential for more military counterterrorism cooperation efforts between America and its capable European allies. For example, there is no reason NATO cannot play a role in the common defense of Europe and America by providing a forum for the development of an allied approach to counterterrorism abroad and sharing intelligence on terrorist groups.


Given the limited nature of the military role in this strategy, counterterrorism does not require vast expenditure in new technology and hardware, but rather a greater investment in human capabilities. First and foremost, this model assumes that America has the ability to effectively train and advise foreign forces. Recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has indicated that is not the case. Therefore, the U.S. must substantially boost the end strength of Army Special Forces, which has traditionally had the train-and-advise mission in its portfolio. But a global strategy of building allied security force capacity is likely to demand more trainers and advisers than the elite Special Forces can provide. The Defense Department should consider establishing a sizeable Adviser Corps dedicated to developing allied nation security forces abroad. This capability could be housed within the Army, but it might be more effective if it was a joint venture that included personnel from all the services. This counterterrorism model requires a long-term commitment of competent personnel able to operate effectively with people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and should not be limited to drawing on one service’s personnel; furthermore each service’s personnel would have specific knowledge and capabilities to impart to allied forces. It’s critical that the Adviser Corps produces local security forces that are capable of countering terrorism and insurgency, rather than mirror-imaging conventional U.S. forces, as occurred in the Vietnam War. Toward this end, the Adviser Corps should focus on training, as British counterinsurgency expert Robert Thompson described, “small, elite, highly disciplined, lightly equipped and aggressive” forces that are adaptable to the unconventional threats posed by terrorists.

Beyond the Adviser Corps, more personnel overall, particularly in the ground forces, must be imbued with region-specific linguistic and cultural skills to improve their ability to operate abroad when needed without alienating local populations. Failure to do so will have strategic consequences. As previously noted, large-scale deployments and perceived American disrespect for Islam have helped generate sympathy among Muslims around the world for the terrorist cause. Special operations forces need these linguistic and cultural skills to blend in with local populations, thus taking American fingerprints off operations to take down key terrorist leaders or facilities in countries across the globe, and to prosecute more effective psychological and information operations.

Force planning for the future should emphasize developing a broader array of human-based capabilities rather than searching in vain for a nonexistent technological solution for the adaptable, human-based threat of international terrorism.

BRIAN BURTON works at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.