Combatting Terrorism in 2010

Examining The Elements of The US Counterterrorism Strategy

Soldier in Afghanistan
MILpictures by Tom Weber/Getty Images

Yemen: The New Battleground in the War on Terror

Yemen is the latest front in the battle against Al-Qaeda and terrorism. The Christmas Day bomber from Nigeria met with a radical Islamic cleric in Yemen prior to trying to detonate a small explosive device on Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. Al-Qaeda has a sizable presence in Yemen, and the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branches of Al-Qaeda have joined forces. Yet America has no troops in Yemen even though there are likely more terrorists in Yemen than in Afghanistan.

After eight years of fighting the war in Afghanistan, the Obama Administration deliberated whether to support a troop surge recommended by General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US forces in Afghanistan or opt for a counter-terror approach focused on attacking Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. President Obama ultimately selected the surge.

Military Invasions Cannot Stop Small-Scale Terror Attempts

However, a surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, or even 300,000, cannot nullify terrorists emerging from Yemen, Pakistan or other countries. There will never be a sufficient number of US troops to patrol every terrorist hotbed. Terrorism is a global threat emanating from sources all over the world including the United States. Placing soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan will not preclude incidents like an underwear bomb on an airplane.

So, if large-scale military invasions and nation-building are not effective tools of counterterrorism, then how does the US combat terrorism? What are some of the key elements of a global counterterrorism strategy? A revised counterterrorism strategy might emphasize intelligence, protecting America's borders and overseas assets, and being able to strike at known terrorists anywhere in the world over a full-scale assault on terrorism in priority locations.

Elements of a Counterterrorism Strategy

The US Government is currently pursuing all of the following counterterrorism activities. A revised strategy could emphasize these elements over protracted military campaigns and have an overall plan of action with clear leadership and lines of communication.

  • Intelligence sharing. While there is a National Counterterrorism Center, there has not been an extant culture of information sharing within the US intelligence community. The US intelligence community must be able to fuse intelligence data, diplomatic reports, and open-source information and distribute it to the relevant parties in a real-time fashion. For example, there was a diplomatic cable from the State Department warning about Umar Farouk Muttalib, the Nigerian bomber, but it was not sufficient evidence to place him on a no-fly list. Yet, no one at the National Counterterrorism Center used that information to cross-check to see if other sources warned about Muttalib. A critical element is ensuring data is shared with local police in foreign countries so they can arrest potential terrorists before they execute their plans.
  • International financial cooperation. Most countries are parties to the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing to Terrorism but many countries still lack sufficient legislation to criminalize terrorist financing. Furthermore, states often lack the capability to enforce these regulations. The US and its allies would need to provide technical assistance to help many of the countries in the Middle East and South Asia cut off finance to terrorists.
  • Increased use of drones. The use of drones or Predator unmanned aerial vehicles carrying weapons to attack terrorists or terrorist installations has become a focal point of the Obama strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. More CIA drone attacks have been conducted under President Obama than under President George W. Bush. While the ethics of drone attacks have been challenged by the Pakistani Government, they clearly provide a method of neutralizing terrorists without a military presence.
  • Renditions. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US was criticized for renditions or secret abductions of suspected terrorists to third-party countries for interrogation. Suspects purportedly were brought to secret prisons operated by the CIA and tortured. Renditions have been an effective tool in capturing international criminals for many years. Carlos the Jackal, the infamous terrorist, and assassin, was captured by rendition. The Obama Administration has not ruled out the use of renditions. To ensure that renditions are effective and do not violate human rights, there must be strict standards regarding holding locations (no secret prisons), conduct of interrogation, evidence against the suspect and how long a suspect can be held without being released or tried. The prospects of abuse are reduced by an approval through a classified court or external review proceeding prior to executing the rendition.
  • Raids on terrorist bases, safe havens and training camps. When terrorist bases and training camps are located on foreign soil, governments are encouraged to take action to destroy those sites. Recently, the Governments of Pakistan and Yemen have taken action against terrorists. In the event that foreign governments are unable or unwilling to take action against terrorists, the US would be prepared to do so. This means re-orienting military missions and capabilities from establishing strongholds in places like Baghdad, Kabul, and Kandahar to launching quick strikes at terrorist sites. Since any military strike on another sovereign nation's territory brings international political fallout, US intelligence and military officials must be certain about the target and in sync prior to action.
  • Development aid. Osama Bin Laden is the exception to the rule. Most terrorists are not from wealthy Saudi business families. Generally, terrorists are disaffected politically and economically. Providing aid to improve economic opportunity and political life in terrorist breeding grounds may reduce the sense of despair and incentive to commit acts of terror.

    It should be noted that this strategy focuses on countering terror from foreign sources. Domestic terror is equally dangerous and also demands a coherent, multifaceted strategy.