In Fact, We do Have A Counter-Terrorism Strategy -- And Experts Say It's Producing Results

One of the core elements of the Administration's strategy has been to go about the business of blocking violent extremists without giving them the gratification of talking about them in public all the time.
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Today John Boehner made the nonsensical claim that the Administration doesn't actually have a strategy for combating terrorism. Since one of the core elements of the Administration's strategy has been to go about the business of blocking violent extremists without giving them the gratification of talking about them in public all the time, perhaps it's understandable that a few of his colleagues could use a little primer as well.

The good news: the US does have a counter-terrorism strategy, and some experts believe its first year has shown results in dismantling terrorist leadership in Indonesia, the Philippines and Pakistan; pushing Al Qaeda into a funding crisis; and helping lower Muslim public support for extremists while improving support for the US.

The bad news: our national security and homeland security apparatus still has a significant problem with intelligence management and sharing; airport security could still be better but will never be foolproof, even if we all fly naked; and too much of American political discourse is still geared toward over-the-top partisanship and overreaction -- which is exactly what a weakened Al Qaeda leadership wants. What's worse: a counter-terrorism strategy can only fix the first two of those three problems. Only public punishment can do anything about the third.

Does the Administration Have a Terrorism Strategy?
Well, gee, what does the president say?

We know that al Qaeda is actively planning to attack us again. We know that this threat will be with us for a long time, and that we must use all elements of our power to defeat it. (Obama at the National Archives, 5/21/09.)

What Is It?

John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism czar, laid out the overarching strategy in a speech at CSIS in August. Briefly: "disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaida and its allies" in the short term, with the longer-term goal of making

The short-term challenge is met by:
•Confronting Al Qaeda directly in Afghanistan and Pakistan;
•Sharing intelligence and building government capacity in Africa to limit terrorist activity there
•Use the banking network to disrupt funding
•Use law enforcement to break up planned attacks and prosecute the attackers
•Focus on preventing the most catastrophic outcome - terrorists with nuclear weapons
•Rev up our bioterrorism defenses
•Improve intelligence-gathering and sharing.

To succeed at the long-term challenge, though, which is the overall threat posed by violent extremism, the key is understanding that "terrorism is a tactic, and you can never defeat a tactic." Brennan noted that it is a challenge "you can't shoot yourself out of." This, of course, is the approach that Boehner, Cheney and co. reject. It demands defining the problem precisely but not letting the US be defined by our concern with violent extremists; isolating the extremists from their sources of support; attacking the oppression and despair in which they flourish; and ultimately empowering their own societies to flourish and disempower them.

How Should We Judge Whether It Is Working?

The bipartisan American Security Project puts out an annual report, "Are We Winning?" which looks at ten metrics - from overall levels of attacks to terrorist groups' financial strength to the cohesion of their leadership to Muslim public opinion. Their 2009 report, issued December 14, found positive trends in four of the indicators, negative trends in two, and uncertainty in the remaining four.

What produced those positive trends? Drone and other attacks targeting senior Al Qaeda and related leaders, the authors contend; stepped-up assaults on Al Qaeda financing; renewed global regard for the US and distaste for terrorists. Worth noting that all that happened even as overall, global levels of terrorist attacks rose this past year.

They and other analysts have found that, from Afghanistan to Somalia, many insurgent groups have turned to local battles and away from Osama Bin Laden's call to focus on "the far enemy" (the United States). Thus, overall violence has spiked, but Al Qaeda's capabilities are diminishing. Something specific is happening to degrade and deter terrorist groups that used to target primarily the US and its interests.

That's a very different picture from Dick Cheney's assertion that Obama is "trying to pretend we're not at war."

So What Does this Incident Tell Us?

It ought to be possible, in a non-partisan way, to say that this was a serious wake-up call on three fronts: improving our intelligence coordination, using the best screening technology we have, and not over-reacting - because that's what our enemies hope we will do, as Jane Harman pointed out here.

Terrorism expert Evan Kholmann points the finger at intelligence reform - and away from the easy fixes that TSA's critics are calling for or the wide-scale pre-emptive bombing that Joe Lieberman seems to desire - like this:

The real way to keep intended terrorists out of the United States is not to force wheelchair-bound seniors to take their shoes off when boarding a flight, nor to have mothers sip their pre-packaged infant formula. Terrorism is not a mass phenomenon. It is a problem of a small number of people working in groups of twos and threes. The real answer to this challenge is intelligence -- and recognizing the threat long before it ever reaches U.S. shores.

It also ought to be possible to say, as Matt Yglesias did a couple days back, that while any attempt on any airliner or any threat against anyone's life is one too many, this was a pretty degraded effort compared to what we saw eight years ago.

What About Yemen?

Should you worry about Yemen? Yes. Six months ago, Foreign Policy magazine described Yemen this way: "Many worry Yemen is the next Afghanistan: a global problem wrapped in a failed state." If this makes you think that Dick Cheney and his colleagues who brought you Afghanistan in its current sorry state are probably not the people to tell us how to deal with the threat of terrorism originating in Yemen - or, for that matter, the ones best-placed to judge the success of the Administration's strategy -- three cheers.

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