A new approach by terrorists relies on operatives with little training who don’t fit the traditional profile for attacks of little sophistication but with very lethal intent.
“We will destroy al-Qaeda.”
That’s how John Brennan capped his presentation Wednesday morning on counterterrorism’s role in the forthcoming National Security Strategy, and the often intense White House senior counterterrorism adviser smiled a bit as he said it. His exploration of the administration’s pathway for getting there was mostly familiar. “A broad, sustained integrated campaign” making use of “every tool of American power: military, civilian, kinetic and diplomatic, and indeed, the power of our values and partnerships,” will sustain “pressure” on al-Qaeda in “Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond” while addressing the “political, economic and social forces” that can create either demand for extremism among populations or acquiescence to it. Judge for yourself how that fits within the broader National Security Strategy.
[Security1] But Brennan did highlight a new development the Obama administration faces — and subtly defended a controversial tactic that he says contributed to it. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have entered a “new phase” of their campaign against the United States, relying on operatives with “little training” who don’t fit “the traditional profile of a terrorist” for attacks of “little sophistication but with very lethal intent.” English-speaking al-Qaeda allies like California metalhead-turned-extremist Adam Gadahn and Yemen-based radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, both American citizens, seek to inspire people already in America to execute their own independently planned terrorist attacks.
All of these moves, Brennan said, are tactical responses from al-Qaeda to a successful pressure campaign from the U.S. and its allies abroad to reduce its safe havens and to hardened U.S. homeland security measures by law enforcement and at ports of entry, for which the Bush administration deserves some credit. And in only the vaguest terms, without making an explicit reference, he suggested that the drone strikes the administration has accelerated and exported in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan are a principle reason for al-Qaeda’s adjustment. Limited by an ability to speak publicly about a classified program, Brennan signaled as well that the administration is concerned that blowback from civilians killed by the drones could turn tactical success into strategic failure — but thinks the problem is under control.
In all efforts, we will exercise force prudently, recognizing that we often need to use a scalpel and not a hammer. When we know that terrorist networks are plotting against us, we have a responsibility to take action to defend ourselves, and we will do so. At the same time, an action that eliminates a single terrorist but causes civilian casualties can in fact inflame local populations and create far more problems. A tactical success but a strategic failure. So we need to ensure that our actions are more precise and more accurate than ever before. This is something that President Obama not only expects but demands.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to independently verify Brennan’s claims. Anecdotal reporting indicates that the drone program is expanding beyond precisely targeted top extremist leaders to mid-level operatives and below. There’s also a low-level rumbling in intelligence circles that the CIA’s drone strikes cause fewer civilian casualties than those executed by the military, particularly in Afghanistan, and the agency doesn’t like the media conflating two different programs. But any differences in impact on local populations are extraordinarily difficult to verify.
Brennan’s forecast of success against al-Qaeda rested on another foundation: It’s in America’s power to determine how it will react to terrorism. Al-Qaeda’s enduring strategy is to get America to “overextend” itself and compromise its values, thereby weakening the sources of its strength and isolating it internationally, until it retracts its overall global posture. “We must be honest with ourselves,” Brennan warned. “No nation, no matter how powerful, can prevent every attack from coming to fruition.” But just as the U.S. has an obligation to destroy al-Qaeda proactively, he said, it also has a responsibility not to overreact in the event of a successful attack.
“Al-Qaeda can sew explosives into their clothes, and can place explosives in an SUV, but it is our choice how to react,” he said. “They can seek to recruit people already living among us but it is our choice to treat those communities with suspicion or to support those communities.”
I asked Brennan if the Obama administration was counterproductively compromising American values by retaining policies of indefinite suspension without charge at Guantanamo Bay and beyond. “When this administration came in, in January of last year, we dealt with a number of legacy situations that we wanted to make sure we were able to deal with appropriately without compromising the security of the American people,” Brennan said.
I think as everybody recognizes, on both sides of the political spectrum, the situation at Guantanamo is a very, very difficult and challenging one. I think that even as the president said he was determined to close Guantanamo within one year, it still remains open because the president is determined not to do anything that would compromise America’s security. It is something that we are working very closely with the Congress on. We are trying to do things in a very thoughtful manner. We have transferred about 50 of those detainees over the past year and a half, and we’re continuing to look at their situations there. But this is a challenge that we need to look at from a policy perspective, from a legal perspective as well as from a security perspective.
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