In an interview with the Washington Post in May 2008, for instance, then–CIA Director Michael Hayden heralded al-Qaeda’s “near strategic defeat” in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and cited “significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally.” Then, shortly after President Obama took office, senior intelligence officers were similarly quoted by National Public Radio claiming that the movement’s ranks had been “decimated” and that al-Qaeda was “really, really struggling” as a result of what was described as “a significant, significant degradation of al-Qaeda command and control.”
These upbeat assessments continued throughout last summer and fall when the intensified unmanned-aerial-drone attacks authorized by President Obama were credited with having eliminated over half of al-Qaeda’s remaining senior leadership. “Al-Qaeda is under more pressure, is facing more challenges, and is a more vulnerable organization than at any time since the attacks on 11 September 2001,” Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, declared last September.
Then came the Christmas Day plot and only days later the suicide attack on a U.S. military base in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven key CIA operatives. Indeed, these developments, among others, prompted the director of national intelligence, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency all to agree in response to a question from Senator Dianne Feinstein when they testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence this February that al-Qaeda is virtually “certain” to attempt to attack the United States within the next six months.
Yet within weeks the administration was back on message when the director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, returned to the familiar claim that the Predator attacks “are seriously disrupting al-Qaeda.” “It’s pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting,” Panetta stated in March, “that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run.”
THE OPERABLE assumption, like the infamous body counts that masqueraded as progress during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, is that we can kill our way to victory. Long ago, David Galula, a French army officer and arguably still today the world’s preeminent expert on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, wrote about the fallacy of a strategy that relies primarily on decapitation. In Pacification in Algeria, 1956–1958, first published by the RAND Corporation in 1963, Galula explains how the capture in 1957 of the top-five leaders of the Algerian National Liberation Front, the terrorist-cum-guerrilla group that the French battled for eight long years before giving up in exhaustion, “had little effect on the direction of the rebellion, because the movement was too loosely organized to crumble under such a blow.” Half a century later, he could just as easily be talking about al-Qaeda.
Israel, moreover, has similarly pioneered and relied heavily on the use of targeted killings for more than three decades—yet Palestinian terrorism continues. It eliminated Hamas’s chief bomb maker in 1996; suicide terrorist attacks thereafter escalated both in frequency and intensity. In 2004, Israel assassinated Hamas’s leader and founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and then just weeks later killed the movement’s political head, Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Their assassinations would arguably be equivalent to the back-to-back killing of both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. Yet, even despite the loss of Hamas’s spiritual and political leaders, the threat to Israel hardly diminished—and eventually prompted the Israel Defense Forces’ massive ground invasion of Gaza in December 2008.
In the context of America’s war on terrorism, a U.S. air strike in 2006 killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As important and as significant a blow as this was, al-Zarqawi’s death did not end AQI attacks and, indeed, following his killing, violence attributed to the group actually increased.
The above examples are not meant to imply that killing and capturing terrorists should not be a top priority in any war on terrorism. Only that such measures—without accompanying or attendant efforts to stanch the flow of new recruits into a terrorist organization—amount to a tactical holding operation at best. That is not the genuinely game-changing strategic reversal that attrition of terrorist leaders in tandem with concerted counter-radicalization efforts to hamper recruitment can ultimately achieve.
No one denies that the drone program has been effective in making the lives of al-Qaeda’s leaders far more difficult by forcing them to pay ever-more attention to their own security and survival. It is, of course, essential to the war against terrorism. Rather, the point is to emphasize that a lone tactic has never proven successful in defeating a terrorist organization. And the drone program is just a tactic; it is not a strategy. At the end of the day, the unmanned Predator and Reaper attacks can hold al-Qaeda at bay and disrupt its operations, but they can neither eliminate the network entirely nor completely neutralize the threat that it poses.
THIS SUCCESSION of terrorist plots that unfolded with depressing and unprecedented regularity throughout 2009 is frightening indeed. More worrisome is that they have continued into 2010. During the first three months of the New Year, three more cases of homegrown terrorist recruitment in the United States had already come to light.
The first, in March, again involved a Somali American who was indicted in a New York district of the federal-court system on charges of raising funds for al-Shabab (an al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic organization that controls large parts of southern Somalia) and with helping to recruit persons in the United States for the group. He is also alleged to have received training at an al-Shabab camp, including in bomb-making and bomb-detonation skills. The second involves a New Jersey man whose mother is Somali, but who hooked up with AQAP in Yemen. And the third is a somewhat-peculiar case involving two female would-be jihadis from Pennsylvania and Colorado. One of the women, a petite, middle-aged, blue-eyed blonde, used the online moniker “JihadJane” to recruit others in the United States and abroad, supposedly to carry out a terrorist attack in Sweden. She boasted in e-mails how, given her appearance, she would “blend in with many people.” She in particular sought to recruit other Western women who looked like her. David Kris, an assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, was quoted in the Washington Post as stating that the fact that a suburban American woman stands accused of conspiring to support terrorists and traveling overseas to implement an attack “underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face.” Moreover, U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence officials are reportedly deeply troubled by the unexpected speed with which all of these people were recruited, radicalized and operationally deployed. The times are rapidly changing, and we are undoubtedly falling behind.
...Yet, inconsistency and uncertainty seem to dominate our approach to counterterrorism today. We claim success while al-Qaeda is regrouping and tally killed leaders while more devious plans are being hatched—evinced no more clearly than in the case of that Christmas bomb plot and quick follow-up with the deadly suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan. A “decimated” terrorist movement “on the run” does not pull off two separate incidents less than a week apart and call into question the effectiveness of our entire national-security architecture. As a seasoned CIA counterterrorism veteran told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius regarding the Afghanistan suicide attack: “They didn’t get lucky, they got good and we got sloppy.” Another former senior U.S. intelligence official was similarly quoted in the Wall Street Journal commenting that the attack in Khost was “very sophisticated for a terrorist group that’s supposedly on the run.” Still more perplexing is how Vice President Joe Biden could unequivocally claim that al-Qaeda is “on the run” when the administration’s top intelligence officials warned the Senate of an almost “certain” risk of a future al-Qaeda attack just the week before.
THE U.S. government routinely focuses on understanding how American foreign policy affects foreign opinion and attitudes and, specifically, how it may accentuate or exacerbate overseas threats against us. Given the unprecedented number of jihadi or jihadi-related incidents in the United States this past year, new attention also needs to be paid to how American foreign policy affects domestic opinion, attitudes and, unfortunately, even threats emanating from within our country. We must begin to systematically address the threats both at home and abroad.
It seems clear now from the litany of homegrown, near-disastrous incidents that this is a problem of the highest order. And beyond the laundry list of specific cases, over the past year American and British intelligence officers have repeatedly cited at least one hundred terrorists who are believed to have already, in their words, “graduated” from al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan and deployed to their native and adopted homes to undertake terrorist operations in the West. In retrospect, people like Najibullah Zazi, Bryant Neal Vinas and David Headley were already among this number. Better understanding how our actions are perceived and utilized by the enemy is more urgent than ever.
...Bruce Hoffman, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. He is currently a public-policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.