Matthew Levitt

Peter’s is an excellent article. I’d submit, however, that it conflates Bin Laden with al Qaeda and I increasingly wonder if perhaps al Qaeda the organization has outgrown Bin Laden the man. After all, a persistent AQ threat does not mean Bin Laden is still calling the shots. Sadly, if it’s true that the organization has grown past the man it is another sign of just how successful he and the organization both have been.

Matthew Levitt

The either-or nature of the question misses the point. The reality is that we face BOTH a decentralized Al Qaeda manifested by self-radicalized or homegrown “bunches of guys” for whom the al Qaeda name is just a brand or symbol AND a centralized, core al Qaeda group which is still plotting and planning attacks from the Afghan/Pakistan frontier.

As I noted earlier in this discussion thread, the threat today comes from al Qaeda core, al Qaeda affiliates, and local cells. There is much to be said of both Sageman and Hoffman’s analyses, but the assumption that the core al Qaeda threat is behind us is simply belied by everything we hear from the intelligence and law enforcement communities. Recognizing the evolution toward a core group that functions as a type of symbolic leadership for a broad and decentralized movement is equally important. To date there is still no clear link between the Madrid bombers and the al Qaeda core. The link between al Qaeda and the London bombers, however, is pretty clear.

But it is also true that part of the successful evolutionary change within al Qaeda has been due to its resilience. Each time we take out an al Qaeda military commnander (Khalid Sheik Mohammed, al-Libbi, Hamza al-Ribai…) another comes along. These terrorist tacticians, however, are far more important today than Bin Laden himself. Even within the al Qaeda core leadership, it is Ayman al-Zawahiri who is the brains behind the group, as is especially evident looking at the group’s media and propaganda efforts. Capturing or killing Bin Laden would be a major psychological blow to al Qaeda (and perhaps more so to the local and independent but like-minded fellow travelers), and it would be a significant accomplishment and morale booster for the Western coalition, but it would do nothing to actually harm, diminish the capabilities of or undercut support for al Qaeda. Al Qaeda today has outgrown Bin Laden.

Matthew Levitt

Gregory offers a thoughtful analysis and has bravely baited the rest of us to respond, so I’ll take the bait. First, and just FYI, my “not unrelated” comment was intended to link energy and the economy, not the economy and terrorism.That said, there is an interesting side note to add here, though it only underlines to my mind how the recent economic downturn in particular and economics in general is mostly unrelated to efforts to combat terrorism (the exception, of course, is the tremendous costs of fighting two wars, especially the war in Iraq, which was never truly part of the poorly phrased war on terror). That is, al Qaeda has been extremely effective at conducting economic warfare — al Qaeda has expended relatively little treasure to inflict on the U.S. and the West in general exorbitant costs. Look to senior al Qaeda leaders’ statements to underscore that this is part of their strategy. Consider also the recent case in Canada involving Monin Khawaja, who reportedly wrote in a 2003 email, “So we have to come up with a way that we can drain their economy of all its resources, cripple their industries, and bankrupt their systems in place, all so that they are forced to withdraw their troops, so they cannot afford to go to war…. We need constant economic j[ihad], blow after blow, until they cripple and fall, never to rise again.” In that, despite the costs we have incurred (some unnecessarily), I submit that have and will continue to fail – but there is that connection in terms of their intent.

Gregory agrees that terrorism “is very important indeed and requires continued
maximal vigilance and sustained attention.” So the fact that al Qaeda has failed to conquer territory, while telling and a sign of its inherent bankrupt ideology, really doesn’t mitigate the threat it poses to America and its allies. And taking our allies into account is critical. Al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa, for example, may pose less of a threat to the U.S. but it is the primary threat facing our allies in much of Europe, particularly France, Spain and Italy. Giving our transatlantic relationships greater attention is not well-served by playing down the threats posed by al Qaeda’s regional affiliates. And as to the homegrown threat, the New York Police Department’s study should be a wake-up call to us all — the radicalization Peter and I have discussed in the UK context may well be happening in parts of the United States as well.

Gregory and I apparently disagree over the seriousness of the threat posed by Iran — that’s an important debate but a different one that the one we’re having now so I’ll leave that for another time. But should terrorism continue to be the – or one of the – “premier national security priorities” of the next administration (the questions we’ve been asked to address here)? Yes. Gregory’s musing whether it is also the “defining challenge of the 21st Century” is in fact a totally different question. I submit that if we give the issue the attention it needs now there is no reason it should be “the defining issue” when historians later look back at the 21st Century.

Finally, Gregory makes an important point when he highlights the growing importance of Russia, China, and India, among other states, to which we need to give greater attention. The next administration will need to walk and chew gum at the same time, focusing on counterterrorism while balancing not only other priority issues and countries but even sometimes competing foreign policy interests, as we’ve discussed earlier regarding, for example, the democracy agenda, Arab reform, combating AIDS/HIV in Africa, etc. We’ll need to deal with all these critical issues, and fix the economy and the housing market and plenty of other things at home, but combating terrorism will remain a priority for at least the next four years, so yes: it deserves to be at the very top of the next administration’s priority list.

Matthew Levitt

I do not think we are concentrating too much on terrorism, it legitimately belongs at the very top of the list of national security threats we face today. True, the nature of the transnational threats facing the world today is far different than the ones the U.S. and its allies faced on 9/11. But al-Qaeda itself remains a formidable opponent, with a resurgent core in Northwest Pakistan and affiliates and homegrown cells pose a growing threat as well.Today, the US and its allies face a three fold threat. The first is from core al Qaeda. While al Qaeda was on its “back foot” from 2004-2007, it has now “regained its equilibrium,” according to DHS Undersecretary Charlie Allen. NCTC Director Michael Leiter echoed this, warning that “I regret to say that the Al Qaeda threat still looms large.” Deputy DNI Donald Kerr offered a similar assessment, stating that “Al Qaeda remains the preeminent terror threat to the United States at home and abroad.” There are several reasons, in Dr. Kerr’s view, why core al Qaeda continues to pose such a serious threat to the US. The group has “retained or regenerated key elements of its capability, including its top leadership, operational lieutenants, and a de facto safe haven in…the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to train and deploy operatives for attacks in the West.” Al Qaeda has successfully expanded its reach with partnerships with other organizations throughout the Middle East and North Africa, which Dailey referred to as the “franchising of al Qaeda.” These affiliates include al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Finally, there are today more local groups with less direct ties to al Qaeda. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, there were almost 300 different groups involved in terrorist attacks in 2006 – most of them Sunni. In fact, according to the State Department, the terrorist threat has been transformed to the point that it now is a “form of global insurgency.”

That said, and harking back to an earlier portion of this discussion, Ido think it is critical that we leverage all elements of national power to combat this threat at both tactical (thwarting plots) and strategic (engaging in the battle of ideas) levels. It is also true that our focus on the terrorist threat has come at the expense of other important national security priorities, including promoting Arab reform, empowering Arab democrats, and more. Sadly, that did not have to be the case and rectify this imbalance will be a priority for whoever next occupies the White House.

Finally, other issues are creeping up immediate national security threats even as the terrorist threat remains. Consider, for example, the not-unrelated issues of the price of oil, the larger energy crisis, and the state of the economy. But Iran is likely to be the most critical national security threat facing the next administration. The possibility that Iran could reach the point of nuclear weapon self-sufficiency and be able to produce and nuclear weapon to go with its existing ballistic missile delivery systems within the term of the next administration will force this issue even further onto the font burner than it has been over the past few years.

Matthew Levitt

Eric raises excellent points. I’ll just add that on top of the question of whether the existing treaties do in fact cover the full waterfront on possible terrorist offenses, the lack of a common definition of terrorism has several other implications. Among them:

First, much of the debate over terrorism still focuses on the groups themselves and their underlying grievances or political objectives, not the actual acts of terrorism – the criminal terrorist offenses – they carry out. As such, the “terrorism v resistance” argument is given weight it does not deserve since the legal issue at hand is not why one carries out a criminal act of terrorism like a suicide bombing but the fact that such an act was carried out at all.Second, the 1267 committee is only authorized to deal with al Qaeda and the Taliban, so all other groups — from Hamas and Hezbollah to FARC and ETA to Kach and Kahane Chai — can only be designated unilaterally by individual countries or by regional bodies like the EU. This too is a factor of the lack of a common definition of terrorism.

Finally, on a somewhat tangential note, the U.N. should re-establish an independent monitoring group not under the thumb of the Security Council, as my colleague Mike Jacobson has argued In January 2004, the United Nations replaced the monitoring group with a team with far less autonomy after some member states complained that its reports were too critical. The monitoring team has done excellent work, and should be given full and free reign to accomplish its important Mission.

Matthew Levitt

The question is not whether our counter-terrorism strategy should be military or law enforcement centric, but rather how to develop and deploy a truly inter-agency strategy that employs all elements of national power to defeat a transnational adversary operating in an era of globalization.

The military is actively engaged in counter-terrorism, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq where it is fighting wars against asymmetric enemies, but I would dispute the assumption that counter-terrorism responsibility has fallen mainly under the purview of the military. At the same time, while acts of terrorism are themselves criminal activities, employing a counter-terrorism strategy that sees terrorism as more of a law enforcement issue is also off the mark. Both the military and law enforcement communities plays critical roles in counter-terrorism, but a truly effective counter-terrorism strategy is one that is intelligence-heavy and leverages that intelligence to inform a plan than employs all elements of national power, with a focus on non-kinetic tools and authorities.

Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that the effort to combat terrorism at a tactical level is where we are best, employing our military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to conduct operations, make arrests, raid safe havens, etc. It is at the level of strategic counter-terrorism, that is strategic communication, the battle of ideas, and counter-radicalization, that we are just now making strong strides forward (see our previous discussion chain). For example, highlighting al-Qaeda’s bankrupt ideology is now a cornerstone of the U.S. strategic communications message.

Recognizing the relationships between our various foreign policy interests also points to the need to leverage all our authorities in a strategic counterterrorism effort. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Dell Dailey made this point in a lecture at The Washington Institute in December entitled An ‘All Elements of Power’ Strategy for Combating Terrorism. “In today’s interconnected world, it is impossible to draw neat, clear lines between security interests, development efforts, and our support for democracy. American diplomacy must integrate and advance all of these goals together.”

That said, I do think we are in need of some legal remedies to our current legal system. Some of these are tactical, like passage of a new Export Administration Act (EAA) that would empower the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security to conduct arrests and engage in undercover operations more easily (the last law, now somewhat outdated too, lapsed in 2001 and BIS has been operating under emergency authorities granted by the President under IEEPA).

But two immediate legal issues come to mind. First, the need to find a solution to the need to hold terrorism suspects and how to try them. As my colleague Mike Jacobson has pointed out, the United States, United Kingdom and Canada are among the countries grappling with the question of whether certain terrorist suspects should be handled in legal settings outside of the criminal justice system.

Second, the “material support” statute should also be revisited. As a series of partial convictions and hung juries in recent “material support” cases demonstrates, obtaining convictions under the current law is difficult. In some cases, prosecutors have opted not to charge defendants with providing material support to terrorists, charging them instead with other criminal activity.

The bottom line, however, is that while post-blast prosecutions hold perpetrators accountable and provide victims a sense of justice, it is not clear than in an era of ideologically-driven terrorism they provide much of a deterrent to other would-be terrorists and their supporters. Law enforcement and military action have their place within the larger counter-terrorism toolkit, but so do intelligence collection and operations, robust diplomacy and international engagement, international training and capacity building programs, financial and economic pressures and opportunities, and more.

Matthew Levitt

Poverty, in and of itself, does not lead to terrorism. But it can be part of the problem, as the case of disenfranchised Muslim communities in Europe make clear. In the words of one European official I recently interviewed on this issue, “poverty is rarely one of the key radicalizers, but unemployment can be, especially when combined with engaging in criminal activity and being exposed to a radical narrative.” Radical ideologies are better able to take root when discrimination and the lack of opportunity for economic growth are put in terms of a global narrative that weave personal experiences in the suburbs north of Paris together with the plight of fellow Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine or Iraq to personalize far away conflicts and paint a global, ideological struggle. That global narrative is where foreign policy becomes one part of this larger tapestry as well, especially when presented through a radical ideological lens. To my mind the ideological component is the most critical and overlooked component here.As several studies have demonstrated, organized radicalization and recruitment (let alone training and the provision of funds and weapons) has long been central to the formation of a terrorist–that is, someone who is not only angry but willing to act on that anger in a violent manner. Today, that organizational function is in some cases carried out more passively via exposure to ideas and, perhaps more critically, a sense of belonging to a group of like-minded followers, on the Internet. But even among the increasing number of “homegrown” terrorists, European officials stress the importance of pre-existing personal vulnerabilities that serve as “push factors”as well as exposure to “radicalizers” – in person or online – over a period of time.

No single psychological profile describes the wide variety of “push factors” that make individuals vulnerable to the kind of radicalization that can eventually lead them to become terrorists. One study, by Tel Aviv University researchers Shaul Kimhe and Shmuel Even, developed a series of prototypical categories that combine both clinical and social psychological causes among Palestinians who resorted to terrorism. A telling corollary to their primary findings, however, is that whatever the typology of the potential terrorist–“religious fanatic,” “nationalist fanatic,” “avenger,” or “exploited”–every type requires “a social environment that is supportive of such an attack; media that disseminates the information among the supportive population; spiritual leadership that encourages such attacks; and financial and social assistance for families of suicide terrorists after their death.” Together, these conditions create a “comprehensive social environment [that] may be referred to as the ‘culture of suicide terrorists’ that has been created within Palestinian society.” [See here.]

Social preconditions by themselves do not make a suicide bomber. While poverty, humiliation, occupation, personal suffering, shame, or loss of a loved one can all be powerful radicalizing factors, they almost always require an organized element to channel that anger and frustration — actively and in person or passively on the Internet — into a desire to kill and maim random civilians (as opposed, for example, to a desire simply to kill oneself). It is for this reason that groups subscribing to a radical ideology invest so much time, effort and money in media campaigns aimed at radicalizing and directly or indirectly recruiting future members.