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Georgetown Professor Bruce Hoffman on al-Qaeda’s new strategy– and the need for a new American strategy

Professor Bruce Hoffman

Professor Bruce Hoffman

My Georgetown colleague, Bruce Hoffman, has an outstanding op ed in today’s Washington Post discussing al-Qaeda’s new terror strategy and the need for the Administration to develop its own. Hoffman explains the “five core elements” of the al-Qaeda strategy:

First, al-Qaeda is increasingly focused on overwhelming, distracting and exhausting us. To this end, it seeks to flood our already information-overloaded national intelligence systems with myriad threats and background noise. Al-Qaeda hopes we will be so distracted and consumed by all this data that we will overlook key clues, such as those before Christmas that linked Abdulmutallab to an al-Qaeda airline-bombing plot.

Second, in the wake of the global financial crisis, al-Qaeda has stepped up a strategy of economic warfare. “We will bury you,” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised Americans 50 years ago. Today, al-Qaeda threatens: “We will bankrupt you.” Over the past year, the group has issued statements, videos, audio messages and letters online trumpeting its actions against Western financial systems, even taking credit for the economic crisis. However divorced from reality these claims may be, propaganda doesn’t have to be true to be believed, and the assertions resonate with al-Qaeda’s target audiences.

Heightened security measures after the Christmas Day plot, coupled with the likely development of ever more sophisticated passenger-screening and intelligence technologies, stand to cost a lot of money, while the war in Afghanistan constitutes a massive drain on American resources. Given the economic instability here and abroad, al-Qaeda seems to think that a strategy of financial attrition will pay outsize dividends.

Third, al-Qaeda is still trying to create divisions within the global alliance arrayed against it by targeting key coalition partners. Terrorist attacks on mass-transit systems in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 were intended to punish Spain and Britain for participating in the war in Iraq and in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and al-Qaeda continues this approach today. During the past two years, serious terrorist plots orchestrated by al-Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan, meant to punish Spain and the Netherlands for participating in the war on terrorism, were thwarted in Barcelona and Amsterdam.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, suicide bombers and roadside explosives target contingents from countries such as Britain, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands, where popular support for deployments has waned, in hopes of hastening their withdrawal from the NATO-led coalition.

Fourth, al-Qaeda is aggressively seeking out, destabilizing and exploiting failed states and other areas of lawlessness. While the United States remains preoccupied with trying to secure yesterday’s failed state — Afghanistan — al-Qaeda is busy staking out new terrain. The terrorist network sees failing states as providing opportunities to extend its reach, and it conducts local campaigns of subversion to hasten their decline. Over the past year, it has increased its activities in places such as Pakistan, Algeria, the Sahel, Somalia and, in particular, Yemen.

Once al-Qaeda has located or helped create a region of lawlessness, it guides allies and related terrorist groups in that area, boosting their local, regional and — as the Northwest Airlines plot demonstrated — international attack capabilities. Although the exact number of al-Qaeda personnel in each of these areas varies, and in some cases may include no more than a few hard-core terrorists, they perform a critical force-multiplying function. Their help to indigenous terrorist groups includes support for attacks — by providing weapons, training and intelligence — and, equally critical, assistance in disseminating propaganda, such as by building Web sites and launching online magazines modeled on al-Qaeda’s.

Fifth and finally, al-Qaeda is covetously seeking recruits from non-Muslim countries who can be easily deployed for attacks in the West. The group’s leaders see people like these — especially converts to Islam whose appearances and names would not arouse the same scrutiny that persons from Islamic countries might — as the ultimate fifth column. Citizens of countries that participate in the U.S. visa-waiver program are especially prized because they can move freely between Western countries and blend easily into these societies.

And then there’s the problem: America’s inability to adapt to al-Qaeda’s strategy.  Hoffman exlaborates:

But while al-Qaeda is finding new ways to exploit our weaknesses, we are stuck in a pattern of belated responses, rather than anticipating its moves and developing preemptive strategies. The “systemic failure” of intelligence analysis and airport security that Obama recently described was not just the product of a compartmentalized bureaucracy or analytical inattention, but a failure to recognize al-Qaeda’s new strategy.

The national security architecture built in the aftermath of Sept. 11 addresses yesterday’s threats — but not today’s and certainly not tomorrow’s. It is superb at reacting and responding, but not at outsmarting. With our military overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan and our intelligence community overstretched by multiplying threats, a new approach to counterterrorism is essential.

“In the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary,” Obama said Thursday. He spoke of the need for intelligence and airport security reform, but he could have, and should have, been talking about the need for a new strategy to match al-Qaeda’s.

Remarkably, more than eight years after Sept. 11, we still don’t fully understand our dynamic and evolutionary enemy. We claim success when it is regrouping and tally killed leaders while more devious plots are being hatched. Al-Qaeda needs to be utterly destroyed. This will be accomplished not just by killing and capturing terrorists — as we must continue to do — but by breaking the cycle of radicalization and recruitment that sustains the movement.

This makes great sense. And it is important to highlight Hoffman’s last point: Our goal should be to break “the cycle of radicalization and recruitment that sustains the movement.” This involves more than simply responding to attack. The United States and its allies need to develop a coherent strategy that makes al-Qaeda less likely to succeed in its effort to gain adherents. This means many things, including continuing to improve our image abroad and helping to coordinate development efforts to failing states.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.