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Home / 2013 / 07 / 18 / McLaughlin Terrorism Analysis Misses Mark
July 18, 2013

McLaughlin Terrorism Analysis Misses Mark

Though former CIA acting-director John McLaughlin’s recent piece for CNN accurately captures al Qaeda’s degraded global capacity to coordinate operations, his conclusion – that the United States should remain on a war footing against an al Qaeda in transition because that is the only way to ensure these terrorists do not rebound to full strength -- is unconvincing. At the very least, McLaughlin fails to explore workable non-military options that struggling states within this politically unstable region can use to guard against al Qaeda and its empathizers.

As somebody who is intimately familiar with the United States’ efforts to neutralize al Qaeda, I provide my own take on the three central trends he identifies in his piece.

With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq complete and its exit from Afghanistan underway, terrorists who choose to operate there will have more freedom of maneuver - while we and others opposing them will have to do so more remotely and with less granular data.

Operating without boots on the ground doesn’t necessarily compromise the United States’ ability to foil terrorist plots . Yes, with fewer U.S. troops in the region, terrorists may have greater freedom of movement in these countries, but any terrorist group moving back into Afghanistan (as we are seeing in Iraq presently) will have to first contend with the local government’s counter-terrorism and law enforcement operations. Terrorists will not be able to simply return to the region and set up a camp where they can train and plan attacks against the United States with impunity. They will first need to establish a base of popular support locally and undermine the existing national government. This would be made all the harder with good intelligence sharing between the United States and the national governments in question, which we have seen in the case of Lebanon just this week. Security Force Assistance, Counter Violent Extremists (CVE) activities, and other capacity building programs will play an increasingly important role in managing and ultimately mitigating the threat of radicalized Islam and the passive and active popular support it depends upon.

History has taught us that the United States should not go it alone or rely solely on military might to address threats around the globe. Our nation is safer when we act in conjunction with allies who share our goals and when we deploy our full arsenal of diplomatic “weapons” before turning to military solutions.

That said, there are many countries across the region that are home to terrorist groups committed to an anti-American jihadist agenda, but these groups lack the discipline and capacity to mount attacks against the United States (to say nothing of coordinated attacks). These terrorists also have to contend with competing priorities from rival groups, who are focused on combating the more immediate threat to their existence - the security forces of the host nation. This is a major reason Muslim on Muslim violence in countries like Iraq, where radical Islam is struggling to reassert itself in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, often target police stations and security officials.

We do not need to maintain a military presence in every country that breeds a threat to be able to collect vital intelligence and guard against these threats. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, all of these (and more) are home to terrorist groups that would wish us harm and we do not presently have a military presence in these countries. What we do have is intelligence platforms, as well as CENTCOM in the region, to respond to imminent and specific threats.

A second major trend opening up opportunities for terrorists is the increasing turmoil in governance across the arc of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Although many analysts two years ago saw the Arab Spring as a refutation of al Qaeda’s violent ideology, it is hard to portray recent events as anything other than a new world of opportunities for radical Islamists.

McLaughlin sees the Arab Spring as an opportunity for radical Islamists. I take another view. The Arab Spring did and does present an opportunity for American counter-terrorism and foreign policy. The Arab Spring was a backlash against oppressive regimes, not radical Islam, per se. For example, Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate to the presidency, but revolted when a radical and oppressive Salafist constitution was foisted upon the population. I don’t see the Arab Spring turning out too well for the radical Islamists, at least not yet.

No doubt those who ascribe to a radical, even violent, form of Islamic ideology see opportunity in chaos. Terrorists gained a safe haven in Afghanistan in the 1990s. That didn’t happen in Bosnia or Iraq. Will it happen in Syria? Will the Syrians choose to replace a secular Shia dictator with a Sunni salafist theocracy? I don’t think they will. Al Nusrah Front is a relatively small group compared to the Free Syrian Army. Investment in democratic institutions in places like Egypt and, in time, Syria, are critical to building a viable Arab state that will not continue to foster radicalization.

A third major trend has to do with the debate underway among terrorists over tactics, targets, and ways to correct past errors. On targets, jihadists are now pulled in many directions. Many experts contend they are less capable of a major attack on the U.S. homeland. But given the steady stream of surprises they’ve sprung – ranging from the 2009 “underwear bomber” to the more recent idea of a surgically implanted explosive – it is hard to believe they’ve given up trying to surprise us with innovations designed to penetrate our defenses. We especially should remain alert that some of the smaller groups could surprise us by pointing an attacker toward the United States, as Pakistan’s Tehrik e Taliban did in preparing Faizal Shazad for his attempted bombing of Times Square in 2010.

The examples cited by McLaughlin, all of which were ultimately thwarted, are powerful reminders the threat of terrorist attack remains and will for many decades to come. I am all too aware that the terrorist need only be right once, while we have to be right every time and that 100% security is an impossible standard. That said, surely there is a marked difference in the planning and preparations that resulted in the September 2001 attacks from the planning behind the “underwear bomber.” The decimation of al Qaeda leadership has forced that group to promote relative amateurs into senior operational leadership positions. The loss of the Afghan training camps denies them a place to train and vet competent operatives. The 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment published by the DNI said that lone wolf attacks (like Faizal Shazad and the Boston bombers) would be a continuing threat, but would amount to “fewer than 10 domestic plots per year.”  That pales in comparison to the attacks of 9-11 and hardly requires a military solution. The analysis suggests that this is squarely in the wheelhouse of integrated intelligence and law enforcement.

McLaughlin’s piece does make sound points and his views are shared by a great many in the Intelligence Community who feel it is better to be on the offensive against terrorists than to play defense.  While having a good offense can be the best defense against a threat, that offense need not be military in nature. The United States should instead invest resources in leading the world in the collection of intelligence gathering and sharing, in supporting democratic leadership, and in building international alliances focused on working together to defeat terrorist networks.

I know there are many in the intelligence community who share my point of view on this. This great nation can continue to play “whack a mole,” only reacting to the immediate threats with a  reliance on kinetic military options, or we can choose to bring our counter-terrorism strategy into better balance by addressing the long term underlying issues that cause radicalization. Such steps could include working with the Arab states in transition to develop democratic institutions, the rule of law, and the ability to stem radical Islamists threats.

The Arab Spring is an opportunity, but it’s a jump ball. The United States would be wise to view it that way and get in the game.