In the decade since the devastating Sept. 11 attacks, al Qaeda and its regional affiliates have been innovating their radicalization and recruitment practices - especially via the Internet - with the goal of finding impressionable Westerners. They have expanded their operations to include countries such as Somalia and Yemen, and they have employed new tactics and weaponry in smaller but more frequent assaults against the United States and its allies.
How has America’s counterterrorism retaliation adjusted to this “long war” against the al Qaeda network? Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, both veteran New York Times national-security correspondents, address this question in “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda.”
They begin their book with a discussion about deterrence. Applying Cold War deterrence theories to the age of violent religious extremism, they argue, is far more difficult because terrorists “hold no territory,” so, unlike nation-states, they “offer no large and obvious high-value targets” to retaliate against. Moreover, after an attack, there is no “return address” where terrorists can be found and dealt with. Most important, how does one counter the jihadists’ “millennial, aspirational [and] otherworldly goals,” which are not subject to the give-and-take of political negotiations?
The authors cite Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who states that it is not an insurmountable problem to deter al Qaeda-type religious extremists “who will kill themselves, who have no moral boundaries, who just have such a different view of life and what it means.”
Adm. Mullen advocates using a network-based deterrence that “credibly impose* costs on [such] adversaries through combinations of threatened punishment and sustained denial” by identifying “who’s in the [terrorist] network” and how it was created - its structures, finances and training.
To demonstrate how deterrence has evolved under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker discuss new counterterrorism programs that have succeeded so far in reducing al Qaeda’s threat to America and its allies.
These new programs begin with a “whole-of-government” approach, as exemplified by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which was not in place before Sept. 11. The FBI was transformed into a law enforcement and domestic intelligence organization. New measures were instituted to track terrorists’ financing, and new terrorist networks were uncovered by using electronic surveillance, informants and information from foreign partners.
Moreover, new technologies were deployed to monitor terrorists’ use of Internet sites and social media, such as Facebook. Armed drones have become an important offensive measure to attack terrorist leaders and operatives in their remote hide-outs. And strategic communications programs have been established to counter terrorists’ propaganda and efforts at radicalization in local communities.
Despite the success of the new deterrence posture, the authors highlight three dangerous new trends in the terrorist threat that will need to be overcome in the coming years. One of their most sensationalist revelations is that for the past year, American counterterrorism officials have been concerned that al Qaeda’s most dangerous regional arm, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has been trying in its Yemeni safe havens to produce the lethal poison ricin by packing it around small explosives for attacks against American shopping malls, airports or subway stations.
In a “diabolical twist” to this ricin plot, which the authors say was uncovered by Saudi intelligence, AQAP is considering placing the toxin in bottles of perfume “to send those bottles as gifts to assassinate government officials, law enforcement and military officers, religious scholars and journalists.”
In the second major threat, while Pakistan’s arsenal of deployed nuclear weapons “is considered secure,” the authors claim that “senior American officials remain deeply concerned that weapons-usable fuel, which is kept in laboratories and storage centers, is more vulnerable and could be diverted to terrorists or other radical groups by insiders in Pakistan’s vast nuclear complex.”
The final threat is a greater frequency in the use by homegrown terrorists of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which already has occurred, with several attempted plots in recent years failing, fortunately. The authors caution, however, that despite upgraded defenses, one IED plot may succeed because it is virtually impossible to deter all terrorist plots.
In response, the authors call on American society to upgrade its culture of resilience by returning to normalcy as much as possible in the aftermath of terrorist incidents. They note that this denies terrorists who seek to cause widespread fear, panic and anxiety the strategic victory they seek. This may not be easy in the aftermath of a catastrophic weapons-of-mass-destruction attack, however, an issue the authors do not address.
Nevertheless, this eye-opening account of how the U.S. government has vastly upgraded its counterterrorism efforts since Sept. 11 reminds readers that while the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates persists, so does the American will to strike back.
Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech.