March 31, 2009

On Safe Havens

Please read and respond to my latest, in the New Republic:

The new White House strategy very much reflects the American experience with counter-insurgency campaigns, which we have historically waged as third parties outside our nation's borders, such as in Vietnam and Iraq. In counter-terrorism too, we have traditionally focused on safe havens, where we believe that plots are hatched and prepared to visit havoc upon our shores. And to a large degree, this is true; Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan have indeed served as areas where attacks have been plotted and terrorists trained.

Many of our European allies fighting with us in Afghanistan, however, have generally waged these battles in what they saw as their own territories, such as the French in Algeria or the British in North Ireland. Thus, they are wary of their Afghanistan operations leading to greater unrest in their own immigrant communities, being as likely to look to the suburbs of Paris and London for terror plots in utero as they are to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. The foiled 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot, for example, was allegedly plotted almost entirely within the confines of my old neighborhood in East London. And while some terrorists--such as Mohammed Sadiq Khan, who is believed to have masterminded the 7/7 bombings--travelled to Pakistan and trained in militant camps, the common denominator that has emerged from domestic terror threats in places like the United Kingdom is that their staging ground was actually on the internet rather than in a physical "safe haven."

The White House strategy, though, betrays an obsession with physical space at the expense of virtual space. This fixation very much reflects a generational divide among the scholars and policy-makers who focus on terrorism. Younger scholars such as Will McCants (now at the Department of Defense) and Thomas Hegghammer--in addition to being much more likely to actually be able to speak and read the relevant languages (Arabic and Urdu)--are "digital natives" rather than "digital immigrants" (to use the labels preferred by the counter-insurgency scholar Thomas Rid): They do not need to have the explosive potential of the internet explained to them, and McCants and Hegghammer especially have individually spent hundreds of hours on the more popular jihadi chatrooms to gather data about the debates and spread of information that is taking place in the virtual world.

This is not to say that physical safe havens do not matter. They do--a lot. But they are not the "be all, end all" of an effective counter-terror strategy. The policy-makers who crafted the White House strategy largely belong to the generation that cut its teeth in the Clinton White House, when physical havens were in fact the only havens that mattered. But as Europe's experience has shown us, this thinking is outdated; we shouldn't wait until we are attacked by homegrown or internet-coordinated terrorists to adopt an appropriately far-reaching strategy.