Since counterterrorism is merely another species of warfare, it has distinct requirements at each level of strategy. Like counterinsurgency, the lower you go down the strategic ladder from the highest rung, grand strategy, the more unlike conventional warfare it appears. Like conventional warfare, terrorism and guerrilla warfare seek to produce a political outcome. Unlike conventional warfare, these two forms of revolutionary warfare marry political and military action at all levels of strategy. Any effort to defeat terrorists and guerrillas, therefore, must also combine military and political methods.
Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are unalike in one key aspect: unlike guerrillas, terrorists are not trying to win the support or acquiescence of the population. There is not, therefore, the symmetric battle for "hearts and minds" that defines counterinsurgency. Instead, the government is trying to avoid being coerced by the terrorists, who are themselves less interested in winning popular support than inspiring widespread terror. If an Al Qaeda operative wins the admiration of radicalized Muslims, that fact is far less important than Al Qaeda's ability to strike at the "near enemy" (the Middle Eastern regimes that Al Qaeda has targeted) or the "far enemy" (the great powers, including the United States, who support these regimes). If some of Al Qaeda's own supporters die in a suicide bombing, so be it, if it advances the cause. Public opinion is relevant only as a vehicle for bringing pressure on a government to comply with the terrorists' demands.
Counterterrorism is therefore more "asymmetric" than counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency does have its asymmetric elements, particularly in military questions. Guerrillas are fighting not to win battles, but to demonstrate the lack of control the government has over its own territory and population. However, the strategies of terrorists and governments are even more unlike one another, in more ways than just the military ones.
Before outlining these differences in greater detail, it's worth noting why this discussion of symmetric and asymmetric strategies is important. Military strategists and historians use these terms as a shorthand for an important message: In some forms of warfare, it is important to avoid responding to the enemy in kind. George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy argued strenuously against any US foreign policy that confronted the Soviet Union primarily on the military plane. That sort of symmetric strategy, Kennan asserted, would throw away many of the best American weapons against the USSR, such as the appeal of the American political model and the strength of the American economy. Instead, the United States would have let Soviet leaders define the Cold War in the terms most advantageous to them, with the threat of a huge Red Army and a Soviet nuclear bomber fleet pointed at the fulcrum of superpower conflict, Western Europe.
The history of American foreign policy during the Cold War, as John Lewis Gaddis convincingly portrays it in Strategies of Containment, was the story of how US strategy shifted back and forth between symmetric and asymmetric emphases. Where the Korean War pushed the United States in the direction of a more militarized, symmetric approach, Kennedy's "New Frontier" emphasized a stronger political and economic response to Soviet adventurism.
In counterterrorism, the most common way of formulating the symmetric approach is the statement, Because the terrorists are ruthless, we have to be willing to become just as ruthless. However, it is not self-evidently true that the only way to meet the terrorist threat is by fighting in kind: becoming just as secretive, because the terrorists are secretive; just as willing to inflict pain and suffering, because the terrorists by definition inflict horrific pain and suffering; just as willing to accept the death of innocent bystanders, because the terrorists are dedicated to kidnapping and killing innocent bystanders in the name of their cause. Fighting terrorists asymmetrically isn't capitulation, as proponents of a "get tough" strategy often imply. Asymmetric methods are necessity itself.
Here, then, is the picture of counterterrorism at the different levels of strategy:
|COUNTERTERRORISM STRATEGY SUMMARIZED|
|Level of strategy||Requirements|
|Grand strategic||Define how domestic and foreign terrorist groups threaten core or peripheral national interests. If complete security from terrorist attack is impossible, define victory as a certain level of insecurity, a certain frequency of attacks, or a certain number of citizens threatened. Mobilize national resources to first block terrorist attacks, and then work to dismantle terrorist groups. Select the theaters, from the home country to foreign countries, that will receive significant investments of effort. Avoid making the very mistakes that terrorists hope you will make, such as intrusive or draconian measures that are likely to generate severe political backlash.|
|Theater strategy||Inside the home country, focus police and intelligence efforts on detecting terrorist attacks before they occur. Craft a political strategy that, once terrorist attacks happen, the terrorists do not achieve their goal of manufacturing fear and despair. Close down the terrorists' sources of funding, recruitment, and information. Demonstrate to the public that a handful of terrorists cannot undermine the nation's core values, democratic procedures, or rule of law.
Outside the home country, work with allies to combine intelligence, military, police, and judicial efforts to combat terrorist groups. Attack foreign sources of finance, intelligence, and recruitment. Shift resources to other countries and other theaters, as terrorist groups move from location to location.
In either case, be ready to either give some former terrorists an exit into normal politics, and be ready to fight the most zealous enemies to the bitter end. In both cases, be clear which terrorist groups matter for each theater of operations.
|Operational||"Harden" the most likely targets of attack, but recognize that terrorists can always strike somewhere, no matter how many defensive measures you take. Infiltrate terrorist organizations to block future attacks and start dismantling the group itself. Craft a patient strategy that, on the one hand, realistically depicts the time needed to detect and dismantle secretive, violent, and dedicated terrorist groups, and on the other, show real progress over time. Arrest and convict terrorists, whenever possible. When not, be ready to kill them. Be clear, however, how these arrests, convictions, or killings actually contribute to success in a particular theater. Anticipate the likely countermeasures that terrorists will take, making it an important part of the counterterrorism at all levels of strategy. Avoid taking measures that risk the opposite of the intended effect, such as clumsy assassination attempts that, by killing innocent bystanders, strengthen the terrorists' sources of finance, recruitment, and information.|
|Tactical||Develop and sharpen the intelligence-gathering methods needed to identify terrorists and their methods, including "running" networks of agents within terrorist groups. Have police and military forces trained ready to offensively "kick in the door," and defensively to respond to kidnappings, bombings, and other terrorist attacks.|
|Technical||Learn how terrorists communicate, and monitor their communications accordingly. Learn where terrorists get their money, and then either use this imformation as a continued source of intelligence, or as the first step towards shutting down terrorist financing. Learn how terrorists recruit, and then identify current or potential members of terrorist groups. Learn how terrorist build bombs, kidnap victims, or assassinate targets; use this information to anticipate and block future terrorist attacks. Be ready for swift changes in terrorist methods at the technical level, and adjust accordingly.|
As you can see from the previous table, there's very little about counterterrorism that requires "responding in kind" to terrorists. While the people involved (police, military, intelligence analysts, spymasters, judges, and other professionals) might have to develop new skills or sharpen old ones, they do not have to re-make themselves in the image of the enemy. As terrorism expert Brian Jenkins long observed, "Terrorism is theater." While the terrorists try to turn daily life into Grand Guignol theater, with apocalyptic undertones to the plot, governments need to make make the terrorists appear histrionic, feckless, and even ridiculous. In the end, the anarchists who once terrorized Europe and the United States during the "Age of Assassination" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries faded away, unable to frighten governments into doing their bidding. The goal of counterterrorism in the 21st century is the same: to boo and laugh terrorists off the stage of history.
A final point: terrorism depends on the technical level of strategy far more than guerrilla warfare. Since terrorists operate in such small organizations, seeking to maximize the political effect of each attack, they depend on the security of communications, the effectiveness of demolition technology, and other technical details far beyond what guerrillas need at this level. While Chinese Communists defeated the KMT with vintage weapons, the IRA depended on increasing sophistication in building bombs. This heavier emphasis on the technical level makes "unconventional munitions"—nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons—more intriguing that they would be for guerrillas. That is not the same, however, as saying that terrorists must escalate to "WMD" levels to achieve their objectives. As I've discussed earlier, unconventional weapons are often too hard to acquire and deploy, and the political risks of using them too high, for many terrorists' tastes. The technical skill needed to fly an airliner proved far more useful to Al Qaeda than any chemical or biological weapons expertise.
Since 2003, Iraq has distracted attention away from counterterrorism. Meanwhile, vthe US government has made very little progress towards preventing another 9/11-scale attack:
- No one has been identified or arrested for the anthrax mailings in 2001.
- The Bush Administration has provided no clear evidence of detecting and stopping another terrorist attack.
- Seaports, airports, and other likely targets of attack are only marginally better protected than they were before the 9/11 attacks.
- Only one participant in the 9/11 attacks, Zacarias Moussaui, has been tried and convicted—in large part because of his willingness to describe himself as a member of the Mohammed Atta cell. However, Moussaui was, at best, a foot soldier, and at worst, an embarrassment to Al Qaeda, which tried to keep him out of important operations.
- Other terrorist convictions are just as unimpressive, in the most generous of interpretations. For example, the "Lackawanna Six," were convicted solely on the evidence that they had visited a Taliban/Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan—not that they were involved in any terrorist plots at all. The recent conviction of Hamid Hayat for attending or visiting an Al Qaeda camp in Pakistan shows exactly how low on the terrorist "food chain" US efforts have reached—if, indeed, they have snared many genuine terrorists at all. (Contrast these results with the arrests British officials made soon after the London subway bombings.)
- The Bush Administration continues to act as if domestic terrorism has disappeared, even though arrests and convictions on this front involve greater dangers (Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaui excepted). Eric Rudolph was sentenced in 2005 to two consecutive life terms for a series of bombings, including the famous "Centennial Park" attack in 1996. In 2003, Texas authorities arrested white supremacists William Krar and Judith Bruey, who were stockpiling explosives, guns, and cyanide. The most likely suspect in the 2001 anthrax mailings is still someone within the United States, not a foreign terrorist.
Meanwhile, the Bush Administration continues to push for extraordinary measures, such as warrantless surveillance, indefinite imprisonment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay and o ther facilities, the unprecedented claims of presidential power under a "unitary executive," and the re-classification of intelligence materials previously in the public domain. Bush Administration officials like Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, and President Bush himself, repeat the same mantra about how the world has changed, tough methods are needed to defeat a tough enemy, and anyone who believes differently is a fool.
However, there is no evidence that any of these extraordinary measures have been effective. Past experience with terrorist events like the Oklahoma City bombing, the PLO hijacking of airliners which were then re-routed to the Jordanian desert, and the Achille Lauro incident proved that the United States needed to take counterterrorism seriously, but not throw out its system of government in the process. Counterterrorism led to hard choices, such as whether to negotiate with PLO hijackers, and extraordinary challenges, including the dragnet for the Oklahoma City bombers. Never before did anyone contemplate the sweeping changes to the US government that the Bush Administration has attempted—and in protecting "the homeland," has failed to achieve results.
In fact, almost five years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans have a very hazy understanding of how big the terrorist threat really is. The Administration's vague, alarmist statements—which has increased, not decreased, the fears that real terrorists have tried to manufacture—have provided very little useful information. In fact, acute secrecy may be cloaking the Administration's own ignorance of real terrorist threats, or lack thereof. While 19 hijackers got extremely, diabolically lucky in 2001, there may not be many similar cells of domestic and foreign terrorists plotting attacks today. In fact, given the convenience of American targets in Iraq, Al Qaeda's new strategy of "terrorism by franchise," and Al Qaeda's renewed emphasis on the "near enemy" (such as the recent bombings in Egypt), there may be no Al Qaeda plans to attack the United States at all. Even if that conclusion proves to be wrong, the American public—increasingly tired of being scared, skeptical of the Bush Administration, worried about the cost of the Iraq war—may soon reach that conclusion. If that scenario plays out, the US public may grow complacent about real domestic and foreign terrorist threats, while the US government scrambles faces a deepening crisis of the federal budget. In other words, the Bush Administration's secretive, anxiety-enhancing, and extra-Constitutional methods will have set the stage for another 9/11-like attack.