No End In Sight

According to Daniel Byman, progress in the War on Terror has been disappointing so far, but there have been some positive results.

On July 23 The National Interest hosted a discussion on the terrorist threat featuring Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center and the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Byman noted that after six years of fighting the War on Terror, "the glass is only half full"-a "disappointing" result in light of the top priority given to combating terrorism. The United States views terrorism as its "über-adversary", but in most cases terrorist organizations make "stupid mistakes", get caught by the authorities and "go out of business", Byman said. Al-Qaeda, however, is the exception to this rule.

Al-Qaeda avoids the fate of most other terrorist groups by placing tremendous emphasis on operational security. A quick perusal of Al-Qaeda's website reveals an incisive understanding of U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Thus, most of the organization's core-which contains a few hundred senior-level leaders-avoids detection. Since Al-Qaeda is a "group of leaders"-not centered around a leader, like other terrorist groups-it is not likely to disintegrate when one of its influential members is killed or captured. The group's organizational structure and culture are highly adaptive, allowing for changes from the bottom-up, according to Byman. But decentralization causes confusion, and Al-Qaeda sometimes struggles to hold its sympathetic audiences captive.

Nonetheless, Al-Qaeda's message that Islam's main enemy is the United States finds many receptive listeners in the Muslim world. While Al-Qaeda's sympathizers-perhaps numbering in the millions-focus on Muslim values, Al-Qaeda is almost solely concerned with U.S. policy in the Middle East. (Byman suspects that if the United States withdrew from the Middle East, Al-Qaeda would turn its wrath on its other enemies-namely, Israel and the Arab regimes.) Despite this disconnect between Al-Qaeda and its public supporters, Al-Qaeda has still managed to capitalize on the widely held perception that the War on Terror is actually a "War on Values."

But Al-Qaeda should not be seen as representing the views of the radical salafi community. Sunni radicals disagree bitterly on the nature of non-belief, the correct interpretation of sharia and the appropriate occasions to declare jihad. Al-Qaeda's attacks on other Muslims often draw scorn from radicals. Yet all these radicals-including those connected to Middle Eastern governments-agree with Al-Qaeda that the U.S. occupation of Iraq must be met with a defensive jihad.

The aftermath of the Iraq invasion may be a disastrous setback to counter-terrorism efforts, since it has become a mobilizing symbol, a gathering point and a training ground for terrorists. Byman pointed out that terrorism thrives in safe-havens, like the one that existed in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The Afghan haven gave Al-Qaeda not only space to train but also time to relax. The "luxury of time" allowed the group's leaders to coordinate activities and to disseminate their messages. Since the end of the Afghan haven-an important counter-terrorism success story-terrorists have relocated to the tribal areas of Pakistan. While the terrorists have less room for maneuver in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, they are still able to conduct their operations.

A complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could create a terrorist safe-haven there too, making it that much harder to catch terrorists. Without "rest stops", terrorists are forced to live on the run, increasing the likelihood that they will slip up and get caught. So, the United States's efforts in counter-insurgency remain crucial to the War on Terror

Iraq may be a black hole, but there are some bright spots in other parts of the world. Since September 11, many governments have stepped up their terrorism-fighting capabilities, yet their successes often go unreported. Unfortunately, global counter-terrorism operations may give rise to more anti-Americanism. In fact, Al-Qaeda has branded the United States's post-September 11 allies as arms of the CIA.

Happily, the United States, unlike many countries in Europe, has not had to contend with a homegrown terrorist threat. In the months following September 11, many worried that U.S.-based terrorist cells would materialize and carry out further attacks. The mostly successful integration of Muslims into American society has created a moderate Muslim community. However, this situation may change if the U.S. image abroad continues to deteriorate. Right now, homegrown terrorism is not a threat, but it could always become one.

In order to combat the terrorist threat, Byman believes that the United States should focus less on maintaining a presence in capital cities and more on putting down roots in hotbeds of terrorist activity, like Karachi or Pakistan's tribal areas. The United States also needs to develop new allies in Africa and Central and Southeast Asia. We should also adjust our public-diplomacy efforts in the Muslim world: Instead of trying to turn unpopular policies into popular ones, we should concentrate on criticizing Al-Qaeda's ideas and tactics.

On the domestic front, we must adopt consistent counter-terrorism policies-ones that will not change depending on whether a Republican or a Democrat is in office. Finally, we should incorporate more nuance into the public debate about terrorism.

We often fail to put the terrorist problem in perspective, Byman said. The amount of resources expended on counter-terrorism must be proportional to the actual threat. After anthrax-laced letters were mailed to two senators and several publications, the U.S. Postal Service spent $5 billion on safeguards against repeat attacks. Was this a wise use of resources? Exaggerating the threat posed by an elusive enemy is not in the U.S. interest.