American Jihad

American Jihad

Mini Teaser: Al-Qaeda has accomplished the unthinkable: establishing an embryonic recruitment, radicalization and operational capacity on our shores. Our current strategy risks another 9/11.

by Author(s): Bruce Hoffman

But even as al-Qaeda is proactively finding new ways to exploit our weaknesses, we are stuck in a pattern of belatedly responding to its moves rather than developing new anticipatory and preemptive strategies of our own. The "systemic failure" of intelligence analysis and airport security that President Obama described in the wake of the foiled Christmas Day attack was not just the product of a compartmentalized bureaucracy or analytical oversight; it was a reflection of our failure to recognize al-Qaeda's new strategy and to devise appropriate measures to counter it.


BOTTOM LINE: we do not understand our enemy. It has become a cliché in the war on terrorism to invoke the ancient Chinese philosopher-warrior Sun Tzu's dictum "if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." Military tactics, as Sun Tzu taught, are doomed to fail when they are applied without detailed and comprehensive knowledge of those whom they are being applied against, or an understanding of how the enemy thinks-and therefore how that foe is likely to respond and, moreover, adapt or adjust to those tactics.

Without knowing our enemy and its environment, we cannot successfully penetrate its cells. We cannot knowledgeably sow discord and dissension in our adversary's ranks and thus weaken the organization from within. And, we cannot fulfill the most basic requirements of an effective counterterrorism strategy: anticipating, preempting and preventing terrorist operations, and especially deterring attack. Without this understanding, moreover, we cannot break the cycle of radicalization and recruitment that replenishes terrorists' ranks and prolongs this debilitating war.

Dangerously, thus far our own policies have led us to appear weak, inconsistent and confused. This is not good for us, neither for the message we send ourselves nor for the effects on the potential al-Qaeda recruits waiting in the wings, summoned by a call to arms against the enervated infidels.

Yet, inconsistency and uncertainty seem to dominate our approach to counterterrorism today. We claim success while al-Qaeda is regrouping and tally killed leaders while more devious plans are being hatched-evinced no more clearly than in the case of that Christmas bomb plot and quick follow-up with the deadly suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan. A "decimated" terrorist movement "on the run" does not pull off two separate incidents less than a week apart and call into question the effectiveness of our entire national-security architecture. As a seasoned CIA counterterrorism veteran told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius regarding the Afghanistan suicide attack: "They didn't get lucky, they got good and we got sloppy." Another former senior U.S. intelligence official was similarly quoted in the Wall Street Journal commenting that the attack in Khost was "very sophisticated for a terrorist group that's supposedly on the run." Still more perplexing is how Vice President Joe Biden could unequivocally claim that al-Qaeda is "on the run" when the administration's top intelligence officials warned the Senate of an almost "certain" risk of a future al-Qaeda attack just the week before.

The question of whether 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed should be tried in federal criminal court in the Southern District of New York, by military commission at some other location in the United States or at Guantánamo Bay is a critical issue that deserves serious and detailed consideration. But when we suddenly reverse positions based on political pressures, or fears for the security of the trial venue and surrounding area, it is the United States and not al-Qaeda that appears to be on the run-or at least hesitant, fearful and uncertain. This is but one inconsistency that not only confuses the public but also corrodes the policy process, and supplies our enemies with fresh ammunition for their propaganda and recruitment campaigns.


WE BELIEVE we have been successful in deterring al-Qaeda when events demonstrate the opposite. Unfortunately for us, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community, and the overall strengthening of America's counterterrorism capabilities and security measures over the past nine years have apparently neither disheartened nor deterred our enemy.

The national-security architecture built in the aftermath of 9/11 has shown itself relevant to yesterday's threat-not to today's and certainly not to tomorrow's. It is superbly reactive and responsive but insufficiently perspicacious. With our military overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our intelligence community overstretched by multiplying threats, a new approach and a different counterterrorism paradigm is needed if we are to more effectively counter al-Qaeda's strategy of attrition.

One important yet currently languishing congressional initiative that would help counter this strategy is Representative Frank Wolf's proposal to institutionalize a "red team" or "Team B" counterterrorist capability as an essential element of our efforts to combat terrorism and in the war against al-Qaeda. Historically, "Team B" refers to a group of experts outside of government whom the CIA brought together in the 1970s and 1980s to analyze the changing threat posed by the Soviet Union and to challenge the prevailing conventional wisdom within government-in this case the positions of the intelligence community, "Team A." Both the intelligence community and our national-security and law-enforcement agencies are overwhelmed with data, information and a multiplicity of immediate "in-box"-driven issues that continually challenge their ability to think both strategically and in terms of a patently evolving, multidimensional threat. As Representative Wolf has argued, the "Team B" concept would represent a new approach to counterterrorism that would potentially enable the United States to stay one step ahead of our adversaries' own strategy and tactics.


THE U.S. government routinely focuses on understanding how American foreign policy affects foreign opinion and attitudes and, specifically, how it may accentuate or exacerbate overseas threats against us. Given the unprecedented number of jihadi or jihadi-related incidents in the United States this past year, new attention also needs to be paid to how American foreign policy affects domestic opinion, attitudes and, unfortunately, even threats emanating from within our country. We must begin to systematically address the threats both at home and abroad.

It seems clear now from the litany of homegrown, near-disastrous incidents that this is a problem of the highest order. And beyond the laundry list of specific cases, over the past year American and British intelligence officers have repeatedly cited at least one hundred terrorists who are believed to have already, in their words, "graduated" from al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan and deployed to their native and adopted homes to undertake terrorist operations in the West. In retrospect, people like Najibullah Zazi, Bryant Neal Vinas and David Headley were already among this number. Better understanding how our actions are perceived and utilized by the enemy is more urgent than ever.

The United States missed a rare chance to get in front of this issue and potentially fully understand how Americans are radicalized and recruited to terrorism. Three years ago, Representative Jane Harman introduced House Resolution 1955, the "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007," which would have established a national commission to study domestic terrorism. Although the bill easily passed the House of Representatives, it never came to a vote in the Senate. Admittedly, the last thing Washington needs is another commission. But at the same time, it seems bipartisan commissions are the only way our government can accomplish anything terrorism related. In this case, such a body would have provided a baseline assessment of terrorist radicalization and recruitment processes, and made policy recommendations about how to counter them by drawing on a comprehensive survey of the experiences and best practices of other countries-and by better understanding how terrorist groups might target and attract Americans and U.S. residents to their ranks.

Given that the terrorist threat has changed so appreciably since the 9/11 Commission concluded its work six years ago, we require the same fresh look and new approaches that would have been the Harman commission's remit. Clearly, another congressional confab by its nature cannot defeat al-Qaeda, but it can provide a comprehensive review and identify the changes needed to more effectively counter al-Qaeda, and perhaps enable us to finally turn a decisive corner in our ongoing struggle against terrorism.


FURTHER, ONE of the recommendations from the 9/11 Commission that has continually gone unaddressed pertains specifically to congressional oversight. As Lee Hamilton-the distinguished former congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission-has often argued, more than eighty committees and subcommittees currently have jurisdiction over these issues: an absurdly large and duplicative amalgamation that contributes to the inconsistency that has permeated our counterterrorism strategy and policies. A potential model for a more streamlined government operation is the Intelligence and Security Committee created over fifteen years ago by the British House of Commons. Members of that committee are among the most senior members of Parliament. Many have detailed experience with these issues both as a result of their long service in the legislature and through holding key ministerial positions. They are therefore highly versed and extremely knowledgeable, if not expert, in matters of intelligence, counterterrorism and homeland security. Thus, the ability of Britain's legislative branch to exercise informed and directed oversight of the UK's intelligence and security agencies through one entity speaking with a single voice is enhanced appreciably. We would be well served to emulate this practice.

Image: Pullquote: During 2009, at least ten jihadi terrorist plots or related events came to light within our borders-an average of nearly one a month. By any metric, this is an unprecedented development.Essay Types: Essay