AMERICA'S COUNTERTERRORISM strategy has long been weighted toward a "kill or capture" approach targeting individual bad guys. It has also been erroneously based on the assumption that America's contemporary enemies-be they al-Qaeda or the Taliban-have a traditional center of gravity, and that they simply need to be killed or imprisoned for global terrorism and the Afghan insurgency to end. Accordingly, the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence community remains directed almost uniformly toward hunting down militant leaders, not toward understanding the enemies we face and the environment they come from, operate in and depend upon. This is a monumental failing, not only because decapitation strategies alone have rarely worked in curtailing terrorist or insurgent campaigns without effectively countering radicalization and recruitment processes, but also because al-Qaeda's and the Taliban's respective abilities to continue their struggles are indisputably predicated on their capacity to attract new recruits and supporters, thereby replenishing their resources.
Addressing this gap in our existing strategy is more critical than ever given the need to adjust and adapt to changes we see in the behavior and operations of our adversaries, who are far too elusive and complicated to be vanquished by mere decapitation. An effective response will thus ineluctably be based upon a strategy that effectively combines the tactical elements of systematically destroying and weakening enemy capabilities (continuing to kill and capture terrorists and insurgents) and the equally critical, broader strategic imperative of breaking the cycle of terrorist and insurgent recruitment that has sustained both al-Qaeda's continued campaign and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
Until we disassemble the demand side-the persistent resonance of al-Qaeda's message and its capacity to engage in the continued radicalization of a new cadre-we will never be able to stanch the supply side: the thinning, but still formidably adequate bench of key al-Qaeda operatives waiting in the wings to succeed their deceased or imprisoned predecessors.
And until we recognize the importance of these vital prerequisites, America will remain perennially on the defensive: inherently reactive rather than proactive and deprived of the capacity to recognize, much less anticipate, important changes in our enemy's recruitment and radicalization processes, its support apparatus, and its targeting strategies and modus operandi.
The war on terrorism has now lasted longer than America's involvement in World Wars I and II combined. That we are still equally far from winning cries out for precisely the knowledge that we have neglected. We would do well to remember Sun Tzu's other famous dictum that "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."
Bruce Hoffman, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center. He is currently a public-policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
1 "Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment"-the list compiled by the U.S. intelligence community of persons it believes pose a threat to U.S. national security.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