Terrorism's Twelve Step Program

January 13, 2009 Topic: Security Region: Americas

Terrorism's Twelve Step Program

Since 9/11, America has learned a lot about combating terrorism—but we’re not using our new knowledge. Here are twelve points Obama can follow to help us in our fight.


8. Equal emphasis has to be given to the importance of information operations, psychological operations and public diplomacy alongside kinetic approaches. The most effective and lasting counterterrorism strategy will be one that effectively combines the tactical elements of systematically destroying and weakening enemy capabilities (the "kill or capture" approach) alongside the equally critical, broader strategic imperative of breaking the cycle of terrorist and insurgent recruitment and replenishment that have respectively sustained both al-Qaeda's continued campaign and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Psychological operations that seek not only to kill and capture terrorists or insurgents, but also to persuade them to surrender have a particularly important role in these efforts. Even if the results of such efforts require time to succeed, the suspicion and mistrust sown within terrorist and insurgent ranks might force our enemies to expend more time and energy on watching their backs and monitoring their comrades than in planning and attacking us. The problem is that no agency or office has the lead for overseeing, coordinating and integrating information operations. Multiple agencies share this mission and within those agencies multiple offices claim responsibility: the result is duplication and redundancy and many voices speaking at once rather than one voice with one clear, authoritative message directing this process. Inadequate resources are an additional problem as information operations and public diplomacy remain distinct secondary priorities in the struggle against terrorism.


9. Playing an active and positive role in the resolution of iconic Muslim conflicts will accomplish more, have a greater immediate and long-term impact, and potentially will more decisively improve America's image in the eyes of the Muslim world than foreign political reform, economic development and agrarian programs applied to individual Muslim countries. The United States needs to be more involved in actively attempting to broker long-term resolutions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the conflict between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. Although foreign aid, American-backed efforts to promote political reform and economic development are important, arguably the most critical and beneficial element of U.S. foreign-policy efforts in countering terrorism is an America that is seen as working for peace in particularly sensitive regions of the Muslim world.


10. Protecting and securing the United States from terrorist attack depends on state and local law enforcement officers who are both the first and last lines of homeland defense. Their familiarity with the communities which they patrol enables these law enforcement officers to observe and detect criminal activity that may indicate a terrorist plot and thus to thwart its commission. American police departments and law enforcement agencies-and especially their street cops and patrol officers-need more and better information about both terrorism and the most effective strategic and tactical responses. The cop on the street, for instance, may likely be the key player in disrupting and preventing a terrorist incident. But to do so, this officer needs training based on the experience and best practices of other jurisdictions, both domestic and international, who have long been involved in countering terrorism as well as the requisite knowledge of terrorist behavior, patterns and modus operandi. Further, officers not only need to know what to look for but that what they are looking for may be a small piece of the larger puzzle that may reveal terrorist connections (e.g., investigations into crimes involving smuggling, human trafficking, fraud, extortion or narcotics that may also be terrorist activities).


11. Terrorism is more than a technical issue and requires a new political relationship between U.S. and European partners. Existing opportunities to learn lessons from respective experiences in counterterrorism and to develop best practices and common approaches with European law-enforcement counterparts are insufficient. Such efforts would improve trust and information flow between those working on terrorism issues on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States and Europe have a strong common interest in countering terrorism, especially from Islamist groups like al-Qaeda. In addition, our European law-enforcement counterparts already have long experience in combating homegrown terrorist threats and more recently acquired knowledge in countering Islamist threats. This confluence of interests provides the foundation to establish new political and counterterrorism relationships between the United States and Europe, and further build trust and cooperation and facilitate the exchange of information, through a broader and more coordinated program of secondment and exchange of law-enforcement officers.


12. NYPD (New York Police Department) has played a leading role in facilitating cooperation with international partners on counterterrorism issues, but current federal efforts to broaden these programs and make them available to other jurisdictions on a national basis are as inchoate as they have been inadequate. Unlike many other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Israel, terrorism is not necessarily a daily issue for the U.S. law-enforcement officer. For that reason, American law enforcement requires regular awareness and education programs to keep pace with the terrorism threat and the knowledge needed to prevent, preempt or respond to an incident. Sufficient funding and resources should be provided to establish a program whereby state and local law-enforcement officers could be deployed to overseas locations to observe the operations of foreign jurisdictions long involved in counterterrorism and with more recent experience in countering Islamist threats. Such deployments would enhance the knowledge of American officers, identify best practices and assist in the development of policies, practices and procedures relevant to U.S. law enforcement that could be adopted or emulated here. A parallel program could bring foreign law enforcement officers from key overseas jurisdictions to the United States on similar secondment assignments that would further enhance international-counterterrorism law-enforcement cooperation and promote the identification and exchange of lessons learned.



In sum, the current threat environment posed by terrorism and insurgency makes a new strategy, approach and new organizational and institutional behaviors necessary. The nontraditional challenges to U.S. national-security and foreign-policy imperatives posed by elusive and deadly irregular adversaries emphasizes the need to anchor changes that will more effectively close the gap between detecting irregular adversarial activity and rapidly defeating it. The effectiveness of U.S. strategy will be based on our capacity to think like a networked enemy, in anticipation of how they may act in a variety of situations, aided by different resources. This goal requires that the American national security structure in turn organize itself for maximum efficiency, information sharing, and the ability to function quickly and effectively under new operational definitions. A successful strategy will therefore also be one that thinks and plans ahead with a view towards addressing the threats likely to be posed by the terrorist and insurgent generation beyond the current one.


Bruce Hoffman is a contributing editor to The National Interest and a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is also the author of Inside Terrorism (2006).