National Security Network

Administration’s Vigilance Against Terrorism Makes America Safer

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Report 6 October 2009

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security Afghanistan Guantanamo GWOT Pakistan zazi


Today President Obama will visit the National Counterterrorism Center to review its operations, especially in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. While much of the attention of the media and the public has been devoted to issues such as health care, the economy, dealings with Iran, and the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has maintained its vigilance in the struggle against transnational terrorism. The President's approach to counterterrorism has made America safer and significantly weakened terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

The Administration has worked intensively to change the dynamics in the fight against terrorism. First, the multiple arrests last month, particularly in the Zazi plot - the most serious known planned domestic attack since 9/11 - demonstrates that the Administration and U.S. law enforcement have their eye on the ball. Second, the Administration has made America's efforts to pursue, capture, and kill al-Qaeda terrorists in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and around the world more effective.  Counterterrorism experts have hailed the success of these efforts and concluded that they have greatly weakened al-Qaeda.  Finally, the Administration has regained the moral high ground by ending the use of torture, moving to close Guantanamo, dropping the label "global war on terror," and engaging the Muslim world directly and openly.  These steps have all served to isolate and weaken transnational terrorist groups by undercutting their recruiting ability and reasserting American leadership.

Obama administration's vigilance in combating domestic terrorism is evident in break-up of Zazi plot, which was the most serious domestic terror case since 9/11. The successful thwarting of Najibullah Zazi's plot to attack the homeland illustrates the Obama administration's cool-headed, effective approach to keeping Americans safe. The Washington Post writes: "In late August, shortly after federal agents began tracking the movements of the suspected terrorist [Zazi] in Colorado, senior officials added the case to Obama's daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.  Agents had only fragmented information about Zazi at that point, Administration officials said.  However, the case quickly piqued Obama's curiosity and led to what aides called an ‘intensive three-week White House focus on the case.'"  According to the Post, "Obama officials stressed their efforts to set a different tone than the previous Administration; the White House says it avoided trumpeting either the elevated threat level or the averted crisis, while portraying Obama as highly involved in monitoring developments. As Zazi drove across the country under heavy surveillance, John O. Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, briefed the president three to four times a day on Zazi's activities."  The actions taken to monitor and eventually dismantle the Zazi plot conformed to a key principle for combating terrorism adopted by the Obama administration. A senior official said to the Washington Post, "...we made a conscious decision not to have a big press conference." In a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations this summer, Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano described a shift away from a "state of fear" to a "state of preparedness."  In sharp contrast to the tactics used by federal officials during the Bush administration, which did not always correspond to the seriousness of the suspected threat, the Obama administration's handling of the most serious domestic terror case since 9/11 was both sober and decisive. [Washington Post, 10/06/09. Janet Napolitano, 7/29/09]

Targeted strikes around the globe are increasingly effective in combating terrorist networks. The New York Times has reported on the Obama administration's increasingly successful efforts to counter the al-Qaeda threat in the volatile Afghanistan - Pakistan region. "Administration officials said the United States had eliminated more than half of its top targets over the last year, severely constricted al-Qaeda's capacity to operate and choked off a lot of its financing," said the Times.  Administration officials attribute some of this success to the "stepped-up use of Predator and Reaper drones in the brutal and largely ungoverned border regions of Pakistan."  In an appearance on CNN's State of the Union this past weekend, National Security Advisor General Jim Jones observed "the good news is that (what) Americans should feel at least good about in Afghanistan is that the al-Qaeda presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country. No bases. No buildings to launch attacks on either us or our allies."  The Times noted that one official, who had worked closely on counterterrorism policy for both Administrations, confirmed that "al-Qaeda had been significantly degraded" since President Obama took office.  The Obama administration has also struck at al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, most notably in Somalia, where "a squad of U.S. special operations helicopter gunships, which were launched off a Navy vessel in the Indian Ocean, attacked and killed an alleged al-Qaeda leader," according to Time Magazine. The target was "Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a 28-year-old Kenyan wanted for attacks on a seaside hotel and an Israeli airliner in 2002 in Kenya," continued Time. [NY Times, 10/06/09. General Jones, via CNN, 10/04/09. TIME, 9/15/09]

The Obama administration has weakened al-Qaeda by retaking the moral high ground in the fight against terrorism.

  • The president ended the use of torture, which al-Qaeda had been using as a propaganda weapon. In his first week in office President Obama signed an executive order to ban torture and subject all interrogations to Army Field Manual Standards that conform to the Geneva Conventions. Ali Soufan, the former FBI terrorist interrogator who was able to ascertain that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was the 9/11 mastermind through traditional interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee saying: "The mistake [to use torture] was so costly precisely because the situation was, and remains, too risky to allow someone to experiment with amateurish, Hollywood style interrogation methods- that in reality- taints sources, risks outcomes, ignores the end game, and diminishes our moral high ground in a battle that is impossible to win without first capturing the hearts and minds around the world. It was one of the worst and most harmful decisions made in our efforts against al-Qaeda." [NY Times, 1/22/09. Ali Soufan, 5/13/09]
  • The president pledged to close Guantanamo Bay detention prison, which has been a vital recruiting tool for al-Qaeda. Also in his first week, President Obama signed an executive order to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. This has been a stain on America's image and a recruiting tool for terrorists. Matthew Alexander, the pseudonym of the Air Force Major and interrogator who extracted the information - without using torture - that led to finding Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, told Harper's Magazine: "I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join al-Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay. My team of interrogators knew that we would become al-Qaeda's best recruiters if we resorted to torture." [CNN, 1/22/09. Harper's Magazine, 12/18/08]
  • The president's outreach to the Muslim world threatens al-Qaeda. This June, President Obama reached out to the Muslim world in an unprecedented manner by giving an historic speech at Cairo University. NPR reported, "Pledging ‘to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims,' President Obama reached out to the world's 1.5 billion followers of Islam on Thursday, addressing an appreciative crowd at Cairo University. Quoting from the Quran, the Talmud and the Bible - and closing to a standing ovation - Obama said his address was an effort to ‘speak the truth' about U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Several times during the hour-long speech, members of the audience shouted, ‘We love you.'" Shortly after the speech, two al-Qaeda videos were quickly released, about which ABC News reported, "‘This president and his outreach are very threatening to bin Laden and al-Qaeda,' said a senior Administration official. ‘It's terribly bad news to bin Laden and al-Qaeda. They're beginning to lose the propaganda war.'" [NPR, 6/4/09. ABC News, 6/3/09]
  • Depriving al-Qaeda the legitimacy and grandeur it seeks, the Administration has ended use of the term "Global War On Terror." At a speech at CSIS this summer, John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism explained that "the President does not describe this as a ‘global war.' Yes, al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups operate in many corners of the world and continue to launch attacks in different nations... And yes, the United States will confront al-Qaeda aggressively wherever it exists so that it enjoys no safe haven. But describing our efforts as a ‘global war' only plays into the warped narrative that al-Qaeda propagates. It plays into the misleading and dangerous notion that the U.S. is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world. It risks setting our nation apart from the world, rather than emphasizing the interests we share. And perhaps most dangerously, portraying this as a "global" war risks reinforcing the very image that al-Qaeda seeks to project of itself-that it is a highly organized, global entity capable of replacing sovereign nations with a global caliphate. And nothing could be further from the truth." [John Brennan, 10/6/09]
  • The U.S. is now the most admired country globally. A new survey by GFK Roper Public Affairs & Media, reported by Reuters this morning, attributes this finding largely to the star power of President Obama. "What's really remarkable is that in all my years studying national reputation, I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we see for the United States for 2009," said Simon Anholt, the founder of NBI, which measured the global image of 50 countries each year. The improved image of America will help us to not only sway public opinion in our favor, but also partner with other countries in this fight. [Reuters Life!, 10/5/09]

What We're Reading

The Pentagon is establishing two new units in Afghanistan designed to help troops deepen their intelligence about the country's complex political and tribal dynamics.

A suicide bomber set off an explosion inside the heavily guarded office of the United Nations' World Food Program on Monday, killing at least five people and wounding five others, according to police and UN officials.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told the visiting Chinese premier Monday that his country was willing to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations provided progress is made in direct talks with the United States.

International aid has begun to trickle into Indonesia in the aftermath of a massive earthquake that struck the western Indonesian island of Sumatra last Wednesday.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pressed Catholic and Protestant leaders Monday to end the deadlock threatening their power-sharing government.

The Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, General Moshe Yaalon, has been forced to cancel a fundraising trip to London after lawyers warned that he could be arrested in connection with a deadly attack he authorized in the Gaza Strip seven years ago.

More than 240 people have died, and hundreds of thousands have been left homeless, in southern India after four days of heavy rainfall at the end of the monsoon season.

The peninsula of Crimea has become a focal point for rising tension between Russia and Ukraine.

Three scientists - Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle, and George E. Smith - who created the technology behind digital photography and helped link the world through fiber-optic networks shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday.

Commentary of the Day

Henry Kissinger argues that the war in Afghanistan can only be won with the support of its powerful neighbors, and with full consideration of its broader geographical and political context.

Gary Hart claims that we cannot separate the consideration of and a search for solutions to energy, climate, and security.

John Lee makes the case that, after 60 years of modern history, China no longer has any excuses for its growing socio-economic gap.

Abbas Milani predicts that, with an increasingly oppressive militarist junta and a more democratic regime both struggling to be born, Iran is at a tipping point and U.S. policies can help determine which way it will turn.