National Security Network

Combating Terror at Home and Abroad

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Report 2 June 2010

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security al qaeda


Early this week, reports emerged that Mustafa Abu al Yazid, al Qaeda's third in command, was killed in a mid-May drone strike.  While the number three position in al Qaeda has been taken out a number of times over the past decade, al Yazid (A.K.A. Sheik Saeed al Masri) was a founding member of al Qaeda and experts say that he played a more important role in the organization than his predecessors.  Though this is a significant blow to al Qaeda's operational capabilities, they are still intent on perpetrating a massive attack against America. But it's also apparent that an a growing threat is that of a smaller, more improvised attack perpetrated by loose al Qaeda affiliates or even those simply inspired by the group. Counteracting this requires a comprehensive approach that's not based on fear but instead based on the strength and resilience of our nation.  Because of the multifaceted and ever-changing nature of terrorism, a strong, multi-faceted and integrated approach is the best strategy for countering these ongoing and evolving threats. 

Al Qaeda's number three believed to have been killed.  The "chief operating officer" of al Qaeda was reportedly killed last month.   Newsweek's Mark Hosenball reported yesterday that "U.S. national security officials are expressing more confidence than ever that Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid, also known as Sheik Saeed al-Masri, the purported third-ranking leader of Al Qaeda's central command (or what's left of it), was killed last month by a U.S. missile attack in Pakistan's border region. Officials predict that the latest strike will contribute to what the U.S. already believes is a significant deterioration in the ability of Osama bin Laden's terror network to conduct effective terrorist attacks both in South Asia and against targets overseas. But they also warn there's little doubt that a new No. 3 will soon emerge.  The missile strike - presumably fired from a CIA-operated drone aircraft - occurred within the past two weeks near the town of Miran Shah in North Waziristan, according to two officials, asking anonymity when discussing sensitive information."

While the number three position has been eliminated several times in the past, the death is a major setback for al Qaeda's central command. According to the Washington Post, "On at least 10 occasions in the past decade, al-Qaeda has sustained the loss of a senior operative described at some point as the No. 3 figure in its hierarchy. Each time, the group has moved quickly to appoint a successor, demonstrating a resilience that has enabled it to survive a dozen years of open warfare with the United States and defy repeated predictions of its demise."  But, al Yazid's death is a particular setback for the terrorist organization.  MSNBC detailed his role, saying "The Egyptian-born al-Yazid, also known as Sheik Saeed al-Masri, was a founding member of al-Qaida and the group's prime conduit to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. He was key to day-to-day control, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning, U.S. officials said. ‘In some respects, Sheikh Sa'id's death is more important for al-Qaida operations than if bin Laden or Zawahiri was killed,' said Roger Cressey, former deputy chief for counterterrorism at the National Security Council and now an NBC News consultant. ‘Any al-Qaida operation of any consequence would run through him.'" [Newsweek, 6/1/10. Washington Post, 6/2/10. MSNBC, 6/1/10]

As U.S. continues to put pressure on terrorists abroad, there is also a focus on the challenge posed by domestic radicalization and a need for American resilience.  John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, recently stated in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "Indeed, we have seen an increasing number of individuals here in the United States become captivated by extremist ideologies or causes... The president's national security strategy explicitly recognizes the threat to the United States posed by individuals radicalized here at home. We have seen individuals, including U.S. citizens, armed with their U.S. passports, travel easily to extremist safe havens and return to America, their deadly plans disrupted by coordinated intelligence and law enforcement... This is a new phase to the terrorist threat, no longer limited to coordinated, sophisticated, 9/11-style attacks, but expanding to single individuals attempting to carry out relatively unsophisticated attacks. As our enemy adapts and evolves their tactics, so must we constantly adapt and evolve ours, not in a mad rush driven by fear, but in a thoughtful and reasoned way that enhances our security and further delegitimizes the actions of our enemy. To this end, a key theme of the president's national security strategy is how we will remain a strong and resilient nation here at home." 

Indeed, as Steve Flynn, now President of the Center for National Policy, writes: "Resilience has historically been one of the United States' great national strengths...A climate of fear and a sense of powerlessness caused by the threats of terrorism and natural disasters are undermining American ideals and fueling political demagoguery. Rebuilding the resilience of American society is the way to reverse this and respond to today's challenges." To this end, Brennan lays out four pillars of maintaining a resilient nation: preparation; adaptation; withstanding disruption; and staying true to who we are as a people.  [John Brennan, 5/26/10. Steve Flynn, via Foreign Affairs, March/April 2008]

A strong, multi-faceted and integrated approach is the best strategy for countering terrorist threats. The Obama administration has devised an integrated approach for dealing with the range of terrorist threats facing the U.S. Together, these instruments amount to a 21st century approach to combating violent extremism. As articulated in the recently released National Security Strategy, "We are now moving beyond traditional distinctions between homeland and national security. National security draws on the strength and resilience of our citizens, communities, and economy. This includes a determination to prevent terrorist attacks against the American people by fully coordinating the actions that we take abroad with the actions and precautions that we take at home."

Taking the fight to terrorists abroad.  In a recent paper from the Center for American Progress, analysts Brian Katulis and Ken Gude write that, "In stark contrast to the previous administration-which under-resourced efforts in Afghanistan and ignored threats coming from Pakistan-the Obama administration has put militant groups in the crosshairs. It is working to complete the mission left unaccomplished in Afghanistan, and has taken out three times more suspected militants in Pakistan in its first 15 months in office compared to the Bush administration's last five years."[CAP, 5/4/10]

Disrupting plots at home and bringing terrorists to justice.  In their paper, Katulis and Gude also write that, "the swift capture and arrest of the Times Square bombing suspect shows that effective intelligence and law enforcement work-a component of successful counterterrorism operations for decades-is a crucial part of an integrated strategy to keep Americans safe." [CAP, 5/4/10]

Building resilience at home. As Steve Flynn, now President of the Center for National Policy wrote in 2008: "Building the resilience of American society would increase the nation's security by depriving al Qaeda and other terrorists of the fear dividend they hope to reap by threatening to carrying out catastrophic attacks. In military terms, the United States is too large, and al Qaeda's capacity to attack the U.S. homeland too limited, for terrorists like them to inflict nationwide destruction. All they can hope for is to spawn enough fear to spur Washington into overreacting in costly and self-destructive ways. [Steve Flynn, 2008]

Working with regional and international partners.  A recent study of foiled terrorist plots since 9/11 performed by the American Security Project found that, "International cooperation remains vital. In several cases foreign intelligence and law enforcement cooperation-including the provision of intelligence and making arrests-was instrumental in dismantling terror plots..."  The Obama administration has made this a fundamental part of its counterterrorism efforts. Daniel Benjamin, the State Department counterterrorism coordinator explained: "we have and will continue to reach out, and, on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect, forge international coalitions. Our focus has been on building (and sometimes rebuilding) partnerships, whether they be bilateral, with multilateral organizations such as the UN, the private sector, or civil society."  The cooperation with Pakistan in the investigation of the Times Square plot as well as the hosting of the first ever Nuclear Security Summit, to address the threats of nuclear terrorism, are just two recent examples of the administration's initiative on international cooperation.  [ASP, 5/10. Daniel Benjamin, 5/3/10]

Depriving terrorists their propaganda tools. As NSN Senior Advisor Maj. Gen. (ret.) Paul Eaton said, "Repeatedly, Al Qaeda leadership uses the Guantanamo prison, former Vice President Cheney's endorsement of waterboarding, other forms of torture or coersive interrogation techniques and other examples of non-core US values behaviors to fight at the strategic level, the war of ideas."  [Paul Eaton, 4/26/10]

[National Security Strategy, 5/28/10]

What We're Reading

Facing a furious international dispute and widespread condemnation, Israel began expelling hundreds of activists seized from a flotilla of ships challenging its three-year blockade of Gaza.

As rockets landed nearby and suicide attackers detonated explosives, Afghan President Hamid Karzai opened a national consultative peace assembly with the goal of winning popular backing for his plan to persuade Taliban and insurgent foot soldiers to stop fighting.

Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region said dozens of families had been displaced in days of shelling by Iranian forces pursuing Kurdish rebels in the border region.

Embattled Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned to improve his party's chances in an election next month, after his popularity plunged over his broken campaign promise to move a U.S. Marine base.

Thailand's beleaguered prime minister survived a no-confidence vote called after months of anti-government protests crippled the capital and street battles left nearly 90 people dead.

Flooding and landslides from the season's first tropical storm, Agatha, have killed at least 150 people and made thousands homeless in Central America.

Germany pressed ahead with its drive for tougher market regulation as its Cabinet approved a bill that would cement in law curbs on speculative trading practices.

Somali pirates hijacked a Panama-flagged cargo ship and its 24-strong crew in the Gulf of Aden.

Russia and the European Union signed off on a new partnership for modernization as the two sides sought to progress on economic fundamentals as the crisis in the eurozone took the bite out of previous conflicts.

Iraqis celebrated the end of a little-loved era as the American military gave up control of the fortified green zone from which it has ruled for the past seven years.

Commentary of the Day

Ann Marlowe says good counterinsurgency can't make up for the lack of a strategy in Afghanistan.

Amos Oz argues that Israel has adopted the mantra that what can't be done by force can be done with even greater force, and the siege of Gaza and the flotilla crisis are the products of that mindset.

Steven Cook writes that it's hard to admit, but after six decades of strategic cooperation, Turkey and the United States are becoming strategic competitors -- especially in the Middle East.