National Security Network

A Smart and Resilient Approach to Terrorism

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Report 9 December 2010

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security counter-terrorism resilience terrorism


As the holiday season approaches so does an increased concern over terrorism and security. As we saw yesterday with the disruption of a plot in Baltimore and a similar instance last month in Portland, the challenge of terrorism remains.  To address this challenge, a comprehensive strategic approach that combines vigilance at home with effective partnerships abroad, along with a commitment to our values, is necessary.  However, some politicians have chosen to promote divisive and harmful demagoguery that instead only hurts America's interests.  As American counterterrorism and law enforcement officials work tirelessly to protect America's security, it is important to remember that the American people have an important role to play in remaining resilient and to reject this fear mongering.  By refusing to succumb to the paralysis of fear, American resilience will continue to be central to preventing terrorist plots - either carried out or disrupted - from becoming truly successful. 

As travel increases around the holidays, a smart, comprehensive counterterrorism approach is best for combating terrorism.  This includes:

Incapacitating extremist movements threatening the U.S.: Since taking office, the Obama administration has killed or captured hundreds of extremists, including al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, causing former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke to declare: "It is an objective and undeniable fact that U.S. counterterrorism efforts have reduced the overall threat from what it was a few years ago." [Third Way, 7/1/10. Richard Clarke, 5/9/10]

Recognizing the importance of law enforcement and an alert public: A recent study from the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions says to, "[r]ecognize the importance of law enforcement and public vigilance in thwarting terror attacks. More than 80% of foiled terrorist plots were discovered via observations from law enforcement or the general public. Tips included reports of plots as well as reports of suspicious activity, such as pre-operational surveillance, para-military training, smuggling activities, and the discovery of suspicious documents." [Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, 10/10]

Disrupting plots at home and bringing terrorists to justice: Law enforcement and counterterrorism officials have stamped out plots to attack the U.S., including the planned attack by Najibullah Zazi, which authorities called one of the most serious terrorism plots against Americans since Sept. 11, 2001. In fact, there have been more terrorist convictions in first 18 months of the Obama administration through civilian courts than in five years of Bush administration's military tribunals. [NSN, 2/23/10]

Effective international cooperation: The administration has led an international effort to reduce the terrorist threat, most prominently through the Nuclear Security Summit earlier this year, which brought together heads of state from nearly 50 countries to take action against the worldwide threat posed by nuclear terrorism, resulting in an outpouring of deliverables initiatives ranging from port security to the securing of nuclear material.  There has been increased cooperation with partners in Europe to track financial and bank transfers that the United States, a program that has led to 1,500 investigative leads to European allies in the past nine years. And cooperation with Pakistani authorities brought arrests in Times Square investigation.  [NSN,4/14/10. NY Times, 7/8/10. Washington Post, 5/14/10. CNN, 5/19/10]

Denying terrorists propaganda tools: As John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, has said, "Fidelity to our values and to deny violent extremists one of their most potent recruitment tools is why the president ordered that the prison at Guantanamo Bay be closed and that we bring detainees to justice." [John Brennan, CSIS, 5/26/10]

Alienation and suspicion of Muslim Americans does not serve our anti-terrorism efforts - it hurts them.  Increasing anti-Islamic rhetoric and behavior only serves to isolate and alienate a community that former NYPD and LAPD police chief William Bratton described as an "extraordinarily  law abiding community." For example, just today, Newsday reports today that Rep. Peter King (R-NY) who is set to take over as Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, plans to hold "Muslim hearings," to discuss "the extent to which the Muslim leadership cooperates or doesn't cooperate with law enforcement and the extent to which prisoners are radicalized by Islamic jihad." 

However, this anti-Muslim behavior that has been on the rise recently is not only counter to America's values, as it alienates many patriotic Americans, but is also counterproductive to America's security interests.  As the new study from the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions recommends, officials: "Work to establish good relations with local communities and avoid tactics that might alienate them. Approximately 40% of plots were thwarted as a result of tips from the public and informants. Establishing trust with persons in or near radical movements is jeopardized by tactics such as racial, ethnic, religious, or ideological profiling."

Additionally, such behavior feeds into the recruitment propaganda of al Qaeda.  Brian Fishman, research fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, says that "Anwar al-Awlaki, the most important recruiter of western Muslims into jihadi movements, has been hammering at the point that there is a double standard for Muslims in the West and the 'we' are soon going to crackdown on Muslims.  He is implicitly admitting that these folks are very well integrated into American society, but warns them that social comity won't last."  [William Bratton, 7/14/10. Newsday, 12/8/10. Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, 10/10. Brian Fishman, 8/16/10]

A resilient America is a strong America.  Fear, disruption and overreaction are the explicit goals of terrorism and leading experts agree that we have some control over whether such efforts succeed. In response to such threats, Americans must draw on our resilient core as a society, as John Brennan has explained: "As a strong and resilient nation, we will strengthen our ability to withstand any disruption, whatever the cause. For even as we put unrelenting pressure on the enemy, even as we strive to thwart 100 percent of the plots against us, we know that terrorists are striving to succeed only once... Instead of giving into fear and paralysis, which is the goal of terrorists, we must resolve, as a nation, as a people, that we will go forward with confidence, that we will resist succumbing to overreaction, especially to failed attacks and not magnify these perpetrators beyond the despicable miscreants that they are, that as a proud and strong nation, we will not cower in the face of a small band of cowards who hide in the shadows and send others to their slaughter and to slaughter the innocents."  

Dr. Stephen Flynn, president of the Center for National Policy, has further testified that, "[terrorists] are counting on even small-scale attacks that produce few casualties and modest destruction to generate fear, political recriminations, and a rush to put in place expensive and disruptive safeguards.  If how we react - or more precisely, when we overreact - elevates the appeal of carrying out these attacks on U.S. soil, it follows that there is an element of deterrence by denying these terrorist groups the return on investment they hope to receive."  Fareed Zakaria, Washington Post columnist and national security analyst points out, "The purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction.... If we are not terrorized, then the attack didn't work."   A smart response to terrorism combines constant vigilance by counterterrorism and law enforcement professionals with citizens and political leaders who refuse to be defined by fear. [John Brennan, CSIS, 5/26/10. Stephen Flynn, 9/15/10.  Fareed Zakaria, 1/11/10]

What We're Reading

Arms transfers to southern Sudan, which will soon vote on secession, were revealed when Somali pirates found the weapons on a captured freighter.

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bill that would prevent moving prisoners at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay to U.S. soil.

China hit back at U.S. comments criticizing Beijing for not reining in its North Korean ally, saying military threats cannot resolve tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The U.N. Security Council issued a statement saying that Ivory Coast opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara won the disputed presidential election.

The European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League have rebuked Israel after its refusal to halt settlement construction forced Washington to drop efforts to call for such a freeze within the relaunching of Mideast peace talks.

A group of hackers vowed to intensify a "war of data" against Mastercard, Visa and other groups which have cut funding to the WikiLeaks website over its release of U.S. secrets.

The former U.N. nuclear inspectorate chief Mohamed ElBaradei said he will not run in next year's Egyptian presidential elections, after dismissing the country's recent parliamentary poll as a "farce" and warning of dire consequences if the government continues to suppress peaceful protests.

Across Mexico, and especially in the north, the breakdown of the legal system is giving way to a wave of vigilante violence.

North Korean state media issued a statement that claimed possession of all waters around South Korea-controlled Yeonpyeong Island.

A heavy police presence held off angry student protesters marching to London's Parliament Square as lawmakers debated a controversial plan to triple university tuition fees in England.

Commentary of the Day

Gordon Brown explores how the West can reverse a decade of decline through global economic cooperation.

Robert Dreyfuss argues the best chance for success in Afghanistan would be for Obama to call a ceasefire, followed by all-inclusive talks.

Bradley K. Martin asks how likely is a broad political counter-revolution in North Korea?