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Keeping America Safe

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Report 30 June 2011

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security 9/11 al qaeda counter-terrorism

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, experts in and out of government are reviewing the successes and mistakes of the approach to counterterrorism that has dominated the decade. Yesterday, the Obama administration released its first National Counterterrorism Strategy outlining its overall approach to combating terrorism. It highlights the need for whole-of-government efforts that go beyond any one agency or tool; for partnerships built on trust between nations and within our own society; and for standing strongly with our own institutions and values to face terror with resilience. These lessons have been outlined again and again by experts in terrorism and national security. New polling this week also showed that the American people clearly prefer this results-oriented approach to doubling down on failed policies of the past.

New counterterrorism strategy demonstrates important lessons learned. Yesterday John Brennan, President Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor, outlined how the U.S. is taking the fight to al Qaeda with a string of real and concrete successes: "We have affected al-Qa'ida's ability to attract new recruits.  We've made it harder for them to hide and transfer money, and pushed al-Qa'ida's finances to its weakest point in years.  Along with our partners, in Pakistan and Yemen, we've shown al-Qa'ida that it will enjoy no safe haven, and we have made it harder than ever for them to move, to communicate, to train, and to plot. Al-Qa'ida's leadership ranks have been decimated, with more key leaders eliminated in rapid succession than at any time since 9/11.  For example, al-Qa'ida's third-ranking leader, Sheik Saeed al-Masri-killed.  Ilyas Kashmiri, one of al-Qa'ida's most dangerous commanders-reportedly killed.  Operatives of AQAP in Yemen, including Ammar al-Wa'ili, Abu Ali al-Harithi, and Ali Saleh Farhan-all killed.  Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban-killed.  Harun Fazul, the leader of al-Qa'ida in East Africa and the mastermind of the bombings of our embassies in Africa-killed by Somali security forces.  All told, over the past two and half years, virtually every major al-Qa'ida affiliate has lost its key leader or operational commander, and more than half of al-Qa'ida's top leadership has been eliminated. "

Brennan listed guiding principles for counterterrorism efforts, many of which prominent national security experts have urged for years:  

"This is-and must be-a whole-of-government effort." All tools of our national security apparatus - intelligence, military, diplomatic, economic and legal - are part of the effort to combat terrorism.  As former Ambassador to Yemen, Edmund Hull recently wrote, "U.S. diplomacy is essential for effective counterterrorism." This toolbox includes utilizing civilian courts to try terrorists, which Brennan described as "our single most effective tool for prosecuting, convicting, and sentencing suspected terrorists-and a proven tool for gathering intelligence and preventing attacks." As General Colin Powell, former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says, "the federal courts, our Article III, regular legal court system, has put dozens of terrorists in jail and they're fully capable of doing it. So the suggestion that somehow a military commission is the way to go isn't borne out by the history of the military commissions." [Edmund Hull, 6/2/11. Colin Powell via Face the Nation, 2/21/10]

"The need for partnership with institutions and countries around the world." This sentiment was captured in a report last year from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- "U.S. government cooperation with foreign partners must be redoubled across the counterterrorism spectrum: Information-sharing, counterterrorism and law enforcement training, and border control are all areas where allies will benefit from cooperation. Foreign partners are often the first line of defense."  [SFRC, 1/20/10]

"[D]ifferent threats in different places demand different tools." Brennan explains, "In some places, as I've described, our efforts will focus on training foreign security services.  In others, as with our Saudi Arabian and Gulf state partners, our focus will include shutting down al-Qa'ida's financial pipelines.  With longtime allies and partners, as in Europe, we'll thwart attacks through close intelligence cooperation.  Here in the United States-where the rule of law is paramount-it's our federal, state, and local law enforcement and homeland security professionals who rightly take the lead." The role of state and local law enforcement officials is often overlooked, but as the Chairmen of the 9/11 Commission recently testified, "State and local officials have a far greater understanding not only of the threat and how to respond to it, but also, their communities." And a recent study from the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions urges that we "[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." [9/11 Commission Chairmen, 3/30/11. Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, 10/10]

"[K]eeping our nation secure also depends on strong partnerships between government and communities here at home, including Muslim and Arab Americans." Earlier this year, Peter Bergen, CNN analyst and terrorism expert, presented empirical results of an extensive study by the New America Foundation and Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Policy, examining the post-9/11 cases of Americans or U.S. residents either convicted of or charged with al Qaeda-related plots: "[M]ore than one-fifth of the post-9/11 Islamist terrorism cases originated with tips from Muslim community members or involved the cooperation of the families of alleged plotters." [Peter Bergen, 3/10/11]

"[B]uilding a culture of resilience here at home." Homeland Security expert and president of the Center for National Policy Stephen Flynn writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that, "Washington should place greater emphasis on developing adequate societal resilience. Resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, companies, and the government to withstand, respond to, adapt to, and recover from disasters." [Stephen Flynn, 5/11]

"[I]n all our actions, we will uphold the core values that define us as Americans."  As Matthew Alexander, the Air Force interrogator who led the team that tracked down the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, states, "We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him... No one should ever doubt that we have the mental and ethical fortitude to win this war -- and to do it without lowering ourselves to the level of our foes." He explains that violating our own principles plays into al Qaeda's hands: "One of al-Qaeda's goals is to prove that America does not live up to its principles. They assert that we are a nation of hypocrites... This war has two fronts - protecting our security by thwarting terrorist attacks and preserving American principles." [Matthew Alexander, 5/4/11. Matthew Alexander, 4/23/09]

[John Brennan, 6/29/11]

Conservatives double down on extreme - and failed - policies. NSN Senior Advisor Major General (ret) Paul Eaton criticized detainee provisions inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) saying it, "furthers the current trend of militarization of our judiciary by institutionalizing the Guantanamo Detention Facility and military commissions. This has three serious problems. First, it keeps in place what remains a superb al Qaeda recruiting tool at Guantanamo. Second, it diminishes the brilliant work our civilian law enforcement team is doing. Finally, it raises the status of those who would blow up our aircraft and public places. They are not warriors. They are criminals." [Paul Eaton, 6/20/11]

Administration and experts' approach backed by the American public. This mainstream approach is shared by terrorism and national security experts and the public. A new poll shows that the American public strongly supports  the approach to protecting America that President Obama has been pursuing.  TIME Magazine asked, "Who would be the best to protect the us from a terrorist attack?" The results from respondents was pretty clear: 52% said Barack Obama; 30% Mitt Romney; 24% Newt Gingrich; and 23% Sarah Palin.  Howard Dean, former chairman of the DNC, commented on the numbers saying, "I think you would have to go back to JFK to find a Democrat with numbers like that." [MSNBC, 6/30/11]

What We're Reading

One of the biggest and most complex Taliban attacks ever orchestrated in Kabul, Afghanistan, appeared designed to show that the insurgents remain capable of striking even as U.S. officials speak of progress in the nearly 10-year war.

Pakistani security forces have killed at least 40 militants in a tribal area near the Afghan border over the last three days, a spokesman for a paramilitary force said.

Greek lawmakers voted to fast-track implementation of the country's new austerity measures, clearing the way for Greece's foreign lenders to unlock the next installment of aid the bankrupt country needs to meet expenses through the summer.

Some three quarters of a million public sector employees began striking across Britain, shutting down thousands of schools and triggering severe delays and disruption at airports in what organizers said was the biggest strike in a generation.

The Syrian military and the government's security forces have largely withdrawn from one of the country's largest cities as well as other areas, leaving territory to protesters whose demonstrations have grown larger and whose chants have taunted a leadership that once inspired deep fear.

NATO was not involved in a French airlift of weapons to Libyan rebels, the alliance's chief said, sharpening differences over how far Western powers should go to oust Muammar Qaddafi.

The Egyptian military intervened to quell the biggest riots since the country's former president fell in February, as new uprisings stymie the country's recently-reformed civilian police force.

Four arrest warrants have been issued by the UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's state prosecutor said.

Rival Sudanese forces have agreed to withdraw from the north-south border, ahead of the south's independence next week.

Senegal deployed its military to clamp down on antigovernment riots after protesters attacked government buildings and burned tires, following a week of protests that have jolted the leadership of one of Africa's most stable countries.

Evidence "strongly suggests" that a United Nations peacekeeping mission brought a cholera strain to Haiti that has killed thousands of people, a team of epidemiologists and physicians says.

Commentary of the Day

Peter Juul examines the profound disagreement among conservatives over foreign policy heading into the 2012 presidential election.

Steven Cook writes that most serious observers of post-Mubarak politics believe the political situation in Egypt will remain unsettled for some time.

Alexander Golts claims that it is in Russia and the United States' best interest to cooperate and make sure Afghanistan remains stable after the U.S. withdraws in troops. 

The Boston Globe editorializes that new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will have to take a more disciplined and systemic look at the defense budget than his predecessor Robert Gates.