U.S. Counter-Terrorism Strategy and al-Qaeda

Thomas L. Norman’s Risk Analysis and Security Countermeasure Selection is a relentlessly practical book intended to aid security consultants, of which Norman is one. There are literally dozens of codes, standards, and risk assessment methodologies that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security accepts for different institutions and infrastructures.

As he details the excruciating process of assessing the risks from all “threat actors,” including economic criminals, nonterrorist violent criminals, “subversives,” and petty criminals, he gets around to saying some important things about terrorists.

[T]errorists are not necessarily interested in taking out a facility but are very interested in communicating through the use of violence… . Terrorists use violence as language. The language of violence causes a public debate, not only about the terrorist act, but also about the causes of it and what can be done about it. Terrorists speak through violence to the public directly, past the national leadership. (page 167)

This is not a strategy book nor a counterterrorism book, but it touches on counterterrorism strategy in a similar, sensible way.

Deterrence occurs when potential threat actors evaluate the risks and rewards of an attack and determine that the risk is not worth the reward… . For terrorists, this could mean that an attack is not likely to succeed, that their attack would not capture the media’s attention, or that they could be perceived negatively by their own constituency. (page 252)

The success or failure of a given attack matters some to terrorists, but perceptions—the salience of their menace, and interpretations of events among key audiences—matter just as much.

These ideas—common sense among security professionals—seem not yet to have taken hold among policymakers and opinion leaders. This is why Joshua Alexander Geltzer’s U.S. Counter-Terrorism Strategy and al-Qaeda: Signaling and the Terrorist World View is such an important book.

Built on copious research, including more than forty interviews with administration figures, other policymakers, and experts, the book examines the communicative aspects of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies. According to Geltzer, the ten messages U.S. policymakers sought to convey included: taking action; signaling a change; using force; capability; resolve; relentlessness; focus on state sponsors; democracy; visible, layered defense; and success.

But the audience for these messages did not interpret them as officials hoped. ”[G]iven the belief structure characterising those drawn to al-Qaeda,” Geltzer concludes, ”the Bush administration’s counter-terrorist communications [proved] contrary to American efforts to thwart al-Qaeda and to contain the threat the group poses.” (page 133)

In his research for the book, Geltzer found remarkable candor among American officials responsible for Bush Administration counterterrorism policy. In a March 2007 interview, for example, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Geltzer, “We’ve never understood the nature of the enemy, in Iraq or more broadly the war on terror.” (page 39)

U.S. “relentlessness,” for example, did al Qaeda a favor by raising its profile to heights it could never have achieved itself. “Al-Qaeda has cultivated publicity, using America as the group’s promoter,” reports Geltzer, ”with al-Zawahiri apparently telling bin Laden, ‘Let the Americans become your personal media agents — they’ve got the biggest PR machine in the whole world.’” (page 121)

“Visible, layered defense,” likewise, offered as much encouragement to al Qaeda and its sympathizers as deterrence. “For some of those drawn to al-Qaeda, martyrdom has more meaning than victory,” reports Getzler. “There is no ‘obligation to produce a result’ in jihad: it is an affair between the believer and God and not between the mujahid and his enemy… . While homeland security may offer many potential practical benefits, sending a deterrent message to those inspired by martyrdom does not appear to be among them.” (page 129)

Importantly, the book betrays no anti-Bush sentiment. It is careful, clinical reporting on, and analysis of, the counterterrorism policies of the administration that had to invent them after the 9/11 attacks.

Consistent with the theme of the book, Geltzer has some prescriptions for counterterrorist signaling that will undermine terrorism:

In addition to calling far less attention to its own actions, America should call far less attention to al-Qaeda — and, moreover, should almost always avoid naming the terrorists themselves… . While the political profit to any American politician of constantly naming al-Qaeda persists, resisting that temptation would frustrate al-Qaeda’s strategy of elevating its own status and framing its campaign against America as a viable enterprise in which all Muslims worldwide should enlist, aid and abet. Not only should al-Qaeda and its leaders be named less by American officials, but the label of al-Qaeda also should not be used to describe what are, in truth, diverse and splintered militant Islamist movements, organizations and networks. (page 145)

When the next terrorism-related event occurs, listen carefully to how U.S. politicians respond. Be wary of politicians who lend terrorism strength by touting the threat and unifying it under the “al Qaeda” banner.

Terrorizing Ourselves, a Cato book I co-edited with Benjamin Friedman and Chris Preble, addresses many other dimensions of the terrorism problem with similar insight, I think.