Is the U.S. Government Behaving Strategically With Regard to Al Qaeda?

To its credit, the Department of Homeland Security distributes important documents via email. (Subscribe on their home page by scrolling down to find the “Subscribe to E-mail Updates:” box in the right column, then select your preferences.)

Yesterday DHS sent me a copy of the written testimony by Michael E. Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing titled: “Eight Years After 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland.”

As I read Leiter’s (relatively brief) testimony, I wondered how well it squares with the strategic counsel offered by Audrey Kurth Cronin, Professor of Strategy at the U.S. National War College, Senior Research Associate in the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University, and a participant in Cato’s January counterterrorism strategy conference.

In her Institute for International Strategic Studies paper, “Ending Terrorism: Lessons for Defeating Al-Qaeda,” she offered several counterterrorism strategy pointers:

The first prong of a successful strategy to counter al-Qaeda’s terrorism is to clarify to audiences around the globe exactly what al-Qaeda is and what it is not. This is not just of academic interest. It is partly because there is so much vague use of the name ‘al-Qaeda’ that it seems superhuman and ubiquitious… . When politicians and experts employ the term ‘al-Qaeda’ loosely, they help its propagandists to construct and perpetuate their desired image and to mobilise support.

Violent internal cleavages and bickering are endemic to the al-Qaeda movement, and have been from the outset, and the second prong in a successful strategy against al-Qaeda is consciously to exploit them.


The third element in a successful strategy against al-Qaeda is to disaggregate the many elements of the movement and develop more sophisticated, targeted counter-terrorism policies tailored to its constituent parts. The aim must be to enlarge the movement’s internal inconsistencies and differences … .

At our counterterrorism conference, terrorism expert Marc Sageman similarly said, “We often unify our enemies needlessly… . Let’s not unify our enemy and give it strength that way.”  (If you don’t watch all of panel III, you can start at minute 66.)

Read Michael E. Leiter’s testimony for yourself and see how well it reflects the counsel of these experts.