The problem that the United States is facing when it comes to terrorism is complex. However, one of the key issues concerning the United States is the fact that al-Qaeda, its primary terrorism concern, is an enemy unlike others the United States has faced in the past. The United States has always gone to war with nations, or with recognizable groups; however, today, the United States is not at war with al-Qaeda; at least, it is not solely at war with al-Qaeda, although it is fighting al-Qaeda in a variety of different ways.
After the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the United States government declared war on the concept of terrorism as a whole, not a specific entity. Terrorism is at best a political science concept, and at worst an intangible philosophical theory; declaring war on an enemy that cannot be seen, defined, or even categorized under international law (NATO Library, 2005). The structure of a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is fluid and transient; al-Qaeda crosses international borders with ease, because it is a group of people connected by ideals and religion, not necessarily nationality or ethnicity (NATO Library, 2005). When groups are linked ideologically, there is a strong sense of belonging to the group, and often a sense of fear or distaste for the “other” outside the group.
The Hydra: Dismantling a Network
Terrorist groups are often formed via networks rather than in the traditional hierarchical military structure. The function of this is twofold: it creates an unclear chain of command, and also allows the group to expand autonomously across international borders.
When a group has an unclear chain of command, the death of an upper-level member does not cause paralysis of the organization. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, al-Qaeda did not cease to exist; nor did it cease to carry out its day-to-day functions. Operations were disturbed, but not halted (“National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” 2011). Instead of being logistical leaders, leaders within al-Qaeda often function as ideological leaders. Leaders that function as ideological leaders are often charismatic and well-loved by the average person, and if they are killed prematurely, they can be turned quickly into martyrs for the cause.
There is no denying, however, that the United States sees eliminating top al-Qaeda leaders and operatives as a key piece of its counterterrorism policies. According to John Brennan, a former-CIA official who is currently responsible for the White House’s counterterrorism policy:
The ‘playbook’ will lay out the administration’s evolving procedures for the targeted killings that have come to define its fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It will cover the selection and approval of targets from the ‘disposition matrix,’ the designation of who should pull the trigger when a killing is warranted, and the legal authorities the administration thinks sanction its actions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond. (DeYoung, 2012)
The United States government has accepted that a major part of its counterterrorism actions will be in the form of leader elimination; the problem it faces, as a result, is how to determine when such an action should be taken.
Right now, the power to sign off on orders of execution lies with Brennan, who acts as counterterrorism expert for the Obama administration, and Obama himself (DeYoung, 2012). This gives Brennan an incredible amount of power over counterterrorism policy in the United States: “One former senior counterterrorism official described Brennan as the ‘single point of failure’ in the [counterterrorism] strategy, saying he controls too much and delegates too little” (DeYoung, 2012). This may be the case, but delegation can lead to missteps and mishandled information, which is part of the reason the United States had the intelligence breakdown leading up to the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. It is understandable, then, that Brennan makes an attempt to keep close watch over the information passing between him and the Commander-in-Chief.
However, with an ever-changing organization like al-Qaeda and other militant, extremist religious groups, it seems prudent to allow multiple people access to important information. Everyone sees patterns differently, and as previously discussed, seeing patterns is fundamentally important when it comes to detecting and avoiding terrorist attacks, particularly on domestic soil.
1. Funding Terror
Terrorist organizations, although they are grassroots organizations and do not require the same level of funding as a true military or paramilitary organization, still require funding. These organizations often acquire funding through traditionally illegal or unethical means. Human and drug trafficking are the most common methods of funding terrorist activity, but another type of funding is gaining ground: money laundering (“National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” 2011).
Participating in any type of illicit activity such as buying drugs or even buying a fake handbag often funnels money from the sale into the coffers of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. These groups have been linked to the sex trade, counterfeit goods, and money laundering organizations around the globe; there is no way to participate in this type of activity without potentially funding terrorism.
According to the White House’s report on counterterrorism, “The United States will continue to emphasize disrupting the access of terrorists—especially al-Qa‘ida, its affiliates, and its adherents—to sources of financial support . We will continue to push for enhanced unilateral action by these governments and closer cooperation with the United States while retaining our ability to take unilateral action as well” (“National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” 2011). As discussed in the previous section, removing individuals from the group-- or even stopping terrorist acts before they happen-- is not necessarily enough when it comes to fighting terror. Freezing financial assets, however, is a very good way of disrupting terrorist activity significantly.
The problem with terrorist groups is that they are similar to the Greek hydra: when a head is cut off, another (and often two) grow in its place. Because of this issue, the United States is seeking other methods and strategies to curtail terrorist activity around the globe. These strategies must be as dynamic and complex as the organizations that they are fighting.
2. The Arab Spring and the Rise of Chaos
The Arab Spring is a transnational series of protests, demonstrations, and uprisings that occurred across the Middle East and Northern Africa, beginning in Tunisia and quickly spreading to other nations in the area like Egypt, Yemen, and Western Sahara (Jones, 2012). These protests occurred in an already destabilized area of the world, and caused mixed reactions within the United States government. On the one hand, these protests were consistent with the United States’ contention that every nation should find democracy and give the power back to the people; on the other, however, a coup d’etat makes a nation politically and militarily unstable, which is undesirable in the region where the United States is fighting al-Qaeda (Jones, 2012).
United States counterterrorism policy in the region was complex and often considered to be ineffective, even in the years leading up to the Arab Spring. According to Whitlock (2013):
In 2008, the Government Accountability Office criticized the Pentagon, State Department and USAID for lacking a “comprehensive, integrated strategy” for the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership. The investigative arm of Congress found that the agencies did not collaborate well and could not measure whether the aid was doing any good. (Whitlock, 2013)
However, once the region was destabilized by the Arab Spring and the disposition of a variety of governments, the situation in northern Africa and the Middle East became even more tenuous and unknown for the United States. The United States government has reiterated again and again that one of its primary geographical areas of concern when it comes to fighting terrorism is northern Africa(“National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” 2011).
The strategy is based on the fact that these societies are now vulnerable to the type of extremism that al-Qaeda teaches. When revolution happens and ways of life are disrupted, it is psychologically easier to encourage people to join groups that will give them meaning, purpose, and even family (Arce and Sandler, 2005).
One of the most overlooked aspects of the United States’ policy on counterterrorism is the lip service paid to promoting democracy. This is tied in closely to the Arab Spring and the overthrow of a variety of despots in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
This area is heavily Muslim, and has a high population of Islamists. Islamists frequently believe in the politicization of religion, and do not wish to participate in a secular society. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is an excellent example of such a group of people (Whitlock, 2013). Given the chance to vote in a free and fair election, there is a good chance that the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power in Egypt. This could very well be a step back for Egyptians and international diplomacy alike, as the group ranges into the extreme (Whitlock, 2013). However, the United States still claims to stand for democracy in that region and internationally. This begs the question of whether or not the United States really wants to see democracy in the Middle East.
Certain countries, such as Tunisia, have always been smaller and more moderate. However, it would be disastrous to see a relatively powerful country like Egypt slip into extreme Islam, because it would result in friction and potential issues between the nations (Whitlock, 2013). Because of potential issues like this one, the United States has been participating in political and military actions in the region that are designed to spread democracy and stabilize nations (Whitlock, 2013).
The policy of “spreading democracy” and “stabilizing nations” has been less than successful in the decade since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. According to Whitlock (2013):
The U.S. government has invested heavily in counterterrorism programs in the region, spending more than $1 billion since 2005 to train security forces, secure borders, promote democracy, reduce poverty and spread propaganda.
The strategy was portrayed as a sobering lesson from the costly invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The goal of stabilizing weak African countries was to keep al-Qaeda out and obviate the need to send U.S. combat forces into the Sahara.
The policy was unsuccessful, however; chaos continues to affect the northern Africa region, particularly in Mali, Somalia, Sudan, and Egypt, although many places are feeling the effects of the Arab Spring and the resulting political and social turmoil. The region has become increasingly unstable and prone to small bouts of violence as political and religious groups jockey for power.
The United States has a difficult road ahead when it comes to fighting terrorism. Because terrorism is a nebulous concept rather than a concrete enemy, the fight could go on indefinitely. However, the United States has taken care to amend its strategy to include new areas of concern, and has been making attempts to stop terrorism before it becomes an issue on domestic soil.
For success in the fight against terrorism, however, it will be important for the United States to re-examine its strategies over and over again. Terrorist groups are grassroots networks, and as such, do not have the same problems of bureaucracy that traditional militaristic groups do. Terrorist groups and even terrorist cells tend to be more autonomous, and more flexible; to stop terror, the United States must have policies and tactics that are similarly flexible.
Although the United States has stopped Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda continues to exist throughout the world. Perhaps it will always continue to exist; eradication of the group cannot be the final goal. The United States must employ tactics to make the group illegitimate and poorly-respected within the communities where it currently thrives to truly eradicate its influence in the world.
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Jones, P. (2012). The Arab Spring: Opportunities and Implications. International Journal, Retrieved from: http://spearheadresearch.org/SR_CMS/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Arab-Spring-Paper.pdf [Accessed: 15th Feb 2013].
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Whitlock, C. (2013). U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa defined by a decade of missteps. Washington Post, [online] 4th February. Retrieved from: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-04/world/36737745_1_al-qaeda-qaeda-malian-officer [Accessed: 13th Feb 2013].