Entire jihadist cycle must be disrupted
Five years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the global jihadist enterprise continues to pose the most immediate threat to U.S. national security. Its destruction must remain America's primary objective.
Already, the U.S.-led war against terrorism has lasted longer than all previous American wars except the Revolutionary War and the war in Vietnam. Pragmatic but impatient, Americans are anxious to measure progress, see light at the end of the tunnel, and finally declare victory. But campaigns against terrorists and insurgents have long time frames and no clearly defined benchmarks.
The British fought the Irish Republican Army for more than 25 years. Even tiny terrorist armies, such as Germany's Red Army Faction and Italy's Red Brigades, prolonged their armed struggles for more than a decade. Spain's Basque terrorists are well into their fourth decade of fighting.
Our operative presumption must be that the war against the jihadist enterprise will be a long and costly campaign. It seems probable that a high level of violence will persist in Iraq for years. Osama bin Laden declares that the jihad he wages actually began centuries ago and will continue until Judgment Day. The operational code of our jihadist foes tells them to lie in wait for years if necessary and attack when we are inattentive.
America has in the past five years degraded al-Qaeda's operational capabilities, removed its most talented planners and kept its top leaders on the run. But the United States has been unable to dent the determination of the jihadists to continue their struggle, block their communications, blunt their message, impede their recruiting, or prevent them from planning and preparing new terrorist attacks.
Since 9/11, jihadists inspired by al-Qaeda's ideology have successfully carried out more than 30 major terrorist attacks around the world, not counting any in Afghanistan or Iraq. And although it is hard to count things that don't occur, there have been at least another 30 attacks that failed or have been foiled as a consequence of unprecedented focus and cooperation among the world's intelligence services.
With terrorist attacks carried out or attempted on the average of once a month over the past five years, jihadists have kept up an impressive pace of operations that exceeds the pre-9/11 level. None of the executed attacks has reached the deadly proportions of 9/11, when nearly 3,000 people were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in the crash of a hijacked airliner in a Pennsylvania field. But as the recently uncovered plot to blow up airliners flying from Britain to the United States shows, the jihadists remain committed to terrorist spectaculars in which thousands may die.
The war on global terrorism cannot be waged with a linear strategy marked by clear turning points such as the D-Day landing at Normandy or the liberation of Paris in World War II. Instead, the long campaign demands strategic principles that will guide decisions, and requires conserving blood, treasure, popular support and international cooperation for the duration.
The United States has understandably focused its efforts on disrupting terrorist planning and operations, but what's needed is a strategy that disrupts the entire jihadist cycle. The cycle begins with proselytizing, radicalization, indoctrination and recruitment. It breaks the surface with planning, preparing and executing terrorist operations. And it ends in the death or captivity of the holy warrior.
Disrupting the jihadist cycle requires America to wage more effective political warfare. That does not mean a public relations campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses. It means an aggressive campaign targeting those on their way into the jihadists' ranks, those among the ranks who might be persuaded to quit, and those in American custody.
An example of a political warfare technique would be for the United States to deploy far more undercover agents and informants to known and suspected terrorist recruiting sites. This would cause jihadists to suspect that every eager volunteer is really a potential infiltrator. We can also keep known venues so clearly under surveillance that recruiters and potential recruits see them as unsafe. And we can work with Muslim community leaders to keep vulnerable young men off the road to jihad.
To do this successfully requires enhancing intelligence capabilities at the local level both in the United States and abroad. Local police are recruited from the community. They are more ethnically diverse, know their territory, and don't move every three or four years. Under local control, they also are more acceptable to the community. Through community policing, routine criminal investigations, and dedicated intelligence efforts, they are in a better position to pick up the local conspiracies that characterize today's more decentralized terrorist planning. But to do this job, local police will need training and resources.
A political warfare campaign also will require America to develop ways to encourage defections and facilitate exits from the jihadist ranks. Our terrorist foes are hard men (and a few women), but they are still subject to disillusion and fear, and changes in outlook that come with age. Even the ranks of fanatics include potential defectors who might quit if offered a way out. Some jihadists have dropped out on their own. Others may be persuaded to do so. But to get them to drop out, we must give them alternatives to jihad beyond death or imprisonment.
Just as we have ignored the front end of the jihadist cycle, America has no strategy for the back end. We need to turn around at least some of those in captivity. They should be offered incentives to quit jihad, repent, publicly recant, and assist in discouraging recruiting. Several countries have had programs to do this. We can learn from them.
The United States needs to maintain international cooperation in the war on terrorism. It is a prerequisite to success, a precious commodity not to be squandered by insulting ultimatums, unreciprocated demands and actions that repel even America's closest friends. Rebranding the jihadists as “Islamo-fascists” will not diminish the appeal of violent jihad nor win America new allies – operationally, it has no relevance.
America also needs to invest greater effort in Afghanistan where we confront an escalating insurgency and where even modest investment can bring significant returns. The same is not true of Iraq, where we have learned that political progress does not automatically reduce political violence.
In Iraq, the solution to a poorly planned U.S. occupation is not a poorly planned exit. Neither setting a timetable for withdrawal nor staying indefinitely are substitutes for strategy.
The Iraqi forces remain a long way from being effective. What's needed now is a reconfiguration of American forces, strategy and tactics to arrest the growing violence. Officers engaged in battles with insurgents in Iraq are doing their best to figure this thing out, but America's unit rotation policy impedes the accumulation of local knowledge and breaks the personal relationships that are essential to a successful counterinsurgency campaign.
Withdrawals are always difficult and dangerous. The violence would not diminish. We would lose our ability to shape events. What local friends we have would turn against us.
Although the principle has been discredited by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the subsequent mess in Iraq, we must preserve but narrow the doctrine of preemption. In this dangerous age of terrorism, it should remain an article of policy that the United States will take whatever action it deems necessary, including the unilateral use of preemptive force to prevent terrorists from acquiring or using weapons of mass destruction. But preemptive action does not mean preemptive war. It should be limited to precise actions, not regime changes, and used only as a measure of last resort.
We are finding it difficult to dissuade determined states from developing nuclear weapons, but we have a second line of defense in deterrence. America's adversaries should be quietly forewarned that a nuclear terrorist attack anywhere would fuel demand for all-out warfare against any group or government known or even suspected of being responsible.
At home, strengthening America requires shifting from messages of fear that consign citizens to the role of frightened passengers and instead educating and enlisting the public. We need to get realistic about risk, and realize that while the threat is real the danger to any one individual citizen is low. Homeland security begins at home. We should all have a role, knowing how to take care of ourselves first, then our families, and then our neighbors who need assistance.
Combating terrorism means not only defeating the terrorists but defeating the terror they hope to create. That begins with us. It is terror that has tilted the ship of state toward dangerous compromises with the very liberties we have fought before to protect. There is no liberty without security. But neither can there be security without liberty.
Above all, the campaign against terrorists requires preserving the values that give America the moral strength that will enable us to defeat our enemy in the war of ideas as well as on the battlefield. Our fundamental values are not luxuries to be abandoned in a storm, nor constraints to be broken when we face danger.
Our terrorist foes believe that their superior convictions will enable them to defeat out superior technology. Our enemy thinks that behind our military might we are a nation of weaklings. But we have convictions, too. Liberty, justice, respect for human dignity, tolerance, the realistic acceptance of risk, our self-confidence, and our tradition of self-reliance. These are all powerful weapons in our arsenal. They make our nation unconquerable.
Jenkins has studied terrorism for more than 30 years for the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization. He is the author of the new book “Unconquerable Nation,” which recommends a strategy for America to fight terrorism at home and abroad.
This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on September 10, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.