Terrorism — A Policy Behind the Times


Nov 12, 2000

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on November 12, 2000.

When Bill Clinton leaves office in January, he can claim credit for having done more than any other president to ensure that the United States is prepared to counter the threat of terrorism. Overall spending on preparedness and response measures nearly doubled, and terrorism was elevated to the top of the list of security threats confronting the United States.

Yet, despite all this progress, last month's attack on the USS Cole tragically demonstrates that U.S. capabilities to defend itself against terrorism, and to preempt or respond to attacks, remain inchoate and unfocused. Constructing an effective counterterrorism policy is not a question of more attention, bigger budgets and increased staff. Rather, it requires greater focus, a better appreciation of the problem and understanding of the threat, and, in turn, the development of a clear, cohesive strategy.

This is not simply an intellectual exercise. It is the very foundation of any effective counterterrorism policy. The failure to develop such a policy has undermined counterterrorism efforts of the U.S. and other democratic nations before, producing frustratingly ephemeral, if not sometimes negative effects. In some cases, it actually increased the threat of terrorism.

For example, as satisfying or cathartic as retaliating against terrorism may be, it can have the opposite effect: provoking an escalation rather than curtailing terrorist attacks. The 1986 U.S. airstrike on Libya is a case in point. Rather than deterring Moammar Kadafi, the attacks goaded him to further excesses, including, it is believed, the inflight bombing of Pan Am 103 two years later.

This is not to suggest that the U.S. shouldn't forcefully respond to terrorism, but that such actions need to be planned and orchestrated as part of a wider, well-developed strategy designed to achieve long-term objectives and not simply to satisfy immediate desires. The next administration must turn its immediate attention to knitting together the full range of U.S. counterterrorist capabilities into a cohesive plan.

A critical first step is a comprehensive assessment of the terrorist threat, both foreign and domestic, today and in the future. There has been no such assessment for at least the past five years. Moreover, no mechanism exists to assess the domestic threat. By embracing policies and pursuing solutions that may not only be dated, but also irrelevant, we lose sight of current and projected trends. As a result, we risk responding to illusory threats and challenges.

The focus of current U.S. counterterrorism policy remains too weighted toward the threat of mass-casualty terrorism. An emphasis on what even champions of this approach admit are "low-probability/high-consequence threats" may be the least effective means of setting budgetary priorities, allocating resources and assuring security. As the attack on the USS Cole demonstrated—and those against U.S. embassies in East Africa two years before, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, and New York City's World Trade Center in 1993 have already shown—the most salient threat to U.S. citizens and interests comes not from exotic biological and chemical weapons but from explosives, including homemade bombs assembled from ordinary, commercially available materials. The bomb used at the World Trade Center, for example, cost about $400 to fabricate, yet caused in excess of $550 million in damages and lost revenue.

Concentrating on exotic threats begs the question of whether the United States is better prepared today to respond to an Oklahoma City bombing-type incident than it was five years ago. The next administration must be confident that the United States is capable of responding to all types of terrorist threats, from relatively simple and unsophisticated explosive devices to biological weapons, with equal emphasis given to conventional, yet lethal events like the attack on the USS Cole.

But it must resist the temptation to fix wheels that aren't broken. A former secretary of the Navy, for example, was among those who described the attack on the USS Cole as an "obscene failure of intelligence." Such accusations ignore the intelligence community's highly commendable track record in thwarting a succession of anti-American terrorist acts here and abroad. These include repeated attempts made against U.S. embassies following the East Africa bombings, the apprehension last December of a terrorist in Washington state and the disruption of a related plot to kill U.S. tourists in Jordan that month. Indeed, this appears to be the one key area of U.S. counterterrorism policy that functions admirably.

Nonetheless, past intelligence successes won't necessarily safeguard us in the future. Accordingly, we must be absolutely confident that the U.S. intelligence community is correctly configured to counter the terrorist threats of today and tomorrow. Its fundamental architecture, however, was created more than 50 years ago to counter the communist threat. The question is whether this structure, which has remained largely unchanged since the immediate post-World War II era and is primarily oriented toward military threats, is relevant to contemporary security challenges posed by transnational, non-state adversaries.

The United States has long relied on the use of military force and economic sanctions to counter terrorism. But these options were directed almost exclusively against, and are largely applicable to, state sponsors of terrorism. They are unsuitable for such non-state, transnational terrorist movements as the al-Qaeda movement, which is closely associated with Osama bin Laden. To counter these groups, the new counterterrorist strategy should incorporate psychological and communications strategies that aim to wean support and sympathy from those who threaten us. The inadvertent lionization of Bin Laden is a case point. Bin Laden has achieved prominence and stature partly because of the intense attention the U.S. has focused on him.

Terrorism is not a problem that can be solved, much less completely eradicated. Nor can any society, much less an open and democratic one, hope to insulate or seal itself off from any and every manifestation of this threat. By the same token, the threat of terrorism needs to be kept in perspective. There is a thin line between prudence and panic. A prerequisite to ensuring that U.S. resources are focused where they can have the most effect is a sober and empirical understanding of the terrorist threat, coupled with comprehensive and coherent strategy.

Bruce Hoffman is director of the RAND office in Washington. This article was adapted from RAND's Foreign Policy and National Security Transition 2001 report.

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