Terror's Aftermath: A Counterterrorism Policy for Yesterday's Threat


Sep 16, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on September 16, 2001.

The concept of proportionality has long governed U.S. counterterrorist policy. Its proponents contended, and our allies expected, that our military response to a terrorist incident would be commensurate to the attack that provoked it.

In 1986, when the Kadafi regime was implicated in the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. soldiers, the United States bombed Libyan military targets in Tripoli and Benghazi—including Moammar Kadafi's living quarters—in an attempt to kill the Libyan leader.

Similarly, in 1998, when Osama Bin Laden, the renegade Saudi terrorist, was identified as the architect of the massive truck bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S. launched nearly 100 cruise missiles against his training camps in Afghanistan, also in hopes of killing bin Laden, as well as against a pharmaceutical factory believed to be manufacturing chemical weapons in the Sudan.

Two Americans lost their lives in the discotheque bombing; 12 died in Nairobi. The U.S. response to the embassy bombings may have been insufficient. But our situation today leaves no room for quibbling. By the time the rubble and debris of the World Trade Center are cleared in New York City, the collapsed walls of the Pentagon stabilized and the last of the bodies retrieved from the field in rural Pennsylvania where a fourth suicide aircraft crashed, the death toll is likely to be exponentially higher.

By contrast, until last Tuesday, no more than 1,000 Americans had been killed by terrorists either in this country or abroad since 1968. The enormity and sheer scale of the simultaneous suicide attacks on Sept. 11 dwarfs anything we have previously seen, either individually or collectively. It calls, unquestionably, for a proportionate response of unparalleled severity.

But military options are only one instrument in the struggle against terrorism. As the experiences of other countries enmeshed in such struggles have shown, the failure to develop a comprehensive, fully coordinated strategy has often undermined, even nullified, their counterterrorism efforts. To be effective, a counterterrorist strategy must be sustained. Its goals must be realistic. It must avoid cosmetic or "feel good" physical security measures.

Military Options. The time of on-and-off airstrikes or hours-long cruise-missile barrages has passed. The United States faces an enemy of unmitigated barbarity. The threat must be eliminated not only to eradicate the most formidable terrorist capability ever known, but also to send an unmistakably clear message to any and all who would seek to follow in his footsteps. To achieve this objective, the application of military force must continue until the enemy and his assets are destroyed.

In doing so, we should be under no illusions that the specter of terrorism, especially as it affects America, can ever be completely eliminated. No society, much less a vibrant, open and democratic one, can ever hope to hermetically insulate itself from terrorist threats. Still, given the unprecedented dimension and magnitude of Tuesday's suicidal attacks, nothing less than the complete eradication of their perpetrator's capabilities will suffice.

At the same time, we must ensure that our vast and powerful military resources are applied surgically. The point is to punish Tuesday's culprits and those who supported them while avoiding civilian casualties as far as humanly possible. Causing death and injury to innocents is not only wrong, it would also deprive us of the moral high ground we currently occupy.

Intelligence reform and reorganization. We need to be more confident that the U.S. intelligence community is configured to counter the terrorist threats of today and tomorrow rather than yesterday. As Tuesday's events showed, it is no match for adversaries in civilian clothes.

Our intelligence architecture was created more than 50 years ago to counter the communist threat from the Soviet Union. It watched for military moves and thus primarily gathered military intelligence. Today, an estimated 60% of the intelligence community's efforts remain focused on gathering information about the standing armed forces of nation-states. Eight of the 13 agencies responsible for intelligence collection report directly to the secretary of Defense, who also controls their budgets, rather than to the director of Central Intelligence. It is thus not surprising that America's human intelligence assets have proved to be so anemic. A military mission can feed off spy satellites.

The country's anachronistic intelligence architecture has also created a dangerous gap in our national defenses. The CIA is responsible for foreign intelligence collection and assessment; by law, it cannot operate within the U.S. Domestic counterterrorism, accordingly, falls to the FBI, primarily a law-enforcement and investigative agency. Moreover, its investigative activities are wide-ranging, from bank robberies to counter-espionage.

Tuesday's assault should stimulate some "out-of-the-box" thinking that would go beyond simple bureaucratic fixes and embrace a radical restructuring of our domestic counterterrorism capabilities. For example, just as the narcotics problem is regarded as a serious enough threat to our national security to warrant a separate agency dedicated to counter-narcotics activities, the Drug Enforcement Administration, we should consider creating a similar organization committed exclusively to counter terrorism.

Aviation security. All the above efforts will be for naught if we cannot be reasonably confident that the nation's security measures work. The time for cosmetic fixes at U.S. airports is over. The stopgap measures imposed last week by the Federal Aviation Administration—banning curb-side luggage check-in and eliminating electronic tickets—aren't nearly enough.

For starters, the use of poorly paid, unmotivated, often inadequately screened and privately contracted security staff should end. Sworn law-enforcement officers, members of a new uniform federal police force similar to the Federal Protective Service that now guards U.S. public buildings, should replace them. They would be expected to conform to federal law-enforcement standards, would be armed and would thus provide a meaningful first-line defense.

None of these changes are quick fixes. They all require time, resources and, most of all, political will and patience. Results will not come quickly. But by taking a comprehensive approach to the terrorist problem and developing a cohesive strategy to address it, the U.S. can avoid repeating the mistakes that facilitated Tuesday's tragic events.

Bruce Hoffman is director of the RAND Washington office and the author of Inside Terrorism.

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