Countering al-Qaeda: The Next Phase in the War


Sep 8, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on September 8, 2002.

Many of us will mark the anniversary of Sept. 11 recalling those who died, those whose courage inspired us in the face of tragedy, those who have since given their lives in combat against the terrorist menace. We will renew our commitment to life and liberty. For a moment, we will huddle closer in family and community.

Some, no doubt, will stay home, fearful that terrorists may celebrate the anniversary with another attack. Reminded of the terrible events of a year ago, most of us understandably will experience some level of anxiety. We can expect the inevitable bomb threats, hoax calls, and other malicious mischief. We will breathe a little easier if the day passes without a major event.

Desperately seeking closure, anxious to return to the normality of life before 9/11, some will interpret the absence of attack, if that is to be, as proof that the danger has passed. That would be dangerous.

Al-Qaeda remains a significant threat to American security. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has achieved considerable success. Removing the Taliban government in Afghanistan eliminated al-Qaeda's sanctuary and training camps, thereby breaking an important link in the process that once provided the terrorist enterprise with a continuing flow of recruits. Toppling the Taliban also underscored the risk run by governments that assist terrorists.

Having achieved its initial goals in Afghanistan, the United States is now in a second, more complex phase of the war. Efforts to destroy al-Qaeda while at the same time combating terrorism as a mode of conflict will require the orchestration of intelligence collection, the pursuit of traditional criminal investigations, the imposition of financial controls and economic sanctions. In addition, we'll need offers of material reward, the application of conventional military power and the use of covert and special operations, plus military assistance and psychological warfare to disrupt terrorist operations and destroy terrorist groups.

As operations move beyond a single theater, these more complex tasks will be dispersed among numerous departments and agencies. Greater international coordination will be required. Without a clear strategy, the focus of the campaign could easily be lost.

The destruction of al-Qaeda must remain the primary aim of the American campaign. The al-Qaeda enterprise itself cannot be deterred. Drawing upon a deep reservoir of hatred and a desire for revenge, al-Qaeda will fight on. U.S. efforts have reduced, not eliminated, its ability to mount significant terrorist operations.

There will be no self-imposed limits to its violence. Attempts to cause massive death and destruction using conventional or unconventional weapons are likely. Al-Qaeda will attack U.S. targets abroad where possible and it will attempt to mount attacks within the United States. Although some measure of success has been achieved in thwarting terrorist plots, the ability of U.S. agencies to detect and prevent future terrorist attacks is limited.

Al-Qaeda, however, must now operate in a less-permissive environment. The loss of an easily accessible safe haven may not be felt immediately, as al-Qaeda will be able to draw upon its reserves for some time while it tries to establish new centers. But these are likely to be smaller and less accessible. Moreover, the experience in the training camps and participation in Afghanistan's armed conflict served an important role in attracting and indoctrinating volunteers to the cause. Televised videotapes and virtual realms on the Internet may not suffice to maintain a high level of devotion.

If al-Qaeda can be kept on the run, the numbers it can train will decline. And declining numbers eventually will result in a corresponding qualitative decline in terrorist operations.

The elements of our strategy are simple:

The pursuit of al-Qaeda must be single-minded and unrelenting. The episodic nature of terrorism, the heavy burden of security, and the public's impatience for closure should not lure us into dangerous complacency. The United States cannot inflict upon this amorphous terrorist foe the immediate destruction that would serve as a deterrent to other terrorist entities. Assured destruction, however, can be pursued over time — years, if necessary — without letup as an ongoing reminder to others of the consequences of provoking the United States.

The fight in Afghanistan must be continued as long as al-Qaeda operatives remain there. Premature withdrawal — historically, the American tendency — would be dangerous. Only when al-Qaeda is completely destroyed or when the new Afghan government can effectively exercise authority throughout its territory can withdrawal be risked. Long-term operations will require carefully controlling the application of violence in order to avoid the errors and collateral damage that fuel Afghan hostility and increase pressure to depart.

Positive benefits of America's involvement — the reconstruction of infrastructure, assistance for health care and education, the restoration and preservation of Afghanistan's cultural heritage — can temper the country's natural resistance to outsiders.

Pakistan must be kept on the side of the allies in efforts to destroy the remnants of al-Qaeda and dilute Islamic extremism. The loss of Pakistan's support could reverse America's victory in Afghanistan. It could provide al-Qaeda with a new sanctuary, leaving the United States and its allies with the dismal prospect of large-scale military operations in Pakistan. The most likely successor to the present government is not a more liberal, democratic, pro-Western regime. Instead, a more radical Islamic Pakistan could emerge, one that is more sympathetic to the extremists, and in possession of nuclear weapons.

The United States demands much of a weak government. So Washington needs to provide political and economic support that will enable the Pakistani government to demonstrate the positive benefits of the alliance while checking popular bellicose sentiments in Kashmir.

The crucial second phase of the war on terrorism cannot be accomplished unilaterally — international cooperation is a prerequisite for success. The continued identification and pursuit of al-Qaeda's remaining cells and the successful prosecution of those arrested will require an unprecedented level of multinational coordination. The United States must understand the legal and political concerns of each of its allies and adapt its strategy accordingly. Not every suspected terrorist need be in U.S. custody, nor can information flow only in the direction of Washington.

New networks must be created to exploit intelligence across frontiers. Full cooperation will be limited to a few governments. The British, with whom mechanisms for close intelligence cooperation are already in place, will continue to be America's closest allies. Other traditional allies also are cooperating. France has global intelligence resources, vast area knowledge, and valuable historical experience.

Although Russian leadership tends to see terrorism exclusively through the lens of its conflict in Chechnya, Russia nonetheless has valuable knowledge and experience in Central and South Asia and can be a major contributor to ongoing international efforts to combat terrorism. Historically, intelligence cooperation between the United States and Israel has been close and will continue to be so, even as the two countries occasionally differ on how to address the Palestinian issue.

Moderate Arab regimes also will contribute to the intelligence pool. Diplomacy can create new coalitions that exploit opportunities for cooperation even among governments the United States previously has penalized for their support of terrorism.

We should make a distinction between the war on al-Qaeda and combating terrorism. The president has said that we are at war, a status officially endorsed by Congress. This more formal expression of belligerency against terrorists and those who assist them enables the United States to more easily keep the initiative. It facilitates covert operations; it also creates a requirement for a specific plan of action.

The use of the term war does not end American efforts to bring terrorists to justice through the legal system, either the American system or that of other countries with capable authorities who are willing to enforce the law. In countries without such authorities, the United States will take appropriate measures to defend itself.

The United States is not going to pursue every terrorist in the world, but as a matter of self-defense, it will wage war against terrorists capable of causing casualties on the scale of Sept. 11. The target is specific.

But America is not "at war" with terrorism. Terrorism is a phenomenon, not a foe. We have been combating terrorism for 30 years. Some success has been achieved. It is an enduring task. To make terrorism an unattractive mode of conflict, the United States will seek to expand international conventions and cooperation. It will assist in resolving conflicts that may produce terrorism and it will address the causes of the deep hatred that terrorists are able to exploit.

America is not at war with everyone's terrorists, and not all nations need be front-line participants in the war against al-Qaeda. But all nations should cooperate in combating terrorism, an obligation that since 9/11 has been formally recognized in the United Nations.

Political warfare should not be neglected. It is not sufficient to merely outgun the terrorists. The enemy here is more than a group, it is an ideology, a set of attitudes, a belief system organized into a recruiting network that will replace terrorist losses unless ultimately defeated politically. At a strategic level, political warfare should be aimed at reducing the appeal of extremists, encouraging alternative views that are currently silenced by fear and hostile policy, and discouraging terrorists' use of weapons of mass destruction.

The very nature of the terrorist enterprise makes the traditional strategy of deterrence difficult to apply. But the notion of deterrence should not be too hastily abandoned. Deterrence might be employed in targeting terrorists' support systems. Economic sanctions, although blunt and sometimes cruel instruments, have had some effect in modifying state behavior. The fate of the Taliban serves as further warning. Financial contributors to terrorist fronts may be deterred by threats of negative publicity, blocked investments, asset seizures, or increased scrutiny of their financial activities.

As terrorists escalate their violence, it is necessary to create a firebreak that signals a different set of responses if terrorists attempt to use weapons of mass destruction. It should be a well-understood article of American policy that to prevent terrorist acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction, the United States will take whatever measures it deems appropriate, including unilateral pre-emptive military action.

The United States may reassure its allies that pre-emptive action is unlikely in circumstances where local authorities have the capability of taking action themselves and can be depended upon to do so. If pre-emptive military action is required, the government should be prepared to make a compelling public case after the event that such action was justified.

Finally, the war against the terrorists must be conducted in a way that is consistent with American values. America cannot expect the world's applause for every action it takes in pursuit of terrorists abroad, but it is important not to lose the moral high ground or international support upon which the United States unavoidably will depend if it is to win the war. Some collateral damage may be unavoidable in any war, but our violence must never be wanton. The United States can be ruthless if necessary, but it must never appear careless.

Increased security at home does not require us to surrender our freedoms. There is no currency exchange here. Without security, there is no freedom. People without freedom have no security. Every liberal democracy confronting terrorism has been obliged to modify rules governing intelligence collection, police powers, preventive detention, access to lawyers, or trial procedures.

Captured terrorists may be tried in civilian courts or before military tribunals, but in either case, rules of evidence and the right to representation should apply. It is appropriate that any modification of the rules be clearly set forth, widely discussed, and endorsed by legislation with renewal requirements to ensure that it does not become a permanent feature of the landscape.

We can and will protect our society and our values.

Jenkins, an authority on international terrorism, is senior adviser to the president of RAND, a non-profit research institute that studies national security issues for the U.S. government. He is the author of the recent RAND report, "Countering al-Qaeda."

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.