Proven Strategies vs. Terror


Sep 12, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in New York Daily News on September 12, 2002.

President Bush is addressing the United Nations today, and part of what he'll be talking about is the war against terror. As America enters its second year in this war, it would do well to note the successes and failures of countries that have fought terrorism for many years.

The first lesson is that counterterrorism efforts should focus on midlevel leaders in terrorist groups. By setting its sights on Osama Bin Laden in its fight against Al Qaeda, the United States is rejecting this basic precept.

Israel learned this lesson the hard way. Over the years, it often removed the leadership of Hezbollah, but midlevel leaders stepped easily into place. Israel managed to deport almost the entire top-level leadership of Hamas in 1992, but this served to radicalize the group. The midlevel leaders - relatively less moderate - took control and increased suicide bombing almost to the extent that is seen in Israel today.

This is not to say it is pointless to capture or kill terrorists' top leaders. But while targeting Bin Laden makes sense politically, it is the midlevel leaders who sustain the control, communication and operations up and down the chains of command.

By removing Al Qaeda's midlevel leaders, the U.S. would not only interrupt planned attacks, but also stunt the group's growth by eliminating the development of future decision makers.

Another lesson: The U.S. emphasizes efforts to undermine Al Qaeda's front organizations, which funnel money to terrorists, as a key strategy. Colombia discovered that it makes more sense to focus on disrupting terrorists' support networks and trafficking activities - for example, the middlemen who purchase diamonds from terrorists or sell them weapons on the black market.

Essentially, this tactic hinders the ability of a group to conduct sophisticated attacks - such as the one on the World Trade Center - because it cannot rely on a steady stream of money or other essential resources.

In 1998, Colombia's security forces focused on the financiers and middlemen who sold illegal weapons to the terrorist organization known as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Recent communiques show that the organization is concerned that it will be deprived of supplies crucial to its campaign. The strategy may, potentially, render it unable to conduct attacks.

The events of Sept. 11 make it clear that groups like Al Qaeda do not attack without reconnaissance and planning. The greatest return on investment, therefore, is in halting terrorists' activities before an attack.

Despite extensive counterterrorism efforts, neither Israel nor Colombia has a counterintelligence unit dedicated to terrorism. Establishing a counterintelligence center to disrupt terrorist reconnaissance is, therefore, another lesson.

Given the highly fluid and transnational nature of the threat we face, establishing such a unit within the U.S. intelligence community is critical.

To paraphrase Santayana, those who do not heed the mistakes of the past may be condemned to repeat them.

Hoffman and Cragin are terrorism experts with RAND Corp.

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