Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker's new book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against al Qaeda, credits our role in developing the first U.S. government-wide strategy for deterring terrorist networks. They write that we "crafted a briefing to make the case that a combination of efforts -- economic, diplomatic, military, political, and psychological ... could in fact establish a new strategy and create a new and effective posture of deterrence against terrorist groups."
While we are flattered by the book's portrayal of our work, it risks overstating our influence. The deterrence approach that we advocated remains a poorly understood and underutilized element of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. It holds, however, great potential for helping to thwart future al Qaeda attacks.
Deterrence is preventing an adversary from taking a threatening action by convincing the adversary that the costs of the action would outweigh any possible benefits. During the Cold War, deterrence was the cornerstone of U.S. national security policy. The threat of massive nuclear retaliation deterred the Soviet Union from directly attacking U.S. interests and helped maintain a tense yet stable peace for nearly half a century.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many senior U.S. government officials and national security experts argued that terrorists were undeterrable. After all, how do you deter people who are irrational or willing to give their life for a cause? How do you retaliate against a terrorist enemy who might be dead, unlocatable, or hiding in a country with which the United States is not at war? Due to these and other complications, early U.S. government counterterrorism efforts focused on capturing and killing terrorists, eschewing deterrence as a viable tool.
As we demonstrated in our classified strategy, which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld presented to President George W. Bush in August 2005, however, deterrence is a critical element of an effective counterterrorism approach. While it might be difficult to deter people willing to die for a cause, many of the most important members of a terrorist network are not suicide bombers. State sponsors, financiers, logisticians, radical clerics, and even some leaders highly value their lives and material possessions; they can, therefore, be deterred by simple threats of imprisonment or death.
For example, following the July 2005 London subway bombings, Britain announced a new law banning the "glorification of terrorism." Rather than face prosecution at the hands of British authorities, radical clerics who had helped incite violence left Britain for other countries or renounced previous incendiary sermons and spoke out against terrorism. Theological justification is a driving force of radical Islamic terrorism; deterring radical clerics and other members of a terrorist network from fulfilling their role as terrorist enablers can be equally, if not more, important than deterring the attacks themselves.
The United States can encourage the adoption of such successful deterrence measures by other countries. U.S. policymakers should do more to work with friends and allies to put laws on the books (where they do not already exist) to punish terrorist activity, develop capabilities and partnerships to increase the probability that those participating in terrorism are identified, and work to make sure that terrorists -- whether operating on the battlefields of Afghanistan or the streets of London -- receive appropriate punishment. Sometimes, this could mean a prison sentence; in other instances, a Predator drone strike.