National Security

The Other War on Terror

Limiting drone strikes and closing Gitmo won't stop homegrown radicals.

President Obama's course corrections on his drone policy and Guantanamo Bay detainees are important. Though the use of drones has been far more judicious and careful than many believe -- I know from briefings I received as a member of Congress -- they have inflamed world opinion against the United States, especially in Muslim countries, and have served as a terrorist recruiting tool. So, too, the Gitmo facility -- a bad idea made considerably worse because the case-by-case exit ramp for prisoners now considered ready for release has been pulled up by the U.S. Congress. So, new constraints on drones and redoubled efforts to repatriate prisoners are overdue. 

But the impact these changes have on the terror threat in the United States (and Britain, as we saw just this week) may disappoint. For one thing, though the president now says he may support drone courts, the use of drones remains extra-judicial. The executive branch is policing itself -- a scary proposition. For another, some in Congress remain implacable on Gitmo and the "indefinite preventive detention" nightmare may continue. Thus, both practices will still yield B-roll for Internet and live radicalization efforts. 

And there is another reason: Even with welcome changes, the decade-plus of "U.S. wars," as well as culture wars, have fed a narrative that inspires alienated immigrants and bigots to self-radicalize right here on U.S. soil. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden calls this the "new normal": homegrown attacks by people legally here. These folks only have to be right once: To prevent them from acting, we have to be right every time. Impossible odds, though there are four things we can do to manage the risk better: 1.) intervene in the grey area between radical beliefs and violent behaviors; 2.) install redundant layers of security at both hard and soft critical targets; 3.) instill trust with communities where alienation is likely; and 4.) integrate a whole-of-government approach that embodies U.S. values.

Intervening in the Grey Area Between Beliefs and Behavior

The Constitution protects the expression of radical beliefs under the First Amendment. But when people are motivated by those beliefs to engage in violent acts, they commit crimes punishable by law. The challenge is to identify and intervene in the grey area between belief and action.

This was the point of the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, which I introduced in the House in 2007, and which passed twice by an overwhelming bipartisan vote. The cornerstone of the bill was a commission intended to study the problem of radicalization and how certain beliefs incite someone to commit violence, as well as to ensure that profiling would be based not on race or religion but behavior. Sadly, a misguided view over privacy concerns by the civil liberties community blew up the bill when it hit the Senate. Today, we're left with fewer tools than we need to stop the next homegrown plot.

If revisited, a Homegrown Terror Commission could compile a list of lessons-learned from large, well-funded police departments like the NYPD or LAPD (where the concept of suspicious activity reporting began) as well as the Department of Homeland Security's "See Something, Say Something" campaign. And it could study the language and tactics used by al Qaeda's Inspire magazine -- which was found on the computer of accused Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev's widow -- to recruit terrorists and incite violence.

The findings from such a commission would improve effectiveness of existing tools, too. In 2007, Congress created the Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group at the National Counterterrorism Center. The ITAC-G is a team made up of firefighters, state and local police, tribal representatives, and emergency medical personnel that analyzes and interprets intelligence that could be useful to frontline personnel.

For example, when local police found ricin in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2008, the ITAC-G explained how to identify it to police departments across the country. ITAC-G could also benefit from clear guidelines about suspicious behavior by incorporating trends into threat alerts.

Canada has dedicated $10 million to the Kanishka Project, named after the Air India plane that was bombed in 1985, killing hundreds of Canadian citizens. Research supported by the project will increase Canada's understanding of the recruitment methods and tactics of terrorists, which will help that country produce more effective policies, tools, and resources for law enforcement. Why can't we do the same?

Install Redundant Layers of Security

Airports and seaports employ multiple layers of security, some obvious to the naked eye and some covert -- think metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, restricted areas, databases, etc. These layers provide redundancy in the event that one system fails. But we also need more robust security at softer targets like subway stations, hotels, public sporting events, and schools. Passive measures like access control, perimeter monitoring, and random security checks are sometimes all that's necessary to deter a would-be terrorist.

The Boston bombing demonstrated that video surveillance in the "public square" -- around prominent buildings and at marathon finish lines, for example -- must also be expanded. So-called "closed circuit TV" camera footage can be reviewed in real time or after an attack to help local law enforcement identify unusual or suspicious activity. The 2005 subway and bus bombers in London were quickly captured because of video surveillance.

Instilling Trust with Communities

Homegrown terrorists are not all Muslim. They have been affiliated with those on the far right (pro-gun, anti-abortion, pro-Nazi, or anti-Muslim) or far left (animal rights or pro-environment activists).

Some police and sheriff's departments successfully developed key relationships within Muslim and other minority communities even before 9/11 -- and already have longstanding relationships with other key community leaders. FBI field offices did the same after 2001.

But we need to be proactive rather than reactive. How are we working with community groups to understand and identify the anti-abortion fanatic who plots to bomb the next sporting event, as Eric Rudolph did at the Atlanta Olympics? What are lessons from other countries with growing Muslim populations (think France, which recently arrested three Chechens) that have done this well?

Implementing a Whole-of-Government Strategy

David Petraeus has said in relation to Afghanistan, "We can't kill or capture our way out of an industrial-strength insurgency." The same applies to the homegrown terror threat: We have to be creative and employ non-kinetic tools if we are to have any hope of succeeding. Brute force -- and bending the law to its limits -- won't help us find the kid in a basement, radicalized by an Internet connection.

What does a whole-of-government strategy look like? To start, it requires leadership at the top. The president must use his bully pulpit to articulate our values and interests. A positive narrative about what America stands for can help counter hateful propaganda that often attracts and radicalizes disaffected kids, whether in Yemen or Cambridge, Massachusetts. We do this by living our values -- not by inflaming the hatred of people we need to persuade by conducting so-called signature drone strikes and operating a prison that has no exit. Thursday's announcement by the president about reining in our counterterrorism tactics is a good start.

He must also demand agility from bureaucracies, and he must encourage the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and other key agencies to be creative about their approaches to mitigating this threat, and work more closely with state and local governments before key holidays. Communication is key. Congressional hearings revealed that the FBI did not tell the Boston Police Department that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was on a terrorist watch list. Had it done so, Boston PD might have been able to intercede earlier.

There's a role for businesspeople, too, as the owners and operators of infrastructure that may be targeted by terrorists -- and that we need to make more resilient. If something is suspicious -- like the purchase of a large order of chemicals or fertilizer -- businesses will know first.

Security and liberty are not a zero-sum game. We either get more or less of both. It is a testament to our resilience that, 12 years after the September 11 attacks, a new Time/CNN poll finds that only four in 10 Americans say they are willing to give up more civil liberties to fight terrorism in the aftermath of the Boston bombing.

Since 9/11, we've thwarted over 50 homegrown terrorists and missed only four homegrown attacks. Curtailing tactics that inflame alienated populations, while enhancing techniques that help us find those among us who are radicalized, gives us far better odds of reducing risk.

John Moore/Getty Images

National Security

Fear Factor

In defense of Obama's deadly signature strikes.

The impact of armed drones during the decade-plus of this intense global counterterrorism campaign is hard to overestimate: Without operational commanders and visionary leaders, terror groups decay into locally focused threats, or disappear altogether. Targeted strikes against al Qaeda leaders and commanders in the years immediately after 9/11 deprived the group of the time and stability required to plot a major strike. But the London subway attacks in July 2005 illustrated the remaining potency of al Qaeda's core in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The threat was fading steadily. But not fast enough.

So-called signature strikes -- in which target selection is based not on identification of an individual but instead on patterns of behavior or unique characteristics that identify a group -- accelerated this decline for simple reasons. Targeting leadership degrades a small percentage of a diffuse terror group, but developing the tactical intelligence required to locate an individual precisely enough to stage a pinpoint strike, in a no-man's land half a world away, is time-consuming and difficult. And it's not a perfect science; the leaders of groups learn over time how to operate more securely. Furthermore, these leaders represent only a fraction of the threat: Osama bin Laden might have been the public face of al Qaeda, but he was supported by a web of document-forgers, bombmakers, couriers, trainers, ideologues, and others. They made up the bulk of al Qaeda and propelled the apparatus that planned the murder of innocents. Bin Laden was the revolutionary leader, but it was the troops who executed his vision.

Signature strikes have pulled out these lower-level threads of al Qaeda's apparatus -- and that of its global affiliates -- rapidly enough that the deaths of top leaders are now more than matched by the destruction of the complex support structure below them. Western conceptions of how organizations work, with hierarchal structures driven by top-level managers, do not apply to al Qaeda and its affiliates. These groups are instead conglomerations of militants, operating independently, with rough lines of communication and fuzzy networks that cross continents and groups. They are hard to map cleanly, in other words. Signature strikes take out whole swaths of these network sub-tiers rapidly -- so rapidly that the groups cannot replicate lost players and their hard-won experience. The tempo of the strikes, in other words, adds sand to the gears of terror organizations, destroying their operational capability faster than the groups can recover.

There are other rationales for these attacks, though. Part of the reason signature strikes have become so prominent in this global counterterror war is, simply put, geography. Local terrorist groups only become international threats if they have leadership that can execute a broad, globalist vision, and if that leadership has the time and space to plot without daily distractions from armies and security services -- as in safe havens like Yemen, Somalia, the Sahel, and the tribal areas of Pakistan. These are exactly the places where the United States cannot apply conventional force and where local governments lack the capability or will to counter the threat. Exactly the places where drones offer an option to eviscerate a growing terror threat that has a dispersed, diffuse hierarchy. The places where signature strikes have proven effective.

With more capable security partners, the brutal destruction from drones above might come from more conventional operations on the ground. But, by definition, safe havens aren't penetrable by capable security services.

There is an intangible factor that reinforces the effectiveness of signature strikes: the fear factor, coupled with the suspicions and paranoia that result from organizations searching desperately among their ranks to find out who is providing the Americans information so detailed that we can wreak such havoc over such a long period of time. Time and again, intelligence has clearly told us that the adversary dreads these operations -- lethal strikes that come anytime, anywhere, and that eliminate entire swaths of organizations. And these same organizations then turn around and further degrade their operational capability by engaging in savage hunts for leaks.

Despite such success, questions about how we should employ them -- or whether we should use them at all -- are coming to dominate debates about signature strikes. When do they end? And is it appropriate to strike groups of people not because we can identify a dangerous individual terrorist among them, but instead simply because a cluster of people bears clear hallmarks -- the "signature" -- that is associated with a terror group. This emerging debate will be colored, rightly, by the fact that, in just a decade, drone technology has proliferated. The technology and its use has far outpaced the development of policy that balances national security, morality, and the certainty that whatever precedent we set will be used, and abused, by the rogues and despots who no doubt will acquire this capability.

Before the pendulum swings too far in the other direction, though, away from the unquestionably aggressive use of drones by two consecutive presidents and toward a model that imposes tight limits, we are going to have to answer a simple question or two: When the president receives information that a new group -- maybe not a terror organization, but an evolving militant group -- is plotting to strike America at home or abroad, what do we do? If we strike too soon, we risk alienating a local population and increasing its motivation to target New York. If we strike too late, a nascent group of violent extremists will become operational, a lesson we learned too well 12 years ago. So take off the table the 20th-century notion that drones will become part of a more conventional military structure; they won't. The question for the 21st century is easy to state but hard to answer: Given the lessons of 9/11 and Iraq, when should a president choose preemption? And where? What are the rules for this new war?

John Moore/Getty Images