President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy is plagued by false assumptions that could prove fatal to our nation’s security.
Last week, Obama accepted responsibility for the failure to stop the al Qaeda underwear bomber before he boarded a plane bound for America on Christmas day. The president pledged to correct the “shortcomings” that contributed to that near miss and to prosecute the “…war against al Qaeda.”
Obama’s counterterrorism strategy to defeat al Queda must account for several tough realities that — so far — it ignores.
As to al Qaeda, the terror group’s purpose is to establish a global Islamic Caliphate and their method is to create the sense of insecurity using global franchises able to strike at unpredictable times and places. It – and the other groups like it — is fueled by an ideology that lives on the Internet, quickly morphs virtually anywhere and then hides among 1.6 billion Muslims that mostly hate America more than the extremists.
This cold reality warrants a tough strategy but Obama’s plans are flawed by five false assumptions.
The first and foremost false assumption, this conflict is not against al Qaeda alone. It is against both the nations that sponsor Islamic terrorism and the groups and individuals that carry it out. No strategy that doesn’t both recognize and premise action upon those facts cannot possibly succeed.
The second false assumption, America’s security / intelligence communities are failing to keep us safe. This is false because these communities have successfully stopped many would-be terrorists since 9/11, but there are weaknesses which he fails to grasp and some — such as his prohibition of the so-called “enhanced interrogation methods — which have weakened our ability to gather intelligence..
The president’s recent top-to-bottom security review concluded that our “first line of defense” failed to connect the dots that would have placed the suspect on the “no fly” list. Obama intends to make cosmetic corrections in these communities when we need at least three substantive changes.
We need more and better analysts. Obama admits we “…had the information … to potentially uncover the plot and disrupt the attack.” The task of discovering a threat from millions of seemingly random pieces of information rests on the shoulders of a small cadre of analysts, who tend to be young and inexperienced.
Our screeners should conduct behavior-based profiling like the Israelis do. Security at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport is cited as the best in the world because their screeners are top notch, college-educated and trained in behavior profiling. Our system is anchored on technology and “no fly” lists.
The State Department needs a cultural shift. Its currency is the issuance of visas, even to would-be suicide bombers. It must become far more discriminating when issuing visas and much faster at canceling them. The underwear bomber had a two year, multiple entry visa which was pulled only after he was indicted and weeks after his father told U.S. officials the son was involved in extremist activities.
The third false assumption, that the U.S. civil court system is a more appropriate venue for terrorists than military tribunals. Obama, who declared “We are at war.… against al Queda [a group which has declared war on America],” decided to try the admitted al Queda underwear bomber as an ordinary civilian criminal rather than as an “unprivileged enemy belligerent” in a military commission, as the 9/11 hijackers initially were and all combatants since the U.S. Civil War.
Sen. Joe Liberman (I –Conn.) said Obama’s decision was a “very serious mistake” because the bomber’s action “was an act of war.” Those who commit acts on behalf of al Queda are engaging in acts of war. They should be either declared POWs and detained or tried as enemy combatants, as the law currently allows. Criminals don’t conduct acts of war.
Obama’s use of the civil system to prosecute the underwear bomber and others like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermine now in New York awaiting trial, is linked to Obama’s misguided views about this war and his similarly naïve justification for closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay (GITMO), Cuba, and the transfer of those detainees to a federal prison in Illinois.
“We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Queda,” Obama said. “In fact,” the president said, “that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP].” Obama’s statement is absolutely false.
AQAP existed long before GITMO became an issue. The first prisoners captured in Afghanistan were secretly moved to GITMO in 2002. AQAP formed years earlier in Saudi Arabia as confirmed by 2003 attacks on three compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which killed 35. AQAP’s published motive for those attacks was the overthrow of the Saudi royal family and the establishment of a Caliphate.
The fourth false assumption, that allies will help defeat Islamic extremists. Last week, Obama declared “We intend to target al Queda wherever they take root, forging new partnerships to deny them sanctuary, as we are doing currently with the government in Yemen.” But counterterrorism partnerships are becoming more difficult to form.
We have 42 partners in Afghanistan. They are there primarily because of self- serving obligations such as NATO membership or because the U.S. otherwise leveraged their participation. Some of our best partners such as Canada are leaving.
Pakistan is a partner in the war against al Queda. In 2001, al Queda fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan where its leaders remain today. The U.S. has repeatedly asked Pakistani leaders to pursue al Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But in spite of more than $12 billion in aid since 2001, al Qaeda continues to operate from that area and the Pakistanis only do enough to keep the aid flowing.
Obama’s partnership with Yemen is tenuous as well. Terrorists have been present in Yemen since the 1980s where President Ali Abdullah Saleh tolerates their presence to bolster his credibility among Islamist hardliners.
Saleh will partner with Obama like Pakistan does only as long as the money flows. However, the little authority he does have will be used primarily to retain power and not to do America’s bidding.
The fifth false assumption, that the U.S. can persuade Muslim nations to reject extremism. Obama said “We know that the vast majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda. …We’ve sought new beginnings with Muslim communities around the world, one in which we engage on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect … to live in peace and security.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. can’t make Muslim nations reject extremism because we lack the tools for the ideological battle. Raymond Ibrahim, the associate director of the Middle East Forum and the author of The Al Qaeda Reader, described the Islamic worldview which Obama must overcome to persuade Muslims to reject extremism.
The Islamic worldview is “typified by cynicism and stoicism: a belief that humanity is intrinsically opportunistic, selfish, and warlike; that might not only makes right, but almost should; that those in the right do not apologize or appease, but rather assert; a survival-of-the-fittest mentality; and, above all, sheer contempt for perceived weakness and equivocation, or, in Islamic parlance, emasculate behavior.”
Ibrahim says the “Islamic world is the antithesis of the postmodern, ‘therapeutic’ worldview of the liberal West, where ‘feelings,’ ‘mutual respect,’ ‘toleration,’ and the ability to ‘express oneself’ are paramount.”
He says Obama should know that “feel-good” talk of mutual respect will have little effect on the people of the Islamic world. In fact, says Ibrahim, it will breed more contempt for America.
Al Queda is well acquainted with both the Western and Islamic worldviews, says Ibrahim. The terror group has made a point to speak a language the West understands (mutual respect, tolerance) and another that Muslims understand (jihad, conquest). The purpose of speaking diametrically opposed languages, says Ibrahim, is “to buy the Islamic world time to grow stronger and receive concessions, while lulling the West into thinking that all conflict will end with just a bit more respect and appeasement for Muslims.”
President Obama promises “…to be strong in the face of violent extremism.” That’s a refreshing pledge but the false assumptions that underpin his counterterrorism strategy are at best naïve and at worst fatally flawed.