The New National Strategy for Counterterrorism

  • photo courtesy of CSIS
    Jun 30, 2011

    On Wednesday, the White House released the new National Strategy for Counterterrorism. The document follows up on the 2006 version, authored by the Bush administration, and comes at a momentous time for the United States given the “Arab Spring,” the recent death of Osama bin Laden, and uncertainty about the political and budgetary climate for continuing counterterrorism operations.

    Q1: How is the document organized?

    A1: The 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism, like other high-level strategy documents, is broadly scoped. In a speech on Wednesday, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said that the document “formalizes” the Obama administration’s approach to combating al Qaeda and the groups and individuals—“affiliates and adherents”—to which it is linked. The strategy outlines four key principles and eight broad-based goals guiding U.S. counterterrorism policy. It also addresses a number of specific groups, like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and cross-cutting issues, such as terrorist messaging, that demand U.S. attention. Finally, the document concludes with a brief discussion of other designated terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah and Hamas, that threaten the interests of the United States and its international partners.

    Q2: How does this National Strategy for Counterterrorism compare to the 2006 version?

    A2: The two documents differ in noticeable ways. In describing the United States’ terrorist adversaries, the 2006 version spoke of a growing and strategic ideological threat—an al Qaeda that sought to “establish a single, pan-Islamic, totalitarian regime” spanning “Spain to Southeast Asia.” The 2011 version focuses more on the operational aspects of the threat and on al Qaeda’s tangible capabilities, including continued plots on the homeland and the radicalization and targeting of Muslims.

    The two documents also differ, at times, on how to combat terrorism. The Bush administration framed democracy as the surest long-term solution to terrorism and discussed at length the virtues of effective, democratic transition in autocratic societies. The Obama administration, while stressing the importance of democracy and human rights, generally avoids theoretical discussion of the root drivers of terrorism. Instead, the 2011 document largely focuses on what the government and its international partners are doing operationally to combat al Qaeda’s central apparatus in South Asia, its regional affiliates in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and its followers across the world, including in the United States and Europe.

    Despite these differences, the 2006 and 2011 versions do have some important similarities. Both documents, for instance, stress that it is essential to deny terrorists the use of weapons of mass destruction. Also, both strategies recognize the value of comparatively low-profile, but essential, policy initiatives like counterterrorist financing. Finally, the Obama administration touts progress on information sharing and “whole-of-government” approaches to counterterrorism, begun in earnest during the Bush administration and reflected in the 2006 document.

    Q3: How well does the document capture today’s momentous political environment, both abroad and at home?

    A3: In his remarks on Wednesday, Brennan acknowledged that the new National Strategy for Counterterrorism was not being released in a vacuum. Both his speech and the White House strategy document assert that popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa can forcefully repudiate al Qaeda’s insistence on violent regime change. With this in mind, the Obama administration is taking pains to stress that the United States will continue to stand on the side of progressive reform in Muslim-majority societies, viewing this approach as essential to puncturing al Qaeda’s narrative of a Western war against Islam, and thus mitigating a key source of radicalization among would-be terrorists. As reported in the media, evidence from the Abbottabad raid demonstrates that U.S. efforts to undermine this narrative are having an effect, causing alarm at senior al Qaeda levels and ultimately weakening the movement.

    In this sense, the 2011 document does a good job capturing the high-stakes environment in the Middle East and North Africa today. But continued counterterrorism success also will require the Obama administration to navigate a complex and changing political environment here at home. In the coming months, political and budgetary pressures may squeeze U.S. counterterrorism options. Bin Laden’s death led some members of Congress to urge a faster drawdown in Afghanistan, where President Obama has stated that the United States retains a vital interest in combating al Qaeda and its affiliates. Nor will national security priorities be immune from budget cuts; the House recently passed a bill that would reduce the Department of Homeland Security’s 2012 budget by around $1 billion. Ten years after the September 11 attacks, Congress and the public may lose the appetite for robust U.S. engagement in the Middle East and North Africa just when investments in development and democracy are needed most.

    Of course, administration officials are aware of these domestic realities. In his speech, for instance, Brennan acknowledged that “deploying large armies abroad” would not be a viable counterterrorism tool in the future. This sort of willingness to adapt U.S. counterterrorism strategy to new constraints will be vital to ensuring continued success against al Qaeda and its affiliates.

    Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Ben Bodurian is a research assistant in the program.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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