The conundrum of countering terrorism
- June 02, 2007
THE US and its allies, bogged down in Iraq, are at a dangerous
crossroads in the war on Islamist terrorists as al-Qa’ida regroups and
re-organises its global operations.
That’s the view of US terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of Washington’s Georgetown University. “Two years ago we believed we really had them on the run and that their command and control was essentially fractured. But during this period they were actually marshalling their forces to carry on the struggle,” Hoffman tells Inquirer.
The Oxford-educated Hoffman, who has spent 30 years studying terrorism, says he believes the West is in a dangerous situation. He arrived in Australia last month to speak to NSW police at a conference.
“Iraq has not just preoccupied our attention but enervated our militaries,” he says. “While this is occurring, al-Qa’ida and its affiliates have been able to regroup. They are not the same as they were on September 10, 2001. But nonetheless they are stronger now than they were two years ago and present a more serious threat.”
According to Hoffman the most compelling evidence of al-Qa’ida’s resilience is the plot, uncovered by British authorities last year, that involved plans for simultaneous attacks on 10 airliners from Britain en route to the US. Almost all the actual and disrupted attacks in Britain since 2003 have involved al-Qa’ida command elements operating in Pakistan, Hoffman says.
Iraq remains the greatest single counter-terrorism challenge for the US. Resolving that conflict is the only way to make progress, he contends. “One thing is indisputable: Iraq has become an enormous accelerant in radicalisation worldwide, and it’s being used by our opponents as a rallying cry. No progress is going to be made without resolving Iraq,” Hoffman says.
“Every martyrdom video talks about Iraq. It’s become a very formidable propaganda tool.”
This week, al-Qa’ida in Iraq continued to mount spectacular bombing attacks, with coalition military commanders warning that the next few months could see a surge in the group’s attacks as US and Iraqi forces try desperately to secure Baghdad.
Hoffman doesn’t like the phrase “war on terror”, arguing the notion has been characterised very effectively by the US’s adversaries as a war on Islam.
“Our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere has given them the opportunity to capitalise on the war on terrorism as a rallying cry,” he says.
The Iraq conflict has already had a spillover effect with tactics and weaponry honed in the Sunni Triangle now being routinely employed in Lebanon and Afghanistan.
Hoffman says Afghanistan is poised on a razor’s edge in terms of the counter-terrorism struggle as the lessons of Iraq are absorbed by the Taliban and al-Qa’ida fighters using the internet.
“Two years ago we were far more optimistic about Afghanistan. The fact that it has slipped back so dramatically is enormously worrisome if we take a net assessment of where the war on terrorism is going.”
There are not only Pakistani jihadist bases that are assisting the Taliban in Afghanistan but al-Qa’ida training camps in north Warizistan are also aiding insurgents and planning attacks much further afield. While NATO and its allies, including Australia, are taking the fight to the Taliban, Hoffman says they have to invest more in the fundamental tenet of counter-insurgency warfare: achieving local stability and security.
This involves not just a long-term commitment but building up indigenous security forces as quickly as possible to take the lead role: the same challenge that faces the US-led coalition in Iraq.
Hoffman argues al-Qa’ida’s ability to regenerate its forces is the biggest challenge facing the US and its allies, who are locked into a multi-generational struggle. Although there have been successes in disrupting networks, such as Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia, new generations of Muslim youth are being radicalised. There are more than 5000 internet sites devoted to terrorism, an exponential increase compared with three years ago.
Hoffman points out there is “a tremendous youth bulge” that presents an enormous demographic challenge across north Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Many of these societies have a high proportion of their populations under 17 years of age.
“These people that are growing up in these environments are going to be grist for the terrorists’ and insurgents’ mill. We continue to kill and capture but alongside the use of kinetics (conventional military operations), we have to develop means that much more effectively counter the resonance of the terrorists’ message. We do almost nothing to counter that.”
At the same time US government budget cutbacks are affecting the very programs that allow the US to engage the Muslim world. According to Hoffman the Voice of America, the US Government’s main overseas broadcasting arm, devotes only 6 per cent of its budget to internet communications, yet that medium is the main means of radicalisation and recruitment for terrorist groups.
“It is inexplicable that we devote a paltry amount of resources to countering it,” he says.
An emerging threat highlighted by Hoffman and other terrorism experts is the proliferation in other societies of so-called stand-off weapons and improvised explosive devices such as the powerful roadside bombs seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We seem to be now fixated on suicide terrorism spreading from Iraq and I am sure it will. But I think we will see more of these improvised explosive devices and stand-off weapons because it is a low-risk means of attacking your enemies. It’s low-cost and you preserve your assets and your personnel.”
A key change in al-Qa’ida’s strategy during the past two years is its recently adopted penchant for the use of unconventional weapons – chemical, biological and radiological – not necessarily for their killing potential, but for the corrosive psychological impact they can have on society at large. In Iraq this has involved the use of truck-mounted chlorine gas cylinders combined with high explosives.
“Al-Qa’ida is still constantly scanning the horizon to identify new gaps in our defences. I think over a decade ago their identification of their diaspora communities as a source of new recruits was a strategic investment that paid off, given the kind of plots we have seen in the UK,” Hoffman says.
He argues the challenge posed for the US by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates is a new paradigm that demands a far greater focus on long-term political strategies. Conventional military responses not only cannot defeat the enemy but may even be counterproductive.
“We still think of terrorism as something that’s perpetrated by actual organisations or groups,” Hoffman says.
“What we see is that it is something that’s more akin to a mass movement that’s really facilitated by a system ofnetworks. We need a different military approach that’s about winning hearts and minds and building capacity more effectively in countries threatened by terrorism.”
Hoffman says the Western intelligence community is fully aware of the evolving spectrum of threats coming from al-Qa’ida and associated Islamist groups but nevertheless is struggling to keep abreast or in front of a highly adaptive enemy.
Australia, he observes, has a great deal of geographical advantage in confronting the terrorism challenge given that the nation occupies a continent and has arguably the world’s best border control regime.
“Long before many other countries, Australia had very strict visa policies,” Hoffman says.
“It’s a tremendous advantage but no country can think of itself as immune to the heady currents of radicalisation and the clarion calls to violence.”