The United States is reassessing our strategy for fighting terrorists with a view to targeting middle and lower levels of terrorist networks. Such re-evaluation is routine in wars and represents a flexibility needed now more than ever. But the new strategy discussed would not lead to victory.
Though targeting the middle to lower levels is a great tactic — one is surprised it has not already been done — in this case, it will not dry up the manpower reserve from which terrorist leaders draw followers. It is the low- and mid-level people, not the leaders, who volunteer for suicide/martyrdom operations. Death is unlikely to dampen their zeal.
There is of course under way another re-evaluation of the war of ideas. However any strategy is doomed from the outset that does not directly engage and discredit the Wahhabi, Deobandi (Taliban), and Khomeini schools of Islamicism, which share many characteristics and are the fountainheads of Islamic terrorism and ideology. This requires a serious look at the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and our current policies on Iran. This of course needs out-of-the-box, or beyond the Beltway, thinking that bureaucracies such as the foreign policy establishment tend to discourage.
An example of a bureaucratic approach is the U.S.-sponsored Al Hurra satellite, a great concept crippled by its location in Virginia. We should learn from our most recent successful war of ideas, the Cold War, by placing multiple media resources inside targeted regions.
We also need to abandon passive communications in rebutting rumors and lies about the United States. We should not wait for the “truth to set us free,” which can take weeks or years, by which time lies have taken on a life and a truth all their own. We should rather be prepared to present the truth and counter any misconception as soon as and wherever it appears. This requires reinventing our entire public diplomacy system, decimated in the 1990s, including creation outside existing bureaucracies of informal and formal organizations that can develop innovative and effective solutions. The government also needs to break down barriers between national security experts and communication experts. After all, we expect a lot of those presenting the message when they lack the expertise of those working on the issues every day.
These of course are long overdue, long-term changes. But there’s something even more important for the re-evaluators to consider. It goes back to an old military studies truism that “amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics.” If we want to break the back of international terrorism, we need to target the logistical foundation on which it operates. This is not the young recruit or even the leaders but the means and methods by which the groups communicate, are financed, manage transportation and supply operations.
Besides the state sponsors — such as Iran, Syria, Cuba and North Korea — to name a few, there are the ongoing but underreported connections between terrorists and transnational criminal organizations.
Whether it is the Russian mafia supplying weapons, the Chinese Triads distributing al Qaeda-grown heroin or banks knowingly laundering criminal and terrorist funds, these international criminal organizations form the logistical base that makes it possible for the terrorists to operate.
After all, many such criminal groups have decades of experience in illegally moving money, narcotics, weapons and, most important, people. That experience is invaluable to global terrorist organizations. And these criminal elements, working with terrorists, can provide local support such as safe houses, intelligence and other logistical assistance that reduces the “footprint” of a terrorist cell/operation.
It should be remembered that many of the states that use terrorism as an extension of strategy also view transnational crime as a policy tool. This is particularly advantageous for states because the supposedly autonomous terrorist or criminal groups provide their allied governments with that all-important “plausible deniability.”
Just as it was wrong to view terrorism as a criminal rather than national security matter before September 11, 2001, it is time for Western nations to get serious about the threat transnational criminal groups pose to our national interests and address it outside an exclusively law-enforcement framework.
In the final analysis, no simple shift in tactics will guarantee victory. But if this re-evaluation develops a truly comprehensive grand strategy, including effective strategic-communications aimed at the ideological base and at lies propagated about the United States, and comprehends the logistical role of transnational criminal elements, we can break the enemy’s back, not just move pieces around a game board.
Christopher Brown works with the Transitions to Democracy Project at the Hudson Institute.