The Obama administration’s new counterterrorism strategy — the first since the killing of Osama bin Laden last month — will focus on would-be terrorists in the United States who are inspired by al Qaeda’s “hateful ideology,” the president’s top adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism said Wednesday.
“This is the first counterterrorism strategy that focuses on the ability of al Qaeda and its network to inspire people in the United States to attack us from within,” John Brennan said in an address at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Mr. Brennan noted that the strategy is the first to “designate the homeland as a primary area of emphasis in our counterterrorism efforts.”
In his speech, Mr. Brennan also said the administration will concentrate on eradicating havens for al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Somalia. He stressed that the United States would continue to work with elements of Yemen’s government even as that regime appears to be crumbling. The counterterrorism strategy focuses on a category of threat it calls “adherents.”
A strategy document released Wednesday to coincide with Mr. Brennan’s speech defines adherents as “individuals who have formed collaborative relationships with, act on behalf of, or are otherwise inspired to take action in furtherance of the goals of [al Qaeda] — the organization and the ideology — including by engaging in violence, regardless of whether such violence is targeted at the United States, its citizens, or its interests.”
Through websites, videos and audiotapes, al Qaeda leaders have reached out to sympathetic Muslims in the United States, encouraging them to conduct “lone-wolf” terrorist attacks to avenge the death of bin Laden in a U.S. raid in Pakistan last month.
The adherents category would apply to Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 32 others in a 2009 shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas.
Investigators have determined that Maj. Hasan was inspired by the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-Yemeni citizen whose Internet sermons urge listeners to take up arms against the United States. But Maj. Hasan was not a formal member of al Qaeda or one of its affiliates.
Identifying al Qaeda adherents as a core threat against the United States is a new approach for the Obama administration, which scrambled to explain gaps in homeland security that allowed the Fort Hood massacre and a 2009 attack at a military recruiting station in Arkansas.
Mr. Brennan on Wednesday defined adherents as “individuals, sometimes with little or no direct physical contact with al Qaeda, who have succumbed to its hateful ideology and who have engaged in, or facilitated, terrorist activities here in the United States.”
This strategy could pose legal issues for the United States, which traditionally has focused counterterrorism efforts on designated people and organizations.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, described the adherents category as “a recognition that it’s not just a small group of people who have the al Qaeda secret handshake” who pose a threat.
“One of the things [Mr. Brennan] said explicitly is that the Pakistan Taliban is an affiliate of al Qaeda,” Mr. Riedel said. “Well, Pakistan Taliban is not under the pressure al Qaeda is under. It’s under very little pressure.”
Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “The strategy pays lip service, as it should, to adherence to our values and the rule of law. But there is a significant difference between that rhetoric and the policies the administration is actually following.”
Ms. Shamsi said her organization is still worried about the Obama administration’s “use of force outside the confines of armed conflict and overly expansive detention authority and continued defense of warrantless surveillance.”
In his speech, Mr. Brennan said a core part of the administration’s strategy against al Qaeda is “living our values.” He pointed out that President Obama, in his first days in office, banned torture and promised to close the detention facility for terrorism suspects at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mr. Brennan stressed that the fight against al Qaeda is not over. The killing of bin Laden and other key jihadist leaders “allows us for the first time to envision the demise of al Qaeda’s core leadership in the coming years,” he said.
“It will take time, but make no mistake: al Qaeda is in decline,” he added.
Mr. Brennan said al Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, is “an aging doctor who lacks bin Laden’s charisma and perhaps the loyalty and respect of many within al Qaeda.”
Some U.S. analysts have said the loyalty oaths al Qaeda operatives have taken over the years to bin Laden would not transfer to al-Zawahri.
Though Mr. Brennan said al Qaeda is in decline, he noted that a key part of the new strategy is to make the United States resilient to catastrophic terrorist attacks.
“A responsible, effective counterterrorism strategy recognizes that no nation, no matter how powerful, including a free and open society of 300 million Americans, can prevent every single threat from every single individual who wishes to do us harm,” he said.
“It’s not enough to simply be prepared for attacks. We have to be resilient and recover quickly should an attack occur.”
The White House strategy document discusses the idea of making key parts of the U.S. infrastructure and landmarks “hardened targets.” It also says the U.S. must demonstrate to al Qaeda that it can rebuild quickly after a catastrophic attack.