Monday, March 7, 2011

Conceptualizing the War on Terror

I just got back from an event at AEI on the release of a new report, "Al Qaeda's Operating Environments: A New Approach to The War on Terror."

With the caveat I haven't read the full report yet, it argues that we must develop a better understanding of how AQ operates in different kinds of physical and human terrains. It conceptualizes three kinds of terrains: the Islamist Quasi State (e.g. Somalia), the Limited Safe Haven (e.g. FATA in Pakistan), and the Distressed Zone (e.g. Iraq). These different categories are divided based on how much freedom AQ has to operate. The ultimate point is that fighting AQ in these different terrains require different strategies.

While I agree it's essential to disaggregate AQ in order to fight them more effectively, I have two critiques. First, the threat of anti-American terror extends beyond AQ. By focusing on AQ, we not only risk missing other threats, but we are also prone to conflating different threats as all AQ. But that doesn't present a problem for the main thrust of the report, and in fact it makes disaggregation of these different terrains all the more important.

Second, I believe the report is missing two other terrain categories. The first, as Michael O'Hanlon pointed out, is an urban terrain like Karachi that offers ripe opportunities for AQ despite government control. The other is enemy terrain (i.e. the US and the EU). Even though the report focuses on foreign policy, I pushed the authors to explain in the Q&A why they leave out enemy terrain as a key operating environment for AQ. They responded that the financing, planning, and training for attacks all occur overseas, and therefore once the threat resides in the homeland, it's too late.

I think this is a mistake for a few reasons. One, we've seen violent extremists use the US and EU as safe havens in the past. Most notably, the Islamic Group's Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman helped plan the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and was stopped from launching more attacks shortly thereafter. Just because it's easier to fundraise, organize, and train abroad currently, doesn't mean that they can't or won't find ways of doing so here.

Two, even after the financing, planning and training have all taken place, there are still many opportunities to thwart terror attacks in the target country. It's not ideal to having to foil individual plots versus stopping them at their source, but that doesn't mean we should ignore the homeland as an essential operating environment of violent extremists.

Three, AQ clearly wants to turn the US and Europe into a new operating environment on the model of Nidal Hassan. It'd be a mistake to exclude this terrain in our analysis just because it's downstream or because it's the most restrictive for AQ. The framework should include the entire spectrum of environments violent extremists can and do operate in. Otherwise we're allowing a potentially vulnerable blind spot to go unstudied.

Fourth and finally, as we place more pressure on AQ's operating environments abroad (which is the ultimate goal of this report), there will be greater incentive for AQ to seek operational capabilities within the US and EU. In fact, some believe AQ has been forced to give up on large scale attacks due to US pressure, instead opting for smaller, more amateurish attacks in recent years that rely upon citizens and residents of the target countries.

In short, this report aims to take a step back and reconceptualize the war on terror in broad terms. Yet it needlessly limits itself to one particular group and three particular terrains that, while obviously presenting the greatest threats, do not constitute the entire universe of violent extremism that endangers our national security.

Update: Here is video of the event. I ask my question at 57:30.

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