(Matthew Levitt is a Senior fellow and Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).
The questions is not whether our counter-terrorism strategy should be military or law enforcement centric, but rather how to develop and deploy a truly interagency strategy that employs all elements of national power to defeat a transnational adversary operating in an era of globalization.
The military is actively engaged in counter-terrorism, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq where it is fighting wars against asymmetric enemies, but I would dispute the assumption that counter-terrorism responsibility has fallen mainly under the purview of the military. At the same time, while acts of terrorism are themselves criminal activities, employing a counter-terrorism strategy that sees terrorism as more of a law enforcement issue is also off the mark. Both the military and law enforcement communities plays critical roles in counter-terrorism, but a truly effective counter-terrorism strategy is one that is intelligence-heavy and leverages that intelligence to inform a plan than employs all elements of national power, with a focus on non-kinetic tools and authorities.
Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that the effort to combat terrorism at a tactical level is where we are best, employing our military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to conduct operations, make arrests, raid safe havens, etc. It is at the level of strategic counter-terrorism, that is strategic communication, the battle of ideas, and counter-radicalization, that we are just now making strong strides forward (see our previous discussion chain). For example, highlighting al-Qaeda’s bankrupt ideology is now a cornerstone of the U.S. strategic communications message.
Recognizing the relationships between our various foreign policy interests also points to the need to leverage all our authorities in a strategic counterterrorism effort. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Dell Dailey made this point in a lecture at The Washington Institute in December entitled “An ‘All Elements of Power‘ Strategy for Combating Terrorism.” “In today’s interconnected world, it is impossible to draw neat, clear lines between security interests, development efforts, and our support for democracy. American diplomacy must integrate and advance all of these goals together.”
That said, I do think we are in need of some legal remedies to our current legal system. Some of these are tactical, like passage of a new Export Administration Act (EAA) that would empower the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security to conduct arrests and engage in undercover operations more easily (the last law, now somewhat outdated too, lapsed in 2001 and BIS has been operating under emergency authorities granted by the President under IEEPA).
But two immediate legal issues come to mind. First, the need to find a solution to the need to hold terrorism suspects and how to try them. As my colleague Mike Jacobson has pointed out, the United States, United Kingdom and Canada are among the countries grappling with the question of whether certain terrorist suspects should be handled in legal settings outside of the criminal justice system.
Second, the “material support” statute should also be revisited. As a series of partial convictions and hung juries in recent “material support” cases demonstrates, obtaining convictions under the current law is difficult. In some cases, prosecutors have opted not to charge defendants with providing material support to terrorists, charging them instead with other criminal activity.
The bottom line, however, is that while post-blast prosecutions hold perpetrators accountable and provide victims a sense of justice, it is not clear than in an era of ideologically-driven terrorism they provide much of a deterrent to other would-be terrorists and their supporters. Law enforcement and military action have their place within the larger counter-terrorism toolkit, but so do intelligence collection and operations, robust diplomacy and international engagement, international training and capacity building programs, financial and economic pressures and opportunities, and more.
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.