The intelligence community directors’ testimony on the imminent danger of an al-Qaeda attack is only the latest depressing news in what has been a bad year for counterterrorism. The Fort Hood shootings, the near-miss airplane bombing on Christmas Day, the radicalization of parts of the Somali-American community, and other disturbing events all suggest that the threat to the U.S. homeland is growing steadily worse.
Although groups like al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula are rightly claiming the attention of U.S. intelligence officials, Pakistan remains the locus of the problem, and any solutions have to begin there. In the last five years the al Qaeda core has reconstituted itself in Pakistan, using it as a base to rebuild its forces and plan terrorist attacks. Drone strikes on militants disrupt the al Qaeda leadership and force the organization to keep its head down. But by themselves they are not enough. Pakistan must reclaim the territory al Qaeda and like-minded groups have seized as their sanctuary. Pakistani leaders, unfortunately, have made an art form of stepping up cooperation when problems are in the headlines, only to revert to form when U.S. attention shifts elsewhere. The Obama administration must redouble pressure on Pakistan to restart its stalled military offensive against militants in border areas near Afghanistan and otherwise take aggressive action against the militant presence in the country.
• Daily Beast experts on how America can prepare for a terror attack The United States also needs to change how it gets its message out. Obama’s speech in Cairo in June was a good start in revamping the U.S. image in the Muslim world, but there are limits to how much goodwill he will gain. When the debate is about the U.S. military role in Iraq or U.S. support for Israel, even the best communications strategy is not going to win us many points. Instead, the administration should shift the debate by doing what political campaigns in this country do so well: go negative. In particular, the United States needs to play up al Qaeda atrocities against Muslim civilians—killings that play poorly among their target audiences. In the last few years a “who’s who” of hardline senior clerics and former jihadist leaders in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere have come out against terrorism and excoriated al Qaeda for killing innocent Muslims. These are messages we need to amplify.
At home, there is good news: The American Muslim community is not radicalized (though the anger of many Somali-Americans about U.S. policy toward Somalia bears watching). Community members cooperate regularly with the FBI and police to go after the few extremists in their midst. Any new defenses put in place must reflect this support, making sure not to alienate this community and, in so doing, reduce its cooperation with law enforcement services.
Daniel Byman is a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. His next book is A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism (Oxford, forthcoming 2010.)