Back to basics on terrorism
May 7th, 2013
09:55 AM ET

Back to basics on terrorism

‘Beyond the Manhunts: How to Stop Terror’ – a GPS special premieres 10 a.m. & 1 p.m. ET this Sunday

By Stephen Yates, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Stephen Yates is former deputy assistant to the vice president for national security affairs (2001-2005) and currently CEO of DC International Advisory. The views expressed are his own.

Approaching 12 years since the 2001 attacks, the threat of terrorism remains very real, but what to do about it still very much in dispute.  The truth is, neither the Bush nor the Obama approaches could eliminate the threat of terrorism.  No truly plausible policy is capable of achieving that outcome.  Instead, the key challenge – from either partisan perspective – is to deter terrorist enablers and constrain terrorists' freedom of action.

The threat of terrorism has always been with us, but at times it is seen as a greater or lesser risk, or more a foreign vs. domestic risk.  While 9/11 did not change everything, it certainly did change American perceptions of who terrorists are, the means they are willing to employ, and the clear and present danger terrorists pose to the U.S. homeland.

Car bombs, hijackings, and kidnappings of the past paled in comparison to the impact of the casualty figures and targets hit on 9/11/2001. That shocking reality catapulted counter-terrorism to top priority status in U.S. foreign and domestic policy for much of the balance of the decade.  Those enabling the safe harbor and financing of terrorist networks were declared as complicit as the terrorists themselves in the violence they perpetuate.  Expansive use of all manifestations of American power were to be employed in preventive self defense.

The overriding objective of American policy from 2001 forward was to prevent another 9/11 or worse – another 9/11 with weapons more destructive than hijacked aircraft.  Primarily the task was seen as keeping weapons of mass terror from falling into the hands of those most plausible and eager to engage in a mass terror attack on us.  Al Qaeda, as perpetrator of the 2001 attacks, was a clear target, but not the only threat.

Through the 2008 presidential campaign cycle and beyond, the definition of the enemy and nature of the threat was minimized.  The global war on terror was no more.  Instead, we would wind down wars, focus on the capture or killing of “core al Qaeda” leaders, engage non-al Qaeda adversaries in dialogue, and avoid reference to a broader ideological and political movement dispersed beyond Afghanistan/Pakistan and the war in Iraq.

While critics may find fault in the Bush administration's post-9/11 approach (and they certainly have) reasonable analysts must surely also acknowledge the emerging consequences of the Obama administration’s retreat from a war on terror.

Some Obama critics and defenders are quick to point to aggressive use of drones, the raid on bin Laden in Pakistan, and the fact Guantanamo remain open as indicators of administration toughness or continuity of Bush policy.  Unfortunately, such assertions miss the significance of both presidents’ very different diagnoses of and prescriptions for dealing with the ongoing threat of terrorism.

True, the Bush administration did not get right every element in its response to 9/11 under emergency circumstances.  But similar judgment applies to the Obama administration’s response to Bush policies under non-emergency circumstances. Over the last dozen years, much progress has been made in response to the terrorists’ war on us. Unfortunately, that has come at great cost and been accompanied by an expansion of the geographical reach and political influence of the ideological forces fueling the war on us.

However, by speaking in these terms I’m touching upon a controversy that should not remain 12 years since the 2001 attacks – who is our enemy and what is required to counter it?

To many, the enemy is an extreme and activist ideology that seeks the marriage of mosque and state, by any means necessary, including mass murder and maiming of civilians should their leaders stand in the way.  This terrorist war on us was declared decades ago and is likely to be a multi-generational struggle in which all support for the enemy must be countered – ideology, intelligence, politics, finance, and security.

To others, the enemy is a collection of individuals who can be captured, killed, prosecuted, or otherwise managed by using the legal and security institutions present where the terrorist resides.

The contending approaches can be reduced to favoring warfare or lawfare.

Yet regardless of ones predisposition in this debate, we will remain at an unacceptable risk of near term attack without an honest assessment of a few fundamental challenges:

1) Who is the enemy, what does it seek, and by what means?

2) Are we at war or is the current threat simply another manifestation of violent crime?

3) Are today’s terrorists predominantly disaffected individuals in search of the means to act out, or is there an organized movement seeking out disaffected individuals to use for its own violent purposes?

Until commonsense prevails in response to these questions, we will not appropriately organize our government and deploy the means required to meet the challenge – and our homeland will remain at greater risk of terrorist attack than its citizens should accept.

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Topics: Terrorism • United States

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soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. fhelms

    Where is the news on Benghazi? Has CNN lost its ability to report the news or/are they totally in the tank protecting President Obama even though it looks like he's liked to the American Public. CNN should be ashamed of itself for not accurately reporting what's going on... Oh, by the way CNN, Hearing start tomorrow with testimony from the witnesses in the Benghazi attack!

    May 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  2. sand

    forget about terrorism someone needs to nuke the usa britain australia ireland and ghana burn the entire bunch into charcoal.

    May 7, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Reply
    • Sand is a moron

      It must be something really big and hard, like a table leg, that's jammed up your *ss. Do you have a longing for a certain donkey who ran away. I know it was a crazy mixed up childhood, with the koran in one hand and in the other hand your donkey's unit. Not enough vitamins maybe, bounced on your head to many times. I know you were left in the fields with the other goats and the ram had his way with you, its not to late for you. I think a little shock therapy is in order, or perhaps a labotomy, they would probably open up your skull and just find a mouse on a spinning wheel, screaming Yippie!

      May 7, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Reply
      • sand

        your mother is a irish potato farmer from dublin and your father lives in the slums in ghana accra.

        May 7, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
  3. RLTJ's

    Back to what looks like basic terrorism but its a bit changed. There is reduced political drama like we see in hijackings. They are becoming simply more on just hitting.

    May 7, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  4. RLTJ's

    Terrorism is of course an act of desperate people.

    Is peace winning or is it worsening? What do you think?

    May 7, 2013 at 9:35 pm | Reply
  5. Maqbool Khan

    Don't under estimats the powerful weapondry of the Pakistan.
    We are encreasing our power of nucular weapondry to magximum point even higher than USA and Russia which can teach USA ,isril and endia a lesson they will never forget if Pakistan wants. You guys lost simple war in Vietnam and came home like chikens. Also North Korea is spit on you everyday. You are no match for Pakistan.

    May 8, 2013 at 6:17 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Terrorism is ancient. It's just the means to carry out the attacks to and the targets that had changed. In the old days it was seen as guerilla warfare against state authorities and officials. Today terrorists target civilians because they are easy prey.

    May 8, 2013 at 9:00 am | Reply
  7. Skorpio

    Islam is the ONLY COMMON LINK among terrorists attacks in the US, Libya, Spain, Algeria, Pakistan, England, Kenya, Mali, France, Niger, Israel, Philippines, Bulgaria, Argentina, Sweden, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, the Netherlands, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Russia, Somalia, Mauritania, Chad, Iraq, Sudan, India, etc.,etc.,etc. And there is always an Islamic cleric or devout Muslim behind these attacks.

    May 8, 2013 at 9:40 am | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      The common links are oppression, poverty and brainwashing, not Islam. How do you explain the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unibomber, Anders Behring Breivik, the IRA, ETA, PKK etc etc.? 99% of those who worship Islam live peaceful lives, yet when less than 1% commit a crime, it is Islam's fault. Get real!

      May 8, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Reply

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