Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Deterring Terrorists?

Today's New York Times has a fascinating article about how the US defense community is beginning to think about applying principles of deterrence to terrorist groups. Some excerpts:

The 2002 National Security Strategy, signed by the president one year after the Sept. 11 attacks, stated flatly that “traditional concepts of deterrence will not work against a terrorist enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction and the targeting of innocents.”

Four years later, however, the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism concluded: “A new deterrence calculus combines the need to deter terrorists and supporters from contemplating a W.M.D. attack and, failing that, to dissuade them from actually conducting an attack.”

For obvious reasons, it is harder to deter terrorists than it was to deter a Soviet attack.

Terrorists hold no obvious targets for American retaliation as Soviet cities, factories, military bases and silos were under the cold-war deterrence doctrine. And it is far harder to pinpoint the location of a terrorist group’s leaders than it was to identify the Kremlin offices of the Politburo bosses, making it all but impossible to deter attacks by credibly threatening a retaliatory attack.

But over the six and a half years since the Sept. 11 attacks, many terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have successfully evaded capture, and American officials say they now recognize that threats to kill terrorist leaders may never be enough to keep America safe.

So American officials have spent the last several years trying to identify other types of “territory” that extremists hold dear, and they say they believe that one important aspect may be the terrorists’ reputation and credibility with Muslims.

Under this theory, if the seeds of doubt can be planted in the mind of Al Qaeda’s strategic leadership that an attack would be viewed as a shameful murder of innocents — or, even more effectively, that it would be an embarrassing failure — then the order may not be given, according to this new analysis.

Senior officials acknowledge that it is difficult to prove what role these new tactics and strategies have played in thwarting plots or deterring Al Qaeda from attacking. Senior officials say there have been several successes using the new approaches, but many involve highly classified technical programs, including the cyberoperations, that they declined to detail.

They did point to some older and now publicized examples that suggest that their efforts are moving in the right direction.

George J. Tenet, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote in his autobiography that the authorities were concerned that Qaeda operatives had made plans in 2003 to attack the New York City subway using cyanide devices.

Mr. Zawahri reportedly called off the plot because he feared that it “was not sufficiently inspiring to serve Al Qaeda’s ambitions,” and would be viewed as a pale, even humiliating, follow-up to the 9/11 attacks.

And in 2002, Iyman Faris, a naturalized American citizen from Kashmir, began casing the Brooklyn Bridge to plan an attack and communicated with Qaeda leaders in Pakistan via coded messages about using a blowtorch to sever the suspension cables.

But by early 2003, Mr. Faris sent a message to his confederates saying that “the weather is too hot.” American officials said that meant Mr. Faris feared that the plot was unlikely to succeed — apparently because of increased security.

“We made a very visible presence there and that may have contributed to it,” said Paul J. Browne, the New York City Police Department’s chief spokesman. “Deterrence is part and parcel of our entire effort.”


Even as security and intelligence forces seek to disrupt terrorist operations, counterterrorism specialists are examining ways to dissuade insurgents from even considering an attack with unconventional weapons. They are looking at aspects of the militants’ culture, families or religion, to undermine the rhetoric of terrorist leaders.

For example, the government is seeking ways to amplify the voices of respected religious leaders who warn that suicide bombers will not enjoy the heavenly delights promised by terrorist literature, and that their families will be dishonored by such attacks. Those efforts are aimed at undermining a terrorist’s will.

“I’ve got to figure out what does dissuade you,” said Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the Joint Chiefs’ director of strategic plans and policy. “What is your center of gravity that we can go at? The goal you set won’t be achieved, or you will be discredited and lose face with the rest of the Muslim world or radical extremism that you signed up for.”

Efforts are also under way to persuade Muslims not to support terrorists. It is a delicate campaign that American officials are trying to promote and amplify — but without leaving telltale American fingerprints that could undermine the effort in the Muslim world. Senior Bush administration officials point to several promising developments.

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul Aziz al-Asheik, gave a speech last October warning Saudis not to join unauthorized jihadist activities, a statement directed mainly at those considering going to Iraq to fight the American-led forces.

And Abdul-Aziz el-Sherif, a top leader of the armed Egyptian movement Islamic Jihad and a longtime associate of Mr. Zawahri, the second-ranking Qaeda official, has just completed a book that renounces violent jihad on legal and religious grounds.

Such dissents are serving to widen rifts between Qaeda leaders and some former loyal backers, Western and Middle Eastern diplomats say.

“Many terrorists value the perception of popular or theological legitimacy for their actions,” said Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser. “By encouraging debate about the moral legitimacy of using weapons of mass destruction, we can try to affect the strategic calculus of the terrorists.”

It's about time. I have been saying for quite some time (just ask my students) that 9/11 represented a failure in American deterrence. The tepid responses to the numerous attacks against the US and American interests during the 1990s (the first WTC bombing, the dual embassy bombing in Africa, the bombing of the Khobar Towers, and the bombing of the USS Cole, all of which were met by police work and limited [and ineffective] cruise missile strikes) sent a clear message to the leadership of al Qaeda that the US did not consider international terrorism to be a primary concern and that the US would not respond seriously. If Osama bin Laden had believed that bringing down the twin towers and striking the Pentagon would result in the loss of Afghanistan as a haven, it's hard to imagine them not thinking twice about whether the cost would be worth the benefit.

Terrorists are rational actors; they use violence as a means to an end. And even if that rationality is hard for us to understand, they are nonetheless rational. The violence is not meaningless; it is not random. Targets are chosen for particular reasons and to advance particular goals. If the use of violence is ineffective, or even counterproductive, then its use makes no sense. It's about time that the US defense community has begun taking the deterrence of terrorists seriously.

UPDATE: Over at his blog, Dan Drezner notes that:

It's good stuff. But it's not "deterrence" in the Cold War sense of the word.

Successful deterrence of Al Qaeda would be taking place if the organization decided not to take action because they feared retaliation by the United States against assets that they held dear. Deterrence works if an actor refrains from attack because they calculate that the cost of the adversary's response would outweigh any benefit from the initial strike.

But that's not in the U.S. strategy. Instead, what U.S. officials appears to be doing is decreasing the likelihood of a successful attack -- by sowing confuson, interdicting logistical support, and reducing sympathy for the organization. The closest one could come to deterrence is if one defined Al Qaeda's reputation as a tangible asset that would face devastating consequences after a successful attack. Even here, however, the U.S. strategy is primarily to weaken Al Qaeda by increasing the odds of an unsuccessful attack.

The more appropriate word to use here is "containment." The United States is trying to sow divisions within the jihadi movement -- much like Kennan urged the United States to do among communists of different nationalities. The United States is applying counter-pressure in areas where Al Qaeda is trying to gain supporters and symathizers -- much like Kennan urged the application of "counter-force" in areas where the Soviets tried to advance their interests.

He's right. Mostly. Most of what the authors are describing isn't really deterrence, but containment or defense. But, deterrence does have elements that begin to blend into the other two concepts. Denial deterrence, for example, works by convincing the opponent that his attack will not succeed. From an article on the NATO website:

The deterrence by denial theory is not limited to missile defences, of course. The theory applies to any capability that can deny an enemy success in achieving his objectives. For example, passive defences such as decontamination equipment and suits and gas masks for protection against chemical and biological weapons might help to convince an enemy not to use such weapons. The National Security Strategy suggests that "consequence-management" capabilities for responding to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attacks may contribute to both dissuasion and deterrence by denial. It states: "Minimizing the effects of WMD use against our people will help deter those who possess such weapons and dissuade those who seek to acquire them by persuading enemies that they cannot attain their desired ends."
If al Qaeda can be persuaded that their attacks will be, as I said before, ineffective or counterproductive, they may be deterred from carrying them out. True, this begins to look more like defense, but the lines are blurry here.


Lauren said...


I read this article online this morning from Paris and knew you'd blog about it! It's about time, as you said, and I agree. It'll be interesting to see how everything plays out.

Kacy said...

To point out an embarrassing failure to a terrorist group I like, not only because this is a good option in hope that they will lay down their arms, but it is fact that all their meaningless killings stemmed through failure. However we are talking about terrorists, so I believe they will not be heeding these verbal threats because it is their blood to draw blood.

Anonymous said...

Deterrence might involve a range of options that don't involve a re-invention of the Cold War. These might include the U.S.'s adherence to international law with regard to invading countries without cause and to torture. It might involve deterring incompetence, hubris, stupidity, and dictatorial leanings in our own executive branch. It might involve deterring the use of a concentration camp at Guantanamo. It might involve confronting the inherent flaws of what Eisenhower (a well known liberal) called the military/industrial complex, which he sagely feared. We might, in short, deter ourselves from being our own worst enemies, as a start. What terrorism has our state sponsored? What awful means have we justified by illusory ends? Physician, heal thyself.