President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy is narrowly focused on al-Qaeda and its ability to strike the U.S. homeland and is “not designed to combat directly every single terrorist organization in every corner of the world,” White House counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan said Wednesday.
Acknowledging that the president’s goals “track closely with the goals” of the George W. Bush administration, Brennan said Obama’s strategy “neither represents a wholesale overhaul, nor a wholesale retention, of previous policies.” He spoke in a speech unveiling Obama’s national strategy for counterterrorism.
Brennan said the administration recognizes that other groups and terrorist-supporting states, including Iran and Syria, threaten U.S. allies and interests abroad. He said the United States will continue to use “the full range of our foreign policy tools” to prevent those states from endangering U.S. national security.
“This is the first counterterrorism strategy that designates the homeland as a primary area of emphasis in our counterterrorism efforts,” Brennan said, speaking before an audience of students, diplomats and reporters at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Obama’s principal focus “is the network that poses the most direct and significant threat to the United States, and that is al-Qaeda, its affiliates and its adherents. We use these terms deliberately.”
Some of the difference was in terminology. Neither Brennan nor the 19-page strategy document released by the White House used the phrases popularized in similar documents under Bush in 2003 and 2006, such as “war on terror,” “a different kind of war,” “freedom agenda” and “rogue states.”
“This administration has made it clear that we are not at war with the tactic of terrorism or the religion of Islam,” Obama’s strategy said. “We are at war with a specific organization — al-Qaeda.”
Brennan identified the group’s Yemeni affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as the “most operationally active” and described al-Qaeda’s central headquarters, in Pakistan, as still dangerous but severely damaged.
He revealed new details about Osama bin Laden and how the al-Qaeda leader had spent the last six years of his life in a residential compound in Pakistan before being killed by U.S. commandos last month. “He practiced absolutely phenomenal” operational security, Brennan said.
“To our knowledge, he never left that compound once he got there. Of the [other] people there, most never left either,” Brennan said. “We don’t know how many people in al-Qaeda’s senior leadership knew where bin Laden was . . . . He was confident and relaxed. We think he was totally taken by surprise.”
Brennan echoed other senior U.S. officials in saying that “the Pakistani leadership — military, political, intelligence — was caught totally unawares by the fact that bin Laden was found in a compound in Abbottabad,” a garrison city close to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
“Information seized from that compound reveals bin Laden’s concerns about al-Qaeda’s long-term viability,” Brennan said. “He worried that our recent focus on al-Qaeda as our enemy had prevented more Muslims from rallying to his cause, so much so that he even considered changing al-Qaeda’s name. . . . We are left with that final image seen around the world — an old terrorist, alone, hunched over in a blanket, flipping through old videos of a man and a movement that history is leaving behind.”
He acknowledged that the U.S. relationship with Pakistan “is not without tension or frustration” but said that continued cooperation is “essential.”
“As frustrating as this relationship can sometimes be,” he said, “Pakistan has been critical to many of our most significant successes against al-Qaeda. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis — military and civilian — have given their lives in the fight against militancy. And despite recent tensions, I am confident that Pakistan will remain one of our most important counterterrorism partners.”
Defeating al-Qaeda, Brennan said, “does not require a ‘global’ war” but rather a focus on specific regions, including Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and North Africa, in addition to Pakistan. “President Obama’s approach to counterterrorism is pragmatic, not ideological,” he said, and “reflects an evolution in our understanding of the threat, in the capabilities of our government, the capacity of our partners, and the tools and technologies at our disposal.”
Brennan reiterated the administration’s rejection of torture and said that closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains a goal. Indirectly defending the ongoing use of unmanned aircraft in targeted missile strikes on insurgents, he praised the “precision capabilities” that had avoided collateral deaths “nearly for the past year.”