By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
A new counterterrorism strategy released yesterday by the White House describes al-Qaeda as a significantly degraded organization, but outlines potent threats from smaller networks and individuals motivated by al-Qaeda ideology, a lack of freedom and "twisted" propaganda about U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism reflects the intelligence community's latest analysis of the evolving nature of the threats from widely dispersed Islamic extremists who are often isolated and linked by little more than the Internet. It describes President Bush's "freedom agenda" of promoting democracy as the leading long-term weapon against them.
Attacking terrorist organizations, controlling weapons of mass destruction and protecting the homeland remain U.S. priorities, the document says. But the strategy places new emphasis on the need for training experts in languages and Islamic culture, for enhanced partnerships abroad and with the American Muslim community, and for better information-sharing among domestic counterterrorism agencies.
What today's extremists have in common, it says, is "that they exploit Islam and use terrorism for ideological ends." But "although al-Qaeda functions as the movement's vanguard . . . the movement is not controlled by any single individual, group or state."
The document's release came as Bush delivered one of a series of preelection speeches on national security and terrorism. But his address, in contrast to the strategy document, focused heavily on al-Qaeda and the public threats made by its two top leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, both of whom have evaded capture.
"It's not an either-or phenomenon," said terrorism expert and Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman. "There are two processes moving on parallel tracks. You can see the attraction of saying . . . we have weakened al-Qaeda. But that also flies in the face of increasing evidence over the last couple of years that al-Qaeda is still directing and plotting attacks on a grand scale and seems undeterred."
In a Justice Department briefing, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the changing nature of the enemy reflects victories against al-Qaeda and is "a sign of our success, not our failure."
Critics of administration policy said the new strategy is an admission that previous policies have failed. It "seems to adopt many of the critiques Democrats made of the old one," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said in a statement. "I hope today's change in rhetoric represents a real change in course."
Several aspects of the new strategy differ sharply from an earlier version, published in February 2003, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That document depicted a structured pyramid with al-Qaeda at the top, directing widespread terrorist cells and worldwide operations with help from sympathetic state sponsors. Its military emphasis called for U.S.-led "direct and continuous action" and warned that "we will not hesitate to act alone . . . including acting preemptively against terrorists."
It also declared that "finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a critical component to winning the war of ideas," and said that "no other issue has so colored the perception of the United States in the Muslim world."
The new strategy emphasizes that al-Qaeda has been severely disrupted, with many of its leaders killed or captured, and its operations made "harder, costlier and riskier." It describes the influence of U.S. policy in the Middle East as minimal, portraying the Iraq war and the renewed Arab-Israeli strife as sources of deceptive propaganda for terrorist ideologues. Terrorism, it says, "is not simply a result of hostility to U.S. policy in Iraq . . . Israeli-Palestinian issues . . . [or] our efforts to prevent terror attacks."
"The terrorism we confront today" springs from several sources, including an "ideology that justifies murder" and that blames "perceived injustices from the recent or sometimes distant past," the strategy says. That ideology, it says, preys upon populations that "see no legitimate way to promote change in their own country" and whose "information about the world is contaminated by falsehoods and corrupted by conspiracy theories."
"Democracy," the strategy declares, "is the antithesis of terrorist tyranny, which is why the terrorists denounce it and are willing to kill the innocent to stop it."
The document refers indirectly to "homegrown terrorists," such as the two dozen British citizens arrested in this summer's alleged plot to blow up commercial aircraft. Even in democracies, it says, "some ethnic or religious groups are unable or unwilling to grasp the benefits of freedom otherwise available in the society. . . . Even in these cases, the long-term solution remains deepening the reach of democracy so that all citizens enjoy its benefits."
"We will continue to guard against the emergence of homegrown terrorists within our own Homeland as well," the strategy says. "Through outreach programs and public diplomacy we will reveal the terrorists' violent extremist ideology for what it is -- a form of totalitarianism following in the path of fascism and Nazism."
The new strategy mirrors a blueprint written at the National Counterterrorism Center and presented to Bush in June. That classified, 160-page plan proposed a more equitable balance between the military effort emphasized in the 2003 strategy and what it termed the "war of ideas."
Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.