Strategy Against Al-Qaeda Faulted

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Bush administration's terrorism-fighting strategy has not significantly undermined al-Qaeda's capabilities, according to a major new study that argues the struggle against terrorism is better waged by law enforcement agencies than by armies.

The study by the nonpartisan Rand Corp. also contends that the administration committed a fundamental error in portraying the conflict with al-Qaeda as a "war on terrorism." The phrase falsely suggests that there can be a battlefield solution to terrorism, and symbolically conveys warrior status on terrorists, it said.

"Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors," authors Seth Jones and Martin Libicki write in "How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al-Qaeda," a 200-page volume released yesterday.

But the authors contend that al-Qaeda has sabotaged itself by creating ever greater numbers of enemies while not broadening its base of support. "Al-Qaeda's probability of success in actually overthrowing any government is close to zero," the report states.

The study was based in part on an analysis of more than 600 terrorist movements tracked over decades by Rand and the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. Jones and Libicki sought to determine why such movements ultimately die out, and how lessons from recent history can be applied to the current struggle against al-Qaeda.

The researchers found that more than 40 percent of terrorist movements fade away when their political objectives are met -- but that this outcome occurs only when groups are secular and have narrow goals. By contrast, al-Qaeda's religious and political agenda calls for nothing less than the overthrow of secular Arab governments and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.

A roughly equal number of terrorist groups die when their key leaders are arrested or killed. In the vast majority of instances, this is accomplished by local law enforcement, the study notes.

"In most cases, military force isn't the best instrument," said Jones, a terrorism expert and the report's lead author.

Addressing the U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda, the study noted successes in disrupting terrorist financing, but said the group remains a formidable foe. Al-Qaeda is "strong and competent," and has succeeded in carrying out more violent attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, than in all of its previous history. Moreover, its organizational structure has adapted and evolved over time, "making it a more dangerous enemy," Jones and Libicki wrote.

The authors call for a strategy that includes a greater reliance on law enforcement and intelligence agencies in disrupting the group's networks and in arresting its leaders. They say that when military forces are needed, the emphasis should be on local troops, which understand the terrain and culture and tend to have greater legitimacy.

In Muslim countries in particular, there should be a "light U.S. military footprint or none at all," the report contends.

"The U.S. military can play a critical role in building indigenous capacity," it said, "but should generally resist being drawn into combat operations in Muslim societies, since its presence is likely to increase terrorist recruitment."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company