By Bruce Hoffman
Sunday, January 10, 2010; B01
In the wake of the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing and the killing a few days later of seven CIA operatives in Afghanistan, Washington is, as it was after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, obsessed with "dots" -- and our inability to connect them. "The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots," the president said Tuesday.
But for all the talk, two key dots have yet to be connected: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged Northwest Airlines Flight 253 attacker, and Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the trusted CIA informant turned assassin. Although a 23-year-old Nigerian engineering student and a 36-year-old Jordanian physician would seem to have little in common, they both exemplify a new grand strategy that al-Qaeda has been successfully pursuing for at least a year.
Throughout 2008 and 2009, U.S. officials repeatedly trumpeted al-Qaeda's demise. In a May 2008 interview with The Washington Post, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden heralded the group's "near strategic defeat." And the intensified aerial drone attacks that President Obama authorized against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan last year were widely celebrated for having killed over half of its remaining senior leadership.
Yet, oddly enough for a terrorist movement supposedly on its last legs, al-Qaeda late last month launched two separate attacks less than a week apart -- one failed and one successful -- triggering the most extensive review of U.S. national security policies since 2001. Al-Qaeda's newfound vitality is the product of a fresh strategy that plays to its networking strength and compensates for its numerical weakness. In contrast to its plan on Sept. 11, which was to deliver a knock-out blow to the United States, al-Qaeda's leadership has now adopted a "death by a thousand cuts" approach. There are five core elements to this strategy.
First, al-Qaeda is increasingly focused on overwhelming, distracting and exhausting us. To this end, it seeks to flood our already information-overloaded national intelligence systems with myriad threats and background noise. Al-Qaeda hopes we will be so distracted and consumed by all this data that we will overlook key clues, such as those before Christmas that linked Abdulmutallab to an al-Qaeda airline-bombing plot.
Second, in the wake of the global financial crisis, al-Qaeda has stepped up a strategy of economic warfare. "We will bury you," Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised Americans 50 years ago. Today, al-Qaeda threatens: "We will bankrupt you." Over the past year, the group has issued statements, videos, audio messages and letters online trumpeting its actions against Western financial systems, even taking credit for the economic crisis. However divorced from reality these claims may be, propaganda doesn't have to be true to be believed, and the assertions resonate with al-Qaeda's target audiences.
Heightened security measures after the Christmas Day plot, coupled with the likely development of ever more sophisticated passenger-screening and intelligence technologies, stand to cost a lot of money, while the war in Afghanistan constitutes a massive drain on American resources. Given the economic instability here and abroad, al-Qaeda seems to think that a strategy of financial attrition will pay outsize dividends.
Third, al-Qaeda is still trying to create divisions within the global alliance arrayed against it by targeting key coalition partners. Terrorist attacks on mass-transit systems in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 were intended to punish Spain and Britain for participating in the war in Iraq and in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and al-Qaeda continues this approach today. During the past two years, serious terrorist plots orchestrated by al-Qaeda's allies in Pakistan, meant to punish Spain and the Netherlands for participating in the war on terrorism, were thwarted in Barcelona and Amsterdam.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, suicide bombers and roadside explosives target contingents from countries such as Britain, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands, where popular support for deployments has waned, in hopes of hastening their withdrawal from the NATO-led coalition.
Fourth, al-Qaeda is aggressively seeking out, destabilizing and exploiting failed states and other areas of lawlessness. While the United States remains preoccupied with trying to secure yesterday's failed state -- Afghanistan -- al-Qaeda is busy staking out new terrain. The terrorist network sees failing states as providing opportunities to extend its reach, and it conducts local campaigns of subversion to hasten their decline. Over the past year, it has increased its activities in places such as Pakistan, Algeria, the Sahel, Somalia and, in particular, Yemen.
Once al-Qaeda has located or helped create a region of lawlessness, it guides allies and related terrorist groups in that area, boosting their local, regional and -- as the Northwest Airlines plot demonstrated -- international attack capabilities. Although the exact number of al-Qaeda personnel in each of these areas varies, and in some cases may include no more than a few hard-core terrorists, they perform a critical force-multiplying function. Their help to indigenous terrorist groups includes support for attacks -- by providing weapons, training and intelligence -- and, equally critical, assistance in disseminating propaganda, such as by building Web sites and launching online magazines modeled on al-Qaeda's.
Fifth and finally, al-Qaeda is covetously seeking recruits from non-Muslim countries who can be easily deployed for attacks in the West. The group's leaders see people like these -- especially converts to Islam whose appearances and names would not arouse the same scrutiny that persons from Islamic countries might -- as the ultimate fifth column. Citizens of countries that participate in the U.S. visa-waiver program are especially prized because they can move freely between Western countries and blend easily into these societies.
Al-Qaeda has become increasingly adept at using the Internet to locate these would-be terrorists and to feed them propaganda. During the past 18 months, American and British intelligence officials have said, well over 100 individuals from such countries have graduated from terrorist training camps in Pakistan and have been sent West to undertake terrorist operations.
In adopting and refining these tactics, al-Qaeda is shrewdly opportunistic. It constantly monitors our defenses in an effort to identify new gaps and opportunities that can be exploited. Its operatives track our congressional hearings, think-tank analyses and media reports, all of which provide strategic intelligence. By coupling this information with surveillance efforts, the movement has overcome many of the security measures we have put in its path.
A survey of terrorist incidents in the past seven months alone underscores the diversity of the threats arrayed against us and the variety of tactics al-Qaeda is using. These incidents involved such hard-core operatives as Balawi, the double agent who played American and Jordanian intelligence to kill more CIA agents than anyone else has in more than a quarter-century. And sleeper agents such as David Headley, the U.S. citizen whose reconnaissance efforts for Lashkar-i-Taiba, a longtime al-Qaeda ally, were pivotal to the November 2008 suicide assault in Mumbai. And motivated recruits such as Abdulmutallab, the alleged Northwest Airlines bomber, and Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-born U.S. resident arrested in New York last September and charged with plotting a "Mumbai on the Hudson" suicide terrorist operation. And "lone wolves" such as Maj. Nidal Hassan, accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood in November, and Abdulhakim Muhammad, a convert to Islam who, after returning from Yemen last June, killed one soldier and wounded another outside an Army recruiting center in Little Rock.
But while al-Qaeda is finding new ways to exploit our weaknesses, we are stuck in a pattern of belated responses, rather than anticipating its moves and developing preemptive strategies. The "systemic failure" of intelligence analysis and airport security that Obama recently described was not just the product of a compartmentalized bureaucracy or analytical inattention, but a failure to recognize al-Qaeda's new strategy.
The national security architecture built in the aftermath of Sept. 11 addresses yesterday's threats -- but not today's and certainly not tomorrow's. It is superb at reacting and responding, but not at outsmarting. With our military overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan and our intelligence community overstretched by multiplying threats, a new approach to counterterrorism is essential.
"In the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary," Obama said Thursday. He spoke of the need for intelligence and airport security reform, but he could have, and should have, been talking about the need for a new strategy to match al-Qaeda's.
Remarkably, more than eight years after Sept. 11, we still don't fully understand our dynamic and evolutionary enemy. We claim success when it is regrouping and tally killed leaders while more devious plots are being hatched. Al-Qaeda needs to be utterly destroyed. This will be accomplished not just by killing and capturing terrorists -- as we must continue to do -- but by breaking the cycle of radicalization and recruitment that sustains the movement.
Bruce Hoffman is a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center.He will be online to chat with readers on Monday at 11 a.m. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.