Outlook: Al-Qaeda's grand new strategy

Bruce Hoffman
Professor, Security Studies, Georgetown University and Senior Fellow, Combating Terror Center
Monday, January 11, 2010; 11:00 AM

Bruce Hoffman, professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center, was online Monday, Jan. 11, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "Al-Qaeda has a new strategy. Obama needs one, too."


Mt. Airy, Md.: Aside from al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups who/what do you see as the next major threat facing the U.S.?

Bruce Hoffman: Al Qaeda and associated jihadi are the main threats the US faces. Throughout our history,and unlike Europe, for example, the US has had little nationalist-separatist terrorism or left- or right-wing terrorism. In recent years, issue-specific terrorism--respectively from anti-abortion and environmental extremists--has occurred. Violent and illegal activities coming from non-Al Qaeda and/or jihadi entities have also to be taken seriously, but the threat posed by al Qaeda and its allies and associates is the principal challenge we face.


Charlottesville, Va.: I remember a series of articles in STRATFOR.com in the year following 9/11 that predicted a nomadic AQ that needed no firm geographic base. They also predicted the growth of a series of 'cells' across North Africa. Are you saying that in spite of this early-stage analysis, a strategic approach to deal with this structure is still lacking? Secondly, this AQ structure seems to mimic the 'virtual office' business model. Should disruptive tactics/strategies use a study of this structure as a starting point for devising ways of intercepting, tracing, and collating info derived from their communications networks?

Bruce Hoffman: Good questions. Yes, I believe this strategic approach is still lacking. We tend to focus too much on al Qaeda in a specific place (Iraq, as was claimed under the Bush Administration; and Afghanistan under the Obama Administration) and do not pay sufficient attention to its networking capabilities. Your point about a business model is excellent. In my view, that is what makes al Qaeda unique in the annals of terrorism is that it deliberately adopted a business model.


Richmond, Ky.: What can a citizen, who is probably too old to join the CIA or the military, do to help fight al-Qaeda?

Bruce Hoffman: This may sound cliched: but be informed and well edcuated about the threat. As Thomas Jefferson famously said over two centuries ago: "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance." But this vigilance cannot turn us into a paranoid, xenophobic nation. We need to respond to terrorism soberly--particularly since the terrorists are trying to get us to react emotionally and without thinking--but we can only do so when we and our leaders understand the threat.


Munich, Germany: Considering that he came from a wealthy and influential family, why do you think that al-Qaeda chose to use Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab merely as a suicide bomber?

Also, what exactly the strategic importance of Yemen as a main base for al-Qaeda, when Somali is the ultimate failed state with years of armed civil war?

Bruce Hoffman: Yes, I do think they intended to use him as a suicide bomber. Precisely because he was wealthy and well educated and cosmopolitan, al Qaeda was confident he could navigate through our security system and arouse little suspicion. Yemen is a more attractive base to al Qaeda for two reasons. First, it is bin Laden's ancestral home and al Qaeda has operated there on one level or another there since the early 1990s. Second, it is geographically situated on the Arabian Peninsula and borders al Qaeda's main enemy, Saudi Arabia, and is in close proximity to the Gulf emirates and countries, whom al Qaeda sees as more lucrative targets than say the countries surrounding Somalia (that do not, for instance, figure as importantly in the globe's economy).


Bologna, Italy: What are the strengths and weaknesses in the EU counter- terrorism strategy? How can the EU address these problems so the "home-grown" terrorism problem doesn't affect the U.S. as much?

Bruce Hoffman: Strengths: most EU countries (e.g., UK, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, etc) have longer and more extensive experience countering terrorism. In many cases, they have long had on the books effective legislative and criminal statutes to deal with terrorism and prosecute terrorists.

Weaknessnes: open borders and easy transit across countries, EUROPOL has still not lived up to its potential.

Addressing homegrown problem: US has always been a far more absorptive society, since it is a country built by immigrants. Here, it is not where you come from but what you've achieved. The situation in Europe is more complex and their immigrant populations are larger. There is no one-size-fits all solution. INdividual countries have to tailor their responses to their communities on an individual basis.


Arlington, Va.: Is al-Qaeda really actively coordinating operations by its "franchisees"; e.g., Sheikh Awlaki in Yemen, or have the franchisees themselves taken the initiative because al-Qaeda's leadership has been bottled up and decimated in Pakistan? I guess the question is whether al-Qaeda really has a "grand strategy."

Bruce Hoffman: Both, but we should not be deluded into thinking that al Qaeda has no influence whatsoever over its franchises. Over the past year+, al Qaeda has dispatched trainers and other personnel to strengthen these local franchises with training, intelligence assistance and help in communications and propaganda. For example, Saleh Nabhan, a senior al Qaeda operative wanted as far back as 1998 for his role in the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya that year, was sent to Somalia to train members of al Shabaab. Nabhan was killed by US Navy Seals in an attack in Somalia last September. Until then he was provided training and enhancing al Shabaab's capabilities. Al Shabaab was not following al Qaeda's orders directly, but senior operatives like Nabhan gave the senior al Qaeda leadership backin Pakistan important influence over the group -- if only via the training in certain kinds of attacks (e.g., suicide ones) it provided.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Hoffman,

Keep up the good work. In my opinion, one of the most pressing issues regarding radical Islamic movements internationally relates to Kashmir. How important is the issue, which in my opinion does not seem to be considered as critically important as it should be?

If progress was made on the Kashmir issue, it is my opinion that the U.S. would have a more reliable partner in Islamabad and the ISI, which remain focused entitely on one perceived threat: India. What is your opinion? The U.S. allowing Indian influence in Afghanistan surely isn't helping either.


Bruce Hoffman: Thank you for your kind words. I agree completely with everything that you say. In fact, Kashmir has grown in importance in the way you describe since in the past year al Qaeda propaganda (and several statements from al-Zawahiri) have focused on Kashmir specifically. Actually, considerable progress was being made on the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan--until the November 2008 Mumbai attacks de-railed these critical talks. Here, we see terrorism's power and attraction as a "spoiler": ruining progress on peace and regional understanding.


Suffolk, Va.: How should the U.S. approach Somalia?

Bruce Hoffman: We need to avoid allowing Somalia to become an al Qaeda base has Yemen has. This entails strengthening the central government there so that it can effectively thwart any al Shabaab's efforts to seize control of the country and turn it into a safe haven for al Qaeda. YOur question hits the nail on the head of the dilemma we face: al Qaeda is not just in Afghanistan or Iraq--but seek footholds in failed or failing states. We need a strategy and approach that doesn't stretch our military any further than it is already stretched and strengthens local capabilities better and more pre-emptively than has been the case.


New York, N.Y.: 1. Your argument -- that Al-Qaeda needs to be "utterly destroyed" and that we can only do this by "breaking the cycle of radicalization and recruitment that sustains the movement" -- leaves the obvious question: how do we do this? Any thoughts?

2. Many people define our enemy not simply as al-Qaeda but rather as "radical Islam," "Islamic jihadism," or other terms that reflect its broader nature than just one (relatively small) organization. How do you respond to the potential charge that by defining the enemy so narrowly you yourself are demonstrating that "we still don't fully understand our dynamic and evolutionary enemy."

Bruce Hoffman: Point 1: a. more effectively pursue a "divide and conquer" strategy that seems to drive wedges between al Qaeda central and its affiliates elsehwere and also better seeks to counter al Qaeda's ideology; b. better efforts to water down the al Qaeda brand and make al Qaeda and its ideology less attractive to the audiences its targets for support and new recruits; c. isolate al Qaeda intellectually and theologically to a greater extent than is currently being done; d. continue to efforts to counter al Qaeda financing and fund-raising; and e. develop local initiatves in concert with nations threatened by al Qaeda expansion (e.g., Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen) that directly counters, and takes on, messages of radicalization and recruitment while also strengthening those countries counterterrorist forces.

Point 2: you are right that we need to be careful and not see al Qaeda as monolithic. It is not. But at the same time we have to understand that, weakened though it is, al Qaeda Central still has a plan (strategy) and still influences the dozen or more groups worldwide who first aligned with it in 1998 and whom al Qaeda continues to influence and guide (though you are absolutely right to say that they don't control these groups). The problem is that this is, as your question notes, a complex enemy with different variants, in different locations. What this means is that a "one size fits all" response or strategy on our part will not work.


New York, N.Y.: In the Middle East, there is an expression that "the enemy of my enemy, is my friend." Do you see a danger of al-Qaeda linking up with non-Mmuslim, antigovernment, domestic terrorists? In other words, would al-Qaeda have considered someone like Timothy McVeigh a viable candidate for recruitment?

Bruce Hoffman: One should never say never, as we see al Qaeda having formed all sorts of alliances of convenience in the past. While I don't think a formal alliance with some non-Muslim, white supremacist group in the US or Europe is likely, your point is very well taken that al Qaeda could reach out to and enlist individuals like McVeigh either knowingly or unwittingly (e.g. using them). That is a possibility that we cannot discount.


Paris, France: I repeat my question about how to cut off recruitment to terrorist groups without using scare tactics against the target population?

Bruce Hoffman: Building strong, confident and respectful ties between communities and police forces and governments. This takes time and patience and is not easy. But it can be achieved.


Alexandria, Va.: In the last line of your Washington Post article today you state, "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."

While I agree with this statement, I don't see any solid means of stopping radicalization and recruitment. Can you suggest some ways of stopping such radicalization and recruitment without infringing upon our civil liberties or limiting the internet?

Bruce Hoffman: Other countries, such as the UK and Singapore, have such programs that we can study and learn from--if only to know what not to do and what is counterproductive. I agree with you that this is an enormously difficult issue that we simply know too little about. For the past nearly three years, legislation has sat in Congress that would have created a national, bi-partisan commission to study precisely this issue of radicalization and recruitment: to understand how persons are recruited and attracted to terrorism and based on this empirical knowledge to make policy recommendations on how it can best be accomplished. Sadly, it was never enacted and we lost an opportunity for once to be ahead of the curve and not responding to a problem that already exists. I would argue that, while the last thing we need is another commission on terrorism; at the same time it seems that commissions--like the 9/11 Commission--provide the most critical "jump start" to our governmental policies and responses.


Alexandria, Va.: How can we stop the Internet from being such an effective means at recruiting terrorists?

Bruce Hoffman: I don't think we can reasonably stop it, but we can sure do a better job at countering terrorist use of it. There are now in excess of 7,000 terrorist and insurgent sites on the Internet. There are an infintesimal number of sites that are meant to push back against the terrorists' repeated calls of hatred and to violence. We have let terrorists hijack the Internet for their own ends and have little effectively to stop them. That is among the policies I had in mind at the end of my Outlook piece about finding new ways to counter the terrorists' recruitment and radicalization.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I recall reading how al-Qaeda used to send multiple attempts at terror as they realized that some would not get through. I now read they have changed this tactic. How much of al-Qaeda's tactics fit traditional patterns and since they seem to be able to adapt to change due to circumstances, how quick are they to change their past patterns?

Bruce Hoffman: It is a reflection of the pressure that al Qaeda is under that we have not seen the multiple attacks as on 9/11. However, the 7/7/05 London bombings involved mulitple bombers and the 2006 airline plot similarly involved simultaneous explosions. Simultaneity is one of al Qaeda's most important metrics. I believe that is still the case. However, hopefully, it a measure of our success against the group (e.g., the intensified drone attacks) that it is less able to commit those types of multiple attacks for now. But I wouldn't necessarily count on that lasting forever.


Albany, N.Y.: Why is American foreign policy not seriously being examined as a major cause and/or facilitator for al-Qaeda? Michael Scheuer, by no means a dovish thinker, makes this argument in his works, and we Americans as a result of our foreign policy have no competing narrative to match al-Qaeda's...your thoughts?

Bruce Hoffman: That runs the risk of crafting our foreign policy on fear, depending on what we think will or will not satisfy or provoke terrorists. We need to craft foreign policy in the interests of the country and Americans and not on what may or may not incite terrorists. We should though recognize (realistically) that some policies are controversial and may be used by terrorists to justify their actions. IN these cases, we need to do a better job of explaining our policies to the world and specifically countering the terrorists' messages of hatred and violence.


Newport, R.I.: Does President Obama have a grand strategy? Based on his record as president it is hard to characterize his grand strategy as a conventional liberal internationalist or as a realist. What do you think would be the course best traveled for the president in defining his grand strategy?

Bruce Hoffman: I don't think either President Bush or President Obama has had/has a "grand strategy" for dealing with terrorism. We have been too responsive and not sufficiently proactive (as my article argues). We need a more comprehensive approach that enlists all the instruments of our national power--and not just the military, as both presidents have relied upon. To be clear: the terrorist threat we face cannot be solved without military force. But at the same time, as I concluded the article, we will be fighting this war forever if we don't find non-military means to push back against al Qaeda (and its allies') radicalization and recruitment efforts.


New York, N.Y.: What do you think about the potential for AQ attacks in Latin America? Some South American countries have large Arab populations and less than stellar security. And how about Hezbollah in the same region? There were reports of a sudden increase in staff at the Iranian embassy in Nicaragua, rumored to be connected with Hezbollah.

Bruce Hoffman: You make several good points. Hezbollah is indeed very strong in Latin America--particularly in the triple border area in South America and, increasingly perhaps, in the north given Iran's close relations with Venezuela. We know from the bombings of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and of a Jewish community center there two years later that Hezbollah has built a support infrastructure in Latin America. It is less clear (I think less likely) that al Qaeda has yet been able to do the same. However, as I wrote in yesterday's paper, al Qaea is if anything opportunistic and if it sees an opportunity for an opening in a country, it will take advantage of it. So, it is important for Latin American countries to be vigilant in preventing any al Qaeda entrance or influence in their own countries.


Key Biscayne, Fla.: From a strategic point of view, is the U.S. more apt at fighting a strong but centrally organized al-Qaeda or a more weak but diffuse enemy?


Bruce Hoffman: We can handle a strong al Qaeda when it is not disperse, as it was in Afghanistan on 9/11/01 fairly easily. The dispersed al Qaeda is the more difficult enemy to tackle and al Qaeda, I believe, knows this. Hence their strategy of enervating us and wearing us down.


Peabody, Mass.: You suggest attacking at the root by keeping people from become radicalized. What are the core sources that cause people to become willing to die for al-Quaeda and similar causes? Poverty? Lack of life opportunity? Religious ideology? And how can these be influenced?

Bruce Hoffman: It depends where. In Europe or certain parts of the MIddle East, poverty is not a means of recruitment or radicalization. In Afghanistan and Yemen and Somalia, it is. This goes back to my point that we can't have a one-size fits all strategy, but rather have to tailor our responses--and our assistance to our allies--to the particular circumstances that exist in those countries where al Qaeda has an appeal or is seeking to create one.


Alexandria, Va.: Has the military been an effective means in fighting terrorism? Why/why not?

Bruce Hoffman: Yes. Absolutely. But it is not the only tool nor can we depend on it exclusively. As I previously stated, we need to harness all instruments of national power in a holistic and synergystic approach to countering terrorism. Once we do that, I believe we will be more decisively successful.


Bay City, Mich.: Of the many non-violent methods the U.S. employs to fight Islamic extremism (e.g., improving economic conditions, encouraging women's rights, etc.), which are the most efficient and which are the least efficient?

Bruce Hoffman: Again, it depends on the specific country and situation. What will work in once place, will not in another. In some places, countering poverty (e.g., in Afghanistan yougn men joing the Taliban because of the good pay that enables them to put together a dowry); in others--say Algeria, women's rights are more useful.


Arlington, Va.: How do we get the politicians and media to stop causing all this panic? I guess the media do it for ratings and drama. And I suppose the politicians do it to score political points. But it just seems that both groups are doing the terrorists' work for them by causing people to freak out and then perpetuating the freak out. Is America a more emotional country than others? Or, as you say, have we just had less experience with this so we over-react while other places do not?

Bruce Hoffman: You are correct that we do respond emotionally to terrorism too often and thus may play right to the terrorists' expectations. I think it is less the media and more and more the partisan nature of politics in our country that is too blame. It is a reflection of our experience, but also we allow terrorism to become more part of the political "blame game" than many other countries do. An example of this is that even before the Northwest Airlines incident there was partisan broadsides on this issue. The main solution is to de-politicize this issue--but it has become politically so divisive in recent years, especially because of the invasion of Iraq, that I am not sure how soon this reversal can occur.


Baltimore, Md.: Related to Fareed Zakaria's column in The Post today, where do you see the seemingly inevitable climate of panic -- usually whipped up by our leaders -- in America after any attempted attack such as the one on Christmas? Is giving the U.S. enough rope the prime al-Qaeda strategy at this point?

washingtonpost.com: Don't panic. Fear is al-Qaeda's real goal. (Post, Jan. 11)

Bruce Hoffman: I disagree with parts of his column. He has a short memory. Najibullah Zazi was trained and sent back to American by al Qaeda Central in Pakistan. Like many other Western recruits, including those in the UK involved in a raft of plots and attacks since 2004, al Qaeda Central also trained and deployed them. We need to take the threat of al Qaeda, and its continued intentions to engineer some spectacular attack (either themselves or through their close allies) like the NOrthwest Airlines attack. I agree with him though that we need the sober, thorough after-incident review like occurs after a plane crash.


Bruce Hoffman: Thank you all for your excellent and thoughtful questions. It has been a pleasure to engage in this discussion with so many informed and insightful persons.

Best wishes,

Bruce Hoffman


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive