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Correction to This Article
The article, which argued that al-Qaeda was seeking to create divisions among its enemies by targeting key U.S. allies in the war against terrorism, incorrectly identified one of the targets of a thwarted terrorist attack. The targets were Spain and Germany, not Spain and the Netherlands.

Al-Qaeda has a new strategy. Obama needs one, too.

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By Bruce Hoffman
Sunday, January 10, 2010

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.

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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.


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