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Rethinking Counterterrorism

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
November 6, 2006

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“It seems like one lesson we would have learned from 9/11 is that you really need people who understand the enemy,” said Lawrence Wright, author of a new book about al-Qaeda, at a CFR meeting last month. His remarks represent just a small taste of the criticism leveled at American counterterrorism agencies, which since 9/11 have regularly grappled with the accusation that they lack the necessary skills and expertise to safeguard the United States. Days after Wright’s comments, for instance, the Washington Post revealed that only thirty-three of the FBI’s 12,000 agents have even limited Arabic language proficiency. A week later, the New York Times published an op-ed questioning counterterrorism agencies’ understanding of terrorists’ religious motivation. The author, Congressional Quarterly editor Jeff Stein, was dismayed to discover that most U.S. officials he interviewed could not answer simple questions about the differences between Sunnis and Shiites. In light of these accusations, a new Backgrounder examines some of the cultural and organizational challenges facing U.S. counterterrorism agencies.

A shortage of linguists and cultural experts presents a challenge to sectors of American society extending beyond the counterterrorism community. But when fighting what the White House contends is a “war,” understanding the enemy is essential. Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, recently told CFR.org in a Podcast that the Bush administration demonstrated improved understanding when it released an updated National Strategy for Combating Terrorism in September, which calls the conflict “both a battle of arms and a battle of ideas.”

Adjusting to this new kind of struggle has proven difficult for government agencies accustomed to playing established roles. The FBI’s mandate, for instance, has expanded to include domestic intelligence gathering as part of its counterterrorism role. Some experts say this job would be better done by a dedicated government agency (WSJ), like Britain’s MI5, which has the power to spy but not to make arrests. Others say the current system works (WashPost) and another layer of bureaucracy would only muddy the waters.

Regardless of who is responsible for protecting the United States, experts say understanding terrorists’ motivation is essential. Over the last five years, al-Qaeda has evolved in such a way that the ideology it espouses may present a greater danger than the formal organization. The spread of radical jihadi extremism—or al-Qaedaism, as it is sometimes called—is responsible for such attacks as the bombings of London in July 2005 and Madrid in March 2004. As al-Qaeda’s leaders continue to inspire ordinary people to do their bidding, their foot soldiers become harder to detect (Jamestown).

In fact, American Muslims have proven some of the most valuable assets for uncovering radical Islamists in our own midst. In an interview with the New Yorker Online, Wright told the story of Ali Soufan, an Arab-American FBI agent who nearly uncovered the 9/11 plot. Appealing to American Muslims for help, be they ordinary citizens or the likes of Ali Soufan, will only become increasingly important. As CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon told a recent symposium, “this is a community, ultimately, on whom we will rely for our security.”

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