There's also a common assumption that defeating terrorism requires
a fundamentally kinetic approach. Obviously, that's often true, but the point is that it's not categorically true. And sometimes the kinetic approach can be costly. In Yemen, there is very
little evidence that the growing use of drones has actually reduced the
threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In Pakistan, while drones
have reduced the presence and reach of al-Qaeda Central, they have not
necessarily diminished the global challenge posed by the group's ideology.
Furthermore, this drone-associated political turmoil has had disastrous consequences for that country's internal politics
and economy -- meaning there is some risk that our drones might contribute to further destabilizing a country
armed with a hundred nuclear weapons.
There are other ways of addressing the problem of
terrorism. Current U.S. strategy is primarily about violence: hunt down and kill
suspected terrorists. But allowing the Defense Department and the CIA to target
people they cannot identify -- to kill people who behave suspiciously without
knowing who they are or what their intentions are -- doesn't really seem like self-defense. And it risks creating more instability,
more state failure, and thus bigger problems in the future.
Yemen is a perfect example of what can go wrong. In 2007, AQAP was a worrying
presence in the country's hinterlands, but not yet a major force in national
politics. The U.S. lavished the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh with hundreds of
millions of dollars in training, equipment, and U.S. personnel. The U.S. also made Yemen its second most active battlefield for "surgical
strikes" and drone operations, after Pakistan. However, after years of
increasingly violent actions against AQAP, there are more al Qaeda terrorists
in Yemen than
ever before. The Saleh government lied
to the U.S. about targets, possibly exploiting them to take out his rival. The U.S. has said
that it treats opponents to the current government in Yemen as part of the same larger threat as al-Qaeda terrorists. Talk about mission creep.
The policy of thwacking terrorists with drones (or even with
small special forces teams or aircraft) has not, so far, been hugely successful at changing the targeted environments such that terrorism is neither growing nor
a major threat to the U.S. It has
killed a lot of people associated with al-Qaeda (in addition to people not
associated with al-Qaeda). But the movement and potentially affiliated branches are on the march in Northern Africa,
in Nigeria, in Mali, in Somalia, and in Yemen.
A broader approach could, for example, place more emphasis on affecting social and
political currents that presently support the terrorist movements and ideologies. One interesting project is the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism
Communications, an inter-agency shop created last September and run out of the
State Department. The group recently
posted, to a jihadi forum, Photoshoped images meant to reverse al-Qaeda's online propaganda -- and, in the process, created a lot of nervous
responses from al-Qaeda posters about the unreliability of the internet.