US Adopts “Cold War” Tactic Against Terrorism

Or just a little common sense, you decide. Today’s Int’l Herald Tribune carried an interesting item on the development of a strategy of disruption and deterrence against terrorists by focusing on their message and credibility. The authors, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, quote Michael Leiter, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who states "We’ve now begun to develop more sophisticated thoughts about deterrence looking at each one of those," going on to note that "Terrorists don’t operate in a vacuum."

Purveyors of conventional wisdom, which was never less than schizophrenic on this, have been browbeating us for years with the idea that in fact they do operate in a vacuum – or at least in a power vacuum. Not what Leiter meant, I guess. I quote:

Interviews with more than two dozen senior officials involved in the effort provided the outlines of previously unreported missions to mute Al Qaeda’s message, turn the jihadi movement’s own weaknesses against it and illuminate Al Qaeda’s errors whenever possible. A primary focus has become cyberspace, which is the global haven of terrorist networks.

Fair enough. Virtual this-and-that is heavily overblown, but I take the point. There are some eye-popping one-liners, too:

For obvious reasons, it is harder to deter terrorists than it was to deter a Soviet attack.

Right. Not that a Soviet attack ever actually had to be deterred. That was about threat perception, too, wasn’t it?

Terrorists hold no obvious targets for American retaliation as Soviet cities, factories, military bases and silos were under the Cold War deterrence doctrine. And it is far harder to pinpoint the location of a terrorist group’s leaders than it was to identify the Kremlin offices of the Politburo bosses, making it all but impossible to deter attacks by credibly threatening a retaliatory attack. But over the six and a half years since the Sept. 11 attacks, many terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have successfully evaded capture, and U.S. officials say they now recognize that threats to kill terrorist leaders may never be enough to keep America safe.

OK. Good….

So U.S. officials have spent the last several years trying to identify other types of "territory" that extremists hold dear, and they say they believe that one important aspect may be the terrorists’ reputation and credibility with Muslims.

pagination –>The idea that terrorist safe havens can be more than just mountain hideouts is an important shift. More:

Terrorists hold little or no terrain, except on the Web. "Al Qaeda and other terrorists’ center of gravity lies in the information domain, and it is there that we must engage it," said Dell Dailey, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief.

Three cheers for post-modern counterterrorism.  Terrain as metaphor. The message it has taken root.

Schmitt, Eric and Shanker, Thom.  "U.S. Adapts Cold War Idea to Fight Terrorists." International Herald Tribune (18 March 2008).

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