Many faces of terrorism pose challenge to U.S.

By Lee Hamilton
Jul 14 2008

 From a sanctuary in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas, a resurgent Taliban launches increasingly deadly raids into Afghanistan. From an unknown location, al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman Al-Zawahiri engages in an online question-and-answer session with his supporters. Hezbollah strengthens its position within the Lebanese government. In Washington, President Bush pledges to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

These developments involve diverse actors -- nationalists, pan-Islamists, Taliban, al-Qaida, Sunni extremists, Shiite extremists, North Korean communists -- with diverse motivations. Their common feature is that the U.S. has identified all these bad actors as "the enemy," in its "War on Terror."

This oversimplification lumps together dissimilar groups and makes effective counter-terrorism policy more difficult. It encourages military solutions to combat certain threats requiring political solutions. It reinforces al-Qaida propaganda, which argues that the U.S. is fighting a crusade against Islam. It obscures crucial differences and causes policymakers to view all global problems through the sole prism of terrorism. And it precludes efforts to divide the enemy, address grievances and lure fringe groups into the mainstream through political action.

Many of our travails since 9/11 reflect our inability to, as the age-old maxim goes, "know your enemy."

Not knowing the enemy with precision has led to mistakes. Eliminating or imprisoning terrorists is necessary but not sufficient. Military action can be an appropriate tactic, but it must be part of a larger, integrated strategy. A one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with terrorism simply will not work. Terrorism, after all, is a tactic, not an enemy, and it is often militants' weapon of choice against vastly superior American forces.

Even among experts, there is sharp division over the threat various terrorist groups pose. Most agree that among terrorist groups al-Qaida is the principal threat to the safety and security of the American people. But the assessment of that threat varies. Some argue that al-Qaida is alive and well, resurgent, more dangerous, regrouping. Others say the greatest danger is radicalized individuals who meet and plot in distinct locales, perhaps even the United States.

Others think the war on terror is overblown. I disagree. While al-Qaida and other radical groups do not pose an existential threat to the U.S. or offer a competing ideology comparable to communism during the Cold War, they seek weapons and territory so that they can dominate local life, and focus on prominent targets with hopes of inflicting mass casualties, causing dramatic destruction, and inspiring fear.

We have not effectively utilized the non-military tools of American power to counter the terrorists' propaganda with our message of hope and liberty. Though long overdue, we have started to recognize the value of direct communication with people in the Middle East and beyond, as well as trying to address their grievances. But we still lack sufficient experts in critical cultures and languages in the diplomatic, intelligence and military services.

The good news is that we have not experienced a terrorist attack since Sept.11, 2001. We went on the offensive and have vastly improved our defensive capabilities.

But we may also have been lucky. In any event, we should not be complacent. The seriousness of the threat is not in doubt. Such a threat demands a sophisticated defense, including robust law enforcement and appropriate military action, increased intelligence and surveillance, stronger efforts to buttress the rule of law and protect civil liberties, and a foreign policy that reaches out to friends for support and to doubters with a message of hope and opportunity.

An effective counter-terrorism strategy must seamlessly integrate all the tools of American power -- military, political, social, economic, psychological, and ideological -- into a systematic approach to meet the diversified threat of terrorism.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)