U.S. Counterterrorism Policy
Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism
It is wonderful to be here with you today. The Global Young Leaders Conference is an outstanding program and you all among the leaders of your generation.
You are the policy makers of the future and this conference is a great opportunity to listen, learn, question, and exchange ideas. Congratulations on being selected to participate in what is, I am sure, an extraordinary adventure.
This morning, I will speak to you about the threat of terrorism and US counterterrorism policy. Before I do so, I'd like to say a word about diplomatic service. All too many years ago, I joined the State Department, more by chance than by intention. But that chance proved to be fortuitous indeed, because the diplomatic service is a marvelous career. Representing one's country and serving the public, while having the opportunity to live, to work and to travel across the world is a great gift. There is wonder everyday in a life where you interact with people, seek to understand foreign cultures and build international bridges. For those of you who are American, I hope you will consider applying to the Foreign Service. For those from other countries, which I understand is about 60 different countries, you might consider your own country's diplomatic corps.
As we all see every day in the news, international terrorism threatens the United States and the world community. Defeating terrorism requires sound policies, concerted efforts by the US Government and partner governments, and international cooperation. It is clearly one of the great challenges of our time.
It is not surprising, then, that international terrorism is one of the focuses of President Obama's National Security Strategy, which was released in May. I would like to say a few words about that strategy, discuss the threat from the most well known terrorist group, al-Qa’ida; and then discuss new directions in US policy.
The National Security Strategy
The new National Security Strategy puts forward the Administration's view of today's strategic environment, and how the United States must work to achieve the world it seeks. (The strategy is worth reading if you have not done so already. I would encourage you to take a look, it is available on the internet.) In it, President Obama makes clear: "We live in a time of sweeping change." New opportunities have opened up for people across the globe as the result of the success of free nations, open markets and social progress.
In the strategy, the President is clear and detailed about terrorism: we collectively face a far reaching network of violence and hatred. Al-Qa'ida and its affiliates pose a global threat and we are waging a global campaign against them. The president is clear and precise: Our enemy is al-Qa’ida and its terrorist affiliates. We are at war with these organizations. For it was al-Qa’ida that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 killing thousands of Americans as well as citizens of many other countries. Today, al-Qa'ida's desire to attack the United States, our allies and our partners -- and indeed civilization itself -- remains undiminished.
Our goal, as articulated by the President from the beginning of his Administration and as underscored in the new strategy is to disrupt, dismantle, and ensure a lasting defeat of al-Qa’ida and its violent extremist partners. We will deny al-Qa’ida and its affiliates safe haven. We will secure the world’s most dangerous weapons, especially the nuclear materials that al-Qa’ida seeks and would surely use against us. We will build positive relationships with Muslim communities around the world. And, we will protect our homeland.
Because it is sometimes misunderstood, it worth stressing here what we are not at war with. Most importantly, we are not war with Islam or the more than one billion Muslims around the world committed to their religion and to peace. Indeed, millions of Americans, our own citizens, adhere to the Muslim faith and are part of our country. We have the greatest respect for Islam.
As the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan has said, "we do not describe our enemy as jihadists or Islamists because jihad is holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam meaning to purify oneself… There is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women, and children. Indeed, characterizing our adversaries this way would actually be counterproductive. It would play into the false perception that they are religious leaders defending a holy cause when in fact, they are nothing more than murderers, including the murder of thousands upon thousands of Muslims."
In all of our efforts, the President's national security strategy makes clear that we must demonstrate and communicate America's vision of opportunity and progress. We must contrast this with the violent ideology of terrorists who exploit the people they purport to serve. Communicating America’s vision is what the President did in his speech one year ago in Cairo, which has inspired new partnerships between the United States and Muslim communities around the world in development, education, health and science, and technology.
Through a renewed commitment to diplomacy and in contrast to terrorists who offer the false hope of change through violence, the United States seeks to show that legitimate grievances can be resolved peacefully through democratic institutions and dialogue whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or between Israelis and Palestinians, where the continuing conflict undermines moderates and strengthens extremists across the region.
The new National Security Strategy sets out our vision, makes clear our mission and assesses our challenges in international terrorism and other arenas. It is an excellent place to start understanding the United States and our national security policies. I would like to turn now to al-Qa'ida, in a bit more detail.
The Al-Qa'ida Threat
Since its founding in the late 1980s, al-Qa'ida has proven to be an adaptable and resilient terrorist group. As I have already said, its desire to attack the United States and other countries across the world remains as strong as ever. Al-Qa'ida's leaders have made their goals plain and they continue to seek to achieve them through violence, murder, and atrocities against innocent people.
While al-Qa'ida has had some successes over the years, it has also suffered a number of important setbacks recently. Al-Qa'ida has been weakened by popular Muslim disaffection from its indiscriminate targeting of Muslims in Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere. The number of imams, clerics and former militants speaking out against the organization is increasing. This is a positive and important story.
In the key countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the group is under serious pressure. We see growing resolve in both countries to defeat al-Qa'ida. For example, Pakistani authorities have captured the largest number of al-Qa'ida and affiliated violent extremist operatives in the world, a demonstration of their commitment to this fight. Pakistani military operations have been aimed at eliminating some of the militant strongholds in the Federally Administered Territories. Al-Qa'ida has lost many of its leaders and is finding it more difficult to raise money, train recruits, and plan attacks outside of the region.
But while al-Qa'ida is now struggling in some areas, the threat it poses is becoming more widely distributed, more geographically diversified. The rise of affiliated groups, such as al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (in Yemen) and al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb, is a new and important development and is also a troubling development. Americans saw this dramatically with the failed attempt by AQAP on December 25th to blow up a US commercial airliner over Detroit. This incident demonstrated that AQAP, at least, has not just the will but also the capability to target the United States at home.
To combat the threat of AQAP, we are now engaged consistently and intensively with our Yemeni partners. Some of the administration’s most senior civilian and military officials have visited Yemen in recent months to discuss how we can jointly confront the threat of al-Qa’ida. International partners have also been engaged, and the Friends of Yemen group has been established. The Yemeni government has taken strong steps recently to address the security threat posed by AQAP. But just as critically, the Yemeni government, together with the United States and other international partners, is working to address the underlying economic and governance factors that created an environment in which AQAP can flourish. In the long run, the success of this effort is essential if we are to defeat AQAP.
Other al-Qai'da affiliates and allies are active in Africa. In Somalia, al-Qa'ida’s allies in al-Shabaab control significant tracts of territory and several al-Shabaab leaders have pledged their allegiance to al-Qa'ida. In the sparsely populated Sahel, the once Algeria-focused, now Maghreb and Sahel-based Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, "AQIM", supports the use of violence to establish an Islamic state in Algeria and the region. In addition to conducting low-level attacks in northeastern and southern Algeria, AQIM elements have repeatedly targeted Westerners for kidnapping-for-ransom in the Sahel, and have killed a number of local military personnel, an American NGO worker, and a British hostage. AQIM poses a continuing threat across North Africa and in the Sahel.
New Directions: US Policy
As the threat of al-Qa'ida and its terrorist affiliates continues to evolve, adapt and change, the United States and its partners must also make progress. And there is much work to be done. One area that needs further attention is multilateral and regional organizations. Under President Obama, the United States seeks deeper, stronger engagement with our international partners so that we may work together to forge policies that will help us collectively to defeat the menace of al-Qa'ida. Many of the countries that you all come from are among our strongest friends and best allies in this fight.
For violent extremism is a common challenge shared by nations across the globe—one that requires vigorous cooperation—and one that the United States cannot solve alone. As Secretary Clinton has said, "Today's security threats cannot be addressed in isolation. Smart power requires reaching out to both friends and adversaries, to bolster old alliances and to forge new ones." The administration has been working to reinvigorate alliances across the board and has reengaged in multilateral organizations concerned with counterterrorism including the UN entities, the G8, and the vast range of regional groups that work on counterterrorism.
Building the counterterrorism capacity of our partners at the national level is also a top priority. Consistent diplomatic engagement among counterparts and senior leaders helps build a common agenda for counterterrorism objectives. We must recognize one of the central challenges to our security is that weak states serve as breeding grounds for terrorism and instability. When there is a recognition that these gaps exist, we can help with specific capacity building programs. We are working to make the counterterrorism training of police, prosecutors, border officials, and members of the judiciary more systematic, more innovative, and more far-reaching. Capacity building also includes counterterrorist finance training; it represents a whole-of-government approach to this problem. We are addressing the weaknesses that terrorism thrives on, and we are working with our partners to confront the threat more effectively.
As we pursue our counterterrorism work more broadly, we must hold to our core ideals in this struggle. President Obama has said from the outset that there should be no tradeoff between our security and our values. Indeed, in light of what we know about radicalization, it is clear that navigating by our values is an essential part of a successful counterterrorism effort. Thus, we have moved to rectify the excesses of recent years by working to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, forbidding torture, and developing a more systematic method of dealing with detainees.
There is one more area in which we need to innovate. In the past eight years, the United States has made great strides in what might be called tactical counterterrorism – taking individual terrorists off the streets, and disrupting cells and their operations. But an effective counterterrorism strategy must go beyond this. Military power, intelligence operations, and law enforcement efforts alone will not solve the long-term challenge that we face – the threat of violent extremism. Instead, we must look as well to the political, economic, and social factors that terrorist organizations exploit and to the ideology that is their key instrument in pushing vulnerable individuals down the path toward violence. As President Obama succinctly put it, "A campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone."
Quite simply, we need to do a better job to reduce the recruitment of terrorists. To combat terrorism successfully, we have to isolate violent extremists from the people they pretend to serve. In the US government, we refer to this as Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE. Many CVE efforts over a number of years from different agencies have lacked sufficient focus. Now we have an administration that is committed to reducing radicalization and recruitment.
We are working to develop a better understanding of the dynamics of the communities in which violent extremism has taken root. Every at-risk community possesses unique political, economic, and social factors that contribute to the radicalization process. For this reason, we know that one-size-fits-all programs have limited appeal. Instead, programs need to be tailored to fit the characteristics of the audience. Strategies need to be customized for specific communities - and even specific neighborhoods –to have a better chance of succeeding and enduring.
We also know to succeed we must work with our partners. Local leaders are key. They are the ones best placed to understand and to discredit violent extremism. The United States can help, but we cannot lead. We can help empower local leaders through programs, funding, or by simply providing them with space – physical or electronic – to challenge violent extremist views. Non-traditional actors such as NGOs, foundations, public-private partnerships, and private businesses are some of the most capable and credible partners in local communities. The US government and partner nations also need to develop greater understanding of the linkages between diaspora communities and ancestral homelands. Through family and business networks, events that affect one community have an impact on the other.
With the aid of our partners, the United States is also trying, globally, to address the lies that are at the core of what is sometimes referred to as the al-Qa'ida "Narrative." We seek to offer hope to people, not the despair of violence offered by al-Qa'ida.
From Jakarta to New York to Mogadishu, no city, no country, no place is safe. Al-Qa'ida has proven itself a nimble adversary, and we are in a race to protect the United States and all of our countries and to stay "one step ahead." To succeed, we must be at the top of our game all the time. Staying sharp, improving our offense, strengthening our defense, and maintaining our intellectual edge – these are all essential. President Obama has set a clear mission. We must now work tirelessly, with our friends and allies to achieve it. For only together can we succeed in what will be a long struggle to defeat al-Qa'ida and its ideology of death. While we must never take our success as a foregone conclusion, our common strengths, our common ideals, and our common commitment make me optimistic that we will, in time, succeed.
Finally, let me congratulate you again on your participation in this program. It is heartening to see so many young people, so committed to leadership, to learning about public policy and to building international bridges. You are the future of the United States and the many other countries you represent.
I wish you well. Thank you for the opportunity to be here with you today. I invite your questions.