How to Defeat Terrorism
Mason Policy Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin, who is an internationally-known expert on terrorism, presented a proposal for an integrated grand strategy in the ongoing U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda. During a Brown Bag seminar titled “U.S. Grand Strategy and Counterterrorism,” she argued that more than a decade after 9/11, broad agreement about the United States’ objectives in this war continues to be elusive. Instead, a lack of clear strategic goals, along with an overemphasis on military operations, has led to ‘mission creep,’ as the scope of counterterrorism strategy continues to broaden. The presentation was drawn from her just-published article by the same name in the journal Orbis.
“Part of the problem is that, unlike classical military campaigns, terrorism offers poor metrics,” she said, citing body count, territory gained and other traditional measures as unfit for describing success against terrorists. “More to the point, objective numbers don’t seem to matter much anyway,” she continued, since the American public have become so intolerant of risk that the next time there is a successful attack of any kind, on an airplane or on U.S. soil, the widespread view will be that the United States has lost and al-Qaeda has won. The result is an enhanced vulnerability and a tendency to make policy decisions reactively rather than strategically.
Cronin addressed three questions: Do we have a clear strategy? Is it working? And is it integral to an effective grand strategy for the United States? Regarding Al-Qaeda specifically, she noted that debate continues about what U.S. ends should be and how peace will be defined and realized. To move the debate forward, she situated Al-Qaeda’s activities in a historical context, noting that terrorists use symbolic power and attacks to draw power from the State. “They leverage tactics to have strategic effects, because they don’t have the power of a legitimate state,” she said.
Typically, those tactics include ‘provocation’ or attacks that cause the state to react in ways against its own interest; ‘polarization’ or attacks causing states to curtail rights and invite authoritarian regimes into power; and ‘mobilization’ or attacks designed to invigorate a cause, and boost recruitment and fundraising.
All these tactics are means to ends, Cronin explained. Al-Qaeda’s ends include removing Western influence from the Middle East, causing U.S.-backed Arab regimes to fall and reinstating a caliphate. “I would argue that mobilization has been Al-Qaeda’s favored method,” Cronin said, but noted that the group’s track record is poor. It has failed to either accomplish its objectives or play a driving role in recent regime changes. Moreover, support for Al-Qaeda has dropped, in part because of the large numbers of Muslims who have been killed as a result of its activities.
Cronin pointed out, however, that “The loss of support for Al-Qaeda doesn’t necessarily mean more support for the U.S,” she said. “While Al-Qaeda is clearly losing, we’re not necessarily winning. And unless we adapt, we must face the possibility that we could both lose.”
One suggestion Cronin offered is that the United States should exploit Al-Qaeda’s greatest weakness through a strategy of counter-mobilization: “Instead of trying to win hearts and minds, we should facilitate Al-Qaeda’s capacity to lose them.” Likewise, she counseled that U.S. strategy should pursue policies of self-determination rather than democratization in other countries. “We have to reverse the impression that the only change the U.S. supports is change that we cause,” she said.