WASHINGTON, D.C (Press Release)–Following is a speech that Daniel Benjamin, coordinator of the counter-terrorism office in the U.S. State Department, gave on Friday to members of the Washington Institute:
Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure to be back at the Washington Institute and see so many familiar faces in the room. Thanks to Matt Levitt for inviting me. A few weeks ago Matt and I shared a panel at the Anti-Defamation League. For 25 years now, the Washington Institute has been putting out quality scholarship on the Middle East – work that I read regularly when I was in the think tank world, but is perhaps even more valuable for me now as a senior U.S. government policymaker. Rob Satloff’s fascinating book and the follow on documentary on the Muslims in North Africa who helped save Jews during the Holocaust shed new light on the events of that era, and has relevance for today as well.
I’m also pleased to be participating in the Washington Institute’s counterterrorism lecture series, which my predecessor Ambassador Dell Dailey kicked off in December 2007, and I know you’ve had at least 20 of the USG’s top counterterrorism officials. I’m particularly glad to have the chance to be here today because as I think most people in this room recognize, there have been some important changes in the nature of the threat in recent months. So I want to discuss with you what those changes are and on how the Obama administration is adapting and re-shaping the way the U.S. combats terrorism both in the short- and in the long-term.
Let me begin with the baseline: Over the last year, al-Qa’ida has suffered a number of important setbacks. As you’ve heard from the leaders of our intelligence community recently, the group remained under pressure in Pakistan due to Pakistani military operations aimed at eliminating militant strongholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the FATA. It’s had a number of leadership losses and is finding it more difficult to raise money, train recruits, and plan attacks outside of the region. As my friend and colleague Treasury Assistant Secretary David Cohen noted here last month that AQ is now in the “worst financial shape it has been in for years.”
Of course, this by no means suggests that we can signal the all clear on conspiracies driven by al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership – we know full well that they are still a highly capable, highly innovative and very determined group. But even outside the FATA, the environment is becoming more challenging. Al-Qa’ida has also suffered from popular Muslim disaffection due to recent and past indiscriminate targeting of Muslims by its operatives and allies in Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and any number of other countries. The number of conservative clerics and former militants speaking out against the organization increased and that’s very good news indeed.
Despite these setbacks to the core leadership, the broader AQ threat is becoming more widely distributed and more geographically and ethnically diversified among affiliates and among those who are inspired by the AQ message. We saw this most dramatically with the attempted December 25th bombing of a U.S. commercial airliner. This incident demonstrated that at least one affiliate – al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula – has not just the will but also the capability to launch a strike targeting the United States at home. We have every expectation that we will hear more from AQAP.
We’ve learned something else important this year: The assumption that Americans have some special immunity to al-Qa’ida’s ideology has been dispelled. While our overall domestic radicalization problem remains significantly less than in many Western nations, several high profile cases demonstrate that we must remain vigilant. As you all know, five Americans from nearby Virginia were arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of terrorist ties. We also have seen Americans traveling to Somalia, ones who ultimately ended up joining al-Shabaab.
We have seen U.S. citizens rise in prominence as proponents of violent extremism. The native Californian Adam Gadahn has become an AQ spokesman, enabling the group to increasingly target its propaganda to Western audiences. Another individual, Omar Hammami, an American citizen who grew up in Alabama, has become an important al-Shabaab voice on the internet. The most notable is Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaqi, who has become the most influential voice of Islamist radicalism among English-speaking extremists and has catalyzed a pool of potential recruits that others had failed to reach. The alleged Ft. Hood attacker Nidal Hasan sought him out for guidance, and the December 25 bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, visited him at least twice in Yemen. We should make no mistake about the nature of Awlaqi: As his recent video declaration of allegiance to al Qa’ida suggests, this is not just an ideologue but someone who incites acts of mass violence against Americans and others, and someone who is at the heart of a group plotting such action.
Another domestic dimension of the changing threat: In the last few months we’ve seen two high-profile law-enforcement cases, individuals who appear to have been trained and handled from the FATA, operating within our borders. Najibullah Zazi, a U.S. lawful permanent resident and airport shuttle driver, trained in Pakistan and recently pleaded guilty to charges that he was planning to set off several bombs in the United States. An American citizen, David Headley, has pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to crimes relating to his role in the November 2008 Lashkar e-Tayyiba attacks in Mumbai, which killed more than 160 people – including six Americans. Yes, it’s important to note that we found these people and that our intelligence and law enforcement tripwires worked. But that is not reason enough for complacency. The threat we face is dynamic and evolving.
Now we have the Times Square incident to add to the list. You’ve seen the public remarks from Attorney General Holder about Faisal Shahzad and his links to the Pakistani Taliban, and reports of search warrants that have been executed in several locations in the Northeast in connection with this investigation. Because this is an ongoing investigation I can’t say more but what I can say is that the significance of this case cannot be ignored.
Obviously, these changes that we have seen in the threat challenge us in important ways. A Nigerian suicide bomber – someone with virtually no prior record of involvement in terrorism who can be effectively launched at us from Yemen – this presents a real intelligence and security challenge; and, so too does the appearance of operatives in the U.S. who are legal residents or citizens but are connected with AQ or another radical group in South Asia.
Clearly, there is a requirement to improve our intelligence, and without going into details here, I can assure you that the Intelligence Community is working hard on this. And there are challenges for our defenses – especially our aviation security, since aviation remains at the top of the list of al-Qa’ida’s targets – as they have demonstrated recently through both successful and unsuccessful plots directed at aircraft. The United States has taken steps, both on its own and with international partners to bolster aviation security in the wake of the failed bombing on Christmas Day.
Under Secretary Napolitano’s leadership, we have been working closely with the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, the G8, and other multilateral fora to lead a global initiative to strengthen the international aviation system against the evolving threats posed by terrorists. Over the past several months, the USG has signed joint declarations with numerous foreign partners on improving information sharing, strengthening aviation security measures and standards, and working together to develop and deploy new security technologies to airports around the world. We have also strengthened the watchlisting system and developed new, more flexible security protocols based on real-time, threat-based intelligence. These measures consist of multiple layers of security, seen and unseen, which are tailored to intelligence about potential threats.
Defenses, of course, are an essential part of the equation. But another equally vital part of the equation is engaging with the other countries that are being used as platforms by terrorists and working with them to contain, reduce, and eliminate these threats. Given what we have seen over the last year and the years before, Pakistan and Yemen are today the countries of greatest concern. So let me turn to our efforts with them.
First Pakistan: Pakistan, we should all remember, is a front-line partner in fighting extremists. We provide a spectrum of assistance to Pakistani counterterrorism campaigns which range from police training to anti-money laundering efforts. Undoubtedly the hundreds of millions of dollars directed to Pakistani counterterrorism efforts have saved American lives and we shouldn’t forget that Pakistan has put out-of-business more al-Qa’ida operatives than any other country.
Over the past year, the U.S. government has seen very encouraging signs that Pakistan not only recognizes the severity of the threat from violent extremists, but is actively working to counter and constrain it. Pakistani military operations in Swat and Waziristan have eliminated militant strongholds and damaged the operational abilities of extremist groups. Moreover, we are seeing increasing cross-border cooperation with Afghanistan and ISAF forces, which is instrumental in the reduction of key militant safe havens. And in the wake of the operation in Swat, we have seen public opinion turn more decisively against the militants.
In late March, with the beginning of the Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan, we started a new phase in our partnership; with a new focus and a renewed commitment to work together to achieve the goals we share: stability, prosperity, and opportunity for the people of both Pakistan and the United States. While this wasn’t the first Strategic Dialogue between our countries, it was the first at the ministerial level, and it reflects the Administration’s commitment to its success. Under the Kerry-Lugar legislation we will be providing Pakistan with $1.5 billion a year for 5 years to address key developmental issues.
The discussions in the Strategic Dialogue generated new momentum and mutual trust to jointly tackle the extremist groups who threaten both Pakistan’s security and the U.S.’s security. And I should mention that under this new Dialogue, I will travel to Islamabad for the second time in three months with an interagency team in June to discuss terrorism with the Pakistanis. During the trip, both countries will discuss how to better use non-military capabilities to fight extremism.
We have seen tangible evidence of Pakistan’s commitment to clamping down on extremist networks operating within its borders. As you know, several top Afghan Taliban leaders – including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar – have been apprehended, and we are grateful to the Pakistani authorities for this.
Immediately after the Times Square incident, we also began working closely with the Government of Pakistan on the investigation and they’ve been cooperative in assisting our efforts and we will continue to work with Islamabad on this important prosecution.
Let me turn to Yemen. It’s important to remember that Yemen did not turn into an al-Qa’ida safe haven overnight. In fact, Yemen was arguably the very first front, since the December 1992 al-Qa’ida attempt to bomb U.S. troops was probably the first genuine al-Qa’ida attack in Aden. Those troops, you may recall, were en route to Somalia to support the UN mission there – almost eight years before the USS Cole attack in 2000. Al-Qa’ida has had a foothold in Yemen since the organization’s earliest days and it’s always been a major concern for the United States.
When the Obama administration came into office, it was clear that the Government of Yemen was distracted by other domestic security concerns, and our bilateral cooperation had experienced real setbacks and al Qa’ida was on the rise. In the spring of 2009, the administration initiated a full-scale review of our Yemen policy. The review has led to a new, whole-of-government approach to Yemen.
To advance this strategy, we’ve engaged consistently and intensively with our Yemeni counterparts. Senior administration civilian and military officials – including Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, General Petraeus, and myself –visited Yemen to discuss how we can jointly confront the threat of al-Qa’ida. The result has been a significant – and we hope enduring – turn by the government in taking on al-Qa’ida consistently. Those actions, it is important to emphasize, began before the December 25th plot, and have continued ever since.
Now, Yemen has conducted multiple operations designed to disrupt AQAP’s operational planning and to deprive its leadership of safe haven within Yemeni territory.
We recognize that al-Qa’ida has taken advantage of insecurity in various regions of Yemen that have been worsened by internal conflicts. We also know that Yemen is grappling with serious poverty – it is the poorest country in the Arab world. This lack of resources inhibits good governance, the delivery of services, and the effectiveness of the security that is needed to deal with terrorism. So to have any chance of success, U.S. counterterrorism policy has to be conceived in strategic and not merely tactical terms and timelines. That’s why the administration has adopted a two-pronged strategy for Yemen – helping the government confront the immediate security concern of al-Qa’ida and mitigating the serious political, economic, and governance issues that the country faces over the long term. Not only are we working to constrict the space in which al-Qa’ida can operate in Yemen by building up the Yemeni capacity to deal with the security threats within their borders, we are also working to develop government capacity to deliver basic services and economic growth.
This dual strategy will help Yemen confront the immediate security concern of al-Qa’ida, but also to mitigate the serious political and economic issues that the country faces in the longer term. It is a strategy that requires full Yemeni partnership. It is a strategy that requires working closely with regional partners and allies. It is a strategy that requires hard work and American resources. The challenges are great, and they are many; but the risk of doing nothing is far too grave.
What we are doing in Yemen, what we are doing in Pakistan, is what we are doing in many other countries: building capacity. Consistent diplomatic engagement with counterparts and senior leaders helps build political will for common counterterrorism objectives. When there is that political will, we can address the nuts and bolts aspect of capacity building. We are working to make the 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. This is both good counterterrorism and good statecraft. We are addressing the state insufficiencies that terrorism thrives on, and we are helping invest our partners more effectively in confronting the threat–rather than have them look thousands of miles away for help or simply look away altogether.
Ok, I’ve focused on the some of the diplomat’s traditional tools – engagement, building political will, and capacity building. I think we’re deploying these tools well. But the diversification of the threat I’ve described means that we can’t stop there. We need to both use all of the tools in our toolbox, and to innovate and create new ones, to continue to stay ahead of the threat and to maintain and strengthen our defenses.
For example, we need to advance our agenda of building international security cooperation against the terrorist threat. Our allies in Europe have become central partners in the counterterrorism arena, as a number of the plots in recent years illustrate dramatically just how intertwined U.S. and European security interests have grown.
With American and European fates so closely linked, it is essential that we work together even more closely to prevent al-Qa’ida and its affiliates from carrying out a successful attack. The Treasury’s Terrorist Finance Tracking Program and DHS’s Passenger Name Record program are both critically important tools in this effort, and have proven instrumental in protecting the security of both Americans and Europeans alike.
Given the importance of these programs to both U.S. and European security, we and the Europeans have a longstanding partnership to protect both the security of our citizens and their personal data. We know our two approaches to protecting privacy have more in common than divides them and we both share a strong commitment to protecting human rights. The challenge is to reach agreement on the proper balance between security and privacy without impeding the operation of vital programs and creating security gaps that have the potential to harm not only American citizens, but individuals from Europe and beyond as well.
There is one more key 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 street, and disrupting cells and their operations. But an effective counterterrorism strategy must go beyond efforts to thwart those who seek to harm the United States and its citizens, allies, and interests. 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 government, we refer to this as Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE. Many have attempted CVE efforts over a number of years from a number of different agencies but without sufficient focus. Now we have an administration that is committed to cutting down on radicalization and recruitment.
The indiscriminate targeting of Muslim civilians by violent extremists that I mentioned before in Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere has alienated populations, led to a decline of support for al-Qa’ida’s political program, and outraged influential clerics and former allies – who in many cases have spoken publicly against terrorism.
But we cannot count on al-Qa’ida to put itself out of business. So we are also focusing our efforts on undermining the narrative and preventing the radicalization of vulnerable or alienated individuals.
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. “Micro-strategies” need to be customized for specific communities – and even neighborhoods – and they will have a better chance of succeeding and enduring.
We also know that credible, local voices have to take the lead in their own communities. They are the ones best placed to convey counter-narratives capable of discrediting violent extremism. The U.S. government is simply not going to be the most credible interlocutor in this conversation so we are working to identify reliable partners and amplify legitimate voices. The United States can help empower these local actors through programmatic assistance, 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 U.S. government and partner nations are also seeking to develop greater understanding of the linkages between Diaspora communities and ancestral homelands. Through familial and business networks, events that affect one community have an impact on the other.
With the aid of credible messengers, the United States is trying to make the use of terrorist violence taboo and to trump the radical narrative, and also hope to offer something more hopeful. President Obama’s effort to create partnerships with Muslim communities on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect, as he outlined in speeches in Ankara and Cairo, provides an opportunity to promote a more positive story than the negative one promulgated by al-Qa’ida.
Clearly, we have not figured it all out. Al-Qa’ida is a nimble adversary, and we have a never-ending race to protect our country and stay one step ahead. Because of the flatness of their organization, a high-level of inspiration, and ingenuity, we need to be on top of our game all the time. We need to keep mind the words of the 9/11 Commission Report, which in this respect got it precisely right: “It is crucial”, they wrote “to find ways of routinizing and even bureaucratizing the exercise of the imagination.” This is really the paramount and enduring challenge we face. Staying sharp, innovating our defensive systems and maintaining our intellectual edge – these are all essential.
Well, I know a speech at the Washington Institute would be incomplete without some discussion of the other side of the terrorism coin, the state sponsors of terrorism. And they are among the USG’s highest priorities as well. Together with Matt Levitt, I spoke at length on this exact subject recently at the ADL conference, and I’d refer you to my remarks from that event, which are posted on the State Department website.
It’s important not to forget that Iran remains the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, supporting Hizballah, HAMAS, and other terrorist Palestinian groups. And Syria has also provided political and material support to Hizballah in Lebanon and allowed Iran to resupply it with weapons. In early April, we reiterated our grave concerns and alarm to the Syrians over reports that they may have provided SCUD missiles to Hizballah.
We have spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria’s transfer of weapons to that group. We condemn this in the strongest possible terms and have expressed our concerns directly to the Syrian government. Transferring weapons to Hizballah – especially longer-range missiles – poses a serious threat to the security of Israel. It would have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the region. And if such weapons cross into Lebanon, it would absolutely violate UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans the unauthorized importation of any weapons into Lebanon.
We do not accept such provocative and destabilizing behavior – nor should the international community. President Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region. We know he’s hearing from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It is crucial that he also hear from us directly, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That’s why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria. There should be no mistake, either in Damascus or anywhere else: The United States is not reengaging with Syria as a reward or as a concession. Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight, and a greater ability to convey strong and unmistakably clear messages aimed at Syria’s leadership.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I look forward to your questions.
Preceding transcript provided by the U.S. State Department