Obama Counterterrorism Plan Focuses on Threat ‘From Within’

The Obama administration’s new counterterrorism strategy is the nation’s first to focus on al-Qaeda’s ability to attack the U.S. “from within,” White House adviser John Brennan said.

Brennan, deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, said that the U.S. strategy, the unclassified version of which the White House released today, principally addresses al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It “is not designed to combat directly every single terrorist organization in every corner of the world,” he said.

The strategy reflects the administration’s preference for tightly focused strikes against extremist groups over large-scale wars, Brennan said today at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

The U.S. posture “won’t always be deploying large armies abroad, but rather delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us,” he said.

The blueprint that will guide administration policy in confronting the threat from terrorism is being released after the killing of Osama bin Laden last month, President Barack Obama’s June 22 announcement he will withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the summer of 2012, and civil uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa that have toppled longtime leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and threaten rulers in countries including Syria and Yemen.

Arab Spring

Brennan, 55, said that while the so-called Arab Spring has meant “new challenges and uncertainty in the short term,” it has “repudiated” al-Qaeda’s philosophy of change through violence.

The upheaval has left al-Qaeda and other extremist groups “on the sidelines, watching history pass them by,” he said.

Even as it’s been weakened by the deaths of key leaders and U.S. pressure on its enclaves, al-Qaeda is looking to other groups and individuals to take up its quest to strike the U.S., Brennan said.

Brennan said Obama’s planned troop withdrawals from Afghanistan won’t impair the administration’s counterterrorism effort there and in Pakistan. He said the U.S-Pakistan partnership would continue despite tensions.

Pakistan’s Leaders

Brennan said he believes Pakistan’s top leaders weren’t aware that bin Laden was hiding in the town of Abbottabad, where he was killed by a U.S. special forces team. At the same time, he said, “there is a real cancer” of terrorism inside Pakistan and that Pakistanis must be “very honest” with themselves about their internal threats rather than blame the U.S. for the problem.

Brennan said the administration is focused on dismantling “the core” of al-Qaeda in tribal regions of Pakistan and affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and areas of North Africa.

The strategy calls for building “a culture of resilience” in the U.S. that combines interagency coordination, protecting critical infrastructure including cyber-security, and an emphasis on Muslim-Americans as welcome members of society who can help prevent terrorism. Brennan said the administration later this summer will release a formal approach for partnering with communities to prevent violent extremism.

Update of Strategy

Obama’s strategy updates a 2006 plan developed by President George W. Bush’s administration that stressed spreading democracy and denying terrorist groups safe havens in failed or rogue nations.

Brennan said the new strategy is neither an overhaul nor a full retention of Bush’s approach. He called it “pragmatic, not ideological.”

Juan Zarate, a former Bush administration counterterrorism adviser, said there is a “fundamental continuity at the core of the strategy regardless of the rhetoric built around it” in that under Bush the priority “was always on al-Qaeda and its ideology.”

Zarate, now a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a policy institute in Washington, said the greater emphasis on countering the threat of homegrown terrorists may be useful. He said it should not distract from the threat from groups beyond the core of al-Qaeda metastasizing and launching attacks outside the U.S. that could have global implications.

Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, said reworking the nation’s counterterrorism strategy in the post-bin-Laden era is an opportunity to underscore the changes in priorities and conditions since the previous plan and clarify for Americans and foreign nations Obama’s approach going forward.

“It’s important to be able to lay out the direction you want to go and then lay out the tools and means,” he said. The threat from al-Qaeda “is real and some people may be under the impression that, ‘Ding-dong the witch is dead, the threat is gone,’ and that’s simply not the case.”

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