Yes, America Is Exporting Terrorism

Why the latest WikiLeaks revelations matter.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Partly because the deadliest attack in the history of modern international terrorism was against the United States, Americans tend to see their own country as the center of the counterterrorist universe. It was a U.S. president who declared a "war on terror," led by the United States. Although U.S. officials have said a lot about international cooperation, the cooperation they have had in mind has been mostly a matter of the United States leading, pushing, or insisting, and other countries conforming or complying. The same U.S. president summarized his standard for other countries’ counterterrorist performance with the phrase "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" — the "us" of course being the United States — and the United States has shown a tendency to lord that standard over its foreign counterterrorist partners. The transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama has softened these hard edges, but Americans still take a very U.S.-centric approach to the subject.

Some of the American exceptionalism on counterterrorism began even before the attacks of September 11, 2001. Legislation in the 1980s claimed extraterritorial jurisdiction for U.S. courts and U.S. law enforcement agencies regarding any terrorist act in which U.S. persons or interests were victims. Clearly, if every other state made a similar claim, the result would be legal chaos. Think about what the U.S. reaction would be if, say, France claimed jurisdiction over a terrorist crime that a U.S. citizen committed on American soil, in which a visiting Frenchman happened to be one of the casualties.

Because the overwhelming U.S. concern understandably has been with terrorism within the United States and above all terrorist acts — like 9/11 — perpetrated within the United States by foreigners, terrorism by U.S. citizens has been a jarring note that has not fit into most of the tunes Americans have been playing about fighting terrorism — many of which, having to do with such things as no-fly lists for international flights, have focused specifically on keeping foreign terrorists out of the United States. Especially ill-fitting have been several cases over the last couple of years involving Americans traveling abroad to commit terrorism in other countries such as Pakistan and India, including terrorism against non-American targets. A noteworthy example is the surveillance that Pakistani-American David Headley performed in support of the gruesome attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Mumbai in November 2008, which killed at least 160 people.

The U.S. export of terrorism calls into question the high — perhaps sometimes impossibly high — standard to which Washington holds other governments in controlling what emanates from their territories. U.S. officials might not say "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" anymore, but it still is considered not enough for governments to refrain from sponsoring or supporting terrorism. They are expected to do whatever it takes to prevent their citizens from committing terrorist acts abroad, with little American patience for excuses about how difficult it is to control borders or the activities of private individuals. To the extent this is the U.S. standard, the United States itself has failed it.

This and other apparent U.S. double standards in counterterrorism, looked at through the eyes of foreign governments, raise several problems that are nicely summarized in a document in the latest WikiLeaks disclosure: an assessment by the CIA’s Red Cell, a unit with a license to perform "out-of-the-box" analysis about problems and trends that would not normally be the focus of the agency’s everyday analytical work. The assessment points out that the export of terrorism from the United States might make foreign partners more inclined to push back — and would give them a stronger case in pushing back — on counterterrorist matters on which they find the asymmetrical U.S. approach most irritating. For example, a foreign government might insist on obtaining confidential information on U.S. citizens it suspects of supporting terrorism, or even call for the rendition of a U.S. citizen. If the United States were to balk, the foreign government could refuse to cooperate in the other direction the next time the United States called for information on, or rendition of, anyone in the foreign country. Who could blame the foreign government, given that international terrorists have now shown that they can come from the United States, and not just to it?

The Red Cell assessment notes that some pushing back already has occurred, probably spurred by annoyance over the asymmetry in how the United States handles renditions and information sharing. It cites the example of Italy issuing criminal warrants in 2005 for the arrest of U.S. officials involved in the abduction and rendering to Egypt of an Egyptian cleric. Again, think of the roles being reversed: It would be a subject of great outrage, to put it mildly, in the United States if Italian officers were found to have secretly abducted someone from U.S. soil and flown him out to be locked up in someone else’s prison. The assessment correctly observes that the price of contretemps arising from such disagreements includes damage to bilateral relations as well as more specific damage to counterterrorist cooperation.

Obviously the first thing the United States should do to reduce the chance of such problems is to try hard to curb the export of terrorists and terrorism from its own territory. Chiefly this means focusing at least as much attention on detecting homegrown terrorists (regardless of whether any such terrorists seem likely to commit their lethal deeds in the United States or abroad) as the heavy attention now focused on keeping foreign terrorists out of the United States. There is no single technique involved — just a lot of hard domestic intelligence work mostly by the FBI and its partners in local and state law enforcement agencies. The United States also could be more forthcoming in making two-way some of its border protection procedures (such as passport checks and provision of extensive passenger information) that tend to be one-way now.

Because stopping the export of terrorism probably will be as difficult for the United States to achieve completely as it is for other countries, the next thing it can do is to be a little more understanding when other countries, despite good-faith efforts, come up short too. More generally, it can try to view everything it does in the name of counterterrorism through its foreign partners’ eyes and get rid of the double standards. And more generally still, it should understand that the United States is not really the center of the counterterrorist universe, that counterterrorism did not begin with 9/11, and that some foreign partners — who had been confronting serious terrorist threats long before terrorism became a top security issue in the United States — have at least as much to teach the United States on the subject as the other way around.

Paul R. Pillar, a retired CIA officer, is nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies and author of Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform.