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Counterterrorism: What the new White House strategy document leaves out

Counterterrorism: What the new White House strategy document leaves out

By Matthew Irvine
Best Defense bureau of keeping your eye on the ball

The Obama administration rolled out the unclassified version of its long-awaited counterterrorism strategy document on Wednesday.

Put simply, this is a war plan against al Qaeda. The document is al Qaeda-centric to the point of being al Qaeda-obsessed. What is striking about the strategy is not so much what it says about al Qaeda or its repeated mentions of killing Osama bin Laden (5 of them), but what it left out about counterterrorism more broadly:

Terrorists who aren’t AQ: The document mentions "other terrorist concerns requiring focus and attention" such as Hamas, Hizballah, the FARC, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. However, the document does not address these groups in a substantive way.

State-sponsors of terror: While recognizing that some states (Iran and Syria) support terrorist organizations, the strategy does not spell out what this means for broader foreign policy towards these countries. Pakistan is notably absent from this list despite its established ties to the Haqqani Network, Afghan Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Mexico: The growing violence in Mexico did not make the cut in the new strategy. With more than 35,000 dead over the last five years, including numerous government officials, kidnappings, and car bombings, Mexico is emerging as a principal security question for folks on both sides of the border.

The Internet: Cyberterrorism and the increasingly active use of the internet as a virtual safe haven got only lip-service in the unclassified version of the White House report. As Spencer Ackerman at DangerRoom points out, this is not an adequate treatment of what is a growing problem. Domestic Terrorism: Despite DHS calling attention in 2009 to the resurgence in right wing extremism, the new CT strategy does not address this very distinct threat. You don’t have to go too far back in time to see the Unabomber, Tim McVeigh, the rise of right-wing militias as a pre-eminent counterterrorism concern.

Pakistan: The President’s counterterrorism advisor John Brennan argued on Wednesday that "there’s no alternative to us or to the Pakistanis to ensuring that we continue engaging with them." I’m left asking: What happens if the United States and Pakistan don’t make up? The United States and Pakistan suffered a bitter divorce in the 1990s. What’s to stop that from happening again?

Lastly, what comes next? Brennan also declared "al Qaeda is in its decline," but went on to warn of an adapting enemy and AQ network that will pose a persistent threat. The 9/11 Commission cited a failure of imagination as one of the primary faults in U.S. counterterrorism thinking ten years ago. After reading the 2011 CT strategy, (and the 2003 and 2007 documents) I am left asking the question: What comes next? What are we missing? What are we failing to imagine?