Unilaterally Assured Destruction

If it's possible to deter terrorist attacks, why hasn't the United States adopted this strategy as a core principle of the war on terror?


Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker’s new book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against al Qaeda, credits our role in developing the first U.S. government-wide strategy for deterring terrorist networks. They write that we "crafted a briefing to make the case that a combination of efforts — economic, diplomatic, military, political, and psychological … could in fact establish a new strategy and create a new and effective posture of deterrence against terrorist groups."

While we are flattered by the book’s portrayal of our work, it risks overstating our influence. The deterrence approach that we advocated remains a poorly understood and underutilized element of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. It holds, however, great potential for helping to thwart future al Qaeda attacks.

Deterrence is preventing an adversary from taking a threatening action by convincing the adversary that the costs of the action would outweigh any possible benefits. During the Cold War, deterrence was the cornerstone of U.S. national security policy. The threat of massive nuclear retaliation deterred the Soviet Union from directly attacking U.S. interests and helped maintain a tense yet stable peace for nearly half a century.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many senior U.S. government officials and national security experts argued that terrorists were undeterrable. After all, how do you deter people who are irrational or willing to give their life for a cause? How do you retaliate against a terrorist enemy who might be dead, unlocatable, or hiding in a country with which the United States is not at war? Due to these and other complications, early U.S. government counterterrorism efforts focused on capturing and killing terrorists, eschewing deterrence as a viable tool.

As we demonstrated in our classified strategy, which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld presented to President George W. Bush in August 2005, however, deterrence is a critical element of an effective counterterrorism approach. While it might be difficult to deter people willing to die for a cause, many of the most important members of a terrorist network are not suicide bombers. State sponsors, financiers, logisticians, radical clerics, and even some leaders highly value their lives and material possessions; they can, therefore, be deterred by simple threats of imprisonment or death.

For example, following the July 2005 London subway bombings, Britain announced a new law banning the "glorification of terrorism." Rather than face prosecution at the hands of British authorities, radical clerics who had helped incite violence left Britain for other countries or renounced previous incendiary sermons and spoke out against terrorism. Theological justification is a driving force of radical Islamic terrorism; deterring radical clerics and other members of a terrorist network from fulfilling their role as terrorist enablers can be equally, if not more, important than deterring the attacks themselves.

The United States can encourage the adoption of such successful deterrence measures by other countries. U.S. policymakers should do more to work with friends and allies to put laws on the books (where they do not already exist) to punish terrorist activity, develop capabilities and partnerships to increase the probability that those participating in terrorism are identified, and work to make sure that terrorists — whether operating on the battlefields of Afghanistan or the streets of London — receive appropriate punishment. Sometimes, this could mean a prison sentence; in other instances, a Predator drone strike.

In addition to threatening retaliation, the United States can deter terrorism by threatening terrorists with failure. Deterrence-by-denial is the idea that one can deter an adversary from taking a threatening action by convincing the adversary that the action is unlikely to succeed or result in substantial benefits. During the Cold War, missile defenses were thought to enhance deterrence by convincing the Soviet Union that if the United States could shoot its nuclear warheads out of the sky, there was little to be gained from launching a nuclear attack.

Although terrorists may appear irrational to some, they value tactical success. Any terrorist, even a suicide bomber, will be reluctant to jeopardize resources, reputation, or martyrdom on a failed attack. By strengthening defenses and randomizing security measures, Washington can increase the perceived probability in a terrorist’s mind that an attack will fail, thereby convincing him or her that it would be better not to even try.

Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was merely spinning when he said that failed attacks are actually successful because they force the counterterrorist to adopt costly preventive measures. Al Qaeda’s leadership knows that nothing is more devastating for recruitment, fundraising, and a terrorist organization’s morale than a public failure.

For example, in late 2003 an al Qaeda affiliate planned to attack a U.S. military base in Turkey. The United States, however, improved its defenses at the site during the planning stages, and the terrorists called off the attack rather than risk failure.

Some may argue that this is merely an example of good defense. But force protection and homeland security should be designed with deterrence, not just defense, in mind. After all, the point of effective homeland security should not be to physically stop terrorist attacks day after day, but to convince terrorists not to attempt attacks in the first place. Of course, the United States will not be able to deter every attack. Deterrence against terrorism can only be partial. But perfect should not be the enemy of the good; deterring some attacks contributes to U.S. national security objectives.

At its heart, deterrence is about psychology. What matters is not how good U.S. defenses really are, but how good terrorists think they are. By publicizing failed attacks and by broadcasting the effectiveness of U.S. homeland security measures, the United States can develop a reputation as a hard target and convince terrorists to focus their attention elsewhere.

Finally, the United States can threaten failure at the strategic level. Terrorist organizations think that by killing civilians they can sow panic in a society and put pressure on governments to concede to their political demands. By systematically identifying and denying terrorists’ strategic goals, the United States can break the link between successful terrorist attacks and terrorists’ political objectives, thereby discouraging terrorism in the long run.  

If the United States can demonstrate that American society can bounce back quickly from a terrorist attack, it could help convince terrorists that their efforts to frighten the public are likely to fail. It is in this spirit that Israel works to quickly reopen bombed cafes in the wake of terrorist attacks. This is also the logic that is motivating Barack Obama’s administration to emphasize the "resilience" of American society in its public messaging surrounding the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

But in addition to talking about resilience, the United States must do more to insulate the country from the shock of terrorism. For example, the U.S. government can seek to deny publicity to terrorist groups. When cable news stations broadcasted the images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center over and over again in the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, they played into al Qaeda’s hands by amplifying the terror of the event throughout American society. To avoid repeating this mistake, the United States should follow Israel’s lead in developing a private-public partnership in which media outlets agree to limit the amount of coverage devoted to terrorism. These purely voluntary agreements should aim to strike an appropriate balance between the public’s right to know and government efforts to combat terrorism.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States must steadfastly refuse to negotiate with terrorists or concede to any of al Qaeda’s political demands. If Washington can convince al Qaeda that no amount of terrorism will force the United States out of the Middle East, topple "apostate" regimes, or re-establish a caliphate, al Qaeda’s purported justification for terrorism will be undermined.

Individuals drawn to terrorism often have goals that differ from those of their organizations. Many believe that terrorism is a path to glory, honor, and personal martyrdom. By working with mainstream Muslim clerics and employing other measures to point out al Qaeda’s embarrassments and sow doubt about whether killing oneself and other innocent civilians is consistent with Muslim theology, the United States can convince would-be terrorists to choose a different career path. The United States has been undertaking some of these efforts, but their effectiveness could be reinforced through a more explicit recognition that countermessaging can alter potential terrorists’ subjective cost-benefit calculus. Ideally, Washington should aim to persuade them that terrorism entails high costs and minimal benefits and that, on balance, it doesn’t pay.

But unlike during the Cold War, deterrence should not be the central pillar of U.S. national security strategy. The U.S. government still needs to attack and disrupt terrorist networks, defend the homeland, and counter terrorist ideology. But, because states can effectively deter certain types of terrorists from engaging in certain types of terrorist activity, deterrence is an essential part of a comprehensive counterterrorism approach.

While deterrent measures have become more important in the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in recent years, much work remains to be done. By ensuring that deterrence precepts are elevated to the forefront of internal government and public debates about counterterrorism strategy, the United States can reduce the likelihood that Americans will ever have to live through another day like Sept. 11, 2001.

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