How the new Congress can help fight terror

Charlie Szrom Contributor
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When the new Congress convenes in January, all eyes will be fixed on the economy.  There is, however, another policy crisis: nine years have passed since September 11, 2001 and fourteen years since Osama bin Laden declared war against the U.S., yet the threat from the al Qaeda network continues to grow.  Meanwhile, the U.S. response remains ad hoc, lacking an overarching strategy and a clear procedural approach to al Qaeda and its affiliated groups.  Congress must help correct this deficit.

In the last week and a half, authorities disrupted a Yemen-based plot to place package bombs on planes destined for the U.S. In two other attacks upon the American homeland in the last year, terrorists linked to the al Qaeda-led network nearly killed hundreds of Americans in New York City in May and over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. A year ago, Nidal Malik Hasan, who al Qaeda propagandist Anwar Awlaki helped inspire and radicalize, opened fire at Fort Hood in Texas. Nor is al Qaeda’s network idle abroad: seventy-four Ugandans died in an attack carried out by the al Qaeda-friendly al Shabaab in July. Since September, European security services have been on high alert following intelligence indicating that al Qaeda has been recruiting Westerners for a Mumbai-style attack on the continent.

The al Qaeda network has improved its ability to strike the West by recruiting more Westerners, who are valuable for their ability to enter and move about Western countries without attracting attention. In recent months, dozens of American citizens and residents in Alabama, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey,  Pennsylvania, and Virginia have been charged for attempting to provide aid to al Qaeda-linked groups like al Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (located in Yemen), and the myriad of radical groups based in Pakistan. In just the last few weeks, charges have been brought against two individuals from northern Virginia: Zachary Adam Chesser, who had attempted to travel to fight in Somalia, and Farooque Ahmed, who plotted to blow up several Metro subway stations in Washington, DC. The al Qaeda network has also strengthened its territorial holds in areas such as the Horn of Africa, Yemen, West Africa, and even Pakistan, where al Qaeda-linked groups like Lashkar-e Taiba, the Haqqani Network, and Mullah Omar’s Taliban forces operate with relative impunity.

The al Qaeda-led network has shown itself flexible and resilient enough to retain the capacity to strike at prominent Western targets. We should not accept that danger — the case of Iraq shows terrorists can be defeated and attacks reduced — but rather contest the war more coherently under the umbrella of a comprehensive strategy.

Rather than playing a largely passive role in the war against al Qaeda, as it often has in the past, Congress can actively ameliorate the President’s conduct of the war. Those actions should focus on quickly correcting errors that have become apparent over the last year: the lack of a comprehensive strategy, the inability to preemptively recognize terror groups that strike at the U.S., the failure to take seriously some warnings about terrorists and terrorist groups, and the reduction in support for democratic activists in the Middle East.

1)  Detail a strategy. Hearings and reporting requirements should press the Administration to detail its overall strategy for the war. The Administration did identify al Qaeda and its affiliates as the enemy in its 2010 National Security Strategy, but it has not articulated a plan for fighting the enemy across the world.  What sort of policies does the Administration believe will be effective in halting al Shabaab’s spread across Somalia? How does the Administration intend to encourage and empower states like Yemen and Pakistan to weaken al Qaeda-affiliated groups? Does the Administration believe that drone strikes and occasional Special Forces raids can deter terror groups, or is the denial of territory important to the defeat of such groups? How does the Administration envision achieving the defeat of the al Qaeda network? These questions — and many others — could fuel Congressional inquiry in the upcoming session.

2) Fix terrorist organization designations. The State Department currently has the capacity under the Immigration and Nationality Act to designate Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) due to its mandate to determine the eligibility of foreigners for U.S. visas. But State has shown an inability to proactively designate enemy groups, adding the Pakistani Taliban four months after the Times Square attack and Yemen’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula weeks after the Christmas Day attack. All members of the violent Islamist network that are part of or associated with al Qaeda should be on the FTO list to ease prosecution and targeting of such terrorists. The lead role in the FTO designation process could move to the Treasury Department, which has undercut financing for terror groups and effectively carried out sanctions enforcement, with possible policy oversight conducted by the National Security Council.

3) Ensure warnings about terrorist activity are acted upon. Reports emerged on October 16 that women married to David Headley, a Pakistani-American man who helped plan the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, warned U.S. authorities about the terrorist activities of their husband as early as 2005. This is the second report in a year of U.S. authorities failing to take seriously such a warning from terrorists’ family members; the first case being the concern expressed by the father of the Christmas Day bomber. Intelligence community reform has failed to correct this problem, but the 112th Congress can help to shore up the system in the short term by mandating the placement of Department of Homeland Security agents at embassies in countries where potential terror walk-ins could occur, such as Nigeria and Pakistan, to help ensure vigorous treatment of terror warnings.

4) Increase pro-democracy funding for activists in Egypt and Iran. Democratic change in Egypt and Iran, combined with a maturation of democracy in Iraq, will strike a critical blow to the al Qaeda vision, which explicitly opposes the freedoms provided by democracy.  Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has belatedly declared that he will run in the September 2011 presidential elections, but he suffers from significant health issues, presenting the U.S. with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence democratic change in Egypt. Exerting such influence does not conflict with support for the Egyptian regime’s cooperation with U.S. objectives, including Cairo’s opposition to Hamas. While the full extent of Iran’s links with al Qaeda remains unclear, the destructive role the Iranian government plays in the Middle East facilitates pockets of instability in which terror groups can thrive. Free media broadcasts to these countries should not only provide robust, hard-news-focused broadcasting programs, but also spotlight the corruption and malice of the regimes.

The new Congress must not shirk from its duty in helping government execute its chief mission: protecting American citizens. An engaged and responsible Congress can help the Administration better wage war against the al Qaeda network, defending more American lives and helping provide the security necessary for a return to strong economic growth.

Charlie Szrom is senior analyst and program manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.