The counterterrorism strategy published by the Obama Administration in June was not exactly a hard-hitting document, turning counterterrorism into a law enforcement issue and generally containing few details and little new thinking. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the subject on September 9, the subject took on more life.
As a Senator from New York, she had spent time at Ground Zero and met with the victims and their families, which made her grasp of the subject at least instinctive and immediate.
Yet the great and unacknowledged irony in Clinton’s presentation was that most of the major “sticks” in the government’s counterterrorism strategy had already been put in place by the Bush Administration—in fact, often under heavy criticism from Democrats like Clinton herself and President Obama. These measures include taking the fight to the terrorists, capturing and prosecuting terrorists worldwide, painstakingly thorough enhanced interrogation gathering (which led to the elimination of Osama bin Laden), and breaking down the stovepipes of the U.S. intelligence agencies under a new Director of National Intelligence.
Beyond the stepped up drone attacks along the Afghan–Pakistan border, which have been quite effective in putting al-Qaeda on its back foot, the Obama Administration’s contribution on this side of the ledger has been to carry on with policies they didn’t like and had vowed to change but to which they could not find any alternatives.
Other counterterrorism measures in the “carrot” category also originated under the Bush Administration, such as provincial reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is no doubt, however, that this is the focus of the Obama Administration—as represented by USAID, which the Administration has given a far more prominent role, and diplomatic efforts at creating global counterterrorism cooperation.
Counterterrorism communication, which was given prominence by Bush’s last Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, James Glassman, falls into the “soft power” part of the strategy and, as such, was given prominence in Clinton’s speech.
The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) was created as part of Clinton’s Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review. As Clinton correctly stated in New York:
We have also learned that to truly defeat a terror network, we need to attack its finances, recruitment, and safe havens. We need to take on its ideology, counter its propaganda, and diminish its appeal, so that every community recognizes the threat that extremists pose to them and they then deny them protection and support. And we need effective international partners in government and civil society who can extend this effort to all the places where terrorists operate.
The counterterrorism communications capability within State has been taking shape over the past year, focused on answering terrorist propaganda and dissuading potential recruits. The center coordinates the interagency process and now has a presidential mandate in the form of an executive order published last week.
Among its most promising initiatives is a digital outreach team, which takes the fight to contested media Web sites and forums, where extremists read propaganda and recruit followers. Taking on the radicals on their own turf and countering their narratives is an endeavor the U.S. government needs to develop and back strongly.
In her speech, Clinton gave an example of just the kind of creative effort that makes for excellent public diplomacy as well as counterterrorism strategy.
Take, for example, a short video clip that the team put together earlier this year. First, we hear a recording of al-Qaida’s new leader, [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, claiming that peaceful action will never bring about change in the Middle East. Then we see footage of protests and celebrations in Egypt. The team posted this video on popular websites and stirred up a flurry of responses, like “Zawahiri has no business with Egypt; we will solve our problems ourselves,” wrote one commentator on the website Egypt Forum.
The CSCC contains the germ of government-wide coordination in public diplomacy and strategic communication that has been missing for too long. If properly developed and meshed with the “hard power” tools of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, it could represent a clear advance in the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims.
What is most important, however, is a clear and definable set of goals and metrics in the absence of which coordination becomes mere process and outcomes simply measured in dollars spent.