14 November 2001
Byliner: CIA's Pillar on Counterterrorism
(Discusses various instruments of counterterrorism) (2060)
(This byliner was published in the Office of International Information
Program's electronic journal "U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda," November
14. No republication restrictions.)
The Instruments of Counterterrorism
By Paul R. Pillar
(The author is the National Intelligence Officer for Near East and
South Asia, National Intelligence Council, Central Intelligence
Every tool used in the fight against terrorism has something to
contribute, but also significant limits to what it can accomplish.
Thus, counterterrorism requires using all the tools available, because
no one of them can do the job. Just as terrorism itself is
multifaceted, so too must be the campaign against it.
Counterterrorism involves far more activities than those that bear the
"counterterrorist" label. Even before the attacks of 11 September 2001
made the subject a seemingly all-encompassing concern for the United
States, it involved the efforts of many different departments and
agencies. Counterterrorism includes diplomacy designed to harmonize
the efforts of foreign governments on the subject. It includes the
investigative work of numerous law enforcement agencies and the
related legal work of prosecuting terrorist crimes. It involves
measures by financial regulatory bodies to interrupt terrorist
funding. As the allied military operations begun over Afghanistan in
October 2001 remind us, it, at times, includes the use of armed force.
Information gathering by intelligence agencies is another major part
of counterterrorism. And all of these functions aimed at actively
countering terrorist operations are in addition to the many defensive
measures, taken by the private sector as well as by various levels of
government, designed to protect against terrorist attacks.
Diplomacy is critical to combating modern international terrorism,
which, in many respects, knows no boundaries. Terrorist groups have
increasingly spread their reach around the globe. Combating a
terrorist network like the one that includes Osama bin Laden's
al-Qaida group requires the cooperative efforts of many countries
because the network operates in many countries. Effective
counterterrorist diplomacy is the glue needed to hold these efforts
into a coherent whole rather than being merely disjointed parts. The
building of a counterterrorist coalition following the attacks of 11
September is only the most recent and conspicuous demonstration that
the United States needs the help of foreign partners in countering
even those threats directed specifically against the United States.
Counterterrorist diplomacy is not just the responsibility of
professional diplomats in foreign ministries. Officials performing
other specialized, and counterterrorist-related, functions have to
cooperate extensively with foreign counterparts to do their jobs.
Regulatory agencies responsible for the security of civil aviation and
other modes of transportation, for example, have to perform what is,
in effect, a diplomatic function to accomplish the necessary
coordination where their security systems intersect with those of
other countries. Customs and immigration officials must do the same.
Most of this specialized cooperation is bilateral, but multilateral
diplomacy also has contributions to make. It can provide broad
sanction for measures that would have less legitimacy if taken by an
individual state. The United Nations Security Council has done so, for
example, with resolutions (beginning with Resolution 1267 in 1999)
pertaining to the Taliban's support to terrorism based in Afghanistan.
Multilateral diplomacy -- including resolutions of the U.N. General
Assembly and a dozen international conventions on terrorism -- also
strengthens an international norm against terrorism. Some of those
conventions, such as ones dealing with hijacking of aircraft, also
provide a basis for practical cooperation on matters where national
jurisdictions may overlap.
The limitations of diplomacy as a counterterrorist tool are obvious.
Terrorists do not change their behavior in direct response to a treaty
or U.N. resolution. But diplomacy supports all of the other tools,
whether by broadening the moral force behind them or providing an
international legal framework for their use.
The prosecution of individual terrorists in criminal courts has been
one of the most heavily relied upon counterterrorist tools. The United
States has placed particular emphasis on it, with the bringing of
terrorists to justice for their crimes being a longstanding tenet of
U.S. counterterrorist policy. Non-U.S. courts have also played
significant roles. A Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands was
used to try two suspects accused of bombing Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.
Use of the criminal justice system can help reduce terrorism in
several ways. Imprisoning a terrorist for life (or executing him)
obviously prevents him from conducting any more attacks. The prospect
of being caught and punished may deter other terrorists from attacking
in the first place. Even if not deterred, the movements of terrorists
still at large can be impeded by the knowledge that they are wanted
men. The drama and publicity of a criminal trial may also help to
sustain public support for counterterrorism, demonstrate a
government's resolve to go after terrorists, and encourage other
governments to do the same.
A limitation of applying the criminal justice system to terrorism is
that the prospect of being caught and punished does not deter some
terrorists. That prospect is obviously irrelevant to suicide bombers,
and perhaps also to other low-level operatives who feel a comparable
level of commitment and desperation. High-level terrorist leaders --
who typically stay farther removed from the scene of the crime and are
more difficult to catch -- may care little about whether the
underlings are caught.
Prosecuting a terrorist also poses the practical difficulty of
assembling sufficient legally admissible evidence to convict him. At
least in U.S. courts, that is a higher standard than acquiring enough
information to be fairly sure, from an intelligence or policy
perspective, that someone is a terrorist. Direct evidence of the
decisions or orders issued by terrorist leaders is particularly hard
to come by. The physically dispersed planning and decision making of
international terrorist groups means many of the actions leading to a
terrorist attack were taken outside the country where the attack
occurs and outside the jurisdiction of the lead investigators.
The need for international cooperation in applying criminal law to
terrorists is obvious. It involves not only acquisition of evidence
for use in court but also the extradition or rendition of fugitives to
stand trial in the country where they are charged.
The funding that evidently made it possible for the perpetrators of
the attacks in September to train and travel as they prepared for
their operation has highlighted efforts to interdict terrorist money.
The United States uses two types of financial controls to combat
terrorism: the freezing of assets belonging to individual terrorists,
terrorist groups, and state sponsors; and the prohibition of material
support to terrorists. Money is also the subject of the most recent
multilateral treaty on terrorism: the Convention on the Suppression of
the Financing of Terrorism, which was opened for signature in January
Cutting off terrorists' funding faces two major challenges. One is
that -- notwithstanding the importance of financial backing to the
September hijackers -- most terrorism does not require large-scale
financing. Less money is involved than in illegal narcotics, arms
trafficking, and some other transnational criminal activities. The
other challenge is that the flow of terrorist money is extremely
difficult to track. False account names, the use of financial
intermediaries, and commingling of funds for legitimate and
illegitimate purposes are the rule. Much money gets moved through
informal arrangements outside any formal banking system.
Despite these challenges, more could be accomplished to impede
terrorists' financial operations. The Treasury Department's Office of
Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) provides focus and direction for U.S.
efforts on this subject, but most of the financial activity, even of
groups targeting the United States, takes place outside U.S.
jurisdiction. The creation in other governments of offices similar to
OFAC and the close cooperation of such offices would make a further
dent in terrorists' financial activity.
Modern, precision-guided munitions have made armed force a less blunt
and more useful counterterrorist instrument, but one whose use is
still appropriately rare. Several countries have used military force
with varying degrees of success over the last three decades to rescue
hostages. More recently the military instrument has been employed to
retaliate against terrorist attacks. The United States has used its
armed forces for retaliation following terrorist attacks by Libya in
1986, Iraq in 1993, and Osama bin Laden in 1998.
A military strike is the most forceful possible counterterrorist
action and thus the most dramatic demonstration of determination to
defeat terrorists. The major limitation of military force is that
terrorist assets, unlike conventional military assets, do not present
large, fixed targets that can readily be destroyed. With the terrorist
threat now coming much more from groups than from states, there are
even fewer targets to strike, either to damage terrorist capabilities
or to deter future terrorism.
The U.S. and British military operations begun in Afghanistan in
October go beyond any previous counterterrorist use of military force,
in that they constitute not just retaliation but an effort to clean
out the prime source and safe haven of a terrorist network. In their
goal and scale, they have the potential for having a substantially
greater effect on terrorism than any previous use of armed force.
Success in Afghanistan will depend on political as well as military
chapters of that country's history yet to be written. Even with
success in Afghanistan, however, the military operations there do not
directly touch the portions of the al-Qaida network that reside
elsewhere, and, thus, must be part of a broader counterterrorist
effort that does address those portions.
The collection and analysis of intelligence is the least visible but
in some ways the most important counterterrorist tool, and is rightly
thought of as the "first line of defense" against terrorism. But this
instrument also has its limitations, chief of which is that the type
of very specific, tactical intelligence required to thwart terrorist
plots is rare. That kind of actionable information is difficult to
collect because it requires penetration of groups that are small,
suspicious of outsiders, and very careful about their operational
Most intelligence about terrorist groups is fragmentary, ambiguous,
and often of doubtful credibility. Analysis is thus almost as much of
a challenge as collection. The contribution of intelligence is not so
much to provide coherent pictures of impending terrorist operations
but rather a more strategic sense of which groups pose the greatest
threats, which times and which regions present the greatest dangers,
and what sorts of targets and tactics are most likely to be used.
The limitations of counterterrorist intelligence mean it should not be
relied upon as a foolproof indicator of where threats do and do not
exist. But the guidance it provides in managing the risks from
terrorism is invaluable, from decisions on site security to broader
policy on allocation of counterterrorist resources, as well as being
essential to the functioning of all the other counterterrorist
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
The instruments discussed here must be well coordinated. Used together
wisely, they produce a whole that is greater than the sum of the
parts. If not well coordinated, they can work at cross-purposes.
Enforcement of criminal law may get in the way of intelligence
collection, for example, and military action could disrupt either law
enforcement or intelligence gathering.
The United States accomplishes day-to-day coordination through
sub-cabinet committees, cross-assignment of personnel, and other
formal and informal mechanisms centered in the National Security
Council and involving the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and
Treasury, the intelligence agencies, and other elements. The best
arrangements for coordinating counterterrorism will vary from one
government to another, but effective coordination should reflect three
principles. One is that all of the relevant ministries or agencies --
including those responsible for military affairs, internal security,
intelligence, and foreign affairs -- need to be involved. Second,
leadership should come from the center, such as a cabinet office or
equivalent to the U.S. National Security Council. And third, the
various offices involved need to develop everyday habits of working
together that will become second nature and pay off during a crisis.
Every counterterrorist instrument is difficult to use. Using them well
together is even more difficult. But using them all is critical in the
fight against terrorism.
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