In Fighting al Qaeda, Bush's "Global War on Terrorism" Is Off Target

A New Rand Corp. study urges a "fundamental rethinking" of counterterrorism strategy.

This undated photo shows al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

This undated photo shows al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

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A terrorism study prepared for the Defense Department has some bad news for the Bush administration—and presents a sizable challenge for whoever is next in the Oval Office.

The current strategy for defeating al Qaeda has not been successful in diminishing the group's capabilities and is unlikely to do better without a shift in emphasis, the Rand Corp. study concludes.

Since 2001, al Qaeda has conducted a greater number of attacks across a larger geographic area than at any time in its history. "We find it hard to agree that al Qaeda has been significantly weakened since Sept. 11, 2001," says Seth Jones, coauthor with Martin Libicki of the report titled "How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qaeda."

The authors evaluate al Qaeda since 2001 as being both "strong" and "competent."

What's needed, the report suggests, is a "fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy" to focus on minimizing overt military action and increasing intelligence collection and partnerships with law enforcement agencies around the world.

The report couldn't have been clearer in its refutation of one of the central tenants of the Bush administration's strategy against al Qaeda: the characterization of the conflict as a "global war." The administration has frequently attacked critics—especially Democrats—who say that counterterrorism should be built around law enforcement strategies.

But the 200-page Rand study suggests that using the label "global war" skews priorities and sends the wrong political message. "Almost all of our allies, from the Great Britain to Australia, have stopped using the concept of a "global war on terror," Jones told congressional staffers in a briefing on Tuesday, suggesting that "counterterrorism" should become the preferred nomenclature for operations against al Qaeda. "There are simply no battlefield solutions to this problem," he said.

The analysis focuses on a little-studied aspect of what one might call a terrorist group's "life cycle." Examining 648 historical cases of terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006 and their eventual ends, the report concludes that most groups end because they are either incorporated into the political process (43 percent) or are eliminated through police and intelligence services seizing or killing group leaders (40 percent).

"In most cases, military force is too blunt of an instrument and ineffective at ending terrorist groups," says Jones, a well-known Rand expert on Afghanistan who is also an adjunct political science professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

For one thing, they point out, a major American military role sets the stage for a backlash. "The U.S. military can play a critical role in building indigenous capacity but should generally resist being drawn into combat operations in Muslim countries, where its presence is likely to increase terrorist recruitment," Jones and Libicki wrote.

While the report's analysis of the history of counterterrorism operations finds that all terror groups eventually fizzle out, it was less optimistic on the prospects for a speedy endgame. Religiously motivated groups like al Qaeda have been particularly tenacious, surviving longer than most groups.

"The most salient fact about religious terrorist groups is how hard they are to eliminate," the study says. They were, however, far less successful in achieving their goals. "All terrorist groups end, but terrorism, like crime, never ends," Jones says.

Since 1968, the scope of the report's database, no religiously motivated terrorist group has achieved victory.

Other findings in the report were surprising, particularly the lack of correlation between the end of a terrorist group and a variety of factors such as its ideological motivation, breadth of goals, economic conditions, or the type of regime under which the group operates.

The report finds, though, that a terrorist group's size does have some relevance. Organizations of more than 10,000, for instance, have been victorious in their struggle more than a quarter of the time, while victory for groups smaller than 1,000 members is exceedingly rare.