Terrorism Blown out of Proportion? Daniel Benjamin assesses the threat

daniel benjamin

Daniel Benjamin, former Director for Counterterrorism, National Security Council

Daniel Benjamin is a long-time practitioner in the field of counterterrorism. After serving as Director for Counterterrorism in the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, Benjamin coauthored The Age of Sacred Terror, chronicling the rise of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. This work was awarded the Arthur Ross Prize by the Council on Foreign Relations and was named a New York Times notable book and a Washington Post best book of 2002. He recently served as Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the U.S. State Department under President Obama and Secretary Clinton, and is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.

How have ideas about terrorism changed since you began working in the field of counterterrorism?

I’ve co-written a book and many articles on how terrorism went from being essentially a third tier foreign policy and security concern to being a first tier one. And that largely has to do with the rise of catastrophic terrorism, in particular driven by religiously imbued motivation. When I started as Director for Counterterrorism on the [National Security Council] staff, our number one concern was state-sponsored terrorism, particularly from Iran. In February of 1998, right around the time I was starting, [Osama] bin Laden’s most famous fatwah was published and soon we were receiving intelligence about potential WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] development by al Qaeda which of course changed things considerably. I and Steve Simon, my coauthor, wrote about this long before 9/11, warned that this was coming, and then of course it happened. I think that that has been a key development. The rise of al Qaeda, 9/11, the embrace of violence, and ultimately the use of catastrophic terrorism.

Leaders of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) cite past injustices from states like the U.S. as justification for their actions. What can policymakers do differently to reduce the threat of future violence?

Of course there are things you can do to diminish or mitigate the threat. My own view, and I wrote about this before it happened, is that the invasion of Iraq blew up the threat enormously—that is to say enhanced enormously and played right into the terrorist narrative of the United States as a predatory power that wanted to subjugate Muslim people and destroy Islam and steal Muslims’ oil wealth.

I think that most policymakers today, including those who have been engaged in policymaking for decades, would probably say that the two things that are often cited as being main drivers or key catalysts of al Qaeda actions, namely the support of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the fight against the Soviets and the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia at the time of Desert Storm, are things we wouldn’t do very differently. I think that’s a debate that people are going to have for many years to come.

I think the key thing here is that these are multi-causal developments. In many ways, the emergence of modern jihadism owes to a history that goes back a couple of centuries in terms of the colonial rule over Arabs, the demise of the Caliphate, the general fall from greatness that is the last 500 years of Islamic history or the history of Muslim countries. There are many, many different factors. To sum up, yes, there are many dumb things we shouldn’t do, some judgement calls we should make differently, but there are also lots of huge historical drivers that cannot be affected and choices that we would have made anyway.

What are we missing from media coverage of terror?

I’m not sure it’s confined to media coverage. We certainly suffer from all sorts of unsophisticated thinking about the risks, consequences, the relative threat of terror and the changing nature of the threat. For example, one of the arguments that I’ve made often is that in spite of the rise of ISIS, we are considerably safer than we were 10 or 12 years ago because al Qaeda, the group that could carry out long distance covert operations and can cause catastrophic terror, has been much diminished by U.S. counterterrorism.

I also think there’s an element of the discourse that ignores all the strides forward that have been made in counterterrorism and Homeland Security. My own view is that if you look at the polls in where terrorism rates now as a national concern, it’s out of line with the actual threat at the moment. It remains a very serious concern, but I don’t think that, for example, it’s a bigger deal than Russia trying to rewrite the rules of the international system or the rise of China, and that is the way it’s often covered.

Recently you said that self-starter terrorism piggybacking on the ISIL phenomenon is the new norm. Are these groups profoundly different, and is there anything the U.S. should do to adjust their strategy?

When you hear of ISIS in particular, although it began before ISIS, the most immediate threat we face to security is that of self-starters—homegrowns who are trying to show their common cause with ISIS. That is to say, they believe by carrying out their so-called individual jihad that they are demonstrating their own membership in this movement and acting on a historical stage. Those individuals are hard to track and prevent from doing what it is they plan to do. Many of them are stopped, but I’d say that the percentages are worse than with more organized cells because these people are in our midst. They don’t tend to have a lot of communications with others.

The whole extremist milieu is highly agitated because of the success of ISIS and the like. I don’t think this is an existential threat by any means, or even a very grave threat, because their numbers remain quite low. Their ability to carry out damaging terrorist attacks remains limited, they tend not to be the brightest candles on the cake, but it is nonetheless a problem that we face.

What advice do you have for future policymakers working in counterterrorism?

That’s more than I can answer right now. I have an article forthcoming on the need to cause some significant damage to ISIS to potentially deflate our opponents’ excitement that has accompanied its ability to or its success at gaining territory and holding it. I don’t believe that ISIS can be destroyed in the way that some politicians have suggested. It can be taken down a few pegs, but it will be tougher to eliminate them as has been suggested.

I think the other thing is that we need more effort at the kind of direct intervention in communities to build resilience within communities so that they are the first line of defense, and identify people who are at risk of being radicalized. That way we will cut down on the number of self-starters as well as the number of recruits. I think that counter-narrative work is important, but a lot of these people are cognitively closed to messaging from organizations that are doing that work, and I think it’s much more about engaging families, community leaders, educational systems and the like.

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Robert Callahan
Robert Callahan is a Politics & Law Staff Writer for the Chicago Policy Review. He is interested in legislative politics and yelling about board games.

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