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A Little Less Talk, A Little More Action

What to make of the recent direct action strike on an al-Qaeda cadre in Somalia? Counterterrorism theories and methodologies seem to swing on a pendulum in public debate. Before 9/11, dealing with terrorism was conceptualized almost entirely through the lens of direct action by special units, target hardening, apprehension of suspects, and other “kinetic” measures. Now, there is a much more sophisticated understanding of “soft power” and “strategic communications” as a means of countering terrorism by lowering support for terrorist groups. And it is right and correct that we think about terror as a predominately symbolic act tied to certain strategic objectives. But the danger in this is that we come to believe that a wholly enlightened and bloodless kind of counterterrorism can be practiced with only soft power and law enforcement.
      The bread and butter of counterterrorism policy is countering terrorists. And beneath this somewhat Orwellian term we find at the basic level the capture and killing of terrorist operatives whenever and wherever they can be found. The driving element of American counterterrorism policy must be a strong focus on defeating terrorist groups, dismantling terrorist networks, and neutralizing terrorist leaders and cadres. We must never forget that beneath all the talk of dealing with “root causes,” the basis of a strong counterterrorism methodology is the ruthless attrition of terrorist groups. Context will undoubtedly dictate the means of doing so–rolling up networks domestically is worlds different from killing a cadre via a drone. But the focus must be on always keeping the terrorists on the tactical defensive.
      Yes, law enforcement will often take the lead in dealing with terrorism. But the military has a strong role to play as well, because it is difficult to imagine the likes of Interpol entering Somalia to serve al-Qaeda cadres with arrest warrants. There may be no exclusively military solution to terrorism, but military special forces forward-positioned to carry out direct action missions are an integral part of breaking down terrorist networks. Direct action, like counterterrorism itself, is not a strategy. It is one methodology employed in a larger strategy with substantial “whole-of-government” elements. But it is the most basic and integral tactical element of the counterterrorist’s operational art. It needs more discussion and recognition, especially given the increasing need of information access to facilitate covert and overt action.