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David Rothkopf: Wrong priorities against terrorism

  • Foreign Policy
  • Published Sunday, August 11, 2013, at 12 a.m.

With each day, it becomes even clearer that despite what appears to be a very serious current terrorist threat, the greatest risks facing America come from our own misplaced priorities and mistaken assumptions.

I spoke recently with a very senior administration official – one of the White House’s best and brightest – who forcefully described the significance of America’s successful destruction of “core” al-Qaida. But two errors in that assessment have now become abundantly apparent.

The first is obvious given that the current alert is reportedly due in part to communications between a still-active core al-Qaida led by Ayman al-Zawahri and lieutenants in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The second and perhaps more important revelation is the enduring notion that al-Qaida could effectively be defeated (or the risks associated with it could be contained) by targeting its so-called core.

A large part of the threat associated with al-Qaida has to do with the fact that it is not a traditional hierarchical organization, operating with a structure that allows it to recover from even heavy blows. Further, of course, as we see the byproduct of the upheaval throughout the Arab world, extremists come in many forms with many allegiances, so targeting any one organization doesn’t necessarily reduce the threat. On top of which, the spread of weak regimes and chaos in the region actually accelerates the recruitment of new fighters, the development of new organizations (such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria), and a diffusion of risks that makes managing them even tougher.

The confluence of these last two factors is well-illustrated by the fact that the alleged Zawahri communication was with al-Qaida’s new “No. 2” – its leader in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Formerly Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary, Wuhayshi was imprisoned but escaped and moved to Yemen. He has since taken the reins of a steadily strengthening local operation with global aspirations.

Wuhayshi’s escape from prison also happens to underscore yet another of our misplaced priorities. While America has engaged in an overly politicized debate over the tragedy of last Sept. 11 in Benghazi, there has been precious little discussion over a much more worrisome set of failures: the series of prison breaks at facilities housing dangerous extremists. This list most recently includes Abu Ghraib in Iraq, a prison in Pakistan and one outside of Benghazi.

The greatest misplaced priority associated with our intelligence program is the notion that stopping terrorists is worth undercutting the basic privacy rights of U.S. citizens and our allies. Terror threats are limited, fleeting and literally impossible to fully contain – all reasons that should have never been allowed to undercut those other, enduring principles.

This brings us to the ultimate mistaken assumption – that it is actually possible to win a war on terror. But we can lose such a war if we let terrorists set our policies, drain our resources and mesmerize us with a shadow game that never ends, one that leaves us distracted from our real needs and priorities.

That is not to say we shouldn’t be on guard or that we shouldn’t strike hard against demonstrated threats and those who have conducted past attacks. We must. But we also need to get a grip – to understand what elements of this we need to be prepared to deal with, to prepare accordingly, and to focus on the real risks rather than simply those that cause the biggest hue and cry among the hysterics on Capitol Hill and in the American media.

David Rothkopf is CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy.

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