U.S. Adapts Cold-War Idea to Fight “Terrorists”


Richard Moore

One wonders what the purpose of all this is. Is it to make people believe Al 
Qaeda is real? Is it a cover for new kinds of police state methods? Is it a 
justification for disrupting legitimate uses of the web?


March 18, 2008

U.S. Adapts Cold-War Idea to Fight Terrorists

WASHINGTON ‹ In the days immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 
members of President Bush¹s war cabinet declared that it would be impossible to 
deter the most fervent extremists from carrying out even more deadly terrorist 
missions with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.

Since then, however, administration, military and intelligence officials 
assigned to counterterrorism have begun to change their view. After piecing 
together a more nuanced portrait of terrorist organizations, they say there is 
reason to believe that a combination of efforts could in fact establish 
something akin to the posture of deterrence, the strategy that helped protect 
the United States from a Soviet nuclear attack during the cold war.

Interviews with more than two dozen senior officials involved in the effort 
provided the outlines of previously unreported missions to mute Al Qaeda¹s 
message, turn the jihadi movement¹s own weaknesses against it and illuminate Al 
Qaeda¹s errors whenever possible.

A primary focus has become cyberspace, which is the global safe haven of 
terrorist networks. To counter efforts by terrorists to plot attacks, raise 
money and recruit new members on the Internet, the government has mounted a 
secret campaign to plant bogus e-mail messages and Web site postings, with the 
intent to sow confusion, dissent and distrust among militant organizations, 
officials confirm.

At the same time, American diplomats are quietly working behind the scenes with 
Middle Eastern partners to amplify the speeches and writings of prominent 
Islamic clerics who are renouncing terrorist violence.

At the local level, the authorities are experimenting with new ways to keep 
potential terrorists off guard.

In New York City, as many as 100 police officers in squad cars from every 
precinct converge twice daily at randomly selected times and at randomly 
selected sites, like Times Square or the financial district, to rehearse their 
response to a terrorist attack. City police officials say the operations are 
believed to be a crucial tactic to keep extremists guessing as to when and where
a large police presence may materialize at any hour. ³What we¹ve developed since
9/11, in six or seven years, is a better understanding of the support that is 
necessary for terrorists, the network which provides that support, whether it¹s 
financial or material or expertise,² said Michael E. Leiter, acting director of 
the National Counterterrorism Center.

³We¹ve now begun to develop more sophisticated thoughts about deterrence looking
at each one of those individually,² Mr. Leiter said in an interview. ³Terrorists
don¹t operate in a vacuum.²

In some ways, government officials acknowledge, the effort represents a 
second-best solution. Their preferred way to combat terrorism remains to capture
or kill extremists, and the new emphasis on deterrence in some ways amounts to 
attaching a new label to old tools.

³There is one key question that no one can answer: How much disruption does it 
take to give you the effect of deterrence?² said Michael Levi, a fellow at the 
Council on Foreign Relations and the author of a new study, ³On Nuclear 

The New Deterrence

The emerging belief that terrorists may be subject to a new form of deterrence 
is reflected in two of the nation¹s central strategy documents.

The 2002 National Security Strategy, signed by the president one year after the 
Sept. 11 attacks, stated flatly that ³traditional concepts of deterrence will 
not work against a terrorist enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction 
and the targeting of innocents.²

Four years later, however, the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism 
concluded: ³A new deterrence calculus combines the need to deter terrorists and 
supporters from contemplating a W.M.D. attack and, failing that, to dissuade 
them from actually conducting an attack.²

For obvious reasons, it is harder to deter terrorists than it was to deter a 
Soviet attack.

Terrorists hold no obvious targets for American retaliation as Soviet cities, 
factories, military bases and silos were under the cold-war deterrence doctrine.
And it is far harder to pinpoint the location of a terrorist group¹s leaders 
than it was to identify the Kremlin offices of the Politburo bosses, making it 
all but impossible to deter attacks by credibly threatening a retaliatory 

But over the six and a half years since the Sept. 11 attacks, many terrorist 
leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have 
successfully evaded capture, and American officials say they now recognize that 
threats to kill terrorist leaders may never be enough to keep America safe.

So American officials have spent the last several years trying to identify other
types of ³territory² that extremists hold dear, and they say they believe that 
one important aspect may be the terrorists¹ reputation and credibility with 

Under this theory, if the seeds of doubt can be planted in the mind of Al 
Qaeda¹s strategic leadership that an attack would be viewed as a shameful murder
of innocents ‹ or, even more effectively, that it would be an embarrassing 
failure ‹ then the order may not be given, according to this new analysis.

Senior officials acknowledge that it is difficult to prove what role these new 
tactics and strategies have played in thwarting plots or deterring Al Qaeda from
attacking. Senior officials say there have been several successes using the new 
approaches, but many involve highly classified technical programs, including the
cyberoperations, that they declined to detail.

They did point to some older and now publicized examples that suggest that their
efforts are moving in the right direction.

George J. Tenet, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote 
in his autobiography that the authorities were concerned that Qaeda operatives 
had made plans in 2003 to attack the New York City subway using cyanide devices.

Mr. Zawahri reportedly called off the plot because he feared that it ³was not 
sufficiently inspiring to serve Al Qaeda¹s ambitions,² and would be viewed as a 
pale, even humiliating, follow-up to the 9/11 attacks.

And in 2002, Iyman Faris, a naturalized American citizen from Kashmir, began 
casing the Brooklyn Bridge to plan an attack and communicated with Qaeda leaders
in Pakistan via coded messages about using a blowtorch to sever the suspension 

But by early 2003, Mr. Faris sent a message to his confederates saying that ³the
weather is too hot.² American officials said that meant Mr. Faris feared that 
the plot was unlikely to succeed ‹ apparently because of increased security.

³We made a very visible presence there and that may have contributed to it,² 
said Paul J. Browne, the New York City Police Department¹s chief spokesman. 
³Deterrence is part and parcel of our entire effort.²

Disrupting Cyberprojects

Terrorists hold little or no terrain, except on the Web. ³Al Qaeda and other 
terrorists¹ center of gravity lies in the information domain, and it is there 
that we must engage it,² said Dell L. Dailey, the State Department¹s 
counterterrorism chief.

Some of the government¹s most secretive counterterrorism efforts involve 
disrupting terrorists¹ cyberoperations. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, 
specially trained teams have recovered computer hard drives used by terrorists 
and are turning the terrorists¹ tools against them.

³If you can learn something about whatever is on those hard drives, whatever 
that information might be, you could instill doubt on their part by just 
countermessaging whatever it is they said they wanted to do or planned to do,² 
said Brig. Gen. Mark O. Schissler, director of cyberoperations for the Air Force
and a former deputy director of the antiterrorism office for the Joint Chiefs of

Since terrorists feel safe using the Internet to spread ideology and gather 
recruits, General Schissler added, ³you may be able to interfere with some of 
that, interrupt some of that.²

³You can also post messages to the opposite of that,² he added.

Other American efforts are aimed at discrediting Qaeda operations, including the
decision to release seized videotapes showing members of Al Qaeda in 
Mesopotamia, a largely Iraqi group with some foreign leaders, training children 
to kidnap and kill, as well as a lengthy letter said to have been written by 
another terrorist leader that describes the organization as weak and plagued by 
poor morale.

Dissuading Militants

Even as security and intelligence forces seek to disrupt terrorist operations, 
counterterrorism specialists are examining ways to dissuade insurgents from even
considering an attack with unconventional weapons. They are looking at aspects 
of the militants¹ culture, families or religion, to undermine the rhetoric of 
terrorist leaders.

For example, the government is seeking ways to amplify the voices of respected 
religious leaders who warn that suicide bombers will not enjoy the heavenly 
delights promised by terrorist literature, and that their families will be 
dishonored by such attacks. Those efforts are aimed at undermining a terrorist¹s

³I¹ve got to figure out what does dissuade you,² said Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, 
the Joint Chiefs¹ director of strategic plans and policy. ³What is your center 
of gravity that we can go at? The goal you set won¹t be achieved, or you will be
discredited and lose face with the rest of the Muslim world or radical extremism
that you signed up for.²

Efforts are also under way to persuade Muslims not to support terrorists. It is 
a delicate campaign that American officials are trying to promote and amplify ‹ 
but without leaving telltale American fingerprints that could undermine the 
effort in the Muslim world. Senior Bush administration officials point to 
several promising developments.

Saudi Arabia¹s top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul Aziz al-Asheik, gave a speech
last October warning Saudis not to join unauthorized jihadist activities, a 
statement directed mainly at those considering going to Iraq to fight the 
American-led forces.

And Abdul-Aziz el-Sherif, a top leader of the armed Egyptian movement Islamic 
Jihad and a longtime associate of Mr. Zawahri, the second-ranking Qaeda 
official, has just completed a book that renounces violent jihad on legal and 
religious grounds.

Such dissents are serving to widen rifts between Qaeda leaders and some former 
loyal backers, Western and Middle Eastern diplomats say.

³Many terrorists value the perception of popular or theological legitimacy for 
their actions,² said Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush¹s national security adviser. 
³By encouraging debate about the moral legitimacy of using weapons of mass 
destruction, we can try to affect the strategic calculus of the terrorists.²

Denying Support

As the top Pentagon policy maker for special operations, Michael G. Vickers 
creates strategies for combating terrorism with specialized military forces, as 
well as for countering the proliferation of nuclear, biological or chemical 

Much of his planning is old school: how should the military¹s most elite combat 
teams capture and kill terrorists? But with each passing day, more of his time 
is spent in the new world of terrorist deterrence theory, trying to figure out 
how to prevent attacks by persuading terrorist support networks ‹ those who 
enable terrorists to operate ‹ to refuse any kind of assistance to stateless 
agents of extremism.

³Obviously, hard-core terrorists will be the hardest to deter,² Mr. Vickers 
said. ³But if we can deter the support network ‹ recruiters, financial 
supporters, local security providers and states who provide sanctuary ‹ then we 
can start achieving a deterrent effect on the whole terrorist network and 
constrain terrorists¹ ability to operate.

³We have not deterred terrorists from their intention to do us great harm,² Mr. 
Vickers said, ³but by constraining their means and taking away various tools, we
approach the overall deterrent effect we want.²

Much effort is being spent on perfecting technical systems that can identify the
source of unconventional weapons or their components regardless of where they 
are found ‹ and letting nations around the world know the United States has this

President Bush has declared that the United States will hold ³fully accountable²
any nation that shares nuclear weapons with another state or terrorists.

Rear Adm. William P. Loeffler, deputy director of the Center for Combating 
Weapons of Mass Destruction at the military¹s Strategic Command, said Mr. Bush¹s
declaration meant that those who might supply arms or components to terrorists 
were just as accountable as those who ordered and carried out an attack.

It is, the admiral said, a system of ³attribution as deterrence.²

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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