2222 words - March 13, 2012 - Writing by Michael B. Kraft; Editing by Charles Rault | © DiploNews, all rights reserved.
In collaboration with Michael B. Kraft, a former senior advisor in the U.S. Department of State Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, DiploNews presents an insider's perspective of the current state of the U.S. counterterrorism machine along with the concerns for the future of counterterrorism programs and funding.
Paris, France, March 13, 2012 — The State Department’s top counterterrorism official, Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, told DiploNews that the administration continues to give priority to countering terrorism and emphasize international cooperation. The U.S. originally held annual bilateral discussions with only a handful of countries, most consistently with Canada and the United Kingdom. In contrast, the U.S. now holds bilateral meetings with about 20 countries annually and holds secure communications with a handful of foreign counterparts weekly. This effort was bolstered by the 2011 launching of the Global Counterterrorism Forum. With 29 member countries plus the EU, the Global Counterterrorism Forum works to improve coordination and to share information and resources in the fight against terrorism.
According to the DiploNews report, compared with the past, tactical capabilities are at their peak, though the phenomenon of violent extremism is still out there. As a result, strategic approaches to countering terrorism have received greater focus through the U.S. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs both domestically and abroad. These programs aim to counter the radicalization of persons who may be moving onto the next phase of engaging in terrorist violence or knowingly providing material support for the shooters and bombers. Additional strategy-oriented programs focus on addressing the increasingly decentralized nature of terrorism and the impact of the internet. The variety and scope of the various training and equipment programs by the U.S. and other agencies have had an impact in improving the global counterterrorism capability and have proven to be successful.
As the international terrorism threat continued to evolve in recent years, so have U.S. government programs and budget allocations, outlines the report. As a result, the U.S. government’s counterterrorism program has become so large and complicated that many federal officials do not know all the components, let alone state and local government officials. Additionally, frequent resource and budget realignments serve as evidence of the challenge of planning and budgeting in advance to counter threats that might develop in unpredictable ways.
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With the killing of Al Qeada's leader Osama Bin Laden last year and the pressures to cut the U.S. government’s budget it would seem likely that the U.S. Government will scale back its counterterrorism efforts at home and abroad. Although there have been major attacks overseas and threatened or thwarted attacks within the U.S., the issue has largely faded from prominence in the American press and Congress, overshadowed by the election campaign and the economy.
At the same time, however, the terrorism threat continues to loom. Iran, long considered by the State Department to be the most active nation supporting terrorism, is still a problem. Concerns over possible Iranian-backed terrorist attacks have grown in the wake of recent Tehran’s threats to retaliate against the economic sanctions imposed because of the mullahs' drive toward developing nuclear weapons. The recent terrorist operations in India, Thailand, Georgia and Azerbaijan against Israeli targets reinforced the alerts about Iran's possible activities, especially if Israel and/ or the U.S. bomb Iran's nuclear weapons facilities.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda, and those inspired by it, seems to have evolved into more localized groups such as the Al-Shabaab in Yemen and more recently, the Boko Haram group, which claimed responsibility for attacks that killed more than 140 persons in Kano, Nigeria in January. And terrorists believed to be influenced by or affiliated with Al Qaeda have staged more attacks in Iraq following the end of American combat activities.
As the international terrorism threat continued to evolve in recent years, so have the U.S. government programs, with trims here, expansions there. The overall resource levels, for the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department remain pretty much the same, at least as proposed to Congress in the Obama Administration’s budget request made public February 13 for Fiscal Year 2013 which begins October 1, 2012. There have been, however, some shifts of emphasis within the overall budgets. It is far too early to tell if Congress will make significant cuts by the time it actually examine the appropriations bills, probably toward the end of this calendar year.
The State Department’s top counterterrorism official, Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, said in an interview with DiploNews that the administration continues to give priority to countering the terrorism dangers, and pointed to some new programs.
Ambassador Benjamin, who earlier in his career had been a counterterrorism specialist on the National Security Council staff, described the U.S. efforts to fight the counterterrorism threat as continuing to emphasize international cooperation, but with new strategic-oriented programs to deal with the increasingly decentralized nature of terrorism and the impact of the internet.
On the domestic front, since 9/11 the U.S. government has greatly expanded previously existing counterterrorism programs and developed new ones. It even created a new and large cabinet level agency in 2002, the Department of Homeland Security, to bring under one big tent activities that were spread across some 28 U.S. government organizations that had components involved in counterterrorism efforts.
The U.S. government’s counterterrorism program has become so large and complicated that many federal officials do not know all the components, let alone state and local government officials. This prompted this report's author with Ambassador Edward Marks, another retired government counterterrorism official, to write the first publicly available description of the U.S. Government myriad of agencies and offices and unclassified programs involved in the counterterrorism effort: U.S. Government Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What.(1) The new book runs to 400 pages and also describes the interagency process and the U.S. counterterrorism legislation that has developed over the years. Another recent book, Top Secret America (2) by a Washington Post investigative team, describes the vast hidden and often secret complex of contractors and intelligence-related organizations that have emerged in response to the terrorism threat.
By the way of illustration in the public domain, in the latest expansion/reorganization, the State Department earlier this year created the Counterterrorism Bureau. The action elevated what had been for years known as the Office for the Coordinator for Counterterrorism. The Office was originally established after the 1972 Munich massacre as a policy coordinating mechanism, with about half a dozen officers. It has grown to about 120 persons currently including Foreign Service officers, civil service career officials, personnel seconded from the Defense Department (DoD) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and contractors. The current budget request seeks an additional 12 full time positions.
The bureau has the lead role in trying to coordinate U.S. counterterrorism activities overseas, working with other government agencies to develop coordinated and to foster the cooperation of partner nations. While the primary functions of the new bureau do not seem to change markedly from those of the old office, the new entity is seen as having more clout and access to staffing resources.
In strengthening international cooperation, the U.S. originally held annual bilateral discussions with only a handful of countries, most consistently with Canada and the United Kingdom. Now the U.S. holds bilateral meetings with about 20 countries annually, Ambassador Benjamin said. He said that with some countries such as the U.K., he talks by secure communications weekly with his foreign counterparts.
In addition, the USG has been working for years on the multilateral front, with the United Nations, which has its own counterterrorism committee, and related agencies such as the International Civilian Agency Organization (ICAO), the G-8, and regional organizations in Latin America and other areas. Last year, the U.S. and other countries launched the Global Counterterrorism Forum (3) with 29 countries and the EU to improve coordination and share information and resources. It has several subcommittees and held a follow-up meeting in Canada in January.
On the program side, the U.S. international efforts also are evolving.
Since the mid 1980’s, the counterterrorism office, now bureau, has been providing policy guidance to the Department’s premier program for providing assistance and improving working relationships with other countries, the Anti-Terrorism Training Assistance (ATA) program. About 60 countries are currently taking part in the program which was first approved in 1983 and is managed by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The wide variety of courses includes airport security, explosive detection, and training first responders.
Since 9/11 the State Department has developed additional programs including countering terrorism financing, which provides assistance to other countries in detecting and disrupting terrorist financial networks and transactions. The State Department, Treasury and Justice Departments are involved in these efforts, which include sending experts overseas on temporary assignment to train foreign officials. Although the first programs which curtail terrorist funding were initiated before 9/11, they have been expanded and fleshed out since then. The State Department is requested $16 million for the effort in FY 2013.
The variety and scope of the various training and equipment programs by the U.S. and other agencies have had an impact in improving the capabilities of many countries and participating officers have had a hand in thwarting or resolving a number of terrorist incidents. Ambassador Benjamin said that compared with the past, “tactical capabilities are at their peak.” However, he added, “the phenomenon of violent extremism is still out there.” The answer is not just in tactical approaches but doing a better job in countering violent extremism. We now need to focus on the strategic approach, he said in an interview.
As he put in a recent speech at the National Defense University (NDU)’s Near East/South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (4): “We, in the international community have become so adept at tactical terrorism that we haven’t focused sufficiently on the need to defeat terrorists at the strategic level. That means we have to undercut ideological and rhetorical underpinnings that make the violent extremist worldview attractive to some individuals and groups while also addressing local grievance and other factors.”
As part of this effort, the U.S. government has launched Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs both domestically and to assist other countries. The goal is to counter the radicalization of persons who may be moving onto the next phase of engaging in terrorist violence or knowingly providing material support for the shooters and bombers. The U.S. has developed a domestic program in which representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI reach out to the local community, usually working with local officials, The FBI’s civil rights division also is involved in the efforts to meet with Muslim and Sikh leaders in various communities who may have influence with others.
For overseas, Ambassador Benjamin’s office has been developing a CVE program to support other countries to engage youths “in at risk communities” through such activities as sports programs and to counter the spread of violent extremist ideologies in prisons and detention centers. It has been in contact with the U.K. and the Netherlands and other countries that are dealing with the issue in their borders.
Meanwhile on the broader front of trying to counter Al Qaeda and other terrorist propaganda, especially on the internet, a year ago the USG launched the Center for Strategic Communications, housed in the State Department but drawing personnel from other agencies. Ambassador Benjamin said that as part of the approach, specialists fluent in Arabic and Urdu “are contesting online space, media and websites” in effect going on line in chat rooms and conducting conversations to “explore the contradictions and abuses employed by violent extremists.”
On the domestic front, the Administration’s overall request for the Department of Homeland Security is $39.5 billion in net discretionary spending, for the fiscal year 2013, a slight decrease of half a percent from the figure Congress finally enacted for the current fiscal year. DHS officials say, however that the department has implemented a number of steps to cut administrative and other operating cost.
Much of DHS spending, of course, is for dual purpose programs, such as grants for first responders, whose training and equipment is more likely to be used for coping with natural disasters or accidents than for major terrorist attacks. There were some shifts in past trends. For example, the Administration is requesting $2.9 billion for grants to state and local government for first responder equipment and other programs to strengthen local security. This is an increase of $500 million over the congressionally enacted FY 2012 figure. But Congress had cut the FY 2012 request by one billion, leaving the grant program $500 million below the amount requested a year ago. DHS officials saw, however that the agency already has provided $35 billion in grants during the past 9 years, and it is improving ways to identify and prioritize funding.
The allocations sometimes became controversial because officials in high threat cities, such as New York, have complained that they did not received enough assistance because funding is spread out to included cities that may not have such as high profile.
Also on the state and local level, the number of fusion centers to gather and share intelligence information among State, local, and federal agencies, has expanded to 77 from the 72 a year ago. Some states have more than one fusion center, which are locally owned and operated by state and local governments but receive assistance from DHS.
The DHS has not reached the goals met by Congress for 100 per cent inspection of cargo containers entering the U.S. – a goal that many experts feel is unrealistic, but DHS officials say, in response to questions from DiploNews, that they have developed risk based strategies that enable them to target their focus on the small percentage of goods that are higher risk and expedite shipments that they already know are low risk.
Meanwhile the Department’s Science and Technology section is putting increased emphasis on research and development to counter potential bioterrorism threats, with development of detection and diagnostic techniques and detection of home made explosives.
Sometimes, however maintaining or increasing budget resources does not alleviate concerns about whether the resources are adequate for future needs. For example, for FY 2013, the Administration is requesting $10.5 billion for the Pentagon’s Special Operations Forces, which are used for counterinsurgency as well as counterterrorism operations. This is $100 million above the authorized FY 2012 level. But the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper, highlighted on its front page a Congressional Research Service report (5) that said the downsizing of the regular ground forces (Army and Marines) “raises concerns that the military will be able to establish, dedicate and support the special operations command while also adequately supporting general purpose forces.“
This is just one example of the problems facing planners and budget officials. It illustrates that it is difficult to plan and budget in advance for countering threats that might develop in currently unknown ways.
(1) Kraft, Michael B and Edward Marks: U.S. Government Counterterrorism A Guide to Who Does What. CRC Press. Boca Raton, FL. December 2011.
(2) Priest, Dana and William M. Arkin. Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. Little, Brown and Company. New York, September, 2011.
(3) Global Counterterrorism Forum, Department of State Web site,
(4) Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator, State Department Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, remarks to the National Defense University (NDU), Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA). Washington, DC, January 25, 2012.
(5) Feickert, Andrew. US. Special Operations Forces (SOF) Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service. January 11, 2012
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