Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Panarchy, the President, and a Whack-a-mole approach to countering terrorism

The Foreign Policy article Mission Not Accomplished disputes the claim by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that al Qaeda's defeat is "within reach."
Although U.S. counterterrorism efforts have indeed substantially weakened the organization, Panetta's comments miss the bigger point about the terrorist threat facing the United States. Over the past decade, that threat has morphed from one led by a hierarchical al Qaeda organization into something much more diffuse, with a greater presence online, that no longer depends on orders from senior leaders in Pakistan.
Viewing the terrorism threat as solely embodied by al Qaeda as a discrete and hierarchical organization is both inaccurate and dangerous. The more important metric is the popularity of the Islamist movement generally and the jihadi movement specifically. Although it is difficult to measure, its online presence has undoubtedly grown rapidly over recent years. The jihadists' media capabilities have expanded considerably over the past 10 years, and that content can easily be found across the Internet, even on the most mainstream of websites.
Al Qaeda as we knew it 10 years ago may be no more. But at the rate it has been adapting, it seems likely the United States will be at war with this enemy for another decade. Whether individuals can be mobilized by AQAP's media or that of other jihadi outfits to carry out effective attacks on the United States without training overseas is the most important question in counterterrorism and will likely remain so for years to come.
On Aug. 3 the White House took a good first step in creating a framework to counter violent jihad, in releasing "Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism." But it is just that: a framework. Ten years after 9/11, this document marks the U.S. government's first concerted policy effort at countering radicalization. Certainly, it is coming years too late, but it is also short on detail and built largely around the concept of community engagement. Community engagement has been the centerpiece of British and Australian efforts to counter radicalization for at least the last four years. What those programs lacked was an element that confronted the ideology of militant Islam, at the national level and online. Emphasizing local community efforts is a logical endeavor, but the jihadi message is global and focused on Muslim suffering abroad, not on local issues in London, Melbourne, or Chicago. Eventually, Washington will have to confront the underlying ideology of militant Islam, not just its byproducts.

In other words, Al Qaeda hasn't decentralized so much as it has franchised. There remains a global ideology. Or, in panarchy terms, the network has presence at the local level (individual cells), the national level (loose network within a particular region) and the global level (typically more in terms of ideology than direct interpersonal contact). As the article points out, the focus on (local) community engagement fails to confront the ideology of militant Islam either at the national level or online.  Or, to render the problem in panarchy terms, the approach omits consideration of cross-scale interactions -- particularly the remember interaction whereby lower-level processes (local organization) are rejuvenated through access to resources from the higher levels. In practical terms, you can't only play whack-a-mole at the local level and be successful.

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