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August 20, 2001

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The Best Homeland Defense is a Good Counterterrorism Offense

The Best Homeland Defense is a Good Counterterrorism Offense

Ambassador Michael A. Sheehan
Coordinator for Counterterrorism
U.S. Department of State

October 2000


Michael Sheehan has served as Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State since December 1998. His office has primary responsibility for developing, coordinating, and implementing U.S. counterterrorism policy. The office chairs the Interagency Working Group for Counterterrorism and the Department of State's task force that responds to international terrorist incidents. Previously Sheehan was a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs where he worked on UN reform and peacekeeping policy in the former Yugoslavia. From 1995 to 1997, he also served in the White House on the National Security Council staff as Director of International Organizations and Peacekeeping. From 1993 to 1995, he was Director of Political Military Affairs and Special Counselor to Ambassador Madeleine Albright at the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York.


     The United States is among the world's leaders in homeland defense; our efforts to strengthen our security continue unabated every day. However, as we continue to bolster our defenses, we need to continue to monitor and counter the changing threat of international terrorism, which is forcing us to expand the scope of our homeland defense. With the rapid changes occurring in the domestic and international environment, we must develop an "active defense" outside the United States, to guard against threats emanating from overseas and to protect American citizens and assets abroad. Without this expansion in scope, even the best domestic homeland defense-a "Fortress America"-leaves the United States and its citizens vulnerable.

     There are several trends that have redefined the playing field for those involved in homeland defense. First, American citizens, assets, and interests are increasingly found outside of the United States, thus forcing us to protect ourselves on non-American soil, as well as in the U.S. With the expansion of American companies and NGOs in the international realm, U.S. engagement in humanitarian and military operations abroad, and the growth of international tourism and education - to name a few trends - Americans can be found in almost every country in the world at any given time. Very few international flights fly without an American aboard. Thus, it was no surprise when we learned that an American citizen was among the hostages taken aboard the Air India flight that was hijacked on December 24, 1999. This was not a flight to or from the U.S., but rather a quick hop between Nepal and India, yet an American citizen was on board. We must look to safeguard our interests abroad, just as we have defended those on American soil.

     Second, the threat to Americans-whether residing within the country or abroad-is often planned and perpetrated from outside the U.S. A disproportionate number of threats come from individuals who have never seen and may never see the shores of the United States. This is made easier by today's highly developed communication and transportation systems. We must look to fight, disrupt, and intercept these threats from their origins or while they are in transit to a target, not wait for them to reach their objective.

     The front line has moved from the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to the city centers of Khandahar and Tehran. We must think of our homeland defense to include these areas, as well as our own shore and territories. Soccer offers us a useful illustration of how we should design an effective defense. If a soccer team starts defending first when the attacker is just feet away from the goal, the team has already lost. Only through a constant comprehensive press at every corner of the field can a team expect to fully defend against an attack. Likewise, we must fight against terrorism on every front-whether in the Middle East, South Asia, or Latin America-rather than just on our shores.

     A review of two recent terrorist incidents-one successful and one aborted-illustrates this shifting front line, and provides us with important lessons on how to expand our homeland defense.

     The bombings of our embassies in East Africa show how networks of terrorists have formed a nexus of support for attacks thousands of miles away.

     The plot for the 1998 attack on the American Embassy in Nairobi was actually hatched five years earlier. Initial reconnaissance of our embassy began in 1994, further planning continued in 1996.

     The strategic direction of this attack came from South Asia, more specifically from Usama bin Ladin who was based in Afghanistan. Operational control and other support worked its way through at least two other countries in Europe and Africa and spanned thousands of miles over vast oceans and deserts. In addition, this attack was conducted simultaneously with a similar embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, over 500 miles to the south of Nairobi. The coordination of these two attacks shows a high level of planning and an enormous global reach.

     The recent arrests over the millennium tell a similar story, and bring the situation closer to home. On December 14, 1999, Algerian Ahmed Ressam was arrested by U.S. Customs agents as he attempted to transport illegal explosive materials across the Canadian border at Port Angeles, Washington. Just weeks later, Jordanian officials arrested a handful of operatives planning an attack on a tourist site and hotel in Israel during the millennium celebrations. In both cases, an international web of links unfolded through the investigation. In both cases, American citizens were directly targeted.

     Although the planning and targeting of these terrorist incidents took place years and miles apart, they show how today's terrorists can come from the farthest reaches of the world to threaten our citizens, whether they are in Washington State, the Middle East, Africa, or elsewhere.

     In addition to this web of international terrorists, there are numerous threats emanating from other corners of the world. The deaths of five Americans in 1999 show the vulnerability of Americans in other corners of the world. In March, 1999 the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) kidnapped three U.S. Indian rights activists, took them to Venezuela, and brutally murdered them. In Bwindi National Forest in Uganda two American tourists were killed by Rwandan Hutu rebels who raided three tourist's camps in the same month. In all of 1999, the only Americans killed at the hands of terrorists were neither diplomats or soldiers, nor employees working in government buildings, but rather civilians caught up in local events who were murdered because of their nationality.

     So how do we defend against this seemingly limitless threat on a seemingly limitless set of targets? Build 20-foot walls around multinational firms? Turn our embassies into bunkered fortresses? Turn our back on allies that need our military or humanitarian engagement abroad? Tell Americans to stay home?

     None of the above.

     Isolating ourselves against a world with whom we must engage is a mistake. Rather than turning inward and isolating ourselves, we must develop a proactive offense to fight the threat where it originates and where we are threatened. This means cracking down on countries that house terrorists who threaten us, putting the squeeze on terrorists as they travel around the world, and hardening potential targets. We cannot do this alone; fortunately, we don't have to. Many countries share our condemnation of terrorism and are similarly threatened. Therefore creating a community of allies that are intolerant of terrorism and threats is essential to developing a long-term sustainable international strategy to defend our homeland. Just as many Americans in cities across the U.S. have taken a stance on crime, creating communities that will not tolerate criminal violence in their communities, we should seek to create a similar "community" of zero tolerance for terrorism.

     In order to develop a comprehensive international homeland defense, we must understand the latest threats to the United States and its interests and engage with our international partners in a coordinated effort to disrupt terrorist activity, deny terrorists sanctuary, bolster the counterterrorist capability of those states willing to fight terrorists (but unable to do so effectively) and isolate those states that refuse to vigorously fight terrorism.

     Terrorism has changed since the 1970's and 1980's, when most Americans first became aware of the threat. Then we witnessed numerous airline hijackings, kidnappings, hostage situations, and ruthless bombings of civilian targets such as the international airports in Rome, Vienna, and Athens. The primary motivation of terrorists in the 70s and 80s was political. We fought leftist groups, separatists, and other politically motivated actors. Latin America, the Middle East and Asia were swarming with groups fighting for changes in existing political structures, borders, and leadership. Another common feature of those decades was the prominent role that states played in supporting terrorist activities. Some state sponsors routinely used terror as an instrument of state policy to attack their opponents, both foreign and domestic.

     Today, the threat is different. State sponsorship has declined significantly in the past ten years. Today's terrorist threat comes primarily from non-state actors with less direct ties to governments, such as Usama bin Laden and the al-Qaida terrorist network associated with him. Terrorists are acting on their own and are resorting to car bombs, suicide bombings, and attacks on civilian buildings and diplomatic posts.

     They have their own funding networks-through narcotrafficing, fund-raising fronts, private businesses, independent wealth, and local financial support. They are individually recruiting new members. In many states where the government is weak in providing basic public services, these groups create parallel public institutions, such as schools, health services, and social networks. Through this outreach, independent terrorist networks are able to make inroads into communities and recruit new members-which in turn provide them operational security for their activities. They are also exploiting volatile areas, such as Chechnya and Dagestan. Their infusion of resources and training into conflict-ripe areas makes for a very deadly mix.

     Today, the principal motivations behind most terrorist movements are primarily religious and cultural, such as "ending western influence," are not bound to a particular territory, and are not primarily focused on a specific political objective. Cultural and/or religious ideology forms the basis for their activities and provides a platform for rallying support among the general population. In general, these non-state actors exhibit less restraint than state actors and other groups did in past decades. They are less concerned about killing random civilians, whether the civilians are standing at an Israeli bus stop, worshipping in a church in Colombia, or walking in front of an American Embassy in Africa. Their choice of victim is no longer a specific political target, but rather anyone who they consider opposed to their ideology, often with little concern for innocent bystanders.

     Rather than focusing on different, distinct target groups, or issues, like-minded terrorists have formed an international network linked by common ideology and enmity for the West, particularly for the United States. As the remaining superpower, the U.S. is often blamed for many of today's troubles and therefore is the target of choice for retaliation. This loose network can be engaged through informal connections and mobilized to conduct acts throughout the world.

     Terrorists are also expanding their choice of targets. Rather than attacking Washington or other capitals, terrorists often target "softer" official targets, such as remote consulates or military bases, or even unofficial targets, such as American business or cultural interests. Usama bin Ladin's recent attacks and plans prove this point. Rather than attacking the United States homeland, he picked weakly protected American Embassies in Africa, where he knew his operatives could move and operate more freely. During the millennium, his operatives focused on tourist sites and hotels in the Middle East.

     Terrorists are taking advantage of technological advances in communications, transportation, and money transfer to plan and implement international operations. The Internet is used by many to share messages and recruit new members, while electronic mail and other newer technologies are used to communicate from Afghanistan to Kenya to Yemen and around the world. Today, a planner can sit in Afghanistan, order the movement of men, money and materials through several other countries, and attack in another country half way around the world. That is how the attacks in Kenya and Tanzania occurred.

     It is not only who is striking and where they are striking, but also how they are striking that should concern those working in homeland defense. Technological advances have expanded the terrorists "toolbox." Terrorists are increasingly using the Internet and computers as a means of communication, command and control, and propaganda dissemination. They are actively pursuing chemical and biological capabilities, and some-like Aum Shinrikyo-have actually used such weapons against innocent civilians.

     The good news on this front is that chemical and biological materials are hard to weaponize, and therefore, remain out of reach of many terrorists. Once again, the key is to limit the freedom of movement and resources of terrorists and to deny them sanctuary to research and pursue WMD capabilities. This type of offensive action-limiting or stopping a terrorist well before an attack has happened-is essential to our security.

     In summary, these international threats to our homeland are complex and multifaceted, and need a sophisticated, multidimensional response. First, we must continue to pressure those states that support terrorism or provide sanctuary to terrorists. Afghanistan and Iran are the two biggest current terrorist supporting threats to the United States. Our terrorism-related sanctions against the Taliban and the current Iranian government should remain intact until they change their policies. Sanctions have worked to minimize Libyan and other states' support for terrorism, and will work with these two countries, if we stay the course.

     Likewise, we must urge those governments that allow terrorists to use their countries as transit points, material procurement sites, or temporary rest stops, to block their activities. Limiting terrorists' movement or access to material will disrupt their planning and operations. In addition, we need to shore up those places that are potential targets. This means bolstering local capabilities to monitor airports, patrol streets, and investigate activity. For foreign-based U.S. officials, business people, and tourists, foreign security officials are the first line of defense against a terrorist threat abroad.

     All of these activities require strong engagement with other countries, both our allies and our adversaries. The full cooperation of our allies and the change of behavior of our adversaries are imperatives to reducing the terrorist threat to Americans.

     While we tend to focus our homeland defense efforts on domestic threats to America- based citizens, we must now look outside our borders for the threats and the threatened. Equally important, we must look even more widely beyond our borders for solutions and partners.





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