WASHINGTON, May 23, 2013 – President Barack Obama spoke today on U.S. counterterrorism policy and looked at how the United States can defend itself from terrorism, yet remain true to core beliefs.
The president’s speech at the National Defense University on Fort Lesley J. McNair here took a broad view of counterterrorism efforts. Obama reviewed what has taken place since September 11, 2001, and how the counterterrorism effort has changed.
In 2001, Al-Qaida was the threat. It was that organization, led by Osama bin Laden, that planned and executed the attacks that killed 3,000 people on 9/11. “Now the core of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat,” the president said.
The United States has relentlessly pursued al-Qaida’s senior leadership and the threat of a 9/11-scale attack is greatly reduced, he said.
At the same time the threat has morphed. Al-Qaida affiliates – notably those in North Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula – remain threats to the American homeland. Threats have grown following the unrest in the Arab world, although those are mostly local or regionally based.
Finally, there is a threat from homegrown extremists like those who are alleged to be responsible for the bombing in Boston.
Attacks like those from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, like those against our embassy in Benghazi and like those in Boston represent the future of the threats we face from terrorism, the president said.
“We must recognize, however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11,” he said. “With a decade of experience to draw from, now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions – about the nature of today’s threats, and how we should confront them.”
Since 9/11, the United States has spent well over a trillion dollars on war. “Our service members and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf,” he said. “Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield, or brought the shadows of battle back home. From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation – and world – that we leave to our children.”
No one can promise the total defeat of terror. There will always be people misguided enough to resort to attacks on society, the president said. “What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend,” Obama said. “To define that strategy, we must make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom.”
The threats do not arise in a vacuum, the president said. There is the belief in many parts of the world that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets is justified in pursuit of a larger cause. “Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam; and this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist acts,” Obama said.
The ideology persists, however, and all parts of the U.S. government must work to counter it, he said.
The United States must continue to defeat al-Qaida and its associated forces, the president said. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces will follow the NATO plan and continue training Afghan security forces up to the end of NATO combat operations there at the end of next year, Obama said.
“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” he said. Most of these will be done in partnership with other nations, he said, specifically mentioning Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The United States will continue to cooperate with other nations and share counterterrorism intelligence with these nations, he emphasized, butwill not be afraid to work alone when the situation calls for it.
Al-Qaida looks for ungoverned areas to set up and plan, he noted. “In some of these places … the state has only the most tenuous reach into the territory,” Obama said. “In other cases, the state lacks the capacity or will to take action.”
In cases when using American troops in these places isn’t possible and lethal action is needed, he said, “The United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al-Qaida and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones.”
The technology raises profound questions about targeting, civilian casualties and the risks of creating new enemies, he said, but Obama maintained the strikes strikes have been effective and are legal nationally and internationally. “Simply put, these strikes have saved lives,” he said.
Beyond Afghanistan, the United States only targets al-Qaida and its associated forces, the president said.
“America does not make strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists – our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them,” Obama said. “America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”
The president insists on strong oversight of all lethal action. “After I took office, my administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress,” he said. “Let me repeat that – not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes.”
The use of force must be part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, he said, adding that. force alone cannot make America safe.
“We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways,” the president said.