Inside Terrorism: An Interview with Bruce Hoffman

Conducted by Nick Rugoff and Christopher Howell

Professor Bruce Hoffman is the Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. He previously held the Corporate Chair in Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency at the RAND Corporation and was also Director of RAND’s Washington, D.C. office. He was Scholar-in-Residence for Counterterrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency between 2004 and 2006, and is a member of the National Security Preparedness Group, the successor to the 9/11 Commission. He has conducted fieldwork on terrorism and insurgency in Afghanistan, Argentina, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Israel, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, the Philippines, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Turkey. Professor Hoffman holds degrees in government, history and international relations and received his doctorate from Oxford University.

NR: How do the recent Middle East uprisings affect al-Qaeda?

I think it’s too soon to tell. Al-Qaeda, like foreign ministries and state departments across the world, is still assessing and taking in what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa and trying to fashion a response to rapidly unfolding events. I don’t think they’ve quite divined what that response will be, but I don’t think we should assume that just because they have been silent and don’t seem to be taking an active part means that they’re neither following it nor seeking to identify opportunities to assert themselves.

CH: In your book you talk about the controversy and disagreement surrounding the definition of terrorism. Do you think we have come any closer to sufficiently defining terrorism?

I stand by the definition that I had in the revised 2006 edition of the book: “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence, or the threat of violence, in pursuit of political change.” But as far as the international community goes, I don’t think we’ve come any closer. Unfortunately, I actually think we’ve moved backwards. This may be one of the unintended consequences of what has been called the “War on Terror” rather than the “War on Terrorism.” This is a misnomer because terror is an emotion, and the “ism” in terrorism shows that it is inherently political, so we’ve already muddied it up. It’s been seen now as either an assertion of American exceptionalism or even an assertion of partisan views within the United States. I think the entire “War on Terror” has served to obfuscate rather than clarify any meaningful definition of terrorism.

NR: A 2008 panel found that a nuclear or biological attack on a major US city is likely to happen by 2013. Almost three years later, do you agree with their finding?

No. I wouldn’t say that it’s likely, but one of the lessons from 9/11 is that when it comes to terrorism, you can never say anything is unlikely. Given the attrition of al-Qaeda’s capabilities since 9/11, and particularly in recent years with the drone attacks, I would be very surprised if al-Qaeda could pull off a nuclear attack. A biological attack would be easier because you don’t need to obtain fissile materials or trigger a nuclear explosion. I still think it’s unlikely in the time frame of the next two years because when terrorist groups are weaker, they adhere even more closely to what they are comfortable and familiar with. As politically radically as they might be, they want success and tend to become more operationally conservative. One of the problems since 9/11 is that we have to be able to cover the entire waterfront of potential terrorist threats. I think the likelihood of a nuclear or biological attack is much lower than a conventional attack such as a suicide attempt involving multiple bombers. But even though it is low, it is also neither inconceivable nor impossible to perpetrate.

CH: You mention suicide attacks and there has been a significant increase in suicide bombings since 9/11. You state in your book that when compared with other forms of terrorism, suicide terrorism is significantly more effective at the tactical and operational level, but do you believe it achieves the strategic goals of the terrorist groups who utilize it?

That’s a very good question. It certainly achieves their tactical goals because it generates enormous fear in populations that often borders on panic. I don’t think there is any tactical weapon besides WMD and suicide terrorism that inspires such emotional reactions. I don’t think it advances a terrorist group’s strategy, however, because their strategy is to cow us into submission and paralyze us with fear and inaction. That has hardly been the case when terrorists have used suicide attacks. Strategically, I think its success is more problematic, but it often definitely achieves the terrorism’s fundamental tactical goals of fear and intimidation.

CH: Getting back to our earlier discussion, if a nuclear attack were to happen on United States’ soil, would we have the capabilities to effectively respond to the fallout?

I would say no, but I think almost every other country also lacks the ability to respond to a nuclear attack. Look at the July 7, 2005 attacks on the London subway system. London is a city well acquainted with terrorism, as it experienced decades of Irish Republican Army bombings and attacks from a wide range of groups such as radical Palestinian terrorist organizations. Just a few months before these 2005 bombings, the British had carried out a major international exercise called Operation Atlantic Blue. Despite all of this, the attack on the subways killed 52 people and injured over 700, and tremendously overwhelmed the emergency services and capabilities of London’s hospitals. This is just one small dimension of what we would see in a nuclear attack. If we had to deal with unparalleled destruction, death, and injury, not to mention the enormous incidence of radiation and radiological poisoning on the rest of the population, I am doubtful that any society could respond effectively in the immediate aftermath of a small nuclear attack.

If you go back to the Bali bombings in 2002, Australia, which has a great health system, did not have a hospital that could accommodate all the victims, who numbered in the low hundreds. Things have not really changed that much, and in the United States, we actually have fewer emergency rooms and fewer trauma-one level hospitals. Vice President Cheney used to talk about 1% threats, where even if there was just a 1% chance of a nuclear attack happening, we would have to jump on it right away to prevent it from happening. I think that is absolutely true and extremely relevant today.

If you go back to the Bali bombings in 2002, Australia, which has a great health system, did not have a hospital that could accommodate all the victims, who numbered in the low hundreds. Things have not really changed that much, and in the United States, we actually have fewer emergency rooms and fewer trauma-one level hospitals. Vice President Cheney used to talk about 1% threats, where even if there was just a 1% chance of a nuclear attack happening, we would have to jump on it right away to prevent it from happening. I think that is absolutely true and extremely relevant today.

NR: Scholars of terrorism frequently speak about the constantly evolving balance between liberty and security. Where does the United States stand today?

I think we’ve done a very good job at balancing civil liberties while giving law enforcement and the intelligence community the tools they need to protect us. In doing so, we’ve learned that there has to be rigorous oversight in Congress and elsewhere, a vibrant press, an informed population, and effective public interest groups to monitor these activities and hold public officials accountable. It’s a constant process of calibration and recalibration depending on the threat level. We can always do better, but given that this is one of the most fundamental imperatives of any democracy, I think we’ve done well so far.

NR: If you could institute one policy into counterterrorism practices, what would it be?

I have two. First, I’d kill or capture Osama bin Laden. That act would have both the greatest short-term and long-term effects on al-Qaeda and the threat we face today. Since I’m not entirely certain that that will soon be achieved, in the interim, the other highest priority would be to strengthen our efforts in the non-kinetic realm. We need to continue to capture and kill terrorists, and we’ve been enormously successful in those respects, but we’ve been far less active and consequently much less successful in breaking the cycle of recruitment and regeneration by having an effective counter-radicalization program and public diplomacy and information operations strategy.

Terrorist organizations have sustained themselves because we have done extremely little to limit their ability to radicalize and recruit and attract new supporters and adherents. For example, we give comparatively few resources to the Office of the Under Secretary of Counterterrorism at the State Department and the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Diplomacy. I think this is because the metrics for success are much harder to measure than simply capturing or killing terrorists. It is much harder to demonstrate that you’ve persuaded or prevented someone from becoming a terrorist. There doesn’t have to be a balance in the distribution of these resources, but it is just as important to prevent the creation of a future terrorist, as it is to capture or kill an existing one. We are overwhelmingly focused on the tactical—that is, appropriately, the killing and capturing of terrorists—but do very little to strategically alter the balance of forces arrayed against us and prevent terrorist groups from successfully radicalizing and recruiting new generations of terrorists.

NR: How would you compare President Obama’s counterterrorism efforts to President Bush’s?

They are virtually identical. We still have the same strategy overseas, where the military has the lead in countering terrorism. The predator and drone attacks have actually been increased under President Obama. President Bush reduced the population of Guantanamo, and despite an early optimism and good intentions to close Guantanamo, President Obama has come up against the same challenges that President Bush faced. President Obama has prudently continued many of the strengths from the Bush administration, but also many of the weaknesses of the previous administration have continued today. The failure in the non-kinetic realm that I just described, for instance, has continued. We still do too little to counter the terrorists’ ability to spread their message to susceptible audiences.

NR: What is the American people’s biggest misconception about terrorism or terrorist organizations?

That this is a threat that will end or a war that can be won. It will never end, but I hope the threat can change so that the strategic challenge to the United States is reduced and terror attacks become far less frequent and consequential. The threat of terrorism is never going to end completely and I would argue that unfortunately, the United States is very much like Israel, which never talks about the end of the terrorist threat. I’m not saying we are like Israel in any political sense, but Israel lives in a constant state of alertness and readiness because there are people that wish it ill and seek to use terrorist tactics against it. We’ve had trouble accepting that since 9/11, we are in the same position, even though Israel is surrounded by hostile countries and we are not. Since 1968, the United States has been the top terrorist target every year for a variety of reasons including our superpower status, the presence of our military overseas (which has only increased), and the power of the American media (which can catapult a terrorist group from obscurity to prominence). As even more people now see the United States as invading other countries at will and imposing our way of life on them, it is likely that terrorist threats will continue to be a feature and concern of United States security.

CH: Do you think al-Qaeda is a cohesive organization or has it become genericized where individuals not directly connected to the core leadership of the movement are now referring to themselves as al-Qaeda? Is al-Qaeda now the ‘Kleenex’ of terrorism?

The word al-Qaeda itself means the base or the foundation, so it serves that purpose as an enabler, facilitator, recruiter, and mouthpiece. That said, al-Qaeda still has a central command authority that plans and plots terrorist attacks. Terrorist groups often want to adopt the al-Qaeda name, and much of its longevity is due to its flexibility and malleability. That is nothing new, and stems from al-Qaeda’s founding in 1988.

NR: You are one of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism. What keeps you up at night?

Our dependence on foreign oil keeps me up at night because it conditions a lot of our foreign policy responses and makes us vulnerable, both economically and in terms of our projection of power. This is a key factor that we have the power to change.

CH: What will you be working on in the upcoming months?

I am in the process of writing a book that is a history of political violence and terrorism in Palestine during the period of British rule between 1917 and 1947. This era provides great insights to current counterterrorism policies and actions in the Middle East.
——
THE POLITIC — March 2011

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *