9/11 Commission leaders push for changes in US terrorism fight

The top two officials on the 9/11 Commission note that the threat of terrorism has changed, especially during the past three years. US policy must evolve too, they say.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
9/11 Commission members Lee Hamilton (l.) and Thomas Kean answer questions at a press conference in 2004. They released a new analysis Thursday of the terrorist threat facing America.

Two of the top officials on the 9/11 Commission are calling for a review of current US counterterrorism policy 12 years after the attacks on the Pentagon and Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Today, the good news is that the chances of “a large-scale, catastrophic attack by Al Qaeda occurring in the United States are small,” argue Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean, the former chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission.

That, they say, is the result of US counterterrorism operations over the past three years in particular.

At the same time, however, there are more Al Qaeda-allied groups who have put down more roots in more places.

“The threat we currently face is dramatically different from twelve years ago,” they write in a letter released Wednesday. “We need to review our current strategies to ensure that we have the smartest counterterrorism policies in place so tragedies, like the one we are remembering today, do not happen again.”

They point to an extensive range of  recommendations outlined in a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center – where Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean are co-chairs of the Homeland Security Project.

Among these recommendations is putting the CIA drone program “on a more sound legal footing” and creating an independent investigative body – similar to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – to investigate terrorist threats in the United States.

The report lays out a number of possibilities for a more transparent and legally palatable drone campaign, including transferring the program to the military, setting up a court to rule on targeting decisions, or creating an independent committee to review strikes.

The report also calls for the government to incorporate lessons learned from the Boston bombings into the its current emergency-response plan “to ensure a more measured reaction to tragic but small-scale terrorist attacks.” 

The Boston bombings were “an undeniably tragic but comparatively modest terrorist incident” that closed down not only the Boston suburb where the Tsarnaev brothers fled, “but the entire Boston metropolitan area” as well as Logan International Airport.

“It is a problem,” the report’s authors argue, “that the response such incidents provoke from the government is often disproportionate to the threat they pose to the public.”

Furthermore, it urges the Obama administration to release additional Osama bin Laden documents captured at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

To date, the government has released only 17 of the thousands of documents that were found at Mr. bin Laden’s compound, the report notes. “Any conclusions drawn from the at present are, at best, an incomplete picture of Al Qaeda’s intentions and capabilities, as well as bin Laden’s role in them.”   

Those that have been released reveal “telling details” of Al Qeda’s inner workings that could be of use to defense analysts, including attempts by Al Qaeda leaders to assert influence over their affiliates.  

They were often ignored. In a December 2010, an Al Qaeda leader scolded the Pakistani Taliban for indiscriminate attacks against civilians. A letter from bin Laden sent around the same time urges leaders of an east African terrorist group not to announce its merger with Al Qaeda “because it would be bad for fund-raising and would attract greater attention from the United States.”

Today, Al Qaeda and its affiliates maintain a presence in “some 16 different theaters of operation – compared with half as many as recently as five years ago,” according to the report.

It is true, the report acknowledges, that some of these operating areas are “less amenable” than they once were – including, say, Afghanistan and southeast Asia.

Yet there are other places that the report deems “sites of revival and resuscitation,” including Iraq and North Africa.

There are locations, too, where Al Qaeda has had the chance to expand – such as Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Syria – the report warns.

This is in large part because the Middle East “is experiencing a level of instability unknown in recent years.”

In Syria in particular, the civil war may be providing Al Qaeda “with a chance to regroup, train, and plan operations, much as the US invasion of Iraq revitalized the network and gave it new relevance,” notes the report.

While these Al Qaeda groups have been busy expanding in other parts of the globe, within the confines of the United States, the threat of attacks “has shifted away from plots directly connected to foreign groups,” in the report’s estimation, “to plots by individuals who are merely inspired by them.”

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