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Terror war seen shifting to match evolving enemy

The Bush administration is reviewing its efforts to battle international terrorism, and is poised to move away from a policy that has stressed efforts to capture and kill al Qaeda leaders, and toward what a senior official called a broader "strategy against violent extremism."
The U.S. has been hunting members of al Qaeda and remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan since the months after 9/11. Some say the Bush administration has been too slow to adapt to an evolving enemy.Aaron Favila / Reuters file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The Bush administration has launched a high-level internal review of its efforts to battle international terrorism, aimed at moving away from a policy that has stressed efforts to capture and kill al Qaeda leaders since Sept. 11, 2001, and toward what a senior official called a broader "strategy against violent extremism."

The shift is meant to recognize the transformation of al Qaeda over the past three years into a far more amorphous, diffuse and difficult-to-target organization than the group that struck the United States in 2001. But critics say the policy review comes only after months of delay and lost opportunities while the administration left key counterterrorism jobs unfilled and argued internally over how best to confront the rapid spread of the pro-al Qaeda global Islamic jihad.

President Bush's top adviser on terrorism, Frances Fragos Townsend, said in an interview that the review is needed to take into account the "ripple effect" from years of operations targeting al Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, arrested for planning the Sept. 11 attacks, and his recently detained deputy. "Naturally, the enemy has adapted," she said. "As you capture a Khalid Sheik Mohammed, an Abu Faraj al-Libbi raises up. Nature abhors a vacuum."

An evolving fight
The review marks the first ambitious effort since the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks to take stock of what the administration has called the "global war on terrorism" — or GWOT — but is now considering changing to recognize the evolution of its fight. "What we really want now is a strategic approach to defeat violent extremism," said a senior administration official who described the review on the condition of anonymity because it is not finished. "GWOT is catchy, but there may be a better way to describe it, and those are things that ought to be incumbent on us to look at."

In many ways, this is the culmination of a heated debate that has been taking place inside and outside the government about how to target not only the remnants of al Qaeda but also broader support in the Muslim world for radical Islam. Administration officials refused to describe in detail what new policies are under consideration, and several sources familiar with the discussions said some issues remain sticking points, such as how central the ongoing war in Iraq is to the anti-terrorist effort, and how to accommodate State Department desires to normalize a foreign policy that has stressed terrorism to the exclusion of other priorities in recent years.

"There's been a perception, a sense of drift in overall terrorism policy. People have not figured out what we do next, so we just continue to pick 'em off one at a time," said Roger W. Cressey, who served as a counterterrorism official at the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "We haven't gone to a new level to figure out how things have changed since 9/11."

"No question this is the next stage, the phase two," another senior counterterrorism official said. "We are coming to the point of decisions."

Confronting the “bleed out” problem
Much of the discussion has focused on how to deal with the rise of a new generation of terrorists, schooled in Iraq over the past couple years. Top government officials are increasingly turning their attention to anticipate what one called "the bleed out" of hundreds or thousands of Iraq-trained jihadists back to their home countries throughout the Middle East and Western Europe. "It's a new piece of a new equation," a former senior Bush administration official said. "If you don't know who they are in Iraq, how are you going to locate them in Istanbul or London?"

Another key aspect is likely to be the addition of public diplomacy efforts aimed at winning over Arab public sentiment, and State Department official Paul Simons said at a congressional hearing earlier this month that the "internal deliberative process" was broadly conceived to encompass everything from further crackdowns on terrorist financing networks to policies aimed at curbing the teaching of holy war against the West and other "tools with respect to the global war on terrorism."

The policy review was initiated this spring by the NSC and is being led by Townsend, several administration officials said. They confirmed that the review may lead to a new national security presidential directive, superseding the October 2001 document signed by Bush that pledged the "elimination of terrorism as a threat to our way of life."

Filling the void
The review may have been slowed somewhat by the fact that many of the key counterterrorism jobs in the administration have been empty for months, including the top post at the State Department for combating terrorism, vacant since November, and the directorship of the new National Counterterrorism Center. "We're five months into the next term, and still a number of spots have yet to be filled," Cressey said. "You end up losing valuable time."

The counterterrorism center was created nearly a year ago by Bush to serve as the main clearinghouse for terrorism-related intelligence but is not yet fully operational, and has been run by an acting director and caught up in the broader wave of bureaucratic reorganization that resulted in the creation of the new directorate of national intelligence, whose fiefdom the center will join.

As part of the reorganization, a new office of strategic and operational planning is slated to become the focal point for operations aimed at terrorists, but that, too, has yet to start working fully, the senior counterterrorism official said.

Townsend just hired a deputy last week, Treasury official Juan Carlos Zarate, to take on the terrorism portfolio at the NSC; Townsend had been doing that as well as serving as the president's top homeland security aide for the past year. Several counterterrorism sources said the State job will soon be filled by CIA veteran Hank Crumpton and the counterterrorism center post is slated to go to Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, current deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe.

"They recognize there's been a vacuum of leadership," said a former top counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "There has been a dearth of senior leadership directing this day to day. No one knows who's running this on a day-to-day basis."

Moving beyond al Qaeda
In general, current and former officials familiar with the discussions said, the challenge is to reorient U.S. efforts when the immediate threat from al Qaeda seems to have receded, though it is still far from disappearing. Osama bin Laden and other top lieutenants remain at large, but many U.S. experts appear to now agree with the assessment of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who told a reporter recently that "we have broken the back of al Qaeda."

"No doubt al Qaeda as an organization has been destroyed," Afghan President Hamid Karzai told Washington Post reporters and editors last week. "No doubt it is no longer capable to launch the kind of attacks that they did on all of us a few years ago. Their capability is limited only to sporadic individual acts, suiciders and things like that."

Until recently, the Bush administration resisted any broadening of its mission against al Qaeda, insisting on what Townsend once called a "decapitation" strategy. The policy review marks what many experts regard as a belated shift. "The administration has appropriately taken the broad view," said an intelligence official who had urged the review. "It's not going to be a matter of just trying to roll up more al Qaeda guys. What we still know as the al Qaeda organization — they've taken a terrible beating."

A dormant threat?
But even that notion remains controversial when assessing the continuing threat from al Qaeda will shape the policy against it. "I just don't accept the idea that the whole organization is completely gone and morphed into an amorphous global jihad movement," said Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism analyst at the Congressional Research Service. "They could still try to reconstitute the centralized structure of before 9/11."

A new campaign targeting "violent extremism" could also prove controversial, given disputes in the Middle East about how to categorize groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the West Bank that act as political parties while also supporting what the United States calls terrorist activities. "You can't start drawing very precise lines — security/counterterrorism versus the broader efforts to deal with the roots of terrorism," the intelligence official said.

Staff writers Peter Baker and Dana Priest contributed to this report.