Obama’s speech on terrorism, drones, Guantanamo… A new strategy?

POTUS also said in his speech: With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions about the nature of today’s threats, and how we should confront them. Read few comments on this.

Questions:

How much the nature of today’s threats has changed from a decade ago in your opinion and would you say that Obama’s speech may serve as a restart of counterterrorism strategy or basically he did not say anything really new?

Answers:

Jarret Brachman, Professor of Security Studies, North Dakota State University, Author of a book: Global Jihadism

I believe that the counterterrorism community has failed to accurately capture the current nature of al-Qaida. Al-Qaida has evolved, devolved and transformed so much from the days of 9/11 that it virtually makes no sense to simply talk about al-Qaida generally. Each of its constituent parts pursue different agendas, have developed their own respective personas. The level to which they are responsive to centralized command and control is unclear at this point, so to suggest some broader, global coherence, at least in my opinion, is not grounded analysis.

As a community, I believe we need to rigorously re-examine exactly what the threats are today and recallibrate counterterrorism strategy around that. I believe President Obama’s speech needs to be viewed as an important call for a basic re-examination of today’s security situation and our strategic objectives.

Daveed Gartenstein-RossDirector, Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy 

The major event that changed the nature of the threat is the Arab Uprisings. Jihadist strategists quickly realized, as the revolutionary events occurred, that the change in regimes would provide them with unprecedented opportunities to undertake dawa (missionary work). This has allowed jihadist groups to transform themselves into popular movements, operating and preaching openly, in Tunisia and Egypt. Though this movement now enjoys opportunities in those countries that it never had before, it has never been satisfied with constraining itself to non-violent political activism. Thus, strategists believed that even while concentrating on preaching, movements who are able to undertake dawa openly should prepare themselves for violence in the longer term.

Such preparations are aided by the lawlessness in Libya, where several jihadist training camps have operated, and from which militant groups have been able to secure access to weaponry. There is also significant military confrontation between the state and jihadist groups in places like Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. Not all of this poses an immediate threat to the United States, or to Europe: as Obama observed, “not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.” But it is worth understanding the broad picture of how the threat has evolved.

I think Obama’s speech made several important points, and will serve as an important document that strategists, scholars, and other observers will point to in the future when analyzing and debating counterterrorism strategy and the legal frameworks under which CT actions are taken.

Aaron MannesResearcher at Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, University of Maryland

There were several points to President Obama’s speech on counter-terrorism. To some extent there was little new. His discussion of drone policy and detainees at Guantanamo Bay offered little in the way of specifics. These are knotty issues with no easy resolution. The President may follow-up with more serious proposals, or he may have been merely trying to satisfy the complaints of some of his supporters about his counter-terror policies.

The President’s obligatory discussion of “root causes” also falls into this category. The root causes of terrorism are devilishly hard to identify and even when found are even harder to address. Promises to help shift the Middle East to democracy are well-intentioned but it is difficult for any outsider to be much more than a minor player in the Middle East’s current drama.

More broadly, President Obama may have been trying to shift the national security focus on terrorism. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are not as capable as they were a decade ago. There have been attacks on American soil since 9/11, but the scale of these attacks has been small – thankfully. Thus Obama argues that terrorism does not need to dominate the national security agenda as it has for the past decade.

In beginning to shift this issue, he may be able to better address some of the specific and difficult issues he mentioned. But more likely, by lowering the temperature surrounding terrorism issues, some of these problems will then fade of their own accord.

William McCantsFounder and Co-editor of Jihadica, Research Analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies, Center for Naval Analyses

The nature of the threat has changed. Al-Qaeda’s ideology has been taken up by a number of militant groups that have no formal ties to al-Qaeda. Under the AUMF, the USG has the ability to go after a-Qaeda and its formal affiliates. By signalling that he’d like new authorities, Obama is adjusting to the new reality of combating groups that have AQ’s ideology without ties to AQ.

Phillip Smyth, Middle East Research Fellow

What particularly bothered me was that there was only one mention of state-sponsored terrorism. State-sponsored terror is hardly a thing of the past. Look at Iran–which actually went unmentioned. It created, armed, and equipped groups which killed some of the highest numbers of American soldiers and Marines in Iraq, sent the Taliban munitions in Afghanistan, plotted an assassination in Washington DC, and yes, it’s the backer/ideological of the Hizballah “state-backed network” that Obama cited. Regardless, the U.S. needs to better understand the enemies it is facing.

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