U.S. Counter-Terrorism Policy and Organization

Roger Cressey, Director, Transnational Threats
National Security Council

September 27, 2000

The foundation of current United States counter-terrorism policy and organization is found in three recent Presidential Decision Directives (PDDs). PDD-62 addresses the weapon of mass destruction (WMD) threat, PDD-63 is concerned with the cyber threat and PDD-67 focuses on continuity of operations and government contingency planning.

The rationale for PDD-62 is that in the future the United States will face asymmetric threats in the form of attacks with WMD or attacks on our critical infrastructure. US counterterrorism policy is composed of ten elements:

  1. Apprehension, Extradition, Rendition and Prosecution of Terrorists
  2. Disruption of Terrorist Operations
  3. International Cooperation
  4. Preventing the Acquisition of WMD
  5. Consequence Management
  6. Transportation Security
  7. Protection of Critical Infrastructure
  8. Continuity of Government
  9. Countering Foreign Terrorist Group Threat in the US
  10. Protecting Americans Overseas

Most of these elements relate to law enforcement or intelligence community functions necessary to combat terrorism. The CIA, for example, has established a Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) that integrates intelligence and operations personnel working in this field and coordinates international cooperation against terrorists.

A key aspect of the counter-terrorism program management is the designation of specific organizations as lead agencies for implementing different parts of the US counter-terrorism program. The lead agency concept is intended to create accountability in a system not known for this characteristic.

In addition, PDD-62 established a National Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism within the National Security Council (NSC) who integrates the efforts of individual agencies, identifies and resolves issues, and is responsible for crisis management coordination. The National Coordinator also reviews departmental budget submissions and works with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to make adjustments as deemed necessary. This type of authority is rare within the executive branch and is similar to that exercised by the director of the Office for National Drug Control Policy.

The National Coordinator is also one of the few non-Cabinet officials to be a member of the NSC's Principals Committee composed of the heads of various departments and agencies with a role in national defense. During a crisis, the National Coordinator chairs the Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG) that reports directly to the Principals Committee.

The day-to-day coordination of counter-terrorism programs is conducted through four interagency working groups, all chaired by the National Coordinator. The threat of a WMD terrorist attack within the United States has led to the inclusion of several agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Transportation, into the counter-terrorism decision-making structure.

The NSC divides primary terrorist threats into three categories. The current Tier I threats are bin Laden's Al Qida organization, Iran, and Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The priority threats include the PKK in Turkey, 17 November in Greece and the FARC/ELN in Colombia. The FARC and ELN are being closely monitored because these groups reportedly view United States' $2 billion in aid to Columbia as a declaration of war against them.

During the countdown to the millennium, the US was confronted simultaneously with domestic and foreign terrorist threats, a unique situation. A major terrorist plot was disrupted in Jordan while an individual carrying explosives and affiliated with a terrorist group was intercepted at the US-Canada border crossing in Washington. In response to these threats, the US issued public warnings and warned the Taliban. In addition, the US deployed crisis management teams overseas and alerted domestic and military response assets. Lastly, the United States drew up plans to respond to any terrorist attack with the use of force.

The United States drew several lessons from the millennium experience. First, greater international cooperation is required to disrupt bin Laden's Al Qida. This organization has a global reach thanks to a network of Sunni extremists in over 50 countries recruited from the jihads in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya. Second, enhanced cooperation among domestic law enforcement agencies is needed to address the presence of foreign terrorist groups within the United States. These "cells" are engaged in widespread criminal activity to finance a support infrastructure within the United States as well as to provide funding to terrorist groups abroad. In response to this challenge, the FBI is expanding the number of cities with Joint Terrorism Task Forces to improve the coordination of counter-terrorism efforts among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Third, the events surrounding the millennium demonstrated that border security between the US and Canada, while effective, needs to be strengthened.

Another area that has received increased focus within the NSC is disrupting the financing of terrorist groups. These groups have developed sophisticated fund-raising mechanisms employing legitimate non-governmental groups and non-bank financial entities that greatly complicate US law enforcement efforts. To rally international support for its initiative, the US supports the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Funding-Raising.

There has been a distinct shift from state-sponsored terrorism to diffuse networks of activists. Generally, state-sponsored terrorism is easier to deal with. Afghanistan has become the epicenter of terrorism by providing sanctuary to bin Laden, among others. Al Qida is more than just bin Laden. The removal of bin Laden from the organization will not cripple it. In a manner similar to a corporate CEO, he has installed good mid-level management that could carry on without him.

This new type of terrorist group is also quite sophisticated. Computers captured in Jordan when the terrorist plot there was foiled contained documents and disks with sophisticated encryption. These groups are also becoming more lethal. The terrorist plot in Jordan that was disrupted shortly before the millennium involved simultaneous attacks on multiple tourist sites with truck bombs, grenades and automatic weapons. With the hardening of military and diplomatic sites abroad, terrorists are turning to soft targets that are even more difficult to defend.

Iran continues to pose a potential terrorist threat. The Iranian intelligence agency and Islamic Republican Guard Corps have developed contingency plans to conduct terrorist attacks against US targets in the event of a US-Iranian conflict in the Persian Gulf.

Overall, the United States record in combating terrorism is good but this is a tough race and it never ends.

Roger Cressey is the director for counter-terrorism within the National Security Council's Office of Transnational Threats. This office is responsible for interagency coordination on issues related to computer security, protection of critical infrastructure assets, counter-terrorism, continuity of government operations, national security special events, international organized crime, and preparedness for responses to the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Rapporteur: Gregory Koblentz

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