Commentary: Obama's security team must keep terrorism focus

If anyone doubted that terrorist groups were no longer motivated or capable of mounting a sophisticated high impact attack, events in Mumbai have proven them wrong.

The coordinated attacks upon a train station, two luxury hotels and a Jewish cultural center by ten fighters of the Pakistani rebel group Lashkar e-Tayyeba underscores that terrorism will remain a vexing concern for the administration of Barack Obama. President-elect Obama has announced his national security team. So far, the picks of Senator Hillary Clinton for secretary of state, retired Marine Corps Commandant James L. Jones for national security advisor, Bush administration hold-over Robert Gates at the Defense Department and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano for director of homeland security, have received widespread praise.

This team will face a multiplicity of challenges from a resurgent Russia, a restive and left-leaning Latin America, a nuclear ambitious Iran as well as the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These challenges come at a time when our national focus has shifted from foreign policy and national security to economic concerns as the country faces the most debilitating financial crisis since the Great Depression. While the President-elect has rightly declared that fixing the economy will be his top priority, recent events in India remind us that the threat of international terrorism remains, like a cobra, coiled and ready to strike.

Complex and dangerous The Obama team will face a terrorist-caused crisis on the Indian subcontinent that is both complex and very dangerous. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1948. Both have nuclear weapons at the ready. With a long history of religious and territorial disputes between them, tensions are running high. Already allegations have been made that the terrorists were operatives of the Pakistani government or rouge elements of the Pakistani intelligence service. One terrorist, 21-year-old Ajmal Amir Qasab, remains alive. Presently undergoing interrogation by Indian authorities, Qasab, who has a fourth grade education, is probably a low-level foot soldier whose intelligence value may be somewhat limited. However he should be able to provide basic information as to his recruiting, training and the identities of his immediate cadre. While it is likely that he was trained and equipped in Pakistan, the presumption that he was trained and equipped by Pakistan is most assuredly specious. While Pakistan remains at odds with India over the fate of Kashmir, the idea of the Pakistani government supporting or in some tacit way condoning the Mumbai attacks would be a far stretch. Pakistan would gain nothing from such an attack except possible retaliation from India and international reprobation.

The outgoing Bush and incoming Obama national security teams will have to work deftly and behind the scenes to manage and diffuse this crisis so as to prevent the Mumbai massacre from spinning into something more serious. Even a nuclear stare down by India or Pakistan would prove unsettling in this volatile region.

Assuming this crisis will pass, what happened in Mumbai highlights another problem with troubling domestic implications. Since Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence professionals have spent untold hours and dollars preparing for the next big attack on the homeland. In doing so, we tended to operate under an assumption that the perpetrators would be al-Qaeda operatives or an al-Qaeda offshoot and that the method of attack would be just as sensational, if not more than the 9-11 strike. Images of biological toxins released over the Super Bowl, or a nuclear device detonated in Detroit were common fears among the intelligence and law enforcement policymakers. What Mumbai is teaching us, however, is that a nation can be paralyzed by ten heavily armed men who possessed the collective fire power of a U.S. Army infantry squad.

In this lies a danger, since terrorists world-wide appreciate the success that this suicide squad had in Mumbai. At this very moment in terrorist chatrooms, the operational tactics of the Mumbai killers are being debated and analyzed by young men (and women) intent on adapting the lessons learned for future operations. Terrorists, like everyone else, are copycats. The minute a new tactic is used or a unique attack modality is tried, it appears on the Internet and is copied by others. The chlorine gas improvised explosive device – "IED" – used unsuccessfully in Iraq a few years ago had its own fifteen minutes of fame on the terrorist websites and in the chatrooms. The danger is that the tactics used so effectively in Mumbai will be studied, modified and adapted to future operations abroad or possibly at home.

The low-tech aspect of the Mumbai attacks in many ways flies "below the radar screen" of traditional homeland security thinking, which has been somewhat prejudiced in favor of the "big hit" attack using exotic weapons or delivery devices and complex logistics. In many ways, it’s often easier to defend against a complex attack than it is against a simple attack. Remember the DC sniper case? Complexity breeds failure in operations while simplicity often ensures success. It will be wise for the Obama team to be mindful of these maxims.

Vigilance required

The team will face the stark reality that terrorism is still a serious problem that must be checked. As policymakers, this new team must balance calls for continued vigilance with critics who argue for reduced funding for intelligence and anti-terrorism programs. Currently, the U.S. intelligence budget stands at approximately $47 billion. This does not include space-based collection programs run separately by the Defense Department, nor does it include state and local spending for domestic counter-terrorism activities such as intelligence fusion centers and first responder training. In a recent speech, outgoing Director of National Intelligence Vice Admiral Mike McConnell warned that cuts in intelligence spending could seriously jeopardize the nation's ability to detect, deter and defend against new threats. In a time of severe economic crisis and with rising unemployment, aging infrastructure and other pressing problems, compelling arguments will be made that spending cuts for intelligence and counter-terrorism must be a mainstay of a new administration. While the Obama team should look at certain intelligence and homeland security programs with the sharpest of pencils, great care must be taken not to cut away the muscle when trimming the fat.

Our nation is safer than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. This is in no small part due to the many steps taken at the federal, state and local levels and by the private sector, which has worked seamlessly to tighten our borders, ports and air terminals and harden the many targets within our nation. However, the mission to enhance our security and prevent a Mumbai-like event happening here is not only about hardening targets and giving police and firefighters state of the art equipment. A more robust yet subtler approach is now called for. This approach, while building on the excellent work done since 2001, must address the finer aspects of deterrence by reaching out to those who would do us harm so that we can engage them and understand the motivations that drive them.

In a March 2008 interview given to The National Journal, John Brennan, the former director of the National Counter Terrorism Center emphasized the need to address the "upstream" causes of terrorism in addition to the "downstream" results of it. Doing so will require the U.S. to do something it does not do well – listen. As a nation and as a government, we need to listen to our adversaries and those who would become our adversaries. We need to engage their issues and find common ground between us. We must seek to make them understand what America represents as a nation and as a people. We must engage diplomatically, culturally and economically. We must do a better job in the public relations department by presenting a better and more positive image of the U.S. abroad.

While we must effectively use the tools of public diplomacy, we must also ensure that our enemies understand that engagement does not equal appeasement. While reaching out to our enemies, we must ensure that our ability to utilize military power as an instrument of national power does not deteriorate. Early signs coming from Chicago seem to indicate that President-elect Obama has chosen this course of engagement as he begins to put together his foreign policy strategy. A well-balanced national security approach is needed now more than ever as we transition to a new administration. Failure to address these issues now will be paid for in the future when the bullets start flying and the bodies start dropping again on our shores.


Jack Thomas Tomarchio served as the Deputy Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and Analysis Operations until August 2008. He is now a principal in the Agoge Group, LLC and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute. He can be reached at jtt@agogegroup.com.