printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

National Strategy for Counterterrorism

Daniel Benjamin
Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
Statement Before the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee
Washington, DC
July 20, 2011


As prepared for delivery

At the outset I want to thank my good friend, Ambassador Puri, and the members of this committee for inviting me to speak to you about President Obama's National Strategy for Counterterrorism.

As you know, building new and strengthening existing partnerships is a cornerstone of President Obama's counterterrorism and broader foreign policy and we continue to view the CTC, its Counterterrorism Executive Directorate, and all of the UN counterterrorism actors as valuable partners

Before I speak about our new CT strategy, which formalizes the approach the United States has been pursuing and adapting for the past two and a half years, I want to emphasize that it is only one part of the United States' larger National Security Strategy, which was released in the spring of 2010. This is critical. We recognize that it is counterproductive to view foreign and security policy through a counterterrorism prism alone. Thus, our counterterrorism policies do not define our entire foreign policy; rather they are a vital part of–and are designed to reinforce–our broader national security interests. Much like this committee and its Executive Directorate must work in concert with the broader UN system to achieve their CT objectives, our CT strategy recognizes that our CT efforts benefit from–and at times depend on–broader foreign policy efforts, whether to promote the peaceful resolution of political disputes and grievances, economic growth, development, good governance, or human rights and the rule of law.

The importance of situating our counterterrorism efforts in our broader foreign and security policy framework is underscored by the transformative change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa whose full implications, including for our counterterrorism efforts, are still taking shape. The changes of government and broad-based efforts to win new freedoms for the people of the region hold enormous promise. Tremendous numbers of citizens advanced peaceful public demands for change in a precedent shattering way. They have done so without reference to AQ's incendiary world view, thus upending the group's longstanding claims that change would only come through violence. These men and women in the streets have underscored anew and in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al-Qa'ida exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim-majority nations.

Should these revolts result, as we hope, in durable, democratically-elected, non-autocratic governments, AQ's single-minded focus on terrorism as an instrument of political change would be severely delegitimized. This would be a genuinely strategic blow. The successful democratic outcome of the demonstrations we have seen–the striving of so many to enjoy their basic human freedoms–is something all of us should support, because this is a profound good in its own right. But I want to add that from the security perspective, we also have a great deal to gain. Because democracies increase the space for peaceful dissent and give people a stake in their governance, it greatly weakens those who call for violence. We should be clear: This is a moment of great possibility for the global community, and most of all citizens of these Muslim-majority nations.

Inspiring as the moment may be, we cannot ignore the attendant perils. The political turmoil has distracted security officials in a number of countries. We are concerned with both the issue of terrorist transit in light of instability in Libya, and with the threat posed by loose munitions that were previously under Libyan government control. Undoubtedly, terrorist groups will be tempted to exploit the situation to carry out conspiracies. We know the turmoil has caught the eye of AQ, which is trying to insinuate itself into the picture. Terrorist plots could have significant disruptive implications for states undergoing challenging, difficult democratic transitions.

Despite the uncertainties that remain, the Arab spring may create the political space to allow for a pivot in at least some countries in the Middle East and North Africa away from the repressive, emergency law CT paradigm to one based on the rule of law and where the building of effective institutions are seen essential for providing security, education, and jobs. Countries turning their backs on the repressive approach will likely need encouragement and training and other capacity-building support from a range of partners, including from the entities of the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, in developing the necessary legal framework and institutions to implement a more balanced, rule of law-based approach effectively.

This underscores the need for all of us not only to further improve our capacity-building programs with an even stronger focus on civilian law enforcement and the rule of law, but to bolster our partnerships, strengthen our networks, and invest together in a positive vision of peace and progress.

Our partnerships have helped put unprecedented pressure on al-Qa'ida and its leadership, including our important efforts through the 1267 al-Qa'ida/Taliban sanctions regime to reduce the financial support available to the group. Continued cooperation will be just as important in the days ahead, because we should not forget that the effort to stop al-Qa'ida and other violent extremists does not end with the death of bin Ladin. Indeed, the United States will renew its resolve and redouble its bilateral and multilateral efforts, including at and with the United Nations.

bin Ladin's demise is a victory for all human beings who seek to live in peace, security, and dignity. But while the death of bin Ladin is the most significant blow yet to al-Qa'ida's leadership, much of its activity has devolved to its affiliates and adherents, many individuals are still receptive to its ideology, and much more work remains to be done.

Rather than trying to combat directly every single terrorist organization regardless of whether they have the intent or capability to ever attack the U.S. or our citizens, President Obama's counterterrorism strategy–and the focus of our CT efforts since President Obama took office–is AQ and its affiliates and adherents: the network that poses the most direct and significant threat to the United States.

While the AQ core has weakened operationally, particular with bin Ladin now gone, the broader AQ threat has become more geographically and ethnically diversified. But first I would clarify that although the AQ core in Pakistan is clearly weaker, it does retain the capability to conduct regional and transnational attacks. In addition, AQ has forged closer ties with some of the other militant groups in the region–for example Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani Network–and this has provided the group with additional capabilities to draw on.

At the top of the affiliates' list is al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It continues to demonstrate its growing ambitions and strong desire to carry out attacks outside of its region. Moving to Northwest Africa, no group has made a bigger name for itself in the kidnapping for ransom business than al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)–and I should add that kidnapping for ransom has become one of the foremost sources of revenue for AQ-related groups everywhere and we strongly encourage this committee to focus more attention on this aspect of the terrorist threat, which extends beyond AQIM.

In the Horn of Africa, we see an AQ adherent, al-Shabaab, a somewhat different kind of organization, composed of a range of groups with varying motivations and interests, which conducted its first major attack outside of Somalia last year when it claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings during the World Cup that killed 76 people in Kampala, Uganda..

There are several other features of this strategy that warrant attention, and in some cases, distinguish it from previous ones .

First, this Strategy consciously identifies specific areas/regions of priority CT concern, to make clear that our CT efforts and resources need to be directed and focused in the first instance on the elements of the al-Qa'ida network most directly threatening to the United States and its interests.

We will continue to adopt a "whole-of-government" approach to addressing these challenges and strengthen the tools that may, depending on the circumstances, be appropriate to address them, be they diplomatic, law enforcement, development, intelligence, or military. However, rather than pursuing a one-size fits-all approach, we recognize that different threats in different places demand different tools.

Second, this Strategy also highlights the need to confront al-Qa'ida's violent ideology and its resonance by identifying and responding to specific, localized conditions and factors that al-Qa'ida exploits as drivers to recruitment, radicalization, and mobilization to violence.

It recognizes that the United States has made great strides in tactical counterterrorism over the past decade–taking individual terrorists off the street, disrupting cells, and thwarting conspiracies. At the strategic level, however, we continue to see a strong flow of new recruits into many of the most dangerous terrorist organizations. We must do a better job of diminishing the drivers of violent extremism and demonstrably reduce the effectiveness of terrorist propaganda, thus leading to fewer recruits.

Our work to counter violent extremism focuses on three main lines of effort: delegitimizing the violent extremist narrative in order to diminish its "pull"; developing positive alternatives for youth vulnerable to radicalization to diminish the "push" effect of grievances and unmet expectations; and building partner capacity to carry out these activities.

Third, this Strategy explicitly identifies the United States as an area of priority focus and concern, more so than previous strategies. Not just in terms of building our defenses and enhancing our own capabilities, but also in dealing with the challenge of al-Qa'ida adherents radicalized and operating in the United States.

Fourth, this Strategy highlights our efforts to support communities within the United States as they develop increased resilience and strategies to deal with the threat of al-Qa'ida-inspired radicalization efforts.

Fifth–and I must note its significance–this Strategy affirms our commitment to abide by and to uphold the core values that define our nation and our people, including respect for human rights and the rule of law. It recognizes that counterterrorism efforts can best succeed when they place respect for human rights and the rule of law front and center. In fact, all too often we see governments that engage in abusive and extra-legal behavior against their citizens only make the terrorism situation worse in the long-term. There are numerous instances where individuals who were abused by a government–and particularly by the law enforcement and intelligence services–become radicalized and join terrorist organizations. It is important that in our zeal to protect our citizens that we do not weaken their legal rights and protections.

And finally, and perhaps of most relevance to this body, the President's strategy is guided by the need to broaden and deepen partnerships with institutions and countries around the world, as we recognize that no one nation alone can bring about the demise of al-Qa'ida and its affiliates and adherents. Rather, we must join with key partners and allies to share the burdens of common security. The strategy thus places a premium on building the institutional and other capacities of weak and vulnerable states so that they do not serve as breeding grounds for terrorism, recruitment, and instability and so governments can provide security, education, and jobs for their citizens.

It emphasizes the need to strengthen existing and build new partnerships, with governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector, and civil society. As the events over the past year in different parts of the world have shown, these partnerships are becoming ever more critical as the threat becomes more diffuse. Over the past decade, significant progress has been made in developing and strengthening the international architecture to confront 21st century terrorism. This includes the creation of this committee and other counterterrorism bodies and within the UN and regional organizations. The President's strategy recognizes the multiple benefits from working through these bodies: leveraging their expertise and resources, deepening the engagement of our partners, and enhancing the legitimacy of our efforts.

Consistent with this strategy, our policy and programming support for the different UN CT actors has grown over the past two and a half years. For example, in addition to joining with Turkey to support CTED's ongoing work with CT prosecutors, we are pleased to sponsor CTED's upcoming regional workshops on Resolution 1624 in The Horn of Africa and the Sahel and Maghreb. Advocates of a whole-of-UN approach to CT, we are also financing the CTITF's UN Strategy-awareness raising efforts, a number of UNODC Terrorism Prevention Branch training projects, and a one-year pilot project at UNICRI on terrorist rehabilitation and disengagement.

I want to thank all of you for your hard work in our collective counterterrorism efforts and we look forward to joining with you this September to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the establishment of this committee and highlight the contributions it has made to building CT capacities and cooperation around the globe over the past decade.

Thank you again for inviting me to address the committee and I would be now happy to answer any questions.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.