Combating Catastrophic Terror

A Security Strategy for the Nation

The United States needs a comprehensive long-term strategy to fight the greatest threat to the American people: violent extremists who, often in the name of Islam, seek to use catastrophic terror to achieve their goals.

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The United States needs a comprehensive long-term strategy to fight the greatest threat to the American people: violent extremists who, often in the name of Islam, seek to use catastrophic terror to achieve their goals. Is America ready for this threat? Specifically, do we have the right policies and structures in place to fight terrorism and to secure the homeland? Are we on the right track or the wrong track when it comes to this key national security challenge?

Members of the U.S. Congress asked leading experts and current and former top-ranking officials to look at those questions months ago – before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in the midst of the debacle in Iraq. The conclusions are clear – we do not have an effective counterterrorism strategy that will protect us, and we are not adequately prepared to respond to threats that may emanate from violent extremist groups.

Americans must, of course, contend with other challenges, including those posed by rising powers; the spread of infectious disease; environmental degradation and economic dislocations. But only al Qaeda and like-minded groups seek to kill our citizens in great numbers, undermine public confidence in our institutions, disrupt our economy and reshape the international order. Armed with nuclear weapons, the threat they pose could be literally existential.

Increasingly, Americans are asking whether we have a strategy that recognizes the unique nature of this terrorist threat. Their doubts have been fueled by the failure to capture Osama bin Laden; a surge in terror attacks around the world, including in Madrid and London; a mismanaged war in Iraq that threatens to turn that country into a haven for terrorists; deeply-entrenched anti-Americanism in the Islamic world and beyond; and the failed response to Hurricane Katrina, which has caused many Americans to question whether we are prepared to handle a man-made catastrophic event at home.

In response to requests from congressional leaders, a group of senior foreign policy experts came together over several months to develop a strategic roadmap to meet the challenge posed by catastrophic terror. The resulting paper offers members of Congress and officials at the local, state and national levels a clear understanding of the threat and the stakes – and specific recommendations for a new counterterrorism strategy.

The goal of the strategy is straightforward: to ensure the safety of the American people by defeating the forces of bin Laden and the militant extremists. It sets out a comprehensive, long-term approach that draws on the totality of America’s strength in three areas: (i) tactical counterterrorism; (ii) strategic counterterrorism; and (iii) homeland security. We have to defeat the terrorists abroad, defend ourselves here at home and, over the longer term, shape the international environment in favor of freedom, security and prosperity.

Tactical counterterrorism aims to identify, disrupt and destroy extremist networks. Military might is essential but it is not sufficient. Acting alone is sometimes necessary, but ordinarily less effective than collaborative measures. Terrorists find sanctuary, support and successors in many countries and cross borders with impunity. The report recommends that we strengthen efforts to safeguard fissile materials around the world; forge new alliances of intelligence, law enforcement and financial officials; bolster our own capabilities and those of our partners; strengthen international institutions; and adapt our military to secure dangerous weapons and defeat terrorists.

Strategic counterterrorism is the long-term part of this effort. It recognizes that most people in the Muslim world do not share the goals of al Qaeda and view terrorism as un-Islamic. It aims to counter the underlying conditions that feed radicalism and separate the extremists from the rest of the population. We cannot kill or capture all those who would do us harm. So, even as we shut the door to terror, we must open minds to a more balanced view of the United States, offering hope where our enemies offer only hatred. The report recommends that we encourage political, economic and educational reform in the Muslim world; build the capacity of weak and failing states; engage in efforts to end regional conflicts; reassert our commitment to achieve a secure and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians; and revive America’s traditional alliances.

Homeland security aims to protect America’s citizens, key infrastructure, industries and vital resources from attack. The federal government owes the American people a truly integrated program; their protection is the government’s core responsibility. The report recommends that we strengthen domestic prevention and preparedness; fully train and equip first responders to manage the consequences of an attack; bolster our public health infrastructure; and build effective partnerships between the public and private sectors and between federal, state and local authorities.

This three-part strategy represents a comprehensive, integrated approach to the greatest threat Americans face. It recognizes that to prevail, America must act with strength and wisdom. If we combine the force of our arms with the power of our ideas and ideals, we will defeat the extremist challenge to America’s security and seize the great opportunities for progress that lie ahead.

Madeleine K. Albright
Samuel R. Berger
Donald A. Baer
Rand Beers
Daniel Benjamin
Robert O. Boorstin
Kurt M. Campbell
Richard Clarke
Bill Danvers
Thomas E. Donilon
Thomas J. Downey
Leon Fuerth
Suzanne George
John Podesta
Steve Ricchetti
Susan E. Rice
Wendy R. Sherman
Gayle Smith
Jeffrey H. Smith
Tara Sonenshine
Jim Steinberg
Shibley Telhami
Toni G. Verstandig[*]

[*] The signatures above have endorsed this report not as representatives of their respective organizations. Their endorsement does not necessarily indicate agreement with every specific recommendation.

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