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Combating Terrorist Networks

Combating Terrorist NetworksIn a two-part interview with the Boston Metro, Gen. Russell Howard, director of The Fletcher School at Tufts University’s Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies, says the absence of a central governing structure can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to terrorism and nuclear weapons.


Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.03.07] Much has changed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, including the way some experts have begun to think about global terrorism. Brigadier General (retired) Russell Howard says that in the pat six years, his focus has shifted from the analyzing the causes of past terror attacks to learning more about what might fuel terrorist activities in the future. A particular concern, he explained to the Boston Metro, are failing states that lack a central government.

"We're looking at failed and failing states," says Howard, the founding director of the Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies at The Fletcher School. "Not that poverty is a root cause of the present form of terrorism - it's an independent variable, not the dependent variable - however, failed and failing states are areas of easy recruitment for al-Qaida and al-Qaida-like entities."

Howard told the newspaper that a concern over al-Qaida activities in Somalia led to a focus on these areas.

"When a failed state comes to mind, Somalia is the failed state," he told the Metro. "It's fairly clear that al-Qaida or similar groups were operating there."

While Howard said that al-Qaida's presence in Somalia is "arguable" now, he told the Metro that any failing state that lacks a strong central government could be fertile ground for terrorist groups to thrive.

"al-Qaida can assist in some of the functions that a state would normally provide," he explained to the newspaper. "For example education, unemployment, welfare - those areas where they can replicate a state or state activity when the state doesn't have jurisdiction or a military footprint and isn't taking care of the needs of the people."

Howard told the Metro that like Somalia, some areas of Pakistan can be considered failing states. He said the potential for groups like al-Qaida to breed there is a primary concern, and the political situation is dicey.

"Pakistan is tough, and it's tough for the United States to know exactly what to do here," he told the Metro.

While Democrats may be tempted to withdraw their support for Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has been criticized for letting extremism bubble up in some pockets of the country and for creating a welcome environment for militants by putting Pakistan under martial law, it's a tough call, according to Howard.

"If your administration's policy has been to advance democracy around the world and you have a quasi-democratic state that's now under martial law, what policy moves do you have?" Howard asked the Metro. "I don't envy the Bush administration in this predicament."

The threat of terrorists in Pakistan obtaining nuclear weapons further complicates the problem, according to Howard. He explained to the Metro that the fear is that without a state structure in some of those uncontrolled areas in Pakistan, nuclear weapons may wind up in the wrong hands.

"As long as there's a state structure and you can pick up the phone and call a president, a prime minister, a king or a dictator and work with them to control nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, that's good," he told the Metro. "Absent some type of central structure in a state that has loose nukes: That's just a recipe for disaster."

In order to combat terrorist networks that lack a hierarchy, Howard said you need to take one of two approaches: either become a network yourself or force the network to become more like you.

"When you think about that, ask whether our 16 intelligence agencies and other bureaus in charge of national security are well networked," he told the Metro. "Or, you have to get the network you're fighting to get more hierarchical and bureaucratic so you can fight them on the same level."

Otherwise, you'll be playing two different games.

"We are playing chess, and our adversary is playing poker," he told the Metro. "Chess has a finite number of moves and you can only move in certain directions, but poker has an exponential number of moves... because you can bluff."

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