By CNN's Tim Lister
Paul Pillar knows about the business of counter-terrorism. He was a deputy chief of the Counter-terrorist Center at the CIA and is now a Visiting Professor with the Security Studies program at Georgetown University.
And he believes that over the last decade we have become obsessed with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda – and failed to develop a more realistic and balanced sense of terrorist threats.
In the current edition of the CTC Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Pillar argues that a “highly disproportionate share of U.S. resources expended in the name of counter-terrorism have been expended against” al Qaeda. He says that the most recent “National Strategy for Counter-terrorism” published in June might better have been titled the “National Strategy for the War on al Qaeda.”
“All other terrorist acts or threats of terrorism in the world are noted and set aside in a few paragraphs,” he adds.
Pillar says that a lack of definition, as well as the narrow focus on al Qaeda as it developed under bin Laden, hampers our understanding of the threat of terrorism and our ability to respond to it. Equating counter-terrorism with the fight against a single group “obscures from where most of the initiative for terrorist operations is coming, which is at the periphery and not from a center in south Asia.”
In recent months, U.S. counter-terrorism officials have voiced greater concern about the threat posed by al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa – and the U.S. drone program, which has been effective in grinding down al Qaeda in Pakistan, is being extended to the Horn of Africa. U.S. Special Operations forces have stepped up their activity in Somalia.
Not before time, according to Pillar, the author of "Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11 and Misguided Reform." He says the "broader phenomenon of Sunni jihadist terrorism to which the label al Qaeda is commonly applied is not weaker. Instead, it is even more widespread than it was ten years ago." So, he says, it would be a mistake to think that bin Laden's demise has significantly reduced the terror threat to the U.S.
Pillar also believes that the effect of 9/11 on the American psyche has distorted policy. "Analysis of almost any terrorist incident or terrorist-related discovery or individual is couched in terms of whether or not the subject of attention is "linked" to al Qaeda," he writes. "A highly disproportionate share of U.S. resources expended in the name of counter-terrorism have been directed against this one group."
Somewhat ominously, Pillar concludes that "even within the radical Sunni variety of terrorism, al Qaeda is only one element." After all, he reminds us, al Qaeda means "the base" in Arabic, one that Osama bin Laden "never intended would do everything itself but instead would be the base from which larger efforts would be inspired and grow."
See the study here