The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Remarks of John O. Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, on Ensuring al-Qa'ida's Demise -- As Prepared for Delivery
Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C.
As Prepared for Delivery—
Good afternoon. Thank you, Dean Einhorn, for your very warm welcome and for your decades of service—in government, global institutions and here at SAIS. And it’s a special pleasure to be introduced by John McLaughlin, a friend and colleague of many years and one of our nation’s great intelligence professionals.
It’s a pleasure to be here at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, an institution that has instilled in generations of public servants the pragmatic approach to problem-solving that is essential for the effective conduct of foreign policy. I especially want to thank the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies for its emphasis on national security and for joining with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to introduce students to our Intelligence Community and inspiring the next generation of intelligence professionals.
It’s wonderful to see so many friends and colleagues who I’ve had the privilege to work with over many years. You have devoted your lives to protecting our nation from many threats, including the one that brings me here today, and one that has claimed the lives of some of our friends and colleagues—that is the continued terrorist threat from al-Qa’ida.
Today, we are releasing President Obama’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which formalizes the approach that we’ve been pursuing and adapting for the past two and half years to prevent terrorist attacks and to ensure al-Qa’ida’s demise. I’m pleased that we are joined today by dedicated professionals from across the federal government who helped to shape our strategy and who work tirelessly every day to keep our country safe. Thank you for being here.
An unclassified summary of our strategy is being posted today to the White House website, WhiteHouse.gov. In the time I have with you, I’d like to put our strategy in context, outline its key goals and principals, and describe how we’re putting these principles into practice to protect the American people.
I want to begin with the larger strategic environment that shapes our counterterrorism efforts. This starts with the recognition that this counterterrorism strategy is only one part of President Obama’s larger National Security Strategy. This is very important. 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.
Since taking office, President Obama has worked to restore a positive vision of American leadership in the world—leadership defined, not by the threats and dangers that we will oppose, but by the security, opportunity and dignity that America advances in partnership with people around the world. This has enhanced our national security in many areas against many threats.
At the same time, many of the President’s broader foreign policy and national security initiatives also help to achieve our more focused counterterrorism goals. They do so by addressing the political, economic and social conditions that can sometimes fuel violent extremism and push certain individuals into the arms of al-Qa’ida.
For instance, when our diplomats promote the peaceful resolution of political disputes and grievances, when our trade and economic policies generate growth that lifts people out of poverty, when our development experts support good governance that addresses people’s basic needs, when we stand up for universal human rights—all of this can also help undermine violent extremists and terrorists like al-Qa’ida. Peaceful political, economic, and social progress undermines the claim that the only way to achieve change is through violence. It can be a powerful antidote to the disillusionment and sense of powerlessness that can make some individuals more susceptible to violent ideologies.
Our strategy recognizes that our counterterrorism efforts clearly benefit from—and at times depend on—broader foreign policy efforts, even as our CT strategy focuses more narrowly on preventing terrorist attacks against our interests, at home and abroad.
This, obviously, is also the first counterterrorism strategy to reflect the extraordinary political changes that are sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. It’s true that these changes may bring new challenges and uncertainty in the short-term, as we are seeing in Yemen. It also is true that terrorist organizations, and nations that support them, will seek to capitalize on the instability that change can sometimes bring. That is why we are working closely with allies and partners to make sure that these malevolent actors do not succeed in hijacking this moment of hope for their own violent ends.
But as President Obama has said, these dramatic changes also mark an historic moment of opportunity. So too for our counterterrorism efforts. For decades, terrorist organizations like al-Qa’ida have preached that the only way to affect change is through violence. Now, that claim has been thoroughly repudiated, and it has been repudiated by ordinary citizens, in Tunisia and Egypt and beyond, who are changing and challenging their governments through peaceful protest, even as they are sometimes met with horrific brutality, as in Libya and Syria. Moreover, these citizens have rejected the medieval ideology of al-Qa’ida that divides people by faith and gender, opting instead to work together—Muslims and Christians, men and women, secular and religious.
It is the most profound change in the modern history of the Arab world, and al-Qa’ida and its ilk have been left on the sidelines, watching history pass them by. Meanwhile, President Obama has placed the United States on the right side of history, pledging our support for the political and economic reforms and universal human rights that people in the region are demanding. This, too, has profound implications for our counterterrorism efforts.
Against this backdrop, our strategy is very precise about the threat we face and the goals we seek. Paul Nitze once observed that “one of the most dangerous forms of human error is forgetting what one is trying to achieve.” President Obama is adamant that we never forget who we’re fighting or what we’re trying to achieve.
Let me start by saying that our strategy is not designed to combat directly every single terrorist organization in every corner of the world, many of which have neither the intent nor the capability to ever attack the United States or our citizens.
Our strategy of course recognizes that there are numerous nations and groups that support terrorism in order to oppose U.S. interests. Iran and Syria remain leading state sponsors of terrorism. Hezbollah and HAMAS are terrorist organizations that threaten Israel and our interests in the Middle East. We will therefore continue to use the full range of our foreign policy tools to prevent these regimes and terrorist organizations from endangering our national security.
For example, President Obama has made it clear that the United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And we will continue working closely with allies and partners, including sharing and acting upon intelligence, to prevent the flow of weapons and funds to Hezbollah and HAMAS and to prevent attacks against our allies, citizens or interests.
But the principal focus of this counterterrorism strategy—and the focus of our CT efforts since President Obama took office—is the network that poses the most direct and significant threat to the United States, and that is al-Qa’ida, its affiliates and its adherents. We use these terms deliberately.
It is al-Qa’ida, the core group founded by Usama bin Laden, that has murdered our citizens, from the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the attack on the U.S.S. Cole to the attacks of September 11th, which also killed citizens of more than 90 other countries.
It is al-Qa’ida’s affiliates—groups that are part of its network or share its goals—that have also attempted to attack our homeland. It was al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, that attempted to bring down that airliner over Detroit and which put explosives on cargo planes bound for the United States. It was the Pakistani Taliban that sent Faisal Shahzad on his failed attempt to blow up an SUV in Times Square.
And it is al-Qa’ida’s adherents¬—individuals, sometimes with little or no direct physical contact with al-Qa’ida, who have succumbed to its hateful ideology and who have engaged in, or facilitated, terrorist activities here in the United States. These misguided individuals are spurred on by the likes of al-Qaida’s Adam Gadahn and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, who speak English and preach violence in slick videos over the Internet. And we have seen the tragic results, with the murder of a military recruiter in Arkansas two years ago and the attack on our servicemen and women at Fort Hood.
This is the first counterterrorism strategy that focuses on the ability of al-Qa’ida and its network to inspire people in the United States to attack us from within. Indeed, this is the first counterterrorism strategy that designates the homeland as a primary area of emphasis in our counterterrorism efforts.
Our strategy is also shaped by a deeper understanding of al-Qa’ida’s goals, strategy, and tactics. I’m not talking about al-Qa’ida’s grandiose vision of global domination through a violent Islamic caliphate. That vision is absurd, and we are not going to organize our counterterrorism policies against a feckless delusion that is never going to happen. We are not going to elevate these thugs and their murderous aspirations into something larger than they are.
Rather, President Obama is determined that our foreign and national security policies not play into al-Qa’ida’s strategy or its warped ideology. Al-Qa’ida seeks to terrorize us into retreating from the world stage. But President Obama has made it a priority to renew American leadership in the world, strengthening our alliances and deepening partnerships. Al-Qa’ida seeks to portray America as an enemy of the world’s Muslims. But President Obama has made it clear that the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam.
Al-Qa’ida seeks to bleed us financially by drawing us into long, costly wars that also inflame anti-American sentiment. Under President Obama, we are working to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan responsibly, even as we keep unrelenting pressure on al-Qa’ida. Going forward, we will be mindful that if our nation is threatened, our best offense won’t always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.
Al-Qa’ida seeks to portray itself as a religious movement defending the rights of Muslims, but the United States will continue to expose al-Qa’ida as nothing more than murderers. They purport to be Islamic, but they are neither religious leaders nor scholars; indeed, there is nothing Islamic or holy about slaughtering innocent men, women, and children. They claim to protect Muslims, but the vast majority of al-Qa’ida’s victims are, in fact, innocent Muslim men, women, and children. It is no wonder that the overwhelmingly majority of the world’s Muslims have rejected al-Qa’ida and why its ranks of supporters continue to decline.
Just as our strategy is precise about who our enemy is, it is clear about our posture and our goal. This is a war—a broad, sustained, integrated and relentless campaign that harnesses every element of American power. And we seek nothing less than the utter destruction of this evil that calls itself al-Qa’ida.
To achieve this goal, we need to dismantle the core of al-Qa’ida—its leadership in the tribal regions of Pakistan—and prevent its ability to reestablish a safe haven in the Pakistan–Afghanistan region. In other words, we aim to render the heart of al-Qa’ida incapable of launching attacks against our homeland, our citizens, or our allies, as well as preventing the group from inspiring its affiliates and adherents to do so.
At the same time, ultimately defeating al-Qa’ida also means addressing the serious threat posed by its affiliates and adherents operating outside South Asia. This does not require a “global” war, but it does require a focus on specific regions, including what we might call the periphery—places like Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and the Maghreb. This is another important distinction that characterizes this strategy. As the al-Qa’ida core has weakened under our unyielding pressure, it has looked increasingly to these other groups and individuals to take up its cause, including its goal of striking the United States.
To destroy al-Qa’ida, we are pursuing specific and focused counterterrorism objectives. For example:
We are protecting our homeland by constantly reducing our vulnerabilities and adapting and updating our defenses.
We are taking the fight to wherever the cancer of al-Qa’ida manifests itself, degrading its capabilities and disrupting its operations.
We are degrading the ability of al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership to inspire, communicate with, and direct the operations of its adherents around the world.
We are denying al-Qa’ida any safe haven—the physical sanctuary that it needs to train, plot and launch attacks against us.
We are aggressively confronting al-Qa’ida’s ideology, which attempts to exploit local—and often legitimate—grievances in an attempt to justify violence.
We are depriving al-Qa’ida of its enabling means, including the illicit financing, logistical support, and online communications that sustain its network.
- And we are working to prevent al-Qa’ida from acquiring or developing weapons of mass destruction, which is why President Obama is leading the global effort to secure the world’s vulnerable materials in four years.
In many respects, these specific counterterrorism goals are not new. In fact, they track closely with the goals of the previous administration. Yet this illustrates another important characteristic of our strategy. It neither represents a wholesale overhaul—nor a wholesale retention—of previous policies.
President Obama’s approach to counterterrorism is pragmatic, not ideological. It’s based on what works. It builds upon policies and practices that have been instituted and refined over the past decade, in partnership with Congress—a partnership we will continue. And it reflects an evolution in our understanding of the threat, in the capabilities of our government, the capacity of our partners, and the tools and technologies at our disposal.
What is new—and what I believe distinguishes this strategy—is the principles that are guiding our efforts to destroy al-Qa’ida.
First, we are using every lawful tool and authority available. No single agency or department has sole responsibility for this fight because no single department or agency possesses all the capabilities needed for this fight. This is—and must be—a whole-of-government effort, and it’s why the Obama Administration has strengthened the tools we need.
We’ve strengthened intelligence, expanding human intelligence and linguistic skills, and we’re constantly working to improve our capabilities and learn from our experiences. For example, following the attack at Fort Hood and the failed attack over Detroit, we’ve improved the analytic process, created new groups to track threat information, and enhanced cooperation among our intelligence agencies, including better information sharing so that all threats are acted upon quickly.
We’ve strengthened our military capabilities. We increased the size of our Special Forces, sped up the deployment of unique assets so that al-Qa’ida enjoys no safe haven, and ensured that our military and intelligence professionals are working more closely than ever before.
We’ve strengthened homeland security with a multi-layered defense, bolstering security at our borders, ports and airports; improving partnerships with state and local governments and allies and partners, including sharing more information; increasing the capacity of our first responders; and preparing for bioterrorism. In taking these steps, we are finally fulfilling key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
Learning the lessons of recent plots and attempted attacks, we’ve increased aviation security by strengthening watchlist procedures and sharing information in real-time; enhancing screening of cargo; and—for the first time—ensuring 100 percent screening of all passengers traveling in, to, and from the United States, which was another recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. And we are constantly assessing and improving our defenses, as we did in replacing the old color-coded threat system with a more targeted approach that provides detailed information about specific, credible threats and suggested protective measures.
In addition, we are using the full range of law enforcement tools as part of our effort to build an effective and durable legal framework for the war against al-Qa’ida. This includes our single most effective tool for prosecuting, convicting, and sentencing suspected terrorists—and a proven tool for gathering intelligence and preventing attacks—our Article III courts. It includes reformed military commissions, which at times offer unique advantages. And this framework includes the recently renewed PATRIOT Act. In short, we must have a legal framework that provides our extraordinary intelligence, counterterrorism, and law enforcement professionals with all the lawful tools they need to do their job and keep our country safe. We must not tie their hands.
For all these tools to work properly, departments and agencies across the federal government must work cooperatively. Today, our personnel are working more closely together than ever before, as we saw in the operation that killed Usama bin Laden. That success was not due to any one single person or single piece of information. It was the result of many people in many organizations working together over many years. And that is what we will continue to do.
Even as we use every tool in our government, we are guided by a second principle—the need for partnership with institutions and countries around the world, as we recognize that no one nation alone can bring about al-Qa’ida’s demise. Over the past decade, we have made enormous progress in building and strengthening an international architecture to confront the threat from al-Qa’ida. This includes greater cooperation with multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, our NATO allies, and regional organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the African Union.
Over the past two and a half years, we have also increased our efforts to build the capacity of partners so they can take the fight to al-Qa’ida in their own countries. That is why a key element of the President’s strategy in Afghanistan is growing Afghan security forces. It’s why we’ll soon begin a transition so that Afghans can take responsibility for their own security. And it’s why we must continue our cooperation with Pakistan.
In recent weeks we’ve been reminded that our relationship with Pakistan is not without tension or frustration. We are now working with our Pakistani partners to overcome differences and continue our efforts against our common enemies. It is essential that we do so. As frustrating as this relationship can sometimes be, Pakistan has been critical to many of our most significant successes against al-Qa’ida. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis—military and civilian—have given their lives in the fight against militancy. And despite recent tensions, I am confident that Pakistan will remain one of our most important counterterrorism partners.
These kinds of security partnerships are absolutely vital. The critical intelligence that allowed us to discover the explosives that AQAP was shipping to the United States in those cargo planes was provided by our Saudi Arabian partners. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq has suffered major losses at the hands of Iraqi security forces, trained by the United States. Despite the ongoing instability, our counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen continues, and I would argue that the recent territorial gains made by militants linked to AQAP only makes our CT partnership with Yemen more important.
Around the world, we will deepen our security cooperation with partners wherever al-Qa’ida attempts to take root, be it Somalia, the Sahel or Southeast Asia. For while al-Qa’ida seeks to depict this fight as one between the world’s Muslims and the United States, it is actually the opposite—the international community, including Muslim-majority nations and Muslim communities, united against al-Qa’ida.
This leads to the third principle of our strategy—rather than pursuing a one-size fits-all approach, we recognize that different threats in different places demand different tools. So even as we use all the resources at our disposal against al-Qa’ida, we will apply the right tools in the right way and in the right place, with laser focus.
In some places, such as the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, we will deliver precise and overwhelming force against al-Qa’ida. Whenever possible, our efforts around the world will be in close coordination with our partners. And, when necessary, as the President has said repeatedly, if we have information about the whereabouts of al-Qa’ida, we will do what is required to protect the United States—as we did with bin Laden.
In some places, as I’ve described, our efforts will focus on training foreign security services. In others, as with our Saudi Arabian and Gulf state partners, our focus will include shutting down al-Qa’ida’s financial pipelines. With longtime allies and partners, as in Europe, we’ll thwart attacks through close intelligence cooperation. Here in the United States—where the rule of law is paramount—it’s our federal, state, and local law enforcement and homeland security professionals who rightly take the lead. Around the world, including here at home, we will continue to show that the United States offers a vision of progress and justice, while al-Qa’ida offers nothing but death and destruction.
Related to our counterterrorism strategy, I would also note that keeping our nation secure also depends on strong partnerships between government and communities here at home, including Muslim and Arab Americans, some of whom join us today. These Americans have worked to protect their communities from al-Qa’ida’s violent ideology and they have helped to prevent terrorist attacks in our country. Later this summer, the Obama Administration will unveil its approach for partnering with communities to prevent violent extremism in the United States. And a key tenet of this approach is that when it comes to protecting our country, Muslim Americans are not part of the problem, they’re part of the solution.
This relates to our fourth principle—building a culture of resilience here at home. We are doing everything in our power to prevent another terrorist attack on our soil. At the same time, a responsible, effective counterterrorism strategy recognizes that no nation, no matter how powerful—including a free and open society of 300 million Americans—can prevent every single threat from every single individual who wishes to do us harm. It’s not enough to simply be prepared for attacks, we have to be resilient and recover quickly should an attack occur.
So, as a resilient nation, we are constantly improving our ability to withstand any attack—especially our critical infrastructure, including cyber—thereby denying al-Qa’ida the economic damage and disruption it seeks. As a resilient government, we’re strengthening the partnerships that help states and localities recover quickly. And as a resilient people, we must remember that every one of us can help deprive al-Qa’ida of the success it seeks. Al-Qa’ida wants to terrorize us, so we must not give in to fear. They want to change us, so we must stay true to who we are.
Which brings me to our final principle, in fact, the one that guides all the others—in all our actions, we will uphold the core values that define us as Americans. I have spent more than thirty years working on behalf of our nation’s security. I understand the truly breathtaking capabilities of our intelligence and counterterrorism communities. But I also know that the most powerful weapons of all—which we must never forsake—are the values and ideals that America represents to the world.
When we fail to abide by our values, we play right into the hands of al-Qa’ida, which falsely tries to portray us as a people of hypocrisy and decadence. Conversely, when we uphold these values it sends a message to the people around the world that it is America—not al-Qa’ida—that represents opportunity, dignity, and justice. In other words, living our values helps keep us safe.
So, as Americans, we stand for human rights. That is why, in his first days in office, President Obama made it clear that the United States of America does not torture, and it’s why he banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, which did not work. As Americans, we will uphold the rule of law at home, including the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of all Americans. And it’s because of our commitment to the rule of law and to our national security that we will never waver in our conviction that the United States will be more secure the day that the prison at Guantanamo Bay is ultimately closed.
Living our values—and communicating to the world what America represents—also directly undermines al-Qa’ida’s twisted ideology. When we remember that diversity of faith and background is not a weakness in America but a strength, and when we show that Muslim Americans are part of our American family, we expose al-Qa’ida’s lie that cultures must clash. When we remember that Islam is part of America, we show that America could never possibly be at war with Islam.
These are our principles, and this is the strategy that has enabled us to put al-Qa’ida under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. With allies and partners, we have thwarted attacks around the world. We have disrupted plots here at home, including the plan of Najibullah Zazi, trained by al-Qa’ida to bomb the New York subway.
We have affected al-Qa’ida’s ability to attract new recruits. We’ve made it harder for them to hide and transfer money, and pushed al-Qa’ida’s finances to its weakest point in years. Along with our partners, in Pakistan and Yemen, we’ve shown al-Qa’ida that it will enjoy no safe haven, and we have made it harder than ever for them to move, to communicate, to train, and to plot.
Al-Qa’ida’s leadership ranks have been decimated, with more key leaders eliminated in rapid succession than at any time since 9/11. For example, al-Qa’ida’s third-ranking leader, Sheik Saeed al-Masri—killed. Ilyas Kashmiri, one of al-Qa’ida's most dangerous commanders—reportedly killed. Operatives of AQAP in Yemen, including Ammar al-Wa’ili, Abu Ali al-Harithi, and Ali Saleh Farhan—all killed. Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban—killed. Harun Fazul, the leader of al-Qa’ida in East Africa and the mastermind of the bombings of our embassies in Africa—killed by Somali security forces.
All told, over the past two and half years, virtually every major al-Qa’ida affiliate has lost its key leader or operational commander, and more than half of al-Qa’ida’s top leadership has been eliminated. Yes, al-Qa’ida is adaptive and resilient and has sought to replace these leaders, but it has been forced to do so with less experienced individuals. That’s another reason why we and our partners have stepped up our efforts. Because if we hit al-Qa’ida hard enough and often enough, there will come a time when they simply can no longer replenish their ranks with the skilled leaders they need to sustain their operations. And that is the direction in which we’re headed today.
Now, with the death of Usama bin Laden, we have struck our biggest blow against al-Qa’ida yet. We have taken out al-Qa’ida’s founder, an operational commander who continued to direct his followers to attack the United States and, perhaps most significantly, al-Qa’ida’s symbolic figure who has inspired so many others to violence. In his place, the organization is left with Ayman al-Zawahiri, an aging doctor who lacks bin Laden’s charisma and perhaps the loyalty and respect of many in al-Qa’ida. Indeed, the fact that it took so many weeks for al-Qa’ida to settle on Zawahiri as its new leader suggests possible divisions and disarray at the highest levels.
Taken together, the progress I’ve described allows us—for the first time—to envision the demise of al-Qa’ida’s core leadership in the coming years. It will take time, but make no mistake, al-Qa’ida is in its decline. This is by no means meant to suggest that the serious threat from al-Qa’ida has passed; not at all. Zawahiri may attempt to demonstrate his leadership, and al-Qa’ida may try to show its relevance, through new attacks. Lone individuals may seek to avenge bin Laden’s death. More innocent people may tragically lose their lives.
Nor would the destruction of its leadership mean the destruction of the al-Qa’ida network. AQAP remains the most operationally active affiliate in the network and poses a direct threat to the United States. From the territory it controls in Somalia, Al-Shabaab continues to call for strikes against the United States. As a result, we cannot and we will not let down our guard. We will continue to pummel al-Qa’ida and its ilk, and we will remain vigilant at home.
Still, as we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, as Americans seek to understand where we stand a decade later, we need look no further than that compound where bin Laden spent his final days. There he was, holed-up for years, behind high prison-like walls, isolated from the world. But even he understood the sorry state of his organization and its ideology.
Information seized from that compound reveals bin Laden’s concerns about al-Qa’ida’s long-term viability. He called for more large-scale attacks against America, but encountered resistance from his followers and he went for years without seeing any spectacular attacks. He saw his senior leaders being taken down, one by one, and worried about the ability to replace them effectively.
Perhaps most importantly, bin Laden clearly sensed that al-Qa’ida is losing the larger battle for hearts and minds. He knew that al-Qa’ida’s murder of so many innocent civilians, most of them Muslims, had deeply and perhaps permanently tarnished al-Qa’ida’s image in the world. He knew that he had failed to portray America as being at war with Islam. In fact, he worried that our recent focus on al-Qa’ida as our enemy had prevented more Muslims from rallying to his cause, so much so that he even considered changing al-Qa’ida’s name. We are left with that final image seen around the world—an old terrorist, alone, hunched over in a blanket, flipping through old videos of a man and a movement that history is leaving behind.
This fight is not over. But guided by the strategy we’re releasing today, we will never waver in our efforts to protect the American people. We will continue to be clear and precise about our enemy. We will continue to use every tool at our disposal, and apply them wisely. We will continue to forge strong partnerships around the world and build a culture of resilience here at home. And as Americans, we will continue to uphold the ideals and core values that inspire the world, define us as people and help keep us safe.
President Obama said it best last week—we have put al-Qa’ida on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done. Thank you all very much.