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Tackling al Qaeda Where It Thrives — Online

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Old 07-22-2008
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Tackling al Qaeda Where It Thrives — Online
During the Cold War, each side had a frighteningly effective deterrent against nuclear first strikes: Threaten to launch an apocalyptic nuclear retaliation. The strategy — aptly named MAD, for mutual assured destruction — paradoxically cemented peace. Such "thinking about the unthinkable" still works well against Russia, China, and North Korea and likely would even deter Iran. But it obviously has little effect on Islamist terrorists.
They have no state to protect and pose no threat warranting nuclear payback. They can't build a hydrogen bomb, and even a crude Hiroshima-style fission bomb would be a technological stretch. So brandishing the vast US military arsenal over al Qaeda is a little like holding a .44 Magnum on a buzzing mosquito: It won't discourage the bug from drawing blood. After seven years of wishing al Qaeda was more like the Soviet Union, it's time US antiterrorism experts muster the same creativity that the great nuclear strategists marshaled to stave off Armageddon.
When it comes to military tactics, Osama bin Laden is hardly an innovator. The most he and his minions can do is improvise with old techniques, like using a hijacked plane as a cruise missile. Yet jihadists are righteously wired. They have turned the Net into what Israeli expert Reuven Paz calls an "open university for Jihad studies," covering everything from indoctrination to DIY car bombs.
America's current counterterrorism measures can do no more than tenuously contain a threat whose radical ideology spreads like a virus through cyberspace. We should be launching our counterattack on their turf — online.
The problem is that our ham-fisted policies, centering on a reckless war of choice and forced democratization, have eviscerated US public relations efforts. So Washington leads its Web campaigns on tiptoe. The Pentagon has begun launching foreign-language news sites to counter jihadist propaganda, but their sponsorship is intentionally obscure. The name of the site for Iraq ( references the Iraqi national anthem, and its DoD provenance is revealed only when you click on the About link. These kinds of unattributed information ops will never create a decisively positive view of the West.
Whoever wins the White House in November should take the opportunity to give US foreign policy a makeover, which would allow us to emerge from the cybercloset. From there, the path is clear: harness the Net's unique combination of community and privacy to shape the debate within Islam about the best mechanisms for political change. A new tone in Washington could make moderate Muslims less averse to linkages with the US, which might in turn quietly provide support for anti-jihadist clerics — like Abdul Haqq Baker of the Brixton mosque in London — encouraging them to speak up in the blogosphere.
But here's where the creative thinking can really kick in: A bolder strategy, driven by ideas as counterintuitive and ostensibly distasteful as MAD, should also be deployed in cyberspace. US-sponsored Web sites need to acknowledge that radicalism remains highly appealing — thanks in part to the Bush administration — and, unthinkable as it may sound, we'd be well advised to manifest greater tolerance for radical Muslims.
Of course, no official US site should sing the praises of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood. But recognizing that such organizations have gained some legitimacy by participating in nonviolent politics would signal to potential recruits that there's an effective and honorable third way between capitulation and terrorism.
Muslims seem increasingly receptive to such efforts. Polls indicate that only 10 percent of Saudis view al Qaeda favorably and that in Indonesia, Lebanon, and Pakistan, support for suicide bombings has dropped dramatically. Showing jihadists an alternate path to a stake in a functioning government — as opposed to the chaos that currently reigns — could make them easier to deter and influence. But more immediately, it might keep some of them from clicking on the link to that build-your-own IED site.
Jonathan Stevenson ( is a professor of strategic studies at the US Naval War College. His book, Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable: Harnessing Doom From the Cold War to the Age of Terror, is due out in August.

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