At the headquarters of the National Counterterrorism Center, located in a bland office park in Northern Virginia, there's a unit called the "strategic analytical group" that is paid to think about the meta-questions of global terrorism: What's the nature of the threat? Is it getting worse or better? What can the United States do to bend its trajectory?
"It's our job to think through the potential nightmares," one official told me when I sat down for a chat recently with three members of the group. Some of their comments raised some frightening new dangers; other themes were mildly reassuring. But my strongest impression was that these intelligence officers are trying to think creatively, without the bombastic "war on terrorism" rhetoric or reflexive responses that sometimes drove policy after Sept. 11, 2001.
The officials stressed that their job is to offer straightforward analysis for policymakers rather than set policy themselves. But their comments reflected a broader reexamination of the basics of counterterrorism strategy that has been taking place throughout the U.S. government over the past year. The effect has been to challenge some conventional wisdom.
Let's start with the nature of the threat. Though the intelligence analysts remain focused on the danger posed by al-Qaeda, they are also pondering what might happen if recent trends continue and that organization loses more support in the Muslim world. That unraveling of al-Qaeda central is a primary U.S. goal, but one of the analysts cautioned that policymakers shouldn't automatically "make an assumption that some worse monster won't evolve out of this."
Al-Qaeda has been characterized by its fairly tight command and control, systematic targeting, and a concern for legitimacy in the Muslim world. If that central ethos were broken, it might set loose a free-for-all, a situation in which every terrorist operated on his own.
"If al-Qaeda went away, the ideology would live on, but you might have less-qualified people interpreting Islam," noted one analyst. He likened the situation to Algeria in the 1990s, when radical Muslim groups were cut off from real clerics and spawned a particularly vicious brand of terror.
The analysts discussed several of the "nightmares" that might arise in this world where Muslim rage continued but without the discipline of a controlling central organization.
"My doomsday scenario, aside from weapons of mass destruction, is personalized jihad," explained one analyst. "Everyone gets to do it on their own. Anyone can take a knife and stab someone in the back."
A related concern is the devolution of targeting. With al-Qaeda, targets were selected to meet certain criteria of economic and symbolic importance. But as U.S. counterterrorism operations disrupt al-Qaeda, one analyst noted, "that pushes targeting down in the ranks."
The analysts recall the anxiety produced by the Washington area sniper attacks in October 2002, in which random shootings by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo created a fear that nearly paralyzed the region. That illustrates the damage that personalized jihad could do.
On the positive side, the analysts note that many Muslims around the world are turning away from al-Qaeda, in part because of their revulsion at its tactics and its gruesome record of killing Muslims. This rejection is evident even within the Salafist networks of very traditional Muslims, which provided Osama bin Laden's early recruits. "The Salafist community has become very pragmatic," explains one of the analysts, to the point that some sheiks have blessed cooperation with Western law enforcement against terrorist groups.
The counterterrorism strategists have also studied ways to combat the radicalization of Muslims. The simple answer, they say, is intense engagement with the Muslim community. "Having the conversation signals that you take them seriously," says one analyst. Super-hot rhetoric about the "war on Islamic terrorism" can easily backfire, he notes. "If you want to engage in a conversation, it's best to use language that doesn't anger the community."
What's the biggest worry at the National Counterterrorism Center? In the tribal areas of Pakistan, al-Qaeda is recruiting and training terrorists who don't look or talk like Muslim extremists -- who could enter the United States easily on European passports, without special visas. "That's the issue we spend more time on than anything," the head of the group explains.
You go away from the conversation with a sense that they have their priorities right.