Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, MLI senior fellow Alex Wilner assesses the state of counterterrorism following the release of CSIS's Public Report on Jan. 27. Wilner writes that, contrary to the words of US President Barack Obama, there can never be a real "end" to the war on terror, unlike previous conflicts in history. Wilner writes: "The upshot is that this conflict will go on. Instead of settlement or victory, comprehensive counterterrorism that diminishes the capability and motivation of militants is the only viable strategy. And yet even our best counterterrorism approach will face certain dilemmas." One challenge is that even failed attacks can benefit terrorists in the fear and publicity created by them. This op-ed is extracted from a longer piece on counterterrorism in the upcoming edition of Inside Policy magazine.

Alex Wilner, FEBRUARY 2, 2014

Last week, CSIS published its Public Report, detailing the scope and nature of today's security environment. If one thing is blatantly clear, it's that notwithstanding recent successes against al-Qaida and its supporters, terrorism remains CSIS's "greatest preoccupation." In light of U.S. President Barack Obama's recent declaration that "this war, like all wars, must end," it's evident that wishing it doesn't also make it true.

Historically, wars have ended in one of two ways: political settlement or victory. Adversaries either negotiate an end to hostilities, or one side decisively overwhelms another. In our confrontation with al-Qaida, neither is likely.

There is no way al-Qaida is going to join us at the table to negotiate a meaningful truce. Fanaticism is its raison d'être. But we, too, will prove exceptionally poor negotiating partners. What would we willingly sacrifice or trade in a bargain with al-Qaida?

Likewise, outright victory over al-Qaida and its supporters will prove elusive. They have an ability to exploit fragile and failing states, and have a knack for attracting foreign militants and westerners to their cause. From Mali to Yemen, and from Syria to Iraq, al-Qaida takes advantage of civil strife to consolidate its power and expand its base.

The upshot is that this conflict will go on. Instead of settlement or victory, comprehensive counterterrorism that diminishes the capability and motivation of militants is the only viable strategy. And yet even our best counterterrorism approach will face certain dilemmas.

First, some strategies will prove double-edged swords. The benefit we gain will be neutralized by unanticipated costs.

Take targeted killings. Canadians are most familiar with the U.S. drone program, where remote-controlled aircraft identify, track and kill militants overseas. Despite legal, ethical and practical concerns, there is a compelling case to be made that targeted killings effectively degrade militant capability and impair a group's competence, capacity and professionalism.

But on the flip side, targeted killings can also radicalize individuals. That is, they may motivate people to participate in militancy and drive rather than diminish recruitment. This is especially the case when drones mistakenly kill civilians. Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who nearly detonated a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, justified his actions by arguing that "When the drones … hit, they don't see children." Good and bad, targeted killings highlight the trade-offs we face when turning our strategy into practice.

Second, at times counter-capability operations will fail to translate into counter-motivations. What we think should influence or deter militants, doesn't.

Take airplane and airport security. After al-Qaida turned passenger jets into cruise missiles on 9/11, we took steps to ensure that such attacks cannot happen again. Cockpit doors have been locked. Passengers are extensively screened. Air marshals sit among us. And the police presence at airports appears robust. We've beefed up our defences to thwart and dissuade militant attacks on airport infrastructure. At this point, commercial aviation is perhaps the most hardened and best-protected civilian target.

But time and time again, al-Qaida and others continue to attack airplanes and airports with new devices. The box cutters of 9/11 gave way to two shoe bombs later in 2001, then to a shoulder-fired missile attack in Kenya in 2002, then to suicide attacks out of the Moscow airport in 2004, then to liquid bombs out of the U.K. in 2006, a car bomb at Glasgow Airport in 2007, an underwear bomb over Detroit in 2009, printer cartridge bombs out of Yemen in 2010, another suicide attack in Moscow in 2011, a bus bomb at a Bulgarian airport in 2012, and a new and improved underwear bomb in 2012.

Regardless of our defensive plans, terrorists seem hell-bent on attacking civil aviation. Logic tells us that they would be better off focusing their energies elsewhere. Yet despite very low odds of success, they persist.

There is no easy answer for why this is. Perhaps militants see value in conducting attacks that are likely to fail because they equate the sensationalism of the attack as a value in and of itself. Even foiled plots may generate value for terrorists, such as public fear and political embarrassment. If so, the real conundrum we face is that even al-Qaida's failures can be perceived as successes.

Alex Wilner is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa and a research affiliate with the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. This piece is excerpted from a longer feature that will appear in an upcoming edition of MLI's Inside Policy magazine.

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