Carl Leubsdorf: Rededfining terror threat

May 31, 2013 

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush declared what his administration called the Global War on Terror, an all-out effort to find and eliminate "every terrorist of global reach" in a campaign he likened to the U.S. effort in World War II.

The reality was less clear-cut.

The president undercut the effort by switching the military focus from al-Qaida's Afghanistan lair to a misguided adventure in Iraq and never sought deeds of sacrifice from Americans to match his words. Besides the Iraq war, the GWOT came to be defined by more intensive airport security checks and over-hyped terrorist incidents prompting color-coded terrorist warnings.

President Barack Obama shifted focus, winding down both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and concentrating on eliminating al-Qaida's leadership one-by-one. He dropped the color codes, and his administration handled as more routine the occasional terrorist incidents like the capture in Detroit of the Nigerian passenger who sought to blow up a plane with plastic explosives in his underwear.

Now Obama has declared what history will probably show as the formal end of the GWOT, striking a tone of realism to replace his predecessor's often unrealistic promises.

"Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end," he said in a significant speech last week. "We must define our effort not as a boundless global war on terror but rather as series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America," often in "partnerships with other countries."

Subsequent commentary concentrated on such specific issues as his prudent redefinition of the use of drones, an overdue intention to revise and repeal the broad 2001 authorization to use military force against terrorists; and a renewed effort to close the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention center that Congress so far has blocked.

Critics said his change was more symbolic than real. But his speech brought home the larger point that terrorism has evolved from the threat that produced that horrific September 2001 day.

For a decade, that war was defined by one man, Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi who masterminded global terrorism from hideaways in Afghanistan and then Pakistan. Initially, it also dominated domestic politics, as Bush continually stressed his anti-terrorism to help edge challenger John Kerry in 2004.

But bin Laden and many top lieutenants are dead, Obama said, noting, "There have been no large-scale attacks on the United States and our homeland is more secure."

Rather than one central al-Qaida unit, he added, "what we've seen is the emergence of various al-Qaida affiliates. From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse," meaning that, rather than "a transnational threat … we'll face more localized threats like we saw in Benghazi or the BP oil facility in Algeria."

"Finally," he said, "we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States," such as the shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and Fort Hood or the recent Boston Marathon bombing.

Now, Obama said, "We must finish the work of defeating al-Qaida and its associated forces." But in a note of realism, he added, "Neither I nor any president can promise the total defeat of terror … But what we can do, what we must do is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideal that we defend."

To be fair, neither Obama's overall strategy nor decisions transferring authority for drone strikes from the CIA to the Pentagon and putting on new restrictions can be as clear-cut as the president's words sounded.

For the war on terror is not so much over as transformed. But Obama has defined a realistic path for himself and future chief executives in the post-GWOT era.

Carl P. Leubsdorf, former Washington bureau chief, Dallas Morning News;

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