John Brennan, President Obama’s senior advisor on terrorism, gave a speech yesterday that was supposed to signal something of a new approach to the challenge. But in proclaiming that al Qaeda “remains the most serious terrorist threat we face as a nation” and “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security the possibility that terrorists will obtain and use a nuclear weapon,” he reflected a consensus that predates 9/11. 

Secretary Clinton’s warning about the growing terrorist threat from Somalia is actually much more interesting.  There is a very large Somali community in the United States, and dozens of young Somalis have already been recruited to fight as part of al Qaeda’s Shabaab offshoot.  In terms of the threat of an attack on U.S. soil, I think we’re now at the point where an attack linked to Somali extremists is as likely as one from al Qaeda central.

Brennan also discussed the importance of pushing Taliban extremists  “out of key population areas in Afghanistan so we can prevent the return of al-Qaeda to that country.”  This is also just reinforcing an existing consensus.  It is not clear why Brennan and the administration remain obsessed with terrorists operating out of Afghanistan specifically.  Yes, al Qaeda was based there prior to 9/11, but there is nothing particularly significant about Afghanistan that makes a terrorist based there any more dangerous than one based on the Pakistani side of the border… or in Karachi… or really anywhere else.  Indeed, I think a compelling case can be made that terrorist operating out of a variety of urban “ungoverned spaces” with close promity to international communications would pose a more immediate danger.

Similarly, Brennan’s statement that “The risk of just one terrorist with just one nuclear weapon is a risk we simply cannot afford to take” was all too familiar.  At least he didn’t say, “But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Again, this is not newsworthy, although Brennan did stress the importance of arms control initiatives to manage the risk rather than pre-emptive war.


Brennan used much of his speech to stress that the administration’s counterterrorism strategy includes more than countering military threats.  “Any comprehensive approach” must also address “the upstream factors — the conditions that help fuel violent extremism,” he said. “If we fail to confront the broader political, economic, and social conditions in which extremists thrive, then there will always be another recruit in the pipeline, another attack coming downstream,” he said.  “Extremist violence and terrorist attacks are therefore often the final murderous manifestation of a long process rooted in hopelessness, humiliation, and hatred,” Brennan said.

Again, this mirrors the Bush Administration.  The difference, I take it, is that while the Bush Administration believed that democratization — by force if necessary — was the key to addressing these “upstream factors,” the Obama Administration intends to rely on more traditional means such as development assistance and aid to civil society programs.

Certainly, the approach Brennan laid out is lighter on military force and heavier on the other instruments of statecraft.  But what is stunning is how closely these arguments match the Bush Administration’s diagnosis of the problem and the scope of the U.S. response.

In terms of diagnosis, there is still a broad reliance on macro causes to explain individual behavior.  There is good reason to doubt this linkage — analytically and more significantly strategically.  As I have pointed out many times, there are more gang members in Los Angeles than “jihadists” worldwide.  If we can’t prevent gang violence in our own cities, how can we hope to prevent people from joining terror networks abroad?  As long as groups like al Qaeda can survive by recruiting a few thousand individuals out of a potential pool of 1.3 billion Muslims, it seems tremendously unlikely that we will ever be able to eliminate “upstream” factors enough make a dent in the capabilities of terrorist groups.

In terms of the scope of the Obama Administration response, it is, if anything, even broader than that of the Bush Administration.  We must go everywhere and anywhere fixing anything and everything in the hopes of eliminating grievances that might cause terrorism.  There is no sense of limits or restraint in this counter-terrorism strategy.  The Obama Administration’s embrace of exceptionally expansive worldview remains a curious feature of contemporary American foreign policy.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project.  This article was originally published at ASP’s Flash Point blog.