NPR correspondent Dina Temple-Raston covers counter-terrorism, including legal issues, national security and the changing nature of groups like Al Qaida. Temple-Raston will speak at Western Michigan University’s Fetzer Center at 11:00 Monday morning.
Her address titled “The New Threat Assessment, Defending America on a Budget” is part of the World Affairs Council of West Michigan’s Great Decisions Discussion Series. She recently spoke with WMUK’s Gordon Evans from NPR’s New York Bureau.
When it comes to defending America “on a budget”, Temple-Raston says there’s been a lot of money spent on counter-terrorism. But she says the nature of the threat has changed. Now the U.S. is fighting pockets of Al Qaida, and has more allies in the effort to stamp out terrorist networks. Temple-Raston says the U.S. isn’t “going it alone anymore.”
One of the changes in the nature of terrorism is a less centralized Al Qaida. Temple-Raston says “people in the counter-terrorism world say we’ve gone to Al Qaida 3.0.” First there was Al Qaida, then there were affiliates, in several different countries. She says now it’s a more fractured network. Temple-Raston says because Al Qaida is more diffuse the concern about an attack on the homeland, the scale of the one on September 11th, 2001 is much smaller now. She says the splintering of groups makes it harder to fight, but the threat is at a different level. Temple-Raston says the most likely targets are likely to be “soft targets” such as embassies and shopping malls. She says those are tougher to protect, but there aren’t as likely to be large-scale attacks.
The recent attack on a BP facility in Algeria could represent a change in Al Qaida. Temple-Raston says the man who took responsibility for the attack is a known criminal. She says Al Qaida groups are turning to more criminal activity because they need money. One group robs banks and another is involved in money laundering. Temple-Raston says this has caused some divisions in Al Qaida because some of its members believe it has strayed from its ideological purity. She says it represents a change from when Al Qaida were spending Osama Bin Laden’s money, and was more of an ideological unit.
Since September 11th, 2001 the United States has been trying to eradicate Al Qaida. At various points, the terror network appeared to be in trouble. But Temple-Raston says Al Qaida is a little bit like Robert DeNiro in the movie Cape Fear – every time you think he is dead he comes back. She says Al Qaida has been written off several times, when Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011, when it’s financing was choked off and after the Arab Spring. But Temple-Raston says each time Al Qaida has morphed and come back again. She says they may not be stronger than ever, but the terror network is certainly not dead yet.
Despite Al Qaida’s resilience, Temple-Raston says it is possible to imagine the end of the war on terror. She says there are signs that the Obama administration has thought through some legal issues related to ending the war on terror. After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 Congress gave the administration broad power to use military action. But Temple-Raston says as more low-level figures in Al Qaida are targeted, the legal justification isn’t as strong. She says the Obama administration is also thinking through where they can put prisoners currently in Guantanamo if the war on terror is declared over. Temple-Raston says that shows that they see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that the administration does not view the war on terror as endless.