Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Digital Safe Havens

Georgetown Professor Paul Pillar writes in today's Washington Post

How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven? More to the point: How much does a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland? The answer to the second question is: not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose. When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.

In the past couple of decades, international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens.

The central question asked by Professor Pillar is whether the Obama administration's assumption that abandoning Afghanistan will create a needed safe haven for al-Qaeda is correct? Many policy makers believe that should we pull out of Afghanistan the Karzai government will fall and the Taliban will take over or the country will disintegrate into a failed state. According to this argument, either condition will provide al-Qaeda with a safe have to re-group and plan additional attacks against US interest at home and abroad.

Professor Pillar questions this assumption by pointing out that al-Qaeda and other al-Qaeda inspired groups have used the Internet to communicate, coordinate, recruit, and train and therefore do not rely on a physical safe haven for success.

What are your thoughts? Can a terrorist cell rely solely on the Internet to plan, coordinate and successfully execute an attack? We will discuss this question in more detail later in the semester.

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