Too Focused on Safe Havens?
Print Issue: September 2011
THE WHITE HOUSE National Strategy for Counterterrorism states that al Qaeda relies on ungoverned and poorly governed territories—in other words, failed states—for sanctuary. “The United States will continue to [take actions] designed to prevent al-Qa’ida from taking advantage of these ungoverned spaces,” the recently issued report states. But some experts note that weak and corrupt states may be more dangerous than failed states when it comes to providing terrorist safe havens.
For that reason, Stewart M. Patrick, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he thinks that the United States may be spending too much of its time and resources focusing on “failed states.” Patrick’s research has found that a state’s weakness does not exactly correlate with its potential to be a terrorist safe haven. He says that it is much more likely that a weak state with a corrupt government will provide a better safe haven to terrorists than a state that is completely failed.
A report by the Harmony Project, Al-Qaida’s MisAdventures in the Horn of Africa, provides some explanation for why weak states are even more dangerous than failed states. The report looks at al Qaeda’s first attempts to expand beyond Afghanistan and Sudan in the early 1990s. The report states: “Conventional wisdom suggests that Somalia, a failed state, would be an ideal safe haven for al-Qaida. Our analysis, however, indicates that weakly governed regions such as coastal Kenya, not failed states like Somalia, provide an environment more conducive to al-Qa’ida’s activities.”
The report explains that in Somalia, al-Qaeda’s members faced extortion and betrayal and “were subject to the constant risk of Western military interdiction. In Kenya, by contrast, the state’s poor governance, combined with relative stability and basic infrastructure, created a potential base area from which to support operations” and “outside military forces could not conduct operations because of Kenyan sovereignty, yet the state had little ability to interdict the terror group’s actions or effectively police its activities.”
Patrick says the United States should take a more fine-grained approach to assessing the situations in nations that hold the potential to offer terrorists safe havens. The U.S. government has devoted insufficient attention to examining the social and cultural factors, such as the presence of amenable tribal groups, radical ideology, and an ambivalent host state attitude, according to Patrick. “These are some of the factors that turn potential safe havens into actual ones.”
A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the State Department is doing an incomplete job of assessing safe havens. Among the items missing was a look at the efforts by the countries identified as safe havens to prevent trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.
Safe havens were also examined at a U.S. House of Representatives homeland security subcommittee hearing. Pakistan was a major focus, with lawmakers concerned that Osama bin Laden was found at a compound in plain sight and very close to a Pakistani military academy.
During the hearing, Professor Bruce Hoffman, of Georgetown University, suggested that, beyond government incompetence and possible complicity, it may be willful ignorance on the part of the Pakistani government that caused them not to be “aware” of bin Laden’s location. Hoffman suggested that the government may have decided that it was “simply better and preferable” not to ask about bin Laden or about the inhabitants of his compound.
Patrick says that Pakistan is a weak but functioning state that makes a particularly attractive safe haven, in part because of its government’s ambiguous and fragmented attitude toward extremists.
Another issue is that terrorists can operate without remote safe havens. “Much of the focus has been on remote havens, whereas it is increasingly clear that terrorists are adept at acting in urban havens, and indeed, as al-Qaeda and its affiliates become increasingly decentralized, some of those ‘havens’ may actually be in the West,” says Patrick. Professor Paul Pillar, also with Georgetown University, points out that much of the training and planning for 9-11 occurred in Western nations like the United States and Germany.
Additionally, Pillar, who spent 28 years in the intelligence community, says the government places too much emphasis on safe havens. He says, “It is not one of the more important things that determines the extent of the threat that a group poses to Americans.”
There may be an American aspect to the emphasis on physical safe havens, says Pillar. “It’s partly our way, especially as Americans, of thinking of foreign threats and waging wars. We think of it like front lines. Like World War II. We liberate territories or else the enemy holds them…. But if you’re talking about threats from terrorist groups, it’s really something different.”
The Internet may also have changed the way plans are made, making it easier to strategize across borders, and it has contributed to the decreased emphasis on physical safe havens, says Pillar.
Though Pillar thinks that there is too much emphasis on the actual physical havens, he does understand the need to assess them and deal with those threats. Patrick stresses the need to counter the threats with more than just a military presence. “It needs civilian partners, including diplomats and civilian aid experts… to address long-term and structural causes of extremism in society,” he says. “Putting a U.S. military face alone on the response is often counterproductive.”