Speaker: Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Department of State

This event was co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's International Security Studies and Middle East Program, and Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies

When Ambassador Daniel Benjamin assumed his current position, he was highly impressed with the U.S. ability to conduct "tactical offensive counterterrorism"—apprehending terrorists, and disrupting and dismantling their cells. The priority of the Obama administration has been to refocus U.S. efforts on the strategic level to counter al-Qaeda's narrative.

"Central to this approach," Benjamin stated, "is taking steps to undermine the appeal of al-Qaeda's rationale for violence." Two fundamental questions guide that approach: "Are our actions going to result in the creation of more terrorists? And what can we do to shrink the pool of future recruits?"

The Obama administration has substantially increased foreign assistance to Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries facing the rise of violent extremism. The administration is pursuing "a two-pronged strategy" to help these countries meet the immediate security challenge posed by al-Qaeda and to mitigate the serious political, economic, and governance problems that create fertile conditions for terrorist group recruitment.

Counterterrorism analysts at the State Department are working to identify "local drivers of extremism" and to develop programs to counter them. Benjamin referred to these targeted approaches, tailored to the conditions within specific communities, as "micro-strategies."

Some progress has been made, he noted, citing as an example Pakistani military gains in the remote provinces on the Afghan border. Yet al-Qaeda remains "an adaptable and resilient adversary" and that the failed Christmas Day bombing by a terrorist trained in Yemen "was a stark reminder that ungoverned or under-governed spaces can serve as an incubator for extremism."

Robert Litwak, Director, International Security Studies