(photo credit: AP)
The Obama administration hopes to tamp down violent extremism by showing that "seemingly intractable problems and legitimate grievances" such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved through diplomacy and democracy, according to the White House's point man on counterterrorism.
John Brennan, a former CIA Mideast station chief who now serves as President Barack Obama's senior adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, explained the US thinking on the extremist challenge on Thursday as part of an impassioned defense of his boss's approach to counterterrorism.
In an address delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brennan pushed back against critics of the administration who say Obama has been soft of terrorism and has understated its risk, saying that "President Obama is under no illusions about the imminence and severity of this threat."
He described al-Qaida as "adaptive and highly resilient," saying that it "remains the most serious terrorist threat we face as a nation."
Though he assessed that advances have been made, including "tremendous pressure" by US troops that has "seriously damaged" al-Qaida's leadership and finances, he said the group still puts an attack on the US homeland - ideally with weapons of mass destruction - as its top priority. Brennan said Obama's goal was to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" the terrorist organization.
Hinting at the stigma attributed to Obama for not being forceful enough, Brennan said that in presenting the US commander-in-chief with options for going after al-Qaida, "not only has he approved these operations, he has encouraged us to be even more aggressive, even more proactive, and even more innovative, to seek out new ways and new opportunities for taking down these terrorists."
Obama has faced additional criticism in some quarters for watering down US rhetoric and allegedly lacking clarity on the issue by dropping the Bush-era moniker "war on terror."
Brennan justified that decision as based on not wanting to confuse a tactic - terrorism - with a goal, and added that the president doesn't talk about a fight against "jihadists" because "using a legitimate term, 'jihad,' meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal, risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve."
Instead, Brennan employed the term "violent extremism," and argued that its defeat would be based on military action, but also on US diplomatic, economic and moral power.
"Poverty does not cause violence and terrorism. Lack of education does not cause terrorism," maintained Brennan, who once studied at the American University in Cairo and served as a US diplomat in Saudi Arabia.
He continued, however, by saying that people without hope of education, jobs and a stable provision of their needs are more susceptible to dangerous ideologies. "Extremist violence and terrorist attacks are therefore often the final murderous manifestation of a long process rooted in hopelessness, humiliation and hatred."
Therefore, he said, the US was dedicated to addressing these forces not only through military operations but "a political, economic and social campaign to meet the basic needs and legitimate grievances of ordinary people."
He pointed to the strategies of groups like Hamas and Hizbullah in providing social services as a means of garnering support.
As part of that counter-effort, Brennan said the US needs to "demonstrate that seemingly intractable problems and legitimate grievances can be resolved through diplomacy, dialogue and the democratic process."
He pointed to several problem areas, including the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"That is why the administration is aggressively pursuing negotiations to achieve the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," he said.