Eric Schmitt and Tom Shanker wrote in the New York Times about current government efforts to adapt deterrence — described in the article as a hold-over strategy of the Cold War — to the terrorist threat of today. Deterrence, the effect of dissuading an adversary from taking a certain approach, strategy, or measure at your expense — is a strategy as old as war itself. Even Sun Tzu explained over 2000 years ago that “‘The supreme act of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” And while the President and many other pundits said in the wake of 9/11 that terrorists could not be deterred, policy makers and practitioners have never set aside deterrence as a component of anti- and counter-terrorism programs.
The difference between Cold War deterrence, when threat of retaliation was the currency of dissuasion, and today is that terrorists are difficult to retaliate against if they die in the attack or go underground. (We’ll probably never again have the opportunity we had after 9/11 to route them in a discrete geographic domain like Afghanistan.) Terrorists today respond instead to a fear of failure.
Policy options to pursue deterrence against terrorists is the subject of work done by the Council on Foreign Relations, RAND, and others, including the Nuclear Defense Steering Committee and the Nuclear Defense Working Group from 2004 to today. Schmitt and Shanker show how deterrence never really left the scene after the Cold War’s end, even at the local level. Paul Browne, the New York City Police Departmentâ€™s chief spokesman is quoted explaining how deterrence helped to prevent a 2003 attempted attack on the Brooklyn Bridge. Indeed, everyone from CENTCOM to SpecOps to the State Department invest in deterrence.
The article points out some of the more recent applications of deterrence in cyberspace. Cyberspace represents a unique challenge and opportunity. The ubiquity of anonymous social hubs throughout the net offer those seeking support, recruits, and sympathy for terrorist attacks an advantage only available in cyberspace: It is hard to capture or kill someone on the Internet. However, the cyber domain also offers us an advantage: We can track and observe the behavior of terrorist groups on the Internet without their knowing, and use the information we gain to disrupt and even deter them.
I had the opportunity to visit a nondescript office building outside of DC in 2005 where several floors were filled with government experts tracking and analyzing radical and fanatic traffic on the web. They had Arabic and Farsi translators, tech specialists, hackers, counter-terrorism experts, and cultural analysts observing targeting activity all over on the Internet that represented likely threats or threatening groups and individuals. I asked why they didn’t just shut down the sites that clearly fostered anti-American or anti-Western sentiment, or those that flat out called for recruits to attack the U.S. They told me that it was better to know where these people were (a la Afghanistan) rather than run them underground only to pop up somewhere unknown (a la Waziristan) on the net. We use information gathered from activities like this to interrupt terrorist efforts through a number of means, including disinformation. Sowing doubt among terrorists and their supporters can be as effective in gaining a deterrent value as aiming nuclear weapons at a superpower.
In a sense, the cyber domain is the closest thing we have to what Afghanistan offered in the weeks and months that followed 9/11. It is the only place we can identify an active domain for us to target.