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.”