State Dept to Elevate its Counterterrorism Office

Jan 4, 2012 8:00am

The State Department plans to elevate its counterterrorism office to a full-fledged bureau on Wednesday, a move that officials say will send a strong signal to allies about the U.S. commitment to strengthening their ability to combat extremism.

The promotion fulfills a pledge by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech last year to do so as part of an effort to integrate all the tools of American power to combat terror threats. The new bureau is not expected to receive a larger budget, but officials say it will help raise the State Department’s counterterrorism profile both within the U.S. government and abroad.

“It gives the State Department a higher platform in the counterterrorism arena,” said Ambassador Dan Benjamin, who heads the office, in an exclusive interview with ABC News Tuesday.

In her remarks at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City last September Secretary Clinton said she has fought for a diplomatic seat at the table when counterterrorism issues are discussed.

“Just as counterterrorism cannot be the sole focus of our foreign policy, it does not make sense to view counterterrorism in a vacuum. It must be integrated into our broader diplomatic and development agendas,” she said.

In her speech, Secretary Clinton spoke of the need to build “an international counterterrorism network” to combat terror adversaries and said that upgrading the department’s counterterrorism office will be key to developing that critical capacity in partner countries.

The Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, as it is currently known, plays an often unsung role in the U.S. government’s counterterrorism apparatus, losing the limelight to higher profile cousins in the intelligence community, Department of Homeland Security, and military. Yet Ambassador Benjamin said its role was critical in improving the capacity of other countries who share U.S. interests.

“You cannot shoot your way out of the world’s terrorism problem,” he said. Instead he referred to what he called “counterterrorism diplomacy,” which focuses on boosting the capacity of foreign countries to deal with extremism within their borders and convincing them to do more about it on their own.

Ambassador Benjamin said his office’s promotion will send a message to those countries that they need to do more.

“It is a signal to the world that they need to deal with this,” he said.

The move comes as political instability and deteriorating relations with a number of countries that are home to terror threats have complicated U.S. counter terror cooperation over the past year. A weakening relationship with Pakistan, home to al Qaeda’s leadership, and political unrest in key allies like Yemen and Egypt, with their own homegrown threats, have complicated efforts to combat extremism there. So far Ambassador Benjamin said he is pleased with the level of cooperation the United States has received from the interim governments in Cairo and Sana’a.

Instability in countries like Libya and Syria has added to concerns. In Libya, thousands of portable anti-aircraft missiles have gone missing from slain dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s stockpiles and have reportedly turned up in neighboring countries.

Ambassador Benjamin refused to comment on whether those reports are accurate, but said that he and his colleagues have worked hard to coordinate with neighboring countries to ensure the deadly weapons, which could bring down a commercial airliner, do not fall into the wrong hands.

Despite the State Department’s low-key role in counterterrorism efforts, it manages a significant pot of aid money that is doled out for projects in key countries. The office controls some $300 million that is used to improve the capacity of allies abroad. Projects include training for counter terror police, legal advice to countries on how to strengthen laws so that terror suspects can be prosecuted, and help to stem terror financing.

The counterterrorism office has come a long way since its founding in the late 1970s. President Reagan established expanded it a few years later and placed it under the Secretary of State’s direct command. Since the September 11 attacks its role has grown even more and its size has nearly tripled as a result. Its mission has expanded from simply coordinating military training missions carried out by the U.S. military abroad, like ensuring they had the proper diplomatic clearances, to promoting American counterterrorism agenda overseas and managing its own programs.

The office also works with domestic agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration to prevent terrorists from entering the United States. Officials say Wednesday’s promotion is a direct result of a dramatic reorganization of priorities, spearheaded by Secretary Clinton in a quadrennial report issued in December 2010.

Meanwhile the Obama administration has continued to develop efforts to fight terror groups’ activities including fundraising and recruiting. In June the administration unveiled its National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which called for sustained pressure on al Qaeda and continued combat against extremist incitement that recruits terrorists. Later in the year the State Department became home to a new Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which aims to undermine terrorist propaganda, particularly on the Internet, which attracts new recruits.

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