U.S. Will Adapt to Evolving Terror Threat, Counterterrorism Director Says

March 2, 2009

The United States and other Western countries face constantly evolving terror threats, said Michael Leiter, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, during a lunch talk Wednesday at the Law School.

Michael Leiter, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, spoke at the Law School at an Outside the Box lunch.

Leiter, who was sworn in as director in June 2008 after serving as acting director for eight months, discussed the change that will come to counterterrorism policy under the Obama administration.

Instead of a radical change, he said, the broad policies will remain the same, but the focus will shift.

"What we're going to see, and what I think is a very good thing that we are seeing, is a continuation of certain elements of this policy using elements of hard power, but a greater focus and greater prioritization of soft power: of developing the State Department public diplomacy, the counter-radicalization programs, the outreach to communities at risk, the aid programs and foreign-aid programs and the like that are structured to support counter-radicalization programs for the U.S. government," Leiter said.

However, Leiter said, it takes time, accountability and good governance to change the momentum set by the previous administration.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the face of the threat has changed dramatically, he said. Then, the terrorists were part of a largely hierarchical organization centered in one locality, but now the larger threat is disorganized, located all over the world and, in some cases, homegrown.

While the United States has made remarkable progress against al-Qaida, Leiter said, the situation has deteriorated in parts of Africa and Europe.

"We have lost ground in many countries. I think that tide has started to shift and I think Muslim public opinion has shifted significantly over the past two to three years, but we are certainly not winning by leaps and bounds," he said.

However, it is a victory that the Sept. 11 attacks have not been followed by any others of such magnitude in the United States. The threat is not necessarily the number of lives lost, he said, but the political instability that attacks can cause.

The attacks in Mumbai, India, in November, which killed about 200 people, are smaller in scope when compared to Sept. 11, when more than 2,800 died. However, despite the smaller scope of the Mumbai attack, Leiter said the political instability it has caused could have catastrophic effects.

"The scope of [the] two events is massively different, and we can take some comfort in the lack of sophistication," Leiter said. "However, we have to be extremely concerned not just with the repercussions of individual attacks, but we have to be really concerned with the political repercussions too."

Leiter's talk was part of the Outside the Box Lunch series, which is sponsored by the Law School and the Student Legal Forum and features attorneys who have used their law degrees to pursue nontraditional careers.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights