Terrorism is a strategic threat, not a tactical one.
President Bush declared a war on terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. It rallied the world to be “with the US or against the US.” From the start, President Bush’s war on terrorism premised on an absolute force theorem. The US and its allies would overwhelm any non-state actor and state to submission ridding countries of insurgencies and safe havens for terrorist, like Afghanistan.
To that end, the US Congress approved an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against terrorists it deemed a threat to national security. The AUMF engrained fighting terrorism to a purely militaristic, kill now talk later policy. Two presidents since have relied on the same authorization to continue and expand America’s counterterrorism operations in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
The kill now talk later policy proved effective for nearly two years after 9/11. The Taliban were quickly ousted and al-Qaeda’s safe havens in Afghanistan decimated. Ever since then, the US and its allies' counterterrorism policy have been heavily based on the use of force to kill or capture leaders and destroy networks. This remains the case even today.
Seventeen years after 9/11, the US continues to disrupt terrorist networks with the use of force. Some could say there has been an array of economic aid, rehabilitation, rebuilding, and training programs bolstering the use of force effort.
However, for all the good those have done, socio-economic programs are secondary at best to a policy that rewards killing over socio-economic progress. While killing terrorists is a necessary part of a conflict, it cannot be the sole premise of a solid counterterrorism strategy that should actually counter terrorism and not just postpone it.
In other words, one cannot kill off terrorism. General Michael Hayden best summarized this point when he replied to a congratulation for a successful targeted killing saying “ … remember that was a CT (counter-terrorism) success. Unless we change conditions on the ground, we are going to get to kill people forever.”
General Hayden’s quote illustrates the endless cycle of the kill now talk later policy. The evidence lies in the last seventeen years. Is any infamous terrorist network i.e. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram no longer active? No. They have been weakened but not defeated as Bush’s and then Obama’s and Trump ’s absolute theorem proposed.
While there are other factors to consider, not least the invasion of Iraq that created favorable conditions for the expansion of terrorist networks, the US and its allies have killed more terrorists from more different extremist terrorist organizations than ever before.
However, in the last 17 years, the threat of terrorism is not significantly lower than it was prior to 9/11. In Afghanistan, the US has killed a barrage of Taliban leaders. Yet, the Taliban remain in control of 30 percent of the country. Many of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaders shared the same fate as their Taliban counterparts.
However, AQAP remains the biggest threat to the homeland actively planning to bomb commercial flights. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS, despite its territorial defeat, has branches spanning three continents with an active ideology that promotes violence against the US homeland and interests abroad.
In fact, according to the New York Times, Western intelligence services have warn of the diverse set of terrorist threats from “the scheming of lone extremists with no apparent connections to terrorist groups....to fighters aligned with the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda in more than two dozen countries..."
This is not to say that a tactical approach has not produced results. Killing leaders and members demoralize a network, sets back capabilities, and keeps networks wary. But those are short-term gains.
Personnel can be retrained, capabilities can shift and be modified, and operational security practiced to ensure survivability. Most importantly, drones, the bombs they drop, and the dead terrorist they leave do little to counter the ideology that drives terrorism in the first place.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing expecting different results, the US counter-terrorism policy meets and exceeds that definition.
The essence of how we fight terrorism needs to change
US CT policy woes start at the conceptualization of how to fight terrorism. Nick Rasmussen, outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in a recent interview with Pod Save the World best summarized the erroneous conceptualization when he said: “the idea that we were going to fix Yemen and make it not a hotbed for extremists is pretty naive.”
Mr. Rasmussen ‘s comments are shortsighted because he erroneously conceptualizes CT policy as a quick-fix instead of aiming to alleviate the broader conditions conducive to terrorism. In this case Mr. Rasmussen's answer should have been, as impossible as it may sound, to fix Yemen because any strategic threat i.e. terrorism that is treated tactically is bound to be resilient. It is what Simon Sinek called the infinite versus finite game. Terrorists think and operate in the infinite game. They are not preoccupied with beating the US in any one particular battle but rather to outlast their enemy; they have a vision, not a goal.
The US fights terrorism in the finite game. It looks for metrics, goals, and data points to measure success and conclude victories; it has goals but not a vision. The US and its allies have been fighting terrorism tactically, i.e. short gains measured in terrorist leaders killed, and submerged in the finite game. Therefore, they lost sight of the broader, infinite, strategic fight against terrorism, i.e. how do we actually stop it?
To properly contain terrorism, the US needs to rethink the essence of how it fights it. The US needs a new theorem, a new doctrine to help guide its actions over the next decade. Calls for a new way of fighting terrorism are not novel.
Scholars like Katherine Zimmerman in a recent Foreign Affairs article argued that US counterterrorism policy does not tackle the conditions that allow for the continuation of terrorism, regardless of the military victories. Despite the many calls to change directions, the US national security enclave continues to plan and execute CT policy in the same manner as first planned seventeen years ago.
The first step is to conceptualize terrorism as a strategic threat and downgrade tactical means, such as drone strikes, to instruments and not policy. In other words, CT policy should not be “let's bomb the sh*t out of them” as then-candidate Donald Trump boasted. As counterintuitive as it might sound, CT policy should be a diplomacy project, developed and fully managed under the auspices of the State Department, and not the military.
This is not to say that the killing of leaders should cease. However, those tactical actions need to be woven into the greater US foreign policy and grand strategy for that region. This would avoid the dual-track “Afghanistan problem”, whereby NATO’s mission to alleviate the socio-economic grievances were continuously undermined by parallel US CT efforts. Long-term socio-economic progress should be prioritized, absent an imminent threat, over short-sighted CT operations.
That is easier said than done. The CT establishment would certainly push back against a policy shift that will threaten its budget and relative freedom it has enjoyed since 9/11. But most importantly, as Robert Malley and Jon Finer argued, sounding tough on terrorism is still a political point scorer.
Which brings one to the second step: for a strategic CT policy to work, political gains through exacerbation of the terrorist threat must cease. Politicians should not artificially elevate the terrorism threat, and by extension reinforce the current format of fighting it, to score political points with their constituents. Instead, rhetoric regarding terrorism policy should reflect the relatively low threat it poses and the long struggle necessary to defeat its causes (e.g. radical ideologies, ethno-religious conflict, economic and social grievances).
Third, the CT establishment and professionals in the field should shift from measuring CT success on the number of targeted killings towards the lack of terrorists to kill. In order to elevate CT policy from tactical to strategic, the concept of terrorism must also be recognized as what it is: a tool and not a tangible object over one which victory can be declared.
The Time to Change is Now
After seventeen years of fighting terrorism, the time to change course is now. Since 2001 to 2017, the US has spent a total of $4,351 billion dollars on the war on terrorism, according to Brown University data. Out of those $4,351 billion dollars, only a small percentage was allocated to the State Department to address the socio-economic grievances that foment much of the extremism.
Therefore, the idea, as the outgoing NCTC chief reiterated, that “fixing Yemen is naive” is misguided. If we were to allocate half of the war on terrorism budget to the State Department to tackle the socio-economic grievance over the same 17 year period, then fixing Yemen (and other places conducive to extremism) is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. And it is here where the broader reason to change course, at least economically, lies: how we fight terrorism now will cost us more over the long term.
The US continues to invest in short-term ephemeral solutions i.e. killing, bombing, etc. that increase exponentially as we invest and reinvest to tackle the tactical problems. While in reality, investments should be fixing the broader set of problems conducive to terrorism.
To analogize, if terrorism was a sickness, the US fights it pill-by-pill, temporarily killing the pain, while barely addressing the broader sickness that causes the pain. The pill-by-pill method will prove more costly over time.
Fixing how we fight terrorism now is not only crucial to save money and to quash the obvious physical danger it poses, but also to reverse the fuel it has given to populist movements across the world--a fuel propagated by a false assertion that terrorist attacks are perpetrated by immigrants from Muslim majority countries. The data shows that assertion is far from the truth.
But what it has caused is an aversion towards open borders, perpetuated immigration debates across most of the Western world, and ruptured the once indivisible Western liberal order. By bringing CT policy to a strategic realm, the debate around immigration and the fuel supply it provides to populist movements will cease.
To summarize, the tactical kill now talk later policy envisioned by President Bush and carried over by President Obama and Trump have made the US no closer to “defeating terrorism.”
Policymakers should conceptualize, allocate resources, and fight terrorism strategically not tactically. This will allow for the conditions that cause terrorism to be contained over time, saving money in the long term, and for the debate on how we fight terrorism to evolve from fixing the symptoms to beating the sickness.
John Arias Pollard is the Editor-At-Large and President of The Intelligence Brief.