12 December 2016

Comprehensive Terrorism Strategy Needed


The Cipher Brief sat down with Bruce Hoffman, Director for Security Studies at Georgetown University, to discuss President Obama’s counterterrorism legacy and the outlook for the terrorist threat in the coming year. According to Hoffman, although the U.S. has achieved “tactical gains” against al Qaeda and ISIS during Obama’s tenure, the U.S. currently faces the “most parlous international security situation in terms of terrorism, at least since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.”

The Cipher Brief: How has U.S. counterterrorism policy developed in the eight years under President Obama?

Bruce Hoffman: Clearly during the eight years of the Obama Administration there was an effort to shift from the deployment of U.S. ground forces for prolonged periods overseas to using other forms of engaging terrorists, principally unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, as well as the increased deployment of Special Operations forces. Tactically, it was successful – it eliminated at least three-dozen senior al Qaeda commanders following the ramp up of drone strikes in 2009 – and it crystalized of course with the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011. These tactics served to disrupt terrorist operations and keep these groups off balance. Tactically, it was unquestionably successful.

But strategically, the U.S. faces the most parlous international security situation in terms of terrorism, at least since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. According to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), despite our ongoing efforts in Iraq and Syria over the past two years, ISIS has expanded geographically. The NCTC reported that in 2014, when the U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS began, the group had branches in seven countries. By 2015, they had branches in 13 countries, and by 2016, this number had increased again, now to 18. So clearly the Obama Administration’s strategy hasn’t stopped the spread of ISIS.

Similarly, al Qaeda today is present in about three times as many places as it was in 2008. Even if there have been significant tactical achievements in keeping both these groups off-balance and making it more difficult for them to attack in the U.S., for instance, except perhaps by mobilizing lone-wolves, we’re nonetheless still facing serious terrorist challenges in the future. This was the message delivered by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in his testimony before the U.S. Senate last February, when he cited a resilient al Qaeda that, he said, was poised to make gains in 2016 and therefore continues to pose a local, regional, and international threat. He also worried about the continued threat from ISIS, even despite the intense pressure that we’ve put them under in Iraq and Syria. Clapper was especially concerned about the threat of terrorist attacks in Europe—outside the geographical locus of ISIS’ caliphate.

While tactically the gains may only have been ephemeral and temporary, in the overall strategic sense, the terrorist threat is arguably greater now than it’s been at any time over the past decade-and-a-half.

Also, in 2001 we faced only one major terrorist adversary. Today we face two. Further, in 2001, we faced one terrorist adversary that did not have a raft of active affiliates, associates, and branches. We now face two terrorist groups with affiliates, associates, and branches variously located in west, north, and east Africa, the Levant, the rest of the Middle East, South Asia, and elsewhere.

TCB: What were some of the strongest elements of President Obama’s CT policy? What were the weakest?

BH: First, from 2011 until very recently, we were told by a succession of senior U.S. counterterrorism officials, including the President, that al Qaeda was on “the verge of strategic collapse.” DNI Clapper’s statements last February reveal something very different. His melancholy assessment at the Senate hearings suggests that a lot of the progress over the eight years was mostly tactical and may yet prove to be evanescent.

For instance, the 2015 U.S. national security strategy cites three pillars of U.S. counterterrorism policy: leadership attrition, training host militaries to take the fight directly to the terrorists, and countering the terrorists’ narrative and message.

Clearly we’ve eliminated a number of leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaqi, and more recently Mohammad al-Adnani, but whether it is al Qaeda or ISIS, both these groups seem to have a deeper bench than we believed. In other words, they each have thus far shown an unfortunate ability to be able to continue to summon their forces to battle despite the loss of senior leaders and the damage otherwise inflicted on them in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, among other places. Both organizations appear to have succession plans that despite the loss of key leaders, they nonetheless are able to recover or rebound from those setbacks, hand over command authority to a new person, and carry on the struggle. I don’t see this changing—at least any time in the short term, unfortunately.

I’m not by any means implying that we shouldn’t be killing terrorist leaders, but what I have often observed is that we are confusing a tactic (high value leadership targeting) with a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy—and they are not the same. In this war, we shouldn’t in any event be looking at one, single metric as a defining variable.

So the first pillar has not fundamentally changed the war on terrorism to an extent where we are much safer than we were before.

Second, the training of host militaries has been a significant failure. Just a few years ago, Mali and Yemen were being touted as success stories where we had trained indigenous forces so that Western intervention wouldn’t be required. In both places, however, we’ve seen that we couldn’t train host-nation forces fast enough to keep pace with terrorist recruitment or terrorist territorial gains.

Third, is countering the narrative. DNI Clapper also spoke of upwards of 40,000 foreign fighters from at least 100 countries throughout the world who have gravitated to both al Qaeda and ISIS in recent years. That doesn’t suggest to me that our counter-narrative is really having an impact if we see this tremendous ground swell in the unprecedented number of foreign fighters drawn to the conflicts not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in Yemen, Libya, Mali, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, among other places.

Further, in contrast to a decade ago when the vast majority of these foreign fighters came from the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf, or North Africa, we now see hundreds of recruits from Latin America and from places like Benin and Bangladesh, countries that had hitherto been unaffected by the process of terrorist radicalization but are nonetheless providing fighters.

You can almost argue that, going back to the first point about high value targeting, we basically kill terrorist leaders but it seems as if these groups have continued to spread and seize more territory and meanwhile also appeal to a broader constituency of recruits in more countries than before. Meanwhile, we’ve downsized our military over the past eight years while we’ve seen these terrorist groups’ numbers increase as a result of the flow of foreign fighters into their ranks. We see that even as we build up our intelligence capabilities, the terrorists are developing means to frustrate those same capabilities by using off the shelf, encrypted communication apps.

TCB: Is President Obama’s counterterrorism legacy defined by executive actions such as drone strikes?

BH: Yes. President Obama came in with a commitment to draw down U.S. combat forces on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. He did succeed in doing that, but what we’ve seen is that even while we were withdrawing these troops, the terrorist threats in both those countries and elsewhere as well hasn’t diminished.

The drone campaign emerged as the major means of addressing these threats and controlling the growth of terrorist movements. But, by definition this lone tactic can only go so far when you have organizations that over the past decade and a half have proven to be more dispersed, adaptive, and resilient than we’ve imagined.

Think of it this way, U.S. forces – the Joint Special Operations Command combined with the U.S. Air Force – were spectacularly successful in 2006 in killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. That knocked the group off-balance temporarily and significantly weakened it, but over time, it re-emerged and resurrected itself as ISIS, which has shown itself to be more deadly, more consequential, and more threatening than al Qaeda in Iraq had ever been.

TCB: Looking forward into the next year, aside from ISIS and al Qaeda, do you see other terrorist threats?

BH: Right now, our main challenge is that ISIS has completely preoccupied our attention and has consumed most of our resources in the ongoing war on terrorism during a time when, as I have argued in a previous Cipher Brief interview, al Qaeda has been quietly rebuilding. Our ability to focus on two preeminent threats, much less the range of potentially second or third order threats, has been seriously constrained, not least because of the geographical spread of both those movements and their stubborn resiliency.

Off the top of my head, I can’t see any other threats as significant as either ISIS and al Qaeda emerging in the near future, but that’s because both of these adversaries already seem too much for us to focus on simultaneously. But you are right that we need now to be thinking of the threats that might surface from a post-caliphate ISIS and a potentially resurgent al Qaeda.

Our track record in anticipating these threats has not been impressive. For the two years preceding the 2015 Paris attacks, for instance, ISIS build up a formidable external operations capability in Europe that largely went completely unnoticed by intelligence and security services around the world. We know that al-Zawahiri has attempted to constrain al Qaeda’s international terrorist operations since around 2013, so we perhaps also don’t have a clear picture of what al Qaeda’s capabilities and future intentions are. In many respects, the threats and the troubles we see right now may just be the tip of the iceberg given the proliferation of terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens in recent years.

TCB: As ISIS is pushed out of its stronghold in Mosul and possibly its headquarters in Raqqa, how will those CT campaigns affect terrorism here in the U.S.? Could there be an uptick in lone wolf style attacks as ISIS concentrates its efforts on conducting attacks abroad?

BH: We are never going to be able to completely eliminate ISIS in the near term given its tremendous growth in recent years. It will likely retain some terrorist strike capability at some level even as it continues to lose men, materiel and territory in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. We need to anticipate what ISIS’s next steps will be in response to the dismantling of its caliphate and power and be concerned whether in desperation or otherwise this leads to an upsurge of terrorist attacks in Europe and beyond.

Accordingly, ISIS is likely to exist in one form or another. Just one year ago, ISIS unleashed the most consequential attack on a major European city in over a decade: shattering the prevailing analytical paradigm of the time, which held that ISIS’s violence would remain largely confined to Syria and Iraq. That caught intelligence and security services by surprise. And especially as the group becomes more desperate as it’s weakened on the battlefield, the danger of it striking elsewhere becomes greater. If the immediate past is any guide, I worry that we may not understand the full extent of that capability until it actually materializes.

Look at it this way. A little bit more than a year ago, we thought that terrorists’ ability to attack commercial aviation had been seriously challenged if not negated. Then came the October 2015 in flight bombing of the Russian charter plane in the Sinai, which killed over 200 people. And, the previous February, al Shabaab had been able to smuggle a bomb concealed in a laptop computer on board a passenger jet that departed Mogadishu. Fortunately, the plane had not yet reached cruising altitude when the device exploded so it didn’t crash, but they were still able to smuggle a bomb on board an aircraft, which is of course profoundly troubling.

Therefore, we need to be careful not to neglect the possibility that terrorist groups, including ISIS, have been deterred from continuing to attempt attacks on commercial aviation.

TCB: Under President Obama, we’ve seen the weakening of al Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, and more recently the decline of ISIS and the rise of al Qaeda. What should we expect moving forward in the next year?

BH: Both groups have successfully locked us into a strategy of attrition. They understand that they cannot defeat us militarily but instead seek to undermine confidence in our elected leaders, polarize polities, and create profound fissures in our society that they believe will wear down our resolve to resist their depredations and threats. Too often in the past we have precipitously declared that we are on the verge of victory only to see our adversaries rebound from even the most consequential setbacks. We pay a price for that over time that inadvertently plays into the terrorists’ strategy of attrition.

Public expectations rise as we are told victory is at hand, only to plummet in the wake of some new attack, and therefore as the war on terrorism seems to drag on. Each new terrorist attack appears to generate not just new fears and anxieties, but tears at the fabric of our society creating an atmosphere where popular pressure can drive a liberal democracy to embrace increasingly illiberal means in hopes of enhancing security.

Accordingly, the main challenge that we face is in breaking this stasis and frustrating this war of attrition that terrorists seek to keep us enmeshed in. To do this, we have to more decisively engage, dismantle, and defeat these organizations and their networks.

This is not to say that what we’ve been doing so far is ineffective and has not been successful, but that it clearly hasn’t been enough. What is required today is a more comprehensive, more systemic and aggressive counterterrorism strategy. We have to very critically start asking questions about why the host nation militaries we are training are failing in their efforts to take the war to the terrorists. We need to step back and assess what we’re doing now and why it is not producing decisive results so that we can break this stasis once and for all.

TCB: Would a more effective counter-messaging campaign aid in this effort?

BH: The problem is that counter-messaging works best after you have first broken the terrorists’ power and you’ve diminished their allure by depriving them of their appeal. We need to better counter their narrative which is that they’ve survived the greatest onslaught ever directed against a terrorist group in history, whether it’s the decade and a half-long conflict against al Qaeda or the more recent one against ISIS. For them, the fact that they are still fighting is enormously evocative in terms of their appeal and propaganda; that they have stood up to this very formidable counterterrorism campaign and have not only survived but have even expanded geographically despite our considerable efforts.

Counter-messaging works best when terrorists are deprived of their power, which means they are deprived of their sanctuary and safe haven, their efforts to recruit are thereby diminished: that’s when counter-messaging is enormously useful in preventing the recrudescence or the reemergence of these movements. But in-and-of-itself, without weakening the terrorist groups’ power, the messaging is going to be ineffective, as we’ve seen today, as demonstrated by the current worldwide proliferation of foreign fighters.

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