Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How Snowden Strengthens U.S. Efforts Against Jihadi Terrorism

How Snowden Strengthens U.S. Efforts Against Jihadi Terrorism

The Snowden leak of thousands of NSA documents has been a nightmare for the organization. No intelligence organization that is used to, and feels comfortable with, working in the shadows, wants to have its utmost secrets in the public domain, free for all to see. The leaked documents exposed the extent of the U.S. surveillance apparatus, its methods of information collection, and many specific targets of surveillance, revealing an extensive system far greater and more capable than what we had previously known. The revelations have caused the U.S. never-ending diplomatic headaches. The NSA’s failure to quickly identify the extent of the breach resulted in a constant stream of unpleasant new revelations to which the U.S. had to respond, never really able to stay ahead of the story and effectively stop the bleeding.

The damage from the Snowden leak went beyond undermining U.S. foreign relations (particularly with its close yet pervasively surveilled allies). The Obama administration also found itself exposed to loud critique over the constitutionality of the NSA surveillance programs, the adequacy of oversight by the legislative and judicial branches, and later even the extent to which the President was aware of the scope of NSA actions. At least in the first phase of the scandal, when the news focused on the extent of U.S. penetration of cyberspace, primarily through the collection of metadata and access to social media and email accounts,   the Administration and the NSA’s primary line of defense was the claim that these programs are critical for U.S. ability to fight terrorism. U.S. officials, as well as their British counterparts, maintained that their spying helped prevent numerous terrorist attacks in the U.S. and abroad. They lamented the news stories, maintaining that these revelations will undermine the ability of the West to confront the scourge of jihadi terrorism. Learning about NSA abilities and collection methods, the argument went, jihadis will now change their habits and modes of operation in order to reduce the risk of exposure. Thus, the message was that the Snowden stories are going to undermine counterterrorism and increase the threat of terrorism to the West. I argue that despite the many negative repercussions of the NSA stories, the claim that it increases the threat of terrorism is exaggerated.

There is no doubt that the Snowden leaks put the U.S. in a very unenviable position. The Administration and the NSA were put on the defense, forced to constantly respond to a barrage of revelations and accusations, and to deal with serious diplomatic crises, not knowing whether any particular fix to a revelation would be undermined by a new story from the Snowden cache. The U.S. government needed to restore public and allies’ trust while maintaining a surveillance apparatus it sees as crucial for serving the country’s national interest. Although these negative effects of the NSA stories cannot be denied (even if one acknowledges that to some extent these are wounds self-inflicted by overreaching administrations and the NSA), the fundamental claim of the administration and its intelligence services that Snowden’s leak undermines counterterrorism has been overstated. It neglects to consider how the NSA revelations positively affect the ability of the U.S. to deter existing and would-be jihadi terrorists.

Indeed, counterterrorism involves a lot more than thwarting ongoing plots. We acknowledge that when we talk about information campaigns, designed to capture ‘hearts and minds.’ These efforts are designed to convince people that U.S. objectives do not conflict with their interests. More specifically, the U.S. seeks to convince Muslims that their interests align with those of the West, and that affiliation with extremist views of Islam and radical Islamist actors is counterproductive to personal and community interests of Muslims. Likewise, we should also highlight the important role deterrence serves in countering terrorism. The effects of deterrence are often harder to measure; after all, how can one identify a terrorist plot that was never planned because its would-be initiators were deterred from turning to violence. Nevertheless, deterrence is essential for limiting the danger of terrorism.

Rather than using a ‘positive’ message as in efforts to capture ‘hearts and minds,’ deterrence is based on threats, especially threats of denial and punishment. A state engaged in counterterrorism seeks to convince jihadis that their plots will be thwarted and that they will be captured, jailed or even killed. Deterrence also seeks to cement in the minds of would-be terrorists that, given the prowess of their enemies, they not only won’t be able to achieve their broader goals, but they are also highly unlikely to successfully carry out acts of terrorism. This is because the states they fight would thwart their attack plans long before reaching fruition. In this way deterrence against terrorism seeks to change perpetrators’ considerations and lead them to abandon terrorism. The logic of deterrence is that the threat of negative consequences would shape the terrorists’ calculation of costs and benefits such that they would be dissuaded from attacking the U.S. and its allies.

The leaked NSA documents are likely to enhance U.S. deterrence against terrorists. By revealing the technological might of U.S. surveillance efforts, the Snowden leak provided U.S. enemies with new information that will force them to revise their assessments of their likelihood of success. The NSA stories will show jihadis that their chances of success are lower than they previously had believed and that most are likely to be captured before being able to execute their plans. Those who would still seek to harm the U.S. will inevitably feel the need for greater precautions that will prolong their planning and render cooperation with other jihadis less desirable because it would increase the risk of capture.

One could argue that U.S. opponents might infer different conclusions from the NSA documents. Instead of changing jihadis’ perceptions of U.S. prowess, committed jihadis may focus on the inability of the vast intelligence apparatus to secure its information and prevent such a huge leak. In such a view, U.S. deterrence will actually weaken. While this position cannot be dismissed altogether, it is more likely that terrorists and would-be jihadis will focus on what is more directly relevant for them – the risk of exposure and capture due to NSA capabilities. At all levels of terrorism, from the lone wolf, to the small independent cell of jihadis who have no formal affiliation to particular terrorist groups, to even operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates, the information about the tremendous capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community will suggest that the jihadis’ actions are highly likely to fail. Like people all around the world, jihadis also must have been surprised to learn the extent of the technological capabilities of the U.S. and the lengths to which Washington is willing to go in order to identify and thwart threats.

Scholars studying terrorism have long noted the tremendous psychological pressure that comes with living in the underground. Fear of drones, spying and electronic surveillance led jihadis to emphasize the need for strong security measures long before they understood the extent of US surveillance capabilities. The NSA revelations will take paranoia that is inherent to operating under constant state and international dragnet and significantly reinforce it. Indeed, the psychological pressures on jihadis, particularly in the West, are likely to considerably accelerate. As a result we can anticipate that many, though probably not all, jihadis planning to attack the U.S. will either slow their planning, or decide not to move forward with their plots. In the case of jihadi sympathizers still not committed to the path of jihad, we can expect many to abandon the idea altogether.

Jihadis may have known for some time that the business of terrorism is not the exhilarating activity it was made out to be. With the Snowden revelations terrorism just became even less appealing.   


Barak Mendesohn (, an FPRI Senior Fellow, is associate professor of political science at Haverford College and tweets regularly at @BarakMendelsohn.