The False Promise of Drone Strikes? Ease vs. Effectiveness

Over the weekend, the Pentagon announced that Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) Farouq al-Qahtani (also known as Nayf Salam Muhammad Ujaym al Hababi), a senior al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, had been killed in a drone strike in Kunar, Afghanistan. In a statement, the Pentagon said,

On October 23rd, U.S. forces conducted precision strikes in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, targeting Faruq al-Qatani and Bilal al-Utabi, two of al-Qaeda’s most senior leaders in Afghanistan. We are still assessing the results of the strikes, but their demise would represent a significant blow to the terrorist group’s presence in Afghanistan, which remains committed to facilitating attacks against the United States, our allies, and partners.

What the Pentagon fails to admit—even after years of conducting drone strikes in the region—is that the death of al-Qahtani will have little effect on defeating al Qaeda and winning the “War on Terrorism.” He secured the relocation of some al Qaeda members from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and he planned attacks on the U.S. and the West: “In 2010, [al-Qahtani] participated in two attacks against Coalition Forces convoys, and he led operations in northeast Afghanistan that included attacks against U.S. military bases in 2009.” All signs point to al-Qahtani being an invaluable member of al Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan. Both former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn and former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell characterized him as a great asset for al Qaeda and tough enemy for the U.S. Al-Qahtani worked with the Taliban and was a “true believer” in the cause. Kunar—where the deadly strike occurred—is where U.S. forces have experienced some of the worst fighting. Al-Qahtani forged a strong al Qaeda presence there.

No matter what role al-Qahtani served—alliance forger, fundraiser, attack planner—his death only serves as a symbol similar to Osama bin Laden’s. When bin Laden was killed in 2011, President Barack Obama and his cabinet members pegged al Qaeda as “on the run” and no longer a major threat to the world. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said a month after bin Laden’s death, “I’m convinced that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.” Neither declaration proved true. Al Qaeda is resurgent across the Middle East: from regrouping and fundraising in Pakistan to training hundreds in Afghanistan to legitimizing itself in Syria.

Despite these pronouncements of impending victory, U.S. counterterrorism strategy is inherently flawed. The U.S. relies on a tactic known as decapitation, which states that eliminating the leaders of an organization will lead to its destruction. This tactic has been used since the Bush administration, yet consecutive administrations have said the same thing in variety of ways: “killing so-and-so was a great victory for the U.S. and its allies because this death removes a skilled and talented leader from al Qaeda’s ranks.” Killing any leader of al Qaeda—or the leader of any organization or state—will not cause its ultimate collapse. Since the start of the U.S. targeted killing program, approximately 58 leaders have been killed in Pakistan, 22 in Somalia, and 35 in Yemen. Yet, the U.S. incorrectly keeps saying that this particular death is paving the way for the destruction of al Qaeda. Taking away from its message and ideology is what will lead to its demise. Without a strong and meaningful message, potential donors and members will have no reason to help al Qaeda. Killings its leaders (and potentially civilians) will only embolden the organization and create another martyr to the cause.

With the U.S. celebrating another step towards victory against al Qaeda, here is what to expect in the coming weeks or months. In response to the death of al-Qahtani, al Qaeda will retaliate in some form. Al Qaeda has the infrastructure, imbedded bureaucracy, and community support to survive continual decapitation strikes. Due to its increasingly franchised nature, this death will do nothing to damage al Qaeda groups operating outside of Afghanistan.

It has survived 15 years of strikes and in the unlikely event that the next administration changes course away from reliance on drone strikes, al Qaeda will continue to operate across the Middle East and orchestrate attacks. The U.S. should not necessarily abandon the use of signature strikes, but increasing restraint is needed. Killing leaders has not been successful, so come January 2017 when the next administration takes office, one of its first priorities should be to evaluate the failure of drones under the Bush and Obama administrations. Such an evaluation would help to determine if scaling back of drone use is required or if drones should be used in a support role before and after ground engagements. Conducting drone strikes is the safest way to attack an enemy, but it has proven not to be the most effective. This latest strike against Farouq al-Qahtani is no different.

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Brussels’ Big Terrorism Problem: Is This the Islamic State?

On this morning of March 22, 2016, the long tail of terrorism once again struck Europe. Less than a week after Belgian authorities arrested Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris attackers, explosions have shaken multiple transportation hubs in Brussels, Belgium. At the time of this writing, two bombs have detonated at the Brussels airport and a separate bombing has occurred at the Maelbeek subway station. While the dust has yet to settle in Brussels, it appears more than two dozen have died from multiple blasts. The Brussels bombings, a major attack coming only months after Paris and days after the arrest of Abdeslam in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, confirms that Europe has a major terrorist problem in its midst.



Timing and Techniques: Is this the work of the Islamic State?

Few facts have emerged since the bombings. But the timing and techniques utilized in today’s attacks suggest that the same network that perpetrated the Paris attacks in November likely orchestrated this massacre. Last week, Belgian authorities arrested Abdeslam in the neighborhood where he grew up. He was the only surviving perpetrator of the Paris attacks and he eluded authorities for more than four months.  Two other suspects allegedly escaped when Abdelslam was caught.

Logically, one might assume this attack occurred in response to the Abdelslam arrest. Abdelslam’s terrorist facilitation network, having watched the arrest of their comrade, likely assumed law enforcement would continue rapidly pursuing any additional leads produced by intelligence gained during last week’s arrest. The choice for those still at-large in the network is to either go-to-ground and elude authorities or immediately accelerate any potential plot or plots currently being prepared. The speed at which this attack occurred suggests that the network had likely been preparing for this attack in some manner for many weeks or months prior to Abdelslam’s arrest.  The similarity of the attack to Paris, using suicide operations against soft targets, and the speed at which it was executed in relation to a Paris connected arrest suggest the Islamic State, either directly or through its network, is involved. The social media app Telegram is already littered with Islamic State propaganda stemming from the attack.

Capacity and Competency: Europe has a two-fold counterterrorism problem

The failure to detect and interdict the Paris attacks in November seemed to point to a problem of capacity. European countries, having stood by and watched for years as their angry boys were radicalized and recruited into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, seemed to have far too many terrorism suspects and resulting leads to manage. The volume of potential terrorists to cover seemingly exceeded the capacity of European authorities. In November, I discussed the “Iceberg Theory” of terrorist plots, where for the eight to ten Paris attackers, “we should look for two, three, or possibly four dozen extremist facilitators and supporters between Syria and France.”  Today I suspect we are seeing more of Europe’s terrorism iceberg.

Last week’s arrest of Abdelslam and today’s failure to detect and disrupt a major terrorist attack similar to that of Paris suggests a far more ominous counterterrorism problem in Europe — incompetence. Belgian authorities arrested Abdelslam in Molenbeek, an area swept repeatedly by counterterrorism authorities in recent months. The arrest of Abdelslam should have immediately triggered an intense buildup in law enforcement activity to disrupt a likely retaliatory attack. Additionally, today’s attacks at the airport and in the subway system used suicide missions armed with explosives. The use of explosives suggests that a significant terrorist facilitation network likely remains in Europe empowering attacks al Qaeda always dreamed of executing but for which they lacked the operational support capability.

Belgium, a smaller European country, appears to have both a capacity and competency problem with regards to counterterrorism. Other small European countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, have also been home to large concentrations of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria and Iraq. Do they have the same counterterrorism capacity and competency problems as Belgium?

Safe Harbor and Bleed Out: Last decade’s al Qaeda fears have come to fruition with the Islamic State

Ten years ago following the London subway bombings, analysts feared the potentially deadly consequences of disaffected European diaspora communities providing safe harbor to returning terrorist foreign fighters (Bleed Out)  and inspired young boys. Al Qaeda never successfully mobilized these disaffected young boys to execute a string of attacks on Western targets. Today, the Islamic State’s current and former foreign fighters have come from these disaffected communities on a scale several fold larger than the numbers produced during al Qaeda’s heyday. In the coming months, the Belgian and European response to the wave of Islamic State networked and inspired attacks will likely influence the future of the Islamic State as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq. Will these attacks provoke a heavy backlash against already disaffected diaspora communities further empowering the Islamic State’s message? Will they further push European countries to resolve the Syrian conflict to stem refugee flows and apply increased pressure on the Islamic State? Will they finally bring about needed intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation between European countries? The Paris attacks were treated as an investigation, one pursuing a network associated with a single plot. Brussels on top of Paris demonstrates that this as a Europe-wide issue requiring a unified and coordinated response.

As the smoke still rises over Brussels, counterterrorists around the world must again pick up their intensity. The Paris attacks triggered a wave of Islamic State affiliate and networked attacks on three continents, provoked competitive attacks from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and inspired lone wolves and small cells in Philadelphia and San Bernardino. Brussels, like Paris before it, may likely create the same phenomena. Any plot(s) in either the Islamic State or al Qaeda’s network may very well be accelerated. Any inspired wannabe from afar may see today’s media attention as the final motivation to undertake violence. For the Islamic State success breeds success. Can the world’s counterterrorists stop this trend?

Clint Watts is a Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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Seven Flaws In the U.S. Strategy to Counter ISIS

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is derived from Clint Watts’ Ginsburg Lecture delivered at the National Liberty Museum on September 16, 2014.)

The past week’s debate on how to counter ISIS has proven just how effective terrorism is as a tactic for extremist groups.  Two videos showing the beheading of American hostages have provoked the largest U.S. response since the attacks of 9/11, compelling President Obama to hastily gather up a strategy to counter ISIS. Aside from the general confusion over what to call the group, there is even greater disagreement over what to do.  Overall, I don’t disagree with most of the actions the U.S. is taking to counter ISIS, but I am baffled why ISIS, America’s third or fourth most pressing national security concern right now, requires such a reaction.  The lesson for other extremist groups scattered from Morocco to Malaysia is clear – fly a black flag, film an atrocity and post it on the Internet and you too can capture the American media cycle and provoke a U.S. response. 

Aside from my quibbling over the U.S. need to be out front in countering ISIS, it is clear that something needs to be done to counter the rise of the group.  The U.S. actions to counter ISIS to date are not necessarily wrong.  Building up rebels, airstrikes to protect key allies, and working with partners all represent sound actions the U.S. will need to take at one point or another.  As a comprehensive strategy, however, the plan will likely fail from seven fatal flaws presented by the current situation in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. can do whatever it wants to militarily, and probably will, but these apparent weaknesses will prevent any meaningful defeat of ISIS and, in the process of being the global leader to counter ISIS, the U.S. has confirmed the jihadist narrative it so desperately sought to escape in the past decade – the “Far Enemy” propping up “Near Enemy” apostates. (See my post from two weeks ago “Why Does The U.S. Want To Be ISIS ‘Far Enemy’?” for a larger discussion on this issue.)

Seven Flaws in the U.S. Strategy To Counter ISIS

My thesis remains that the “U.S. Can’t Destroy ISIS, Only ISIS Can Destroy ISIS”, but neither my proposal nor the current U.S. plan being put forth, “Airstrikes and Allies” (or maybe “Mitigate and Pray” might be more appropriate), can achieve its goals without addressing seven obvious challenges present in Iraq and Syria (See Figure 1). 

  1. Syrian Civil War – Two years of Syrian civil conflict has created a gapping wound in the Middle East exploiting many religious, regional and international friction points.  A wound left untreated turns into an infection, an infection today known as ISIS.  Fearful of blowback after Qaddafi’s collapse in Libya and mired in the 2012 reelection campaign, the Obama administration accompanied by the West has avoided the Syrian conflict for years allowing ISIS to fester and grow amongst the chaos. The U.S. will be unlikely to defeat ISIS in a meaningful way without developing a strategy for resolving the Syrian conflict.
  2. Turkish Border – Foreign fighters and resources pour into Syria and ultimately ISIS through Turkey.  A strategy of containment and annihilation will not work when there is a gapping hole in the perimeter.  Recent news suggests that the Turks may be deploying up to 50,000 police to seal the border.  But how effective will this be when Turks compromise a large base of support for ISIS and a steady supply of foreign fighters?  
  3. The Double-Edged Sword of Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia quickly signed up as a partner in the U.S. coalition to counter ISIS – a logical and smart move for the Saudis who may be most threatened by hundreds of their citizens helping power ISIS. Saudi Arabia was one of the first to arrest ISIS operatives in their country back in May and is a natural terrorist target for the group. Of course, partnering up with Saudi Arabia affirms al Qaeda’s old narrative for attacking the U.S. – the “Far Enemy (US)” is propping up “Near Enemy (Saudi)” apostates. The current U.S. plan includes sending military trainers to Saudi Arabia , another justification used by Bin Laden for attacking the U.S. dating back to the 1990s.  More importantly, the U.S. plan re-opens the 13-year debate about the tradeoffs encountered with counterterrorism partners. How can the U.S. promote democracy to counter a terror group that beheads people and observes Shari’a law, while partnering with a government that just beheaded dozens of people “according to Shari’a” for offenses that include drug trafficking and sorcery?
  4. Arab Partner Nations – Defeating ISIS will not come without a wide base of support from Arab partners.  However, most Arab countries, to include what might be the United States’ most important ally Jordan, seem reluctant to join forcefully into the coalition for two reasons.  First, these countries have disenfranchised communities that sympathize and even support ISIS with fighters and money.  By joining the U.S. coalition, they are putting themselves at risk domestically.  Second, ISIS’s campaign to date has largely focused on killing Shi’a and countering the Assad regime.  Thus ISIS has become a convenient proxy army for Sunni nations wanting to meet what they see as Iranian (Shi’a) expansion in the region. 
  5. Iran is a bigger adversary to the U.S. than ISIS – By engaging ISIS, the U.S. is simultaneously 1) acting as a proxy air force for Iran whose IRGC has become a line of defense for the Shi’a dominated Iraqi government and 2) becoming the savior for Iran’s regional ally; the Assad regime in Syria.  By destroying ISIS without addressing the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. is rewarding its adversary Iran who bloodied American noses the past decade in Iraq. 
  6. Sunni partners in Iraq – The U.S. must create some lasting stability in the Western and Northern Sunni areas of Iraq if it wants to permanently root out ISIS.  ISIS gains correlate with Sunni disenfranchisement in the so-called democratic system left by the U.S.  The U.S. has noted the need for a more inclusive and representative Iraqi government, but the plan to counter ISIS must go further and regain the buy-in of Sunni leaders in Iraq.
  7. Shi’a Dominated Iraqi Government – The Iraqi government looks to Iran for direction and the U.S. for support, while undermining the country’s new democracy by reinforcing ethnic divisions. Meanwhile, Shi’a divisions of the Iraqi army, despite being numerically superior, refused to fight for Sunni areas of Iraq instead turning tail and retreating only to be executed in mass by ISIS.  The U.S. must address the challenges of the past decade and explore new possibilities for how to stabilize Iraq in terms of both governance and security.

Two Fronts For Defeating ISIS: On-The-Ground and Online

Along with these seven challenges, the U.S. media has made ISIS’s success difficult to understand.  Defeating ISIS requires the U.S. to meet and defeat ISIS both “On-The-Ground” and “Online.”  These two fronts of ISIS aggression though are symbiotic. ISIS’s success building an Islamic state and conducting widespread violence on the ground in Syria and Iraq has empowered their well planned and technically sound media strategy on the Internet.  As seen in Figure 2, ISIS’s increased success leads to greater online support.  Greater online support equals more recruits and more resources for ISIS from their international base of support.  Thus, the U.S. can’t really defeat ISIS online, without degrading ISIS on the ground.  Fortunately, foreign fighter recruits are a fickle bunch. In general, when a terror group begins to fail, recruits tend to decrease and donors start to dry up.  Everyone likes a winner, even terror group supporters. 

ISIS’s two fronts also speak to U.S. interests with regards to defeating ISIS and should shape the amount of effort the U.S. puts into its counterterrorism actions.  ISIS’s on-the-ground success threatens the security of the Middle East and American allies in the region.  ISIS’s online success threatens the U.S. homeland and U.S. personnel abroad.  The U.S. strategy against ISIS will ultimately have two campaigns and countering ISIS online will depend on U.S. success defeating ISIS on-the-ground. 

My next several posts will be a series called “Thoughts On Countering ISIS.” The first in this series actually came out last week – the “Let Them Rot” strategy — which I still contend is the more appropriate approach for defeating ISIS, although it appears the U.S. lacks the patience to execute it.  In the upcoming posts, I’ll try to provide some perspective on how the U.S. can fight the two campaigns against ISIS’s two fronts while addressing the seven challenges I noted above.   

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Treating America’s al Qaeda Addiction – Part 2 of “Smarter Counterterrorism”

(This is the second post in this series, see the initial post at “Smarter Counterterrorism in an Era of Competing al Qaeda’s”)

For a dozen years, Americans have suffered through endless debates about an amorphous al Qaeda and its current strength. One argument will consistently suggest al Qaeda is stronger, again on America’s doorstep waiting to pounce and presents a significant threat to U.S. National Security and the West.  More recently, a counterargument has emerged that al Qaeda is no longer, the war on terrorism is over, and that Americans can return to a 1990’s security posture where we focus on process (i.e. civil liberty protection, accountability, and transparency) rather than the end state of preventing another 9/11 attack. These two arguments represent the outcome of a hollow debate that relies on a false assumption; that al Qaeda is a singular unified threat to the U.S. and operates in a manner consistent with its structure at the time of September 11, 2001.  Thus, when television pundits vaguely say, “al Qaeda”, no one knows for sure what they are referring to; they are in effect saying nothing at all.

Today, al Qaeda exists only as a subset of a multi-faceted jihadi militant landscape strewn across three continents and at least a half dozen insurgencies.  While some warn of the dangers of a resurgent, singular al Qaeda, the real danger of terrorism comes from the unknown-–a plurality of armed jihadi groups spread throughout the Middle East and Africa lightly watched by the West due to a fixation on outdated models of al Qaeda and a persistent winnowing of Western surveillance and intelligence resources.  To wage smarter counterterrorism moving forward, the U.S. must deal with its al Qaeda addiction.

So how did we get addicted to “al Qaeda”?  A few factors converged to narrow our vision.

The Trauma of 9/11 – The most obvious reason is that we in the U.S. can’t move on from al Qaeda because of the trauma of 9/11. I shouldn’t discount it. But, Americans have fueled their fears with never-ending replays of this trauma. Since 2001, every perceived threat stirs up the images and pain of 9/11 and to always remain on the side of caution, we’ve let fear drive our actions.  We will never forget, but we must move on; move beyond al Qaeda and recognize that even if al Qaeda attacks the U.S. again, it will not bring an end to the United States.   I’m not calling for complacency, but instead reasonable awareness of the risks terrorism presents – a risk that is not adequately understood by the all-encompassing name “al Qaeda”.  Our media could help us move on, but…

One Big “al Qaeda” Threat Is Easier For the Media To Convey – Mass media has spent more than a decade priming audiences to the term “al Qaeda”.  When a story or report says “al Qaeda”, a mental image quickly forms – planes crashing into buildings, falling twin towers, hooded men shooting weapons, climbing monkey bars and crawling under barb wire.  The story quickly plays on emotion, neatly frames the argument in two parties (the U.S. & the West vs. al Qaeda) and makes for great “click bait” on websites. 

I feel for journalists and their editors as they are caught in a trap of engaging and maintaining an audience while trying to explain a highly complex set of issues in only a few hundred words or a 30-second sound bite.  They can’t succinctly describe how Ansar-al-Flavor-Of-The-Week may impact U.S. security and resulting policy. 

The latest in this conundrum comes from al Qaeda Central’s disavowing of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq) which presents a threat to both “Old Guard” al Qaeda and U.S. interests.  The term used most recently is “al Qaeda Splinter Group”, a name stripped from a Tom Clancy novel/video game spinoff I assume. This term also confuses the issue for the reader, as al Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri broke it off with ISIS, not the other way around – ISIS didn’t break off from al Qaeda, they were kicked out.  The media sits in a tough spot and normally they could look to academia and experts to help clarify the landscape and the issues.  Well, that would be in normal circumstances….

The Terrorism and Counterterrorism Industry crumbles without al Qaeda – The years since 9/11/2001 have created an unprecedented research and industrial buildup to support counterterrorism; a sea of money no academic or analyst ever imagined during the 1990s.  With the beginning of nation-wide campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the need for expertise was apparent and the resources flowed freely.  Every corner of the U.S. government sponsored some form of ‘terrorism analysis’ or ‘counterterrorism planning’ where academia and the private sector brought specialists together to anticipate al Qaeda’s next move and implement an unwieldy counterterrorism plan. (Full disclosure: I am a product of this buildup.)

In the early years, this worked well, those with strong language skills tended to cover the hot conflict zones and others migrated to study jihadi ideology and al Qaeda’s pursuit of WMD. Many were former Sovietologists more adept at transitioning their psychohistorical and psycholinguistic analysis skills to a new threat in a different theater.  I ended up working on terrorist threats in Africa, for example, because I lacked Arabic language skills, was genuinely interested in learning more about Africa and because everyone else desperately wanted to get in on the action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Ironically, they are now scampering to become Africa or Syria experts today.  It’s a never-ending chase. 

This system progressed fine until the drawdowns in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.  As the big theaters closed, this forced analysts to chase the next big threat, rapidly research a new al Qaeda affiliate and region, reassert their relevance and publish prose on al Qaeda’s next rise – all done in an effort to protect our nation from terrorism and our own livelihoods in the process. (Remember, I am a member of this industry.)  The reports routinely prescribe one of three patent solutions for defeating al Qaeda: 1) the only way to defeat al Qaeda is to completely wipe the planet of al Qaeda’s ideology 2) we must win the hearts and minds of every disenfranchised community from Africa to South Asia or 3) both of these things.  In all three cases, a multi-billion dollar campaign of undetermined length, under-researched methods with fuzzy long-run objectives is required – completely infeasible, utterly unsustainable and not appropriately scoped for the more narrow and severe threat of ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda. 

The net result of this system has been a splurge of terrorism and counterterrorism punditry by analysts increasingly removed from the frontlines with al Qaeda, relying on less and less journalist reporting and primary documents, framing thinking based on notions of al Qaeda circa 2001 rather than 2011 and trying to piece together a global al Qaeda strategy from a noisy jihadi social media landscape.  Each report, if sufficiently scary, presents another opportunity for funded research or a speaking engagement.  Who wants to read a complicated report on the rise of the next serious threat presented by Lashkar-Fill-in-the-Blank or Ansar-Fill-in-the-Blank unless its “tied”, “connected” or “linked” to al Qaeda – and “al Qaeda” means whatever you need it to be.  The counterterrorism punditry isn’t doing anything devious or deliberate. They are not members of the top 1% nor trying to lead their country astray.  Most are passionate about their profession, genuinely well intentioned and highly competitive with one another.  Anyone that’s ever sat in a meeting of terrorism and counterterrorism analysts and academics knows its really a passive aggressive game to see who’s smartest – the equivalent of the TV Show “Survivor” for people that don’t like to go outside, where everyone protects or bluffs about their sources and builds alliances to protect their food (I mean funding). The outcome is al Qaeda threat conflation, an endless game of Back-to-Bin Laden or Zawahiri informed by limited sourcing and perpetuated by competition over relevancy. 

The worst part of today’s CT punditry is over the long-run it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: by over-classifying things as al Qaeda, we hunt for more al Qaeda, and we find more al Qaeda.  We end up over pursuing, making more mistakes, spreading ourselves thin and in fact creating more al Qaeda than we eliminate.  Today’s al Qaeda and the jihadi militants swirling around them are too diffuse, scattered amongst too many cultures and countries and evolving too quickly for any one counterterrorism pundit or TV talking head to maintain a persistent understanding.

The alternative to hoping the media can appropriately classify “al Qaeda” or that the counterterrorism industry can narrowly deduce the true threat of terrorism is to have a system where information can flow from multiple sources across every jihadi theater to one place where the world’s most experienced analysts can work together to determine the true nature of the terrorist threat to the U.S., and craft nimble policy and appropriate action to defeat those most dangerous threats to U.S. national security.  If only we such a system…hhmmm….that’s right we do, its called the U.S. counterterrorism community.  Could the U.S. government help focus discussions about the threat of terrorism? Probably not because the…….

U.S. Government Needs  “One al Qaeda” To Keep Counterterrorism Options Open – I think the only entity capable and actually informed about today’s threat of terrorism is the U.S. counterterrorism community (The Intelligence Community, State Department, FBI, DoD, etc.).  They see the open source reporting of the counterrorism industry, have the most important intelligence from higher classification levels and have cadres of operators and analysts with a decade-plus of counterterrorism experience.  They’ve learned many lessons the past decade and the recent, nearly simultaneous raids in Tripoli, Libya and Barawe, Somalia demonstrate just how nimble they can be.  I do believe the U.S. counterterrorism community is the only single entity sufficiently capable and resourced to decipher today’s chaotic terrorist landscape.  Unfortunately, three forces prevent them from curing America’s al Qaeda addiction.

  • Armed Use of Military Force (AUMF) hinges on the existence of al QaedaGregory Johnsen’s recent Buzzfeed article provides the best overview on how our counterterrorism capabilities continue to pursue terrorist threats that hinge on the existence of al Qaeda.  Without the AUMF, many counterterrorism authorities and tools necessary for protecting the U.S. from emerging jihadi variants would come off the table.  Thus the words “linked”, “connected” and “tied” in counterterrorism analyses and stories are essential for keeping the AUMF in place.  Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress appears completely incapable of updating the AUMF for today’s threat landscape.
  • Edward Snowden’s leaks – Snowden’s disclosures have called into question what counterterrorists view as crucial intelligence and surveillance tools and techniques.  Signals intercepts and sources essential for understanding the myriad of extremist groups around the world must be justified.  Most of these capabilities were built in response to al Qaeda, so now in the face of scrutiny, we must reaffirm there is an al Qaeda to justify their development and continued existence.
  • Politics – The American political climate stinks and its effect on national security is perverse. Neither party wants to be found weak on terrorism or downplaying al Qaeda as there is about a 100% chance al Qaeda or some entity connected to al Qaeda will kill an American in the future.  Congressmen in general so poorly understand terrorism to begin with that the U.S. counterterrorism community has to keep the “One Big al Qaeda” going to explain national security threats to those that approve their budgets.  For an example of this pointless dynamic, watch last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee discussion about al Qaeda. See minute 43:40 where Senator Inhofe asks “Yes or No, is al Qaeda stronger?” to which the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency LTG  Michael T. Flynn must answer.  Senator Inhofe even references an ominous map like I discussed in my first post.

 How do we cure our addiction to Al Qaeda?

For America to cure its “al Qaeda” addiction several things must happen.

For everyday Americans we must:

  • Accept that al Qaeda or other jihadi militant groups will ultimately kill Americans again sometime in the future. – When this happens, we must control our emotions, analyze what has happened and narrowly focus on retaliating against the actual perpetrators and not their “connections”.
  • Understand the threat of terrorism and America’s need to pursue counterterrorism will not end in our lifetimes. –  We cannot know when al Qaeda is defeated when we cannot agree on a definition of what al Qaeda is.  Even if al Qaeda were to cease to exist tomorrow, there would be some disenfranchised individual or group, boasting a jihadi ideology from a far off safe haven that would want to attack the U.S. for one reason or another.

For the media, please:

  • Expand your terms – Please expand beyond “al Qaeda” to describe the vast landscape of Sunni militant groups in the world.  As we see now with the separation of ISIS from al Qaeda, there will be serious terrorist threats to U.S. national security, and al Qaeda will be only one of them. The more you inform the public without the limitations of the al Qaeda mental model the better we will all be.
  • Stop using singular terrorism and counterterrorism talking heads. –  If you are relying on one or two experts to cover every story from domestic homeland security to al Qaeda in Pakistan, its time to make a change and build a bigger and broader set of experts you can call on. If your expert refers to everything as “al Qaeda” or “bad guys”, show them the door. This change has already started to happen somewhat, and it needs to continue if there is any hope for Americans to understand the threats facing them.

For the terrorism and counterterrorism pundit and academic community, I recommend the following:

  • Work collaboratively rather than individually – The academic community and industry could establish systems of cooperation and sharing rather than competition – seeking collective rather than individual funding.  Understanding al Qaeda or any emerging terrorist threat requires an interdisciplinary team with deep knowledge on dozens of regions, cultures, languages and extremist groups. For example, today, there are dozens of researchers creating open source datasets logging foreign fighters to Syria-–an important area of research.  But each researcher has only a partial dataset, all slightly skewed based on the collector, their skills, their sources and their funders.  When combined, these analysts and researchers likely have the insight needed to appropriately assess today’s complex terrorism environment.  Maybe the upcoming University of Massachusetts Center for Terrorism and Security Studies event “Communication and Collaboration for Counter-Terrorism” is a first step in the right direction.

For our government to pursue the terrorists of greatest threat to the U.S., I recommend the following:

  • Maintain our intelligence capabilities – Despite the post-Snowden trend to question the need for intelligence capabilities, they’ve never been more essential for keeping an eye on a diffuse terrorist landscape.  Rather than taking tools off the table, the U.S. should be reinforcing its most valuable capabilities.
  • Decouple politics from counterterrorism – This is impossible, I know. But as long as both political parties feel trapped in a zero defect climate of fear (such as the constant harranguing about Benghazi) then the U.S. counterterrorism community will be required to play the “is al Qaeda stronger?” game indefinitely. Additionally, Congress must move to update U.S. laws and policies to appropriately address authorities for countering terrorist groups that threaten the U.S. Only updated laws and policies will allow for the appropriate streamlining of processes, adequate oversight and desired transparency needed to appropriately counter the plethora of non-state threats we will face in the coming years.

Alright, enough big picture talk, in the next post (part 3 for later this week), I’ll focus on “Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony”  

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Smarter Counterterrorism in The Age of Competing Al Qaeda’s

Last week Ayman al- Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s global leader publicly dissolved the relationship between al Qaeda Central and the group currently known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS) and formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq.  Zawahiri and al-Qaeda’s General Command said in what was effectively a press release: 

“[ISIS] is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group . . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,”

Zawahiri’s announcement comes only two weeks after Dr. Michael Doran, Dr. Will McCants and I addressed the challenges accompanying the premature designation of al Qaeda affiliates in an article entitled “The Good and The Bad of Ahrar Al Sham”.  

Our thesis put forth that today’s terrorism threat picture looks far different than a decade ago–more complicated and subsequently more challenging to navigate.  Appropriately understanding the true terrorist threats to the U.S. and the West requires in-depth analysis from multiple disciplines and an open mind to pursue counterterrorism strategies informed by the lessons learned from the past decade but not constrained by past models of al Qaeda activity. 

This post and several to follow represent my assumptions and opinions on how the U.S. might push forward in counterterrorism against al Qaeda and those jihadist groups emerging from al Qaeda’s wake. (These are my opinions and not necessarily shared by my co-authors Drs. Doran and McCants-–I speak only for myself here.)  The posts are meant to stir discussion and debate; I have no illusions that I have all the answers or am exactly correct in my prescriptions. 

For my first post in this series, I have six assumptions and/or principles that shape my opinions to come in future posts.  

  •  Al Qaeda is not one big thing 

Analysts and pundits should stop focusing on building links between al Qaeda affiliates seeking to present loose networks as one large insurmountable threat.  Billing al Qaeda as “One Big Thing” over the past decade resulted in the U.S. pursuing strategies, such as military occupation and backing corrupt dictators, which galvanize competing al Qaeda adherents and unify disparate affiliate actions. The US should pick its fights wisely and for the greatest counterterrorism return at the lowest cost. Since Bin Laden’s death, we’ve seen unprecedented al Qaeda infighting in Somalia, Syria and the Sahel. Rather than build new fears of an al Qaeda juggernaut, we should instead be employing our vaunted “smart power”–that’s if the U.S. can act smartly rather than in a partisan manner and still has power in a region where it has pursued a campaign of disengagement in recent years.  

  • All al Qaeda affiliates are not equal in intent, commitment and capability

Most all Sunni militant groups from Africa to South Asia will express some level of support for al Qaeda and targeting of the West.  However, their commitment to al Qaeda and its objectives varies considerably depending on local agendas and operating environments.  An upstart al Qaeda affiliate constantly weighs the costs and benefits of attacking the U.S.-–comparing the resulting credibility and support produced by a successful attack against the immediate and intense U.S. counterterrorism pressure to follow any attack.  For most affiliates, its better to wave the al Qaeda banner and passively allow safe haven of “Old Guard”, core al Qaeda operatives than to actively pursue their own attacks on the U.S. Beyond intent and commitment, the capability of affiliates to attack the U.S. is limited to only a few nodes.  Even if an al Qaeda affiliate wanted to attack the U.S., most are limited to picking off the stray, undefended American or Westerner that floats through their area of operations.  If an al Qaeda upstart affiliate lacks the commitment and capability to attack the U.S., should the U.S. expend millions of dollars to destroy ten guys waving an al Qaeda flag?  I think not, most of these gun-toting disenfranchised youth do not pose a direct or immediate threat to U.S. national security. But I also don’t think these upstarts should be ignored.  Intelligence collection and analysis will be essential to understanding when these nascent groups cross the line and become a significant threat to the U.S. 

  • Destroy al Qaeda’s core, “Old Guard” network 

Rather than chasing every militant from Morocco to Pakistan, the main effort should remain on the “Old Guard” al Qaeda network committed to attacking the U.S. I estimate this network consists of the following elements plus or minus a few people:

  • Ayman al Zawahiri and his closest advisors of “Old Guard” al Qaeda in Pakistan. I’d estimate this to be no more than a couple dozen individuals.
  • AQAP’s top leadership in Yemen led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi as well as AQAP’s external operations branch, which includes the talented bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri.  Since 2005, this element has presented the most credible and significant threats to the U.S.  
  • al Qaeda leaders and foreign fighters embedded in al Shabaab in Somalia as an external operations force executing attacks regionally and in the West. This includes al Shabaab’s top leaders (i.e., Godane and key deputies) as well as those known Western passport holders plotting attacks (see, for example, Ikrima).
  • AQIM’s top remaining leadership in the Sahel to prevent their reconstitution in the desert and resulting push for attacks against the West and in particular Europe (i.e., Yahya Abou el-Hammam,  Sultan Ould Badi, Ould Kheiru). This includes Mukhtar Bel Mukhtar’s “Those Who Sign With Blood” who have been a divisive force in AQIM, but have also demonstrated clearly their intent to attack the West.
  • Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, al Qaeda’s most important affiliate today who seeks a long-run strategy of building al Qaeda’s next safe haven and tapping into the greatest foreign fighter migration in history.  Also in Syria, al Qaeda envoys to other group’s in the Islamic Front must be interdicted or disrupted (see, for example, Abu Khalid al Suri worming into Ahrar al Sham).
  • al Qaeda operatives and foreign fighters from Syria moving into Egypt that are building a jihadist force to destabilize Egypt and antagonize Israel with cross-border attacks designed to unify Islamists, Salafists and Jihadists under one banner.   

 In addition to these leadership elements, I also believe that the U.S. should take steps when appropriate to interdict:

  • Occasional envoys dispatched from al Qaeda seeking to expand the group’s influence into second-tier affiliates in Libya, Tunisia, the Sahel, Nigeria and other places.
  • Americans or U.S. persons in al Qaeda or its orbit with the ability to infiltrate back into the U.S. or specifically target the U.S. homeland (see these three as examples: Abousamra, Mostafa, Gadahn).

When I hear the words “al Qaeda”, I think of the above elements consisting of a few hundred “varsity” players rather than 10,000 disenfranchised young boys firing guns in the air, toting black flags and posting YouTube videos. Only a few of the smartest survivors of the Syrian jihad will be a threat to the West in the future.  I’m not advocating ignoring emerging affiliates; persistent intelligence collection will be critical, but go after the bigger fish that threaten the U.S. rather than every small fish floating in the stream. Groups like ISIS may pose a threat to the U.S. and should be countered if necessary, but in the meantime, ISIS and other faltering groups hurt “Old Guard” al Qaeda as much as any U.S. action–let partners with a larger stake in defeating ISIS take the lead. Despite media stories suggesting al Qaeda’s rise, I think the U.S. counterterrorism community is actually focused appropriately on the right al Qaeda targets.  I hope public and Congressional pressure to fight last decade’s al Qaeda won’t push them off course. 

  • When we designate groups as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO), we should destroy them.

During the discussion on Ahrar al-Sham, Dr. Doran, Dr. McCants and I were trying to illustrate the complications that come along with designating a group an FTO.  The designation restricts U.S. options for dealing with the group in non-military ways and can actually strengthen al Qaeda’s hand.  For me personally, I believe in the concept of FTO designation but only if the U.S. is serious about countering the FTO. Designating a FTO and then doing nothing to destroy the group results in the FTO getting the credibility of fighting the U.S. without any adverse effects.  Over the long-run, failing to destroy a FTO makes the U.S. look ineffective and weak. Designation of a FTO or foreign terrorist (FT) for that matter should come with decisive action commensurate with what one should expect from a global superpower.

  • Effective counterterrorism strategy focuses on doing a few tasks well, not several hundred tasks lightly.

Lumping each pseudo-jihadist under an all encompassing Al Qaeda banner dilutes US counterterrosm efforts resulting in a repeat of the strategic complications of the 2004-2007 era–when defeating al Qaeda could only be accomplished by solving all of the developing world’s problems via a 500-700 point implementation plan spread across a massive bureaucracy. Nineteen al Qaeda hijackers executed the 9/11 attacks, not 19 million. More than twelve years after 9/11, we should look back on US counterterrorism and recognize that protecting our country and Americans overseas has come from one task far above all others: killing or capturing core al Qaeda members.  Further quelling al Qaeda or what it is to become also comes via two important supporting elements: conducting counterterrorism consistent with American values (i.e., minimizing the killing of innocent bystanders, ending indefinite detention, supporting democratic principles & abandoning corrupt dictators) and maintaining dominant intelligence capabilities that help distinguish the most dangerous elements of al Qaeda for targeting separate from those more innocent and less threatening to U.S. national security.  Ironically, the American public’s overriding self-interest in civil liberty protection has likely rendered it more difficult for the US government to distinguish friend from foe.  Lastly, putting an end to our notions of regime change via military occupation, abandonment of Arab spring dictators and renewed commitment to American values further eroded the last decade’s fodder for al Qaeda’s narratives. Unfortunately, the U.S. has more recently backed Arab Spring uprisings through inaction. The battle between democracy and Sharia has only just begun and further dimming opportunities for “Old Guard” al Qaeda requires a long-run strategy in countries where democracy is not likely to flourish in the near-term. Until the U.S. can figure out its strategic interests in the Middle East (assuming it can, I’m not convinved this is possible), I recommend a narrow counterterrorism strategy focused on a small set of tasks executed by a limited set of actors.     

  • Terrorism is a lesser threat to our national security compared to other long-run issues.

The media and counterterrorism pundits are notorious for maps of al Qaeda where entire countries are shaded ominous colors when there are maybe only a half dozen al Qaeda members/supporters in a country consisting mostly of uninhabitable desert. Al Qaeda threat conflation convinces Americans that terrorism is a national security threat more dangerous than all others leading to over extension of counterterrorism efforts. (My next post will further discuss why we are hooked on one big “al Qaeda”). Terrorism poses a less serious threat than many other national security issues such as climate change, excessive US national debt, Chinese cyber theft of intellectual property, an aggressively resurgent Russia, Iranian nuclear gamesmanship and a hothead North Korean supreme leader with daddy issues. Each of these threats poses a far greater threat to long-run US national security than lost young boys trapped amongst al Qaeda affiliates that are just as likely to kill their own members as they are Americans.

Next post later this week: “To Say al Qaeda Is To Say Nothing At All”. 

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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 ([email protected]), an FPRI Senior Fellow, is associate professor of political science at Haverford College and tweets regularly at @BarakMendelsohn.

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