As US Counterterrorism Policy Focus Wavers, a Thorough Review Is Needed

The struggle to defeat global terrorism has been a dominant issue in the last four presidential elections, but not so in 2020. As the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden enters its final stretch and voters have narrowed their focus to a few key domestic issues, concerns about terrorism domestically and globally remain on the back burner. Indeed, the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda continue their operations, even if they have been somewhat curtailed. While the issue has gone quiet in the national political discussion, however, the next administration will face a number of important strategic questions as it decides how to assess US counterterrorism (CT) efforts and shift its strategy.

As the presidential race enters its final stretch and voters have narrowed their focus to a few key domestic issues, concerns about terrorism remain on the back burner.

Curbing the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda

The United States has had considerable success in its war on terrorism, set into motion by President George W. Bush following the attacks on September 11, 2001. A few of the most dramatic actions occurred during the Obama and Trump Administrations. US Special Forces killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout in 2011, and Al-Qaeda’s (AQ) operational capabilities and leadership structure were heavily damaged  by intensive US efforts to ferret out and destroy AQ elements worldwide, mainly by means of airstrikes and special operations raids. Expansion of US operational capabilities, improved intelligence gathering, and cooperation with foreign governments—and especially a dramatic escalation of drone strikes—have combined to reduce sharply terrorist groups’ effectiveness. (It is important to note, however, that these policies have also had deadly consequences for thousands of civilians in conflict zones, increasing the risk of radicalization.) As noted in my assessment of Islamic State (IS) and AQ capabilities previously, consistent US countermeasures over the past eight years have worked to “degrad[e] their operational and leadership capacities and reduc[e] their ability to organize and carry out mass-casualty attacks far from their bases of operation.”

President Trump doubled down on Barack Obama’s campaign to defeat IS, launched in 2014 as Operation Inherent Resolve. By the time Obama left office, US and allied operations had killed approximately 50,000 IS fighters and reduced the group’s territory to a sliver of what it had conquered in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Under Trump, the Islamic State was finally driven from its “capital” of Raqqa, Syria, in October 2017, and the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces announced in March 2019 that the caliphate had been destroyed, after driving IS from its last stronghold in Baghouz in the eastern part of the country.

Although it may not be possible to establish a direct correlation, all this has likely had significant effects on the ground, especially as a result of containing IS. According to the most recent Global Terrorism Index (for 2019, covering 2018), deaths from terrorist incidents have dropped by more than half since their peak in 2014, with Europe and the Middle East/North Africa region reflecting the sharpest declines. The economic impact of terrorism has likewise declined, by 38 percent, as measured by the report.

A Real Challenge Ahead

Victories against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have not been complete. Terrorist attacks in Africa, mainly a result of Islamic State activity, are surging, White House declarations of the total defeat of IS notwithstanding. IS affiliates from southeast Asia to western Africa remain a global threat and retain financial assets amounting to $300 million. Approximately 10,000 IS fighters are still present in Iraq and Syria; many remain semi-underground, with access to significant caches of weapons and safe houses. They have been skillfully utilizing the coronavirus pandemic to gain advantage from the partial retreat of security forces and the availability of newly ungoverned space.

In addition to the organizational persistence of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, structural and strategic problems pose a challenge for US counterterrorism policy.

In addition to the organizational persistence of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, structural and strategic problems pose a challenge for US counterterrorism policy. Terrorism has receded as a key public concern, and funding along with it. Former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, have pointed out that investments in CT capabilities are on the decline, even as terrorist organizations themselves are making technological advances that are eroding the ability of governments to track and identify them. Strategically, US CT policy remains in something of a state of chaos. President Trump’s repeated reversals of policy regarding troop deployments in Syria and Iraq have cast doubt on overall US strategy and opened opportunities for IS, despite denials from senior US military commanders. While Al-Qaeda has gone virtually underground in part to avoid US countermeasures, it remains a threat to the US homeland. It has preserved ties with the Taliban in defiance of American efforts to separate the two as part of a negotiated solution on the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Moreover, US operators are striking IS targets in Afghanistan on behalf of the Taliban, and plans remain in place to reduce US troops to the lowest level since 2002 while subcontracting what remains of the counterterrorism fight to the CIA.

None of this should inspire confidence in American strategic coherence in the fight against Al-Qaeda and IS. This can fairly be called dysfunction, and it is a valid question what the next administration, and president, will do with it.

Redefining the Threat Matrix

A major part of the apparent uncertainty that seems to define US counterterrorism strategy is a shift of focus that has been taking place in US strategic thinking: peer-to-peer competition has begun to replace the CT struggle as a primary focus of US military strategy abroad. As the 2018 National Defense Strategy noted, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”

Peer-to-peer competition has begun to replace the CT struggle as a primary focus of US military strategy abroad.

In the Middle East, this translates into more US arms sales and a greater focus on Iran, with support flowing to proxy wars such as that in Yemen. It does not include, by and large, building effective CT capacity and encouraging political coping strategies in friendly states. It also does not include pushing back on the overuse of “terrorism” laws by Middle East allies that are broadly construed to include criticism of rulers, government authorities, and, indeed, most types of political dissent. The status quo of American relationships with countries of the region—that is, preserving friendly ties with authoritarian states based on security interests and equipment sales, often to the detriment of human rights—has largely prevailed.

A better approach would be to try to address the fundamental causes of terrorism and social unrest.

A better approach would be to try to address the fundamental causes of terrorism and social unrest—including the lack of politically accountable governance, the prevalence of inequality and marginalization, and the absence of adaptive, job-creating economic models. If ignored, these will remain drivers of political radicalism and violent extremism.

Which Way Forward?

The phrase “root causes” is problematic and often controversial, but in terms of dealing with the issue of terrorism it is apt. The US government should do more to improve democracy and human rights globally and mitigate political conflicts that drive violent extremism. According to the Project on Middle East Democracy’s most recent report on the foreign assistance budget, the Trump Administration’s focus on securitizing US foreign aid has deprioritized democracy and governance support. “Security and military aid categories represent nearly 78 percent of the FY19 foreign assistance request,” the report noted, and “democracy programming fell to just 4 percent of the request compared to 4.5 percent in FY18. These proposed cuts to democracy programming, including for institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy, demonstrate continued hostility to the promotion of democratic values abroad.” Similar proposed cuts have appeared in each of the Trump Administration’s previous budgets, but Congress has rejected them on a bipartisan basis in both the House and the Senate, providing some cause for improved policy going forward.

The US government should do more to improve democracy and human rights globally and mitigate political conflicts that drive violent extremism.

Hamilton and Kean, too, emphasize the point that a key failing in US counterterrorism policy is the neglect of the underlying causes of the political and economic fragility that foster violent extremism. “The United States and its partners need to help repair the broken social contract between citizens and their governments, rather than just respond to terrorist threats.” Last year, Congress passed the Global Fragility Act, a diplomatic and humanitarian measure designed to help ameliorate the violence that breeds terrorism in unstable countries. The Act in question should be fully funded—a challenge for an administration that shuns foreign assistance programs in general and, specifically, good governance programs.

Thorough Review Required

For the Trump Administration, counterterrorism efforts seem to be a series of individual and disparate actions that do not amount to a focused strategy. The vice presidential debate on October 6 featured an unenlightening exchange in which Vice President Mike Pence touted the administration’s record on drone strikes, praised the decision to assassinate IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and excoriated Joe Biden for not having done enough to rescue American hostage Kayla Mueller. The most recent success the administration has hyped was the rendition to the United States of two IS terrorists charged with the murder of British and American captives in Syria. But little has been said about the issue of terrorism overall or of US strategy to combat groups like IS and Al-Qaeda, including, importantly, whether the problem remains a top US priority. Trump has barely mentioned terrorism in the last few months. For his part, Biden has said little on the subject, possibly because his approach would most likely not mark a departure from Obama Administration policies.

For the Trump Administration, counterterrorism efforts seem to be a series of individual and disparate actions that do not amount to a focused strategy.

Counterterrorism is once more on the back burner, just as it was prior to 9/11. The de-emphasis is in part due to successes that have occurred against IS and Al-Qaeda in the last few years as well as the lack of foreign-source mass-casualty attacks in the United States. At the same time, the current administration has downplayed calls from the public and rights organizations to take homegrown extremism and violence seriously and institute proactive measures to combat them. President Trump’s recent refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat posed by the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat, is only the most recent (if most egregious) example.

The next administration would do well to conduct an objective review of US counterterrorism programs to ensure that these threats are accurately evaluated and accounted for in US strategic planning.

Given successes overseas against key terrorist groups in recent years, a lesser focus on international counterterrorism efforts seems an ostensibly reasonable policy choice for American officials. But it also is symptomatic of a certain complacency that has crept into American policy-making, given the focus on detangling the United States from overseas involvements—a theme both the Republican and Democratic parties share. The threat, however, has not gone away. The next administration would do well to conduct an objective review of the funding and strategy of US counterterrorism programs to ensure that these threats are accurately evaluated and accounted for in US strategic planning. In considering these issues, it will be critical to view them in the context of furthering democracy and human rights as a way to curb marginalization and extremism in the first place.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here