Middle East National Security Security & Defense Terrorism United States and Canada

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September 7, 2021

We are in the interwar period

By Thomas S. Warrick

In September 2021, the United States is only in between major terrorist attacks. This prediction should not be controversial—but today this way of looking at counterterrorism is. Popular cable news channels give the impression that the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the end of ISIS’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria, and the arrest of many involved in the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol somehow allow us to move past the counterterrorism efforts of the past twenty years, go back to focusing on domestic politics or great-power competition, and close the book on the first breach of the US Capitol since 1812.

No one should think that international or domestic terrorists have given up. Terrorism remains a tactic of choice for those who can justify horrible acts of violence against innocents. This being the case, national leaders should ask and be asked: How can we best use this time before the next terrorist attack to prevent one from happening, or to minimize the damage, physical and psychological, when the next major attack does succeed?

Instead of thinking of “terrorism” as a single threat, it would provide strategic clarity—and probably, in the end, save lives—if the United States started thinking of three separate campaigns with separate victory conditions.

The first campaign is against al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their supporters. Their leaders’ goals have focused on controlling, sooner (ISIS) or later (al-Qaeda), what they consider historically “Muslim lands” that those leaders want to rule with brutality and without regard for the wishes of the people who live there. Al-Qaeda and ISIS targeted civilians in the United States and elsewhere because those civilians, or their governments, were considered obstacles to al-Qaeda or ISIS seizing power. Strategic victory involves denying these terrorists safe havens, recruits, and the ability to move operatives, money, or materiel. The counterterrorism goal should be to reduce these groups, as much as possible, to the level at which they can be dealt with as a local law enforcement problem without the need for international military power.

The second campaign involves Iran, identified by both Republican and Democratic administrations as the leading state sponsor of terrorism. But terrorism is only one part of a broad front of confrontation between the current Iranian regime and a range of adversaries. Iran uses proxies like Lebanese Hezbollah to carry out attacks in Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the Levant, and Europe. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are well-known, but just as dangerous is Iran’s unique formula of funding militias in other countries—Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen—outside the control of the state but loyal to Iran. Iran also carries out cyberattacks and influence operations against the United States and its allies. To be sure, the United States and its allies also carry out cyberattacks and influence operations against Iran.

Iran deliberately keeps its hybrid warfare just below the threshold of conventional war. Just as it would be wrong to see Iran’s nuclear ambitions in isolation, it would be equally wrong to see Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism in isolation. Many of the nonmilitary tools that work against ISIS and al-Qaeda are also effective against Iran, but Iran has far greater resources and strategic depth than any terrorist group, making it a more dangerous adversary. Despite the Iranian regime’s use of hybrid warfare, Iran is ultimately a nation-state, susceptible to pressures from other nation-states, if those pressures are wielded effectively by the coalition of countries aligned against Iran.

The third campaign is against “domestic terrorism” or a new Washington acronym, REMVE—racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism. As Javed Ali, Vincent A. Auger, and other experts have written, domestic terrorism represents a “fifth wave” of terrorism in the United States. The Biden administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism calls for information-gathering, prevention, law enforcement, and longer-range programs aimed at civic education and engagement. Of these, the last category, Pillar Four, is the most important for strategic victory against this “fifth wave,” but the least spelled-out.

Instead of thinking of “terrorism” as a single threat, it would provide strategic clarity—and probably, in the end, save lives—if the United States started thinking of three separate campaigns with separate victory conditions.

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Given these three different campaigns against very different adversaries, with very different victory conditions, here are seven steps the United States should take.

  1. Change the US counterterrorism emphasis from just disruption to disruption and prevention, and do a better job of coordinating civilian counterterrorism efforts. US military leaders have long warned against expecting to kill our way to a strategic victory against terrorism. US law enforcement and homeland security officials give a similar warning against expecting to arrest our way to strategic victory against domestic terrorism. Instead, wise military and civilian leaders advocate for more resources for programs aimed at preventing people from becoming terrorists, with a particular emphasis on civilian tools such as border and aviation security. The United States has been generous in funding military counterterrorism efforts but has chronically underfunded and failed to organize civilian security efforts in comparison. That needs to change. One reason for the success of US military efforts against al-Qaeda and ISIS is that the United States has unity of effort on the military side—the Department of Defense has the uniformed military, its own budget, and a coordinated policy office. On the civilian side, the constitutional principle of federalism divides responsibility among local, state, and federal officers. The federal government splits up budgets and policy responsibilities among half a dozen civilian cabinet departments. International civilian security sector assistance programs are divided between the State Department, which funds them, and the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Treasury, which often carry them out. None of these divisions is likely to go away, but the United States needs to do a far better job than it has since it was attacked on September 11, 2001, to coordinate both an effective domestic terrorism response and more effective international civilian security assistance.
  2. Use the current relative pause in major terrorist attacks for serious US and allied operational planning about the end state for al-Qaeda and ISIS-style terrorism. Discussions could be bilateral or multilateral, but they need to involve more than just diplomats—they need to focus on operational planning and the legislative and operational steps that governments need to take to achieve what diplomats agreed to years ago. The fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021, makes this both vital and urgent. As an example of the kind of operational planning that is urgently needed, the United States and its allies need workable plans to address the Taliban control of Afghanistan, the thousands of ISIS fighters in detention in northeast Syria, and the tens of thousands of women and children who mostly reside in the al-Hol refugee camp. The next major international terrorist attack could well have its genesis in the failure to address these problems. The operational planning needed is analogous to the Washington Conference of 1943, code-named “Trident.” While most modern diplomatic conferences on ISIS lasted two days and consisted of set-piece speeches and PowerPoints, this 1943 US-UK conference was held over two weeks. It was led by then US president Franklin D. Roosevelt and UK prime minister Winston Churchill, along with military and civilian planners and other top officials from both sides. It was not scripted: acrimonious at times, in the end the two governments set a date for the amphibious invasion of France and settled the course of operations against Italy. Resources were prioritized and allocated. Diplomats and civilian leaders agreed on a shared political strategy. The goals for a counterterrorism “Trident” should be for governments to agree on the specific nonmilitary commitments needed to get to the end state in which ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorism is reduced to a criminal-justice problem that governments can handle without the need for international military forces.
  3. The United States needs to shift its international focus—and resources—away from an overreliance on military solutions and toward civilian security solutions. There will still be a need for military capabilities against terrorists, but the United States and its allies should seek to improve civilian security to the level where ISIS and al-Qaeda can be addressed without oppressive measures and without international military forces. Purely “soft-power” assistance programs will never eliminate all the root causes of terrorism. However, increasing capacity-building for willing partners on aviation security, border security, and disrupting terrorist finance would have a direct and lasting benefit by reducing all forms of terrorism.
  4. The United States should launch a five-year, bipartisan effort to update its terrorism laws. Many US counterterrorism laws, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, were written for a different era, sometimes in haste. Other key statutory provisions and authorities predate the founding of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Counterterrorism Center. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 envisioned a very different role for DHS on counterterrorism than what it currently has. Experience since 9/11 also demonstrates the need to take better account of civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy. Congress should create a bipartisan commission including members of Congress and outside experts modeled on the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, many of whose recommendations have been enacted into law.
  5. Build an international coalition on Iran that focuses on nonmilitary security. The Biden administration’s Iran policy has focused on Iran’s nuclear program, with much less said about what the administration will do about other malign Iranian behavior, including Iran’s support for terrorism. One key element of the Biden administration’s approach, however, is vital to address Iran’s terrorism threat: rebuilding an international consensus on Iran. Experience over the last thirty-plus years has shown that Iran is usually strong enough to withstand unilateral US pressure, but has a particular vulnerability to concerted, multilateral pressure. While the Biden administration focuses on China and Russia, it could opt for a policy of disruption of Iranian-sponsored terrorist plots, as was done with Iran’s plot to kidnap journalist Masih Alinejad. Nonmilitary efforts like the “fence around Iran” could augment traditional law enforcement and intelligence efforts, and provide an organizing principle for an international coalition to track the movements of Iranian and proxy terrorist plotters and influence operators. Eventually, the United States will need to move toward a more comprehensive effort against Iran’s “hybrid” or “gray-zone” warfare. The tools of nonmilitary security that DHS and the FBI wield should prove especially valuable in a comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran’s nonmilitary threats against the United States and its allies.
  6. Fully resource domestic terrorism efforts and develop the prevention and resilience programs in Pillar Four of the June 2021 domestic counterterrorism strategy. The strategy has much good in it, but does not give a sense of the scale required for success. “Do more” does not say how much more is required. This needs to be addressed in detailed implementation plans, which will need to be fully resourced if the domestic counterterrorism strategy is to succeed. Similarly, long-term success depends on developing and implementing the kinds of programs described in Pillar Four, which will require local programs of civic education. This may seem controversial to some but is essential to develop individual resilience against a siren song of polarizing messages that could undermine constitutional democracy in a way that few would have thought possible until recently.
  7. Change the way we talk about terrorism. A final note: the way we talk about terrorism may actually hold back our efforts to bring an end to the threats of terrorism. White supremacism is not wholly “domestic terrorism,” just as some adherents of ISIS or al-Qaeda’s ideology may have grown up inside the United States and never traveled abroad. Counterintuitive terms of art abound: the FBI and DHS use “homegrown violent extremism” to refer to ISIS or al-Qaeda supporters in the United States, but not the Ku Klux Klan, even though the Klan was founded in Tennessee in 1865 and qualifies as homegrown, violent, and extremist. I would like to see US policy makers and legislators never use terms like “Sunni extremism” or “Shia militias” when they refer to ISIS or al-Qaeda ideologies or Iranian-backed militia groups, respectively. No religion has a monopoly of vice or virtue when it comes to violence against outsiders, and applying religious adjectives to terrorism is often a sign of bad drafting or imprecise thinking. Instead, the United States needs to honor the approach, taken in counterterrorism strategies of administrations of both parties, that respects the importance of constitutionally protected thought, but targets violence as criminal—as it is.

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Thomas S. Warrick is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs and the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice at the Atlantic Council. Prior to joining the Atlantic Council, from August 2008 to June 2019 he was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a career member of the Senior Executive Service. He was an international lawyer in private practice for seventeen years, representing companies in connection with investments in the Middle East and elsewhere. Warrick also served in the US Department of State on Middle East and international justice issues and served as Special Adviser, then Senior Adviser, to the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, working on Iraq, Iran, and other issues. He also served in the US Department of Homeland Security as Director for the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia in the Office of Policy and as Deputy Counterterrorism Coordinator for Policy and Under Secretary for Intelligence & Analysis.

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