Connors v. Katulis

Connors v. Katulis

 PART 6:

Authors from Part 6 of our policies series respond. (Previously: Tim Connors, "Counterterrorism, Leadership, and the Next Administration;" Brian Katulis, "Confronting the New Threat Landscape.")


Response to Brian Katulis

By Tim Connors

Brian Katulis has several counterterrorism ideas for the next administration we can both agree on. Strengthening partnerships, improving law-enforcement and intelligence capabilities, and attacking groups like ISIS overseas will remain important. However, these efforts are not sufficient to end the scourge of jihadism and hence fail to keep us safe in the long run.

It is right to say that we are safer from a catastrophic, 9/11-style attack than we were 15 years ago. But the threat has adapted over the last several years, producing results with less sophisticated attack methodologies. Mr. Katulis acknowledges that these lesser attacks are becoming more deadly, despite our success at preventing catastrophe. But the measures he proposes to combat them lack a broader purpose.

In effect, Mr. Katulis presents an ideologically neutral, defensive strategy. If patiently followed over time, the desired outcome would, presumably, be to “sow doubts about the extremist cause” that lead to the collapse of this movement.

This is the wrong strategy for several reasons.

First, ideology is at the heart of the problem. Mr. Katulis inaccurately attributes recent attacks to isolated, defective individuals and ISIS’s inspiration and territorial control. Both conclusions are incomplete. Nidal Hasan (Fort Hood), Omar Mateen (Orlando), Ahman Khan Khatami (New York), the Tsarnaev brothers (Boston) and their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere are not a disconnected mass of irrational actors. Nor are they all motivated toward violence simply because they suffer from personal defects or because ISIS has suddenly established a caliphate. Terms like “lone wolf” and “self starters” are fundamentally misleading in this regard.

Instead, we are witnessing a collective movement that emerges from the unrelated actions of its members. Jihadism is organized around a compelling narrative with simple rules that facilitate self-organization. What draws individuals to the narrative is less important than the narrative itself, because it distracts attention from what drives their collective behavior. Defeating ISIS without weakening its ideology would only create a vacuum for another group to fill. And even if we had the ability and resources to stabilize areas like Syria and Libya, doing so without damaging the jihadist ideology would produce hollow, short-lived victories.

Second, jihadist terrorism is dynamic. In the eyes of its adherents, today’s successful protective measures warrant innovation. Our counterterrorism and intelligence infrastructure is bureaucratic, less flexible and less able to adapt over time to maintain an advantage. We therefore are hard pressed to keep pace in our defensive posture without otherwise acting to weaken the threat. 

Finally, the defensive measures Mr. Katulis extols have done nothing to diminish the determination of our adversaries, who remain devoted to violent beliefs honed over the long span of history. Jihadism will only be extinguished when Muslims reject it to the point of irrelevancy. We should encourage and help them to do so, leveraging defensive measures to help shape that outcome.

The American people deserve presidential and congressional leadership that is intolerant of failure to prevent acts of terrorism, whether “catastrophic” or not. In that spirit, the next president must build an enduring political consensus around the strategic calculus of enabling Muslims to defeat jihadism in a way favorable to U.S. interests. Our defensive measures against terrorism must be designed accordingly. 

(For the opposing view, see Brian Katulis, "Confronting the New Threat Landscape.")


Response to Tim Connors

By Brian Katulis

Amidst the rancor and divisiveness that characterizes our politics today, it’s refreshing to find more agreement than disagreement with Tim Connors’ take on today’s terrorist threats. We agree that the ideological underpinnings driving groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State should be dismantled, and that it’s best to work by, with, and through Muslim-majority countries to defeat these terrorist organizations. We also agree that the FBI and other domestic law-enforcement agencies can and should do a better job evaluating potential domestic terrorists. While we may disagree about some of the tactics we use to accomplish these objectives — putting America in the middle of Muslim theological arguments, for instance, may create more problems than it solves — we can agree that these are the core U.S. counterterrorism policy goals.

Most importantly, we agree that America’s political leaders in the executive and legislative branches must do a better job building and explaining this counterterrorism consensus. The president, as Mr. Connors notes, should take the lead here, but Congress must also play a helpful role and resist the temptation to grandstand and score political points on this issue. Once America’s leaders recognize that we have a stronger counterterrorism consensus than our political debate suggests, it will be much easier to have an honest and constructive debate over real counterterrorism policy differences. 

(For the opposing view, see Tim Connors, "Counterterrorism, Leadership, and the Next Administration.")


Tim Connors is a contributor to Real Clear Defense and a Colonel serving in the Army Reserves. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security strategy and counterterrorism policy.

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