Counterterrorism, Leadership, and the Next Administration

Counterterrorism, Leadership, and the Next Administration


This is the sixth in a series on the major policy ideas — from Left and Right — that should guide the next presidential administration's agenda. (For the opposing view, see Brian Katulis, "Confronting the New Threat Landscape.")


After economic issues, most Americans in this election cycle worry about security. This is hardly surprising given the steady stream of random, violent acts of terror carried out across America and Europe over the last several years. We sense a change for the worse and look for leadership that sets a coherent direction out of this trouble. Accordingly, the next president will have to get three big questions right and build long-term consensus around the answers. First, how will jihadism ultimately be defeated? Second, what is the right balance between law-enforcement authorities and risk in our domestic policy? And third, how do we innovate over time in order to remain ahead of the threat?

The last two presidential administrations pursued remarkably different counterterrorism agendas. President Bush waged a War on Terror, invaded Iraq and used broad search authorities domestically. President Obama preferred targeted strikes overseas, established a more restrictive enforcement philosophy at home, and projected a deferential demeanor toward Islam in his public discourse. The next president should acknowledge that ultimate victory against jihadism will only be achieved by extinguishing the ideology that drives it. This will be a long-term campaign requiring a consistent strategy across administrations. It will not be won solely by killing adherents of jihadism, nor by avoiding criticism of its religious foundations. Fundamentally, this global conflict is a struggle within Islam and, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, our policy should be that Muslims win and jihadists lose.

In practical terms, we can best ensure that outcome by keeping this maxim in mind in all of our counterterrorism operations, diplomatic efforts, law enforcement activities, and public discourse. Our counterterrorism efforts overseas, for example, cannot be Team America versus the jihadists — in fact or in perception. Rather, we should leverage every opportunity to work by, with, and through Muslim nations and networks to defeat jihadists on the battlefield and diminish their theology in the public arena. We should also continue to use lethal means where we must and take leadership in undermining jihadism morally and intellectually. In short, while America is perfectly capable of defeating ISIS militarily in Syria, such a victory would not put a dent in the branding from which jihadist terrorism emerges. Better to let Sunni Muslim armies root out ISIS with our support. Even though it will take longer to dispense with ISIS by this method, it offers the best route to defeating jihadism.

In the meantime, the next president must build political consensus regarding what enforcement authorities and associated risks we are willing to accept at home. After the attack in an Orlando nightclub, leaders from both parties squabbled instead of closing ranks against our enemies. Building consensus in this environment will require both parties to police the divisive trends in their respective ranks — we simply have to stay together. The next president will set the tone and must negotiate a way forward that can be broadly supported.

On the one hand, there is widespread angst over intrusive government collection methods. But, on the other, so-called FBI assessments (vice criminal investigations) have failed in Boston, Orlando, and New York over the last four years. Jihadists displaying worrisome patterns of behavior sufficient to bring them to the attention of the FBI subsequently managed to carry out attacks. After the Orlando attack, FBI Director James Comey stated there was little else that could have been done to prevent it. His declaration may be true but is nonetheless unsatisfactory. The next president must not accept it. If we do nothing differently, we increase the chances that more of the same will occur. Maybe that reality is more acceptable to Americans if the cost of prevention is a government collection apparatus they fear more. But most Americans are pragmatic. They would probably accept some degree of monitoring individuals who embrace jihadist ideology and engage in alarming behavior, even if they have yet to cross the line of criminality.

The more important questions are how best to do it and what controls and oversight measures would safeguard against abuse. Marketers use digital footprints gathered in open source and proprietary databanks to target campaigns toward people who behave in a certain manner. Generally speaking, we don’t feel violated when this happens. In principal then, the FBI could scan the open source environment and government data in order to be alerted when troubling people behave in problematic ways. With the proper authority, we can do this now without grabbing everyone’s data or allowing patient jihadists to wait out an assessment.

Oversight mechanisms could also be established to require law enforcement to justify who they are watching and what range of behaviors are being flagged. Disturbing behavior should concern us and hence be the of focus our attention. Accordingly, behavioral templates should be grounded in analysis of past attacks and be updated as trends change.

The last point is critical. ISIS, al Qaeda, and their cohorts represent a dynamic and resilient threat. They have demonstrated an ability to change tactics, morph operational strategies, and evolve in the face of effective counterterrorism efforts. In contrast, the architecture we have built since 9/11 is bureaucratic, slow moving, and much more static. ISIS, for example, transformed al Qaeda’s networked cell organization into a media platform, inspirational one. Recent pronouncements of our law-enforcement and intelligence leaders indicate that we are struggling to find a response. While legitimate actors will always be more constrained in their approach, we are simply not structurally designed to innovate at a pace that provides advantage relative to the jihadists. The next president must review and re-organize America’s intelligence and counterterrorism architecture. Working with Congress, he or she must gain the authority to redesign organizations and realign authorities, manpower, and resources with greater speed and efficiency.

Throughout most of the Cold War, Americans were united in our opposition to communism. The containment policy we adopted against the Soviet Union succeeded because presidents from Truman and Kennedy to Nixon and Reagan embraced it. Our current political and intellectual posture toward the issue of counterterrorism, however, indicates that the next terrorist attack may well do more to divide America than to unite it. That is not only disheartening, it is also dangerous. The burden of fixing that weakness falls squarely on the shoulders of our next president and the leadership of both parties in Congress. Without a unifying strategic approach to defeating jihadism — one that allows us to strike the right balance between security and civil liberties and to innovate over time to maintain a position of advantage relative to the threat — we are less likely to duplicate our Cold War victory against the increasing threat of jihadism.

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.


Author’s Recommended Reading:

Albert-laszlo Barabasi, Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (New York: Scribner, 2002).

General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (London: Portfolio, 2015).

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower (New York: Vintage, 2006). 


(Read the response by Brian Katulis.)


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