Keepin’ the Devil Down in the Hole (With apologies to Tom Waits)

The future of U.S. counterterrorism policy

Editor’s note: TLP is pleased to present its first guest post from Bill Danvers who has worked on national security issues for 35 years in the Executive Branch, on Capitol Hill, for international organizations, and in the private sector.

It has been 20 years since 9/11, and a common refrain among some policy makers is that the global war against terrorists is largely over. After 20 years of a U.S.-led effort, the threat has diminished, but some experts warn that it remains both lethal and potent. A Pew Research poll last year on foreign policy concerns indicated that 73% of those polled considered terrorism a major threat while only 2% did not consider it to be a threat. A more recent poll taken earlier this year shows that among problems facing the nation 67% of those polled see international terrorism as an issue of concern, while 29% view it as a small problem. Despite the fact that polling may say otherwise, it’s a very real concern that government officials will view international terrorism at best as a secondary issue that does not merit their attention.  

For example, getting out of Afghanistan was never going to be easy, and the one thread that must be dealt with in order to ensure the effort will not unravel is the presence of al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. When asked what the U.S. troop withdrawal means to the ability of the U.S. to react to terrorist groups in Afghanistan, CIA Director Bill Burns expressed concern that it would make the response more difficult.

In recent Congressional testimony, General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, echoed that sentiment, saying it will be extremely difficult but not impossible for the U.S. to find, track, and take out terrorism threats in Afghanistan once all American troops are withdrawn.

These statements illustrate the need to ensure that the focus on the terrorist threat does not erode entirely. Unfortunately, the politics of national security makes this a difficult proposition. A point of consensus on foreign policy is confronting China.  Great power politics, including both China and Russia, is the front burner issue.  There is less consensus on, but great interest in, other issues like climate change, Iran, North Korea and lately, the Gordian knot of seeking peace between Israel and the Palestinians. These issues deserve attention, but they must not diminish vigilance against the threat that terrorist groups continue to pose.

Right wing-extremism is on the rise. Of the approximately 435 violent terrorist attacks in the United States between 2010 and 2019, 75 percent were committed by right-wing domestic extremists, and 2019 was the deadliest year of right-wing extremist violence since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Making matters worse, domestic right-wing extremist groups have international ties. For example, QAnon, the bizarre right-wing extremist movement, has a German presence. The Canadian government has designated the Proud Boys, another right-wing extremist organization with a strong U.S. presence, a terrorist group. Individual U.S. extremists have participated in military training in Ukraine and some have affiliated with the Azov Battalion, a paramilitary unit of the Ukrainian National Guard which promotes neo-Nazi extremism globally. In addition, Russia and China have provided safe internet harbors for extremist groups that have been de-platformed by Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

International terrorist groups remain a threat in their own right. Analysis by the U.S. Institute of Peace states this clearly: “Despite declines in its prevalence, the scale of the challenge posed by terrorism and the violent ideologies that underpin it is still immense and the mechanisms by which to address it remain complex and in need of further coordination on a global scale.” 

This is particularly the case in Sub-Saharan Africa, where terrorist activity is on the rise. AQ, IS, and their affiliates are a growing presence throughout the subcontinent.  Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) points out that attacks in Africa have grown from 381 in 2015 to 7108 in 2020 with fatalities increasing from 1394 to 12,519 in the same period. In a very thoughtful piece in Foreign Policy, Emily Estelle summed up the benign neglect by some policymakers of the terrorist threat in Africa, “In Western policy circles, Salafi-jihadi insurgencies in African countries get short shrift. A combination of political burnout, competing political priorities, and policy hurdles is preventing policymakers from seeing the threat clearly or thinking cogently about what to do about it.”

A further complication is the opportunity that the pandemic has created for terrorist groups. The economic insecurity and the general malaise caused by the pandemic has created openings for extremists—right wing, AQ, and IS. Governments have had to shift military resources away from confronting terrorist groups to helping respond to the pandemic. AQ and IS have used it as a rallying cry, calling COVID-19 a “soldier of Allah”, to strike out at non-believers. Others have used it as an opportunity to undermine any government efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 as part of their effort to subvert government and the rule of law.

The good news is the Biden Administration has not given up the fight against terrorist groups. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has called for a review of U.S. counterterrorism policy. General McKenzie is not throwing up his hands over the impact US troop withdrawal will have on counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and is finding ways to implement a creative and effective CT policy. But this is only part of what has to be done.

Congress and non-governmental policy makers who influence public opinion need to make sure the fight against terrorist groups is not lost in the shuffle of other, very real national security problems. Here’s what they can do:

  1. Despite the greater competition for spending and attention among national security concerns, there should be a resistance to follow the issue of the moment at the expense of counterterrorism. As the Chicago World Affairs Council pointed out in a survey taken last year, 85% of Americans believe the intelligence community has done a good job in protecting the nation against terrorist attacks.  Policymakers should keep in mind that terrorism remains an issue of concern for the American people as they work out budget priorities.

  2. In order to ensure that resources are used effectively, Congressional oversight of CT efforts, international and domestic, is necessary. Balanced and non-partisan oversight over policies that may not grab headlines but is an important hedge against complacency in government programs, and CT is no different. Oversight also provides an opportunity to ensure that CT programs are part of the effort to strengthen American democracy at home.

  3. The ongoing battle against terrorist organizations should not be a singular American undertaking. The Biden administration has made working with allies an important component of their national security strategy. In keeping with this strategic mandate, working with other nations and organizations, including intelligence sharing, should remain a part of CT strategy.  

It is a myth that politics stops at the water’s edge in the U.S.; it hasn’t since at least World War II. The present political acrimony between blue and red is as intense as it has been in recent memory. That makes it tough to find common ground, particularly on issues like remaining focused on the threat of terrorist groups that no longer seem to have the relevance they once did. It is essential to note, however, that this acrimony is exactly what serves the interest of these groups. While U.S. political sides fight each other, terrorists regroup in Africa and elsewhere, never losing sight of the possibility of staging another attack against the U.S. at home or abroad. The 9/11 era may have passed, but it would be wrong to declare “mission accomplished” against the terrorist threat. Policymakers take note.

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Bill Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs. He previously served in various national security positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations and on Capitol Hill.