Missing in Action
The U.S. still lacks a comprehensive counterterror strategy.
In January 2001, a bipartisan federal commission led by Senators Warren B. Rudman and Gary Hart published “New World Coming,” the first installment of a three-volume report on American security in the twenty-first century. Its warnings proved prescient. Challenged by the eruption of “long-suppressed nationalisms, ethnic or religious violence, humanitarian disasters, major catalytic regional crises, and the spread of dangerous weapons,” the U.S. military would eventually be unable to protect Americans from terrorist groups and rogue states in possession of weapons of mass destruction. “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers,” the authors warned. In September of that year, the World Trade Center fell.
Though the Bush administration created a department of homeland security after 9/11 and President Obama has issued two national security strategies since 2008, Washington has yet to formulate, let alone implement, a comprehensive strategy to counter the Islamic State (ISIS) and the proliferation of like-minded Islamist groups. With outposts or affiliates in nine countries, ISIS now rules territory the size of Great Britain. It has staged deadly terror attacks throughout the Middle East and, more recently, in Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino. It has attracted more than 36,500 fighters from 100 nations, 6,500 of them from Western countries, according to director of national intelligence James R. Clapper. Through the Internet and thousands of daily social media posts, ISIS continues to radicalize and recruit young Muslims, even in the United States. Yet President Obama’s pledge to “degrade and destroy” ISIS through a counteroffensive remains more “rhetoric than reality,” according to former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
In congressional testimony in February, retired general Jack Keane, a key promoter of the “surge” in Iraq, warned that the military component of Obama’s ostensible strategy for defeating the Islamic State was “too timid and too late,” a widely held view within defense circles. To vanquish such a committed, resilient foe, Keane argued, Obama must not only junk his much-mocked preference for “leading from behind” but also dramatically intensify the military, political, diplomatic, and information offensive. “Throw out ‘strategic patience,’ ” Keane said, referring to the president’s view that the jihadi flame will eventually burn out. “Replace it with ‘strategic urgency.’ ”
Obama can claim partial credit for the fact that since 9/11, comparatively few Americans—45—have been killed on American soil as a result of jihadi violence, including the 14 recent victims in San Bernardino. But the number of terrorist plotters, particularly of the homegrown variety, is increasing. In his worldwide threat assessment in February, Clapper noted that the FBI arrested 15 U.S.-based ISIS supporters in 2014 and that the number had increased to 40 a year later. FBI director James Comey disclosed late last year that the bureau is pursuing 900 open terrorism cases, a huge increase over just a few years ago.
The homegrown threat was understood long before Obama took office. The New York Police Department published a groundbreaking report identifying the threat in 2007. Yet the Obama White House didn’t unveil its first strategy for “countering violent extremists” (CVE) until August 2011. Even this belated response was “disjointed and underfunded,” concluded a recent study by Lorenzo Vidino, director of George Washington University’s Project on Extremism, and Seamus Hughes, the center’s deputy director. “There has been no single person or agency responsible for coordinating federal, state and local efforts,” Vidino said.
After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the rise of ISIS in June 2014, the White House had to do more. In February 2015, it convened a high-profile summit to energize its effort, which included launching pilot programs in three cities to try different approaches to countering ISIS radicalization and recruitment. Minneapolis–St. Paul’s program focuses on addressing societal concerns; Los Angeles gives priority to community engagement; and Boston has intensified efforts to “intervene” with radicalized individuals, or “lone wolves,” who have been responsible for 74 percent of terrorist attacks in the U.S. in the past six years. But many counter-radicalization efforts at home and abroad continue to have low priority. “Once again,” Vidino says, “it’s been too little, too late.”
Though Washington has spent millions trying to prevent young American Muslims from being radicalized, “there is still no such thing as a terrorist profile,” says Hedieh Mirahmadi, president of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education, which has developed a community-led model to provide alternatives to law-enforcement intervention. Studies show that 40 percent of those arrested for ISIS-related crimes in the U.S. are converts to Islam and that a strong association exists between mental illness, social isolation, and lone-wolf terrorism (61 percent of lone-wolf terrorists had previous contact with mental health services). Still, “there is no one single factor that can predict who will become a terrorist,” Mirahmadi says. No clear standards or guidelines have been established for what behaviors Muslim clerics and counselors should report to authorities, though the vulnerable are often easy to spot, she added. Some 76 percent of post-9/11 lone-wolf terrorists broadcast their intent—often more than once—before they act.
Another challenge that Mirahmadi notes is the American Muslim community’s suspicion of de-radicalization initiatives. “While the administration created this term—’CVE’—to avoid upsetting anyone, there’s now a cottage industry devoted to attacking it as ‘code’ for attacks on Muslims.” She and other radicalization experts point out that since 9/11, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics, and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims; nonetheless, experts and administration officials need to use words like “radical Islamists” or “jihadists” to describe ISIS and other violent Muslim groups. “You need to use those terms to distinguish Boko Haram from Sovereign Citizens,” Mirahmadi says, referring to the American antigovernment group tied to several violent attacks.
Since 9/11, law enforcement has thwarted at least 16 militant Islamist attacks—12 in New York City. Vidino calls the FBI’s war against jihadism the most successful part of Obama’s strategy. “The FBI is very aggressive,” he said. “They do a good job.” The least successful part of the strategy has been creative counter-messaging. The task of constructing such narratives and intensifying the military and diplomatic elements of a counterterror strategy will fall to Obama’s successor. Gingrich thinks that the next president won’t be able to abandon the fight. As he did before 9/11, Gingrich argues that the U.S. must prepare for a war that could last 70–100 years. “We will wind up figuring out how to fight them the right way because they will not stop,” he said of ISIS and its affiliates. “They will give us no choice.”
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