Managing the Fight Against Terrorism

The US military must think in terms of managing long-term outcomes in the global war against terrorism, not decisively winning the conflict, according to security experts who testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

The US is involved in “a debilitating war of attrition” against ISIS and the remnants of al Qaeda that will not be ended with a quick, decisive military push, said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. Nonetheless, precise military operations are more important than persuasive messaging in managing the conflict well, the experts said.

Despite territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, Hoffman said that, “ISIS, alas, is here to stay,” and that the broad threat from terrorism is spreading around the world even as the ability of terrorists to successfully execute large-scale attacks has decreased. He said that 40,000 terrorists from 100 nations—including fighters from Mali, Benin, Bangladesh, and “hundreds from Latin America”—had traveled to train in Syria and Iraq with a view attempting small-scale attacks around the world. ISIS, he said, has more than doubled the number of nations in which it is “fully operational” from seven to 18. Al Qaeda also now has operations in three times more countries than it did after 9/11, Hoffman said.

Still, these terrorist activities are “not an existential threat to the Republic,” Brian Michael Jenkins, senior advisor at RAND corporation, told Congress. In this way, US counterterrorism efforts since Sept. 11, 2001, have been “very successful” in preventing another “strategic-level attack,” said Michael Sheehan, distinguished chair at the Combating Terrorism Center, at West Point. Sheehan is a former special operations officer and was Ambassador-at-Large for Counter Terrorism from 1998-2000.

Jenkins emphasized that “most recent terrorist events remain concentrated in the Middle East” and adjacent regions. “Today’s jihadists have escalated horizontally,” he said, because counter-terrorism efforts have successfully limited their ability to pull off larger attacks.

Within this security environment, “the principle threat” to the US homeland is “homegrown terrorists,” Jenkins said. Even on the level of weapons of mass destruction, Sheehan said he was most worried about “an improvised WMD” created and delivered by “an individual in the US becoming radicalized who has access to the materials.”

Such attacks would not produce mass casualties like the attacks of 9/11, Hoffman said, but they are motivated by a “strategy of provocation.” ISIS, al Qaeda, al Shabab, Boko Haram, and other organizations hope that, through small-scale attacks, they can provoke their Western adversaries to take actions that would justify the terrorists’ narrative of oppression by corrupt foreign governments.

The experts disagreed on the state of the messaging war. Sheehan believes “we are winning the war of narratives,” and he pointed to the widespread desire of refugees from nations affected by terrorism to immigrate to the US. Hoffman, however, asserted that the surge of “nativism and populism” in European and American politics is a sign that the “strategy of provocation is succeeding.”

All three experts agreed that a strategy of targeted military intervention is crucial to American efforts against counter-terrorism. Full-scale invasions of countries “obviously doesn’t work,” as Hoffman put it. But the panel was also skeptical that soft campaigns of social media “counter-messaging” have had any discernable impact. The middle ground strategy would be military action with “a precise mission, achievable within a limited amount of time,” Jenkins said. In retrospect, Hoffman said, “taking down Mosul sooner than two years” after ISIS established its headquarters there would have been the most effective means of weakening that terrorist organization.

Sheehan offered the example of French interventions in Mali: “get in and get out, leave a small footprint, turn it over to the UN and local government as soon as possible.” Instead of approaching operations against terrorism as a war that can be decisively won, Jenkins said, the US must “manage this for the long term.” Crucial in this process, he said, is sustaining the “readiness and political will” of the military and the US public, “so that we don’t exhaust ourselves as our opponents want us to do.”