TSG IntelBrief: Trump’s Counterterrorism Challenge
January 25, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• While the Trump administration has already begun to demonstrate its commitment to instituting sweeping changes in various areas of U.S. policy, basic counterterrorism strategies are unlikely to see significant change.
• Tenets of the current approach—such as training and equipping partner forces, sharing intelligence, and the use of drone strikes and special operations raids—will likely continue to some degree.
• While these approaches often yield tangible short-term results, they fail to address longer-term issues that underline current global conflicts in which extremist groups flourish.
• Measures such as limiting refugees from conflict zones will not curb terrorism; the numerous factors that drive the persistence of extremist sanctuaries across the world far exceed the narrow scope of current counterterrorism strategies.
Amidst indications of significant changes in both foreign and domestic policies under the Trump administration, one high-profile set of policies may prove durable despite recent rhetoric—if for no other reason than a lack of credible alternatives. Though there have been some variations, the array of counterterrorism strategies and tactics employed by post-9/11 U.S. presidential administrations has remained relatively consistent. Indeed, there have been noticeable technical advancements in counterterrorism intelligence collection and the civilian prosecution of terror suspects. Nonetheless, the triad approach of enhancing partner nation capabilities, sharing intelligence, and the combined use of targeted drone strikes and special operations raids remains the foundation of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
The former U.S. counterterrorism strategy of ‘sanctuary denial’ has long since fallen out of favor given its demonstrated failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and now Syria. The original post-9/11 approach was to never again allow terror groups the time or space to train and plot; only by keeping terrorists off balance with drone strikes and enhancing local capabilities could the U.S. and its Western allies prevent complicated foreign terror plots. However, the realities posed by persistent conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere ensured the continued existence of extremist havens, and led to an unacknowledged shift from ‘sanctuary denial’ to ‘sanctuary management’. This approach tacitly conceded that the most realistic outcome the U.S. could achieve was to contain terror threats from metastasizing beyond the borders of specific countries or regions. As seen most recently in Syria, however, the reduced expectations of ‘sanctuary management’ have also failed, with the threat posed by groups such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda now emanating far beyond the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
While there have been many advances in certain facets of counterterrorism approaches—such as signals intelligence collection, unmanned aerial surveillance, and drone strike capabilities—the scope of conflicts in Syria and elsewhere overwhelms even the most robust counterterrorism strategies. While combating terror groups operating in warzones poses its own difficulties, improving conditions on the ground substantially enough to enable a stable central government to fill the political vacuum is a challenge of an entirely different order.
The shortcomings in current approaches are not so much a function of poor counterterrorism policies, but rather stem largely from broader failures of current international conflict resolution strategies. Due to the inability of international conflict resolution efforts to curb present civil conflicts, counterterrorism strategies—not designed to be more than just that—have been thrown at massive issues that they cannot possibly address. From efforts to achieve ceasefires amongst numerous non-state actors with varying end goals, to rebuilding decimated infrastructure, to improving horrendous governance, the scale of today’s persistent civil conflicts defy the set of tools designed to deny terror groups the ability to launch attacks against the U.S. or its allies.
The new U.S. administration will likely embrace different angles of the existing counterterrorism framework than the previous administration, but the available options remain relatively limited. Preventing terror groups from growing and radiating out from Syria—or any country in similar free fall—is beyond the scope of any counterterrorism strategy. While shifts in cooperation with other countries over joint airstrikes or targeting may yield some results, such efforts will still fail to address the true underlying factors that allow extremist groups to exist in places such as Syria and Iraq.
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