Trump’s administration should take note of these counterterrorism principles
By Martha Crenshaw, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
In this series, FSI experts share their recommendations for President Donald Trump.
Jihadist terrorism will remain a top national security issue during President Trump’s administration. Three general principles can inform the policy debate over what the United States should do to combat terrorism in the new administration:
- There are no simple solutions to complex problems.
- Even if there were a national consensus on what it might take to end terrorism, carrying out the necessary measures is not always within the power of the United States.
- Dealing with terrorism is as much a matter of emotions as logic and calculations of interest.
Contemporary terrorism is an extraordinarily complex problem with both local and transnational dimensions. On one level, the actors behind it are individuals with a variety of motivations who act alone in answer to an appeal for violence from jihadist organizations. On the highest level of structure, terrorism is directed by concrete organizations like ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) who deploy operatives both in local conflict theatres and globally. Between the two extremes are small groups linked by kinship and friendship and only loosely connected to a center.
Different organizations interact with each other in constantly changing patterns of cooperation and rivalry. There is no uniform motivation: some terrorists are motivated by ideological or religious belief, while others seek revenge, adventure, action, or profit. Jihadist terrorism reflects both local grievances and transnational ambitions of conquest and empire, the defense of a worldwide Muslim community, and the defeat of powerful enemy states. Military action might defeat ISIS on the ground in Syria or Iraq and disrupt jihadist organizations around the world by removing key leaders, but it cannot eliminate shadowy conspiracies or block individuals or pairs of individuals (brothers in Boston, a married couple in San Bernardino, a truck driver in Nice) who are independently inspired to act. The Obama Administration emphasized “CVE,” countering violent extremism by preventing individual radicalization, as well as the use of military force to remove jihadist leaders and drive them from their strongholds in the Middle East. However, the effectiveness of these measures is difficult to estimate — in fact it is hard to demonstrate success in counterterrorism.
The second point to stress is that the U.S. government cannot control the overall response to terrorism. There are limits to what even a superpower can do when terrorism is rooted outside the scope of its authority or when terrorism comes from disgruntled individuals already inside the country who act erratically. Most experts agree that if the Iraqi government were more inclusive of the Sunni minority there would be less support for ISIS, but the United States cannot make the Iraqi government take the path of political reform and power-sharing. Corruption and economic mismanagement contribute to the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, but again the United States can only try to persuade or admonish.
The United States cannot create a well-governed state in failed states such as Somalia or Libya, where jihadists and their affiliates take hold. The United States can assist non-jihadist rebels (or those we think are “moderate”) in Syria, but it cannot end the civil war there, or in Yemen, even though both wars contribute to terrorism. Even governments dependent on extensive American assistance resist pressure to change, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is impossible to block terrorist use of social media, which provides potent propaganda and recruitment tools. Encrypted communications on cell phones permit plotting and planning. We are by no means helpless but we are not omnipotent.
The last critical point looking forward is that emotions are at the center of the power of terrorism. The fear it causes in audiences extends far beyond its physical effect. Thus the political consequences of terrorism are often out of proportion to the amount of effort and resources required to conduct such violence. Commentators are fond of quoting statistics that show that Americans are far more likely to be killed or injured by all sorts of other sources of harm — traffic accidents, bathtub falls, or lightning strikes, for example. The majority of victims of jihadist terrorism are Muslims living far from the United States, but Americans feel that they are on the front line. On the other side of the equation, there is no doubt that anger and a desire for revenge motivate some individuals to engage in terrorism and others to support or condone their actions.
And we must remember that terrorism is often intended to provoke overreaction. This risk is an emotional trap that American policy makers should avoid, not only because over-reaction feeds the anger that justifies terrorism but also because overreaction undermines our legitimacy. Banning immigrants from a partial list of majority Muslim countries as well as refugees from Syria, with no evidence of their involvement in attacks on the U.S. homeland, is a case in point. Such moves support the narrative that jihadists promote in order to recruit followers. It is also extremely difficult to undo the consequences of sweeping counterterrorism measures that are hastily adopted in moments of crisis or excessive zeal, even if those responses become counterproductive and ill-adapted to a changing terrorist threat.