December 1, 2016 | Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

The Future of Counter-Terrorism Strategy

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The nature of the global terrorist threat today is more geographically dispersed, adaptive, and strategically relevant than ever before. Terrorist attacks appear to be quickening and intensifying around the globe, and the perception of a worldwide metastasizing threat is increasing.

Terrorist groups continue to learn from each other – with demonstration effects of attacks, methodologies, and messaging echoing instantaneously around the world. These groups and their adherents adapt quickly to pressure and opportunity, leveraging elements of globalization and modern communication while exploiting seams in security along with weaknesses in governance to their full advantage.

These groups also take advantage of and exacerbate dislocation, conflict, and sectarianism to fuel their agendas, fill their coffers, and gain footholds and adherents. In the context of broader dislocations and national anxieties, terrorist attacks and messaging take on more strategic relevance. Even a series of smaller-scale attacks could have broad social effects and political impact that affect the trajectory of nations and societies.

The rise and reach of ISIS has driven much of the adaptation we have witnessed in the global terrorist landscape over the past few years. The emergence of ISIS outpaced expectations and surprised most authorities and terrorism analysts. With the announcement of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria and the taking of Mosul and other major cities, ISIS sought to redraw the map of the Middle East, threaten the West, establish provinces (“wilayats”) and terrorist alliances, and inspire attacks well beyond the Middle East. ISIS has perpetrated serious attacks in Europe, Beirut, Istanbul, Egypt, Bangladesh, and the Gulf countries, and its affiliates and aspirant supporters have attacked far afield in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Indonesia, San Bernardino, and Orlando.

Likewise, al Qaida affiliates have continued to perpetrate terrorist attacks from West Africa to Yemen, with members perpetrating the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. Al Qaida is now smartly rebranding itself in key conflicts and war zones, such as in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and attempting to reemerge again as part of the legitimate local landscape.

Though ISIS and al Qaida have been in strategic competition and in direct conflict in certain arenas like Syria, they form part of a broader violent Islamic extremist movement that can find common cause, leverage each others’ networks, and reflag quickly to adapt to opportunities in the environment. We have seen this in the shift in allegiances declared from al Qaida to ISIS by Boko Haram in West Africa, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Central Asia, and Taleban and al Qaida members in Afghanistan. Though competition still exists, cooperation could accelerate in certain contexts, especially in the face of increasing Shia and Iranian pressure and proxy battles.

All the while, these violent Islamic extremist organizations have occupied territory – creating a terrorist archipelago encompassing not just the deserts, jungles, and mountains of past safe havens but urban and resource-rich environments. This has allowed both ISIS and al Qaida to exploit civilian populations and to develop local and regional war economies. It has allowed ISIS in particular to leverage the establishment of the caliphate as its demonstration that it can govern an Islamic state and to animate the global terrorist movement in support of its cause. This has revived and connected pre-existing jihadi networks from Southeast Asia to the streets of Europe.

Dangerously, failing to understand and anticipate ISIS’ intent and capabilities – and the shifting terrorist landscape — has led to some misguided assumptions that have now been shattered in the wake of a series of serious attacks, particularly following the Paris and Brussels attacks. As part of its broader strategy of establishing the caliphate, ISIS is purposefully confronting the West. While creating its caliphate and expanding its provinces to places like Libya and Yemen, ISIS has been planning to strike the West, using Western operatives flowing into the conflict zone by the thousands, and is openly attempting to inspire singular attacks by sympathetic radicals in Western societies. It has built these capabilities over time and taken advantage of intelligence and security gaps to implant operatives in Europe. This is a strategy not triggered by provocation or weakness, but rather is a deliberate part of ISIS’ planning.

European authorities have come to grips with the realization that ISIS is targeting the heart of Europe with dozens of operatives. Ongoing raids, arrests, and disruption of plots continue throughout the continent.

This should not have come as a surprise to those watching ISIS erase the border between Iraq and Syria, occupy major cities in the Middle East, and take advantage of the safe haven it has established and of the foreign fighters flowing in and out of the region.

Indeed, with the thousands of foreign fighters traveling to terrorist-controlled territory and others animated by the allure and narrative of a historic and heroic caliphate battling infidel forces, ISIS and al Qaida can more easily mobilize attacks against the West. France and Belgium have been particularly vulnerable given the role and importance of Francophone terrorist networks embedded in pockets of radicalization like Molenbeek in Brussels. But they are not alone. The rest of Europe is vulnerable, and the United States is at risk for acts of terror resembling what occurred in San Bernardino, Orlando, or from more organized attacks by foreign fighters or sympathizers.

The United States does not face the same kind of threats from ISIS and al Qaida that Europe does, but the threat remains real – for U.S. citizens and interests abroad and for the Homeland.

Recent terrorist attacks inspired by ISIS and violent Islamic extremism in Orlando; San Bernardino; Garland, Texas; Brooklyn; Chattanooga; and Philadelphia reflect an environment in which radicalized or deranged individuals are willing to attack fellow citizens on behalf of a foreign terrorist organization or its brand. The case this past week of the Somali refugee who attacked fellow students at Ohio State University by running them over and stabbing them may be another example of this kind of threat. Terrorism-related prosecutions brought by the U.S. Department of Justice over the past few years demonstrate a fairly consistent, yet small number of cases of radicalized individuals willing to support ISIS and al Qaida as well as plan attacks.

There have been small pockets of radicalization that have emerged, for example in the Somali-American community which has seen young members of its community travel to Somalia to fight with al Shabaab and more recently to fight in Iraq and Syria. ISIS and al Qaida have continued to target Americans – including young women – specifically for recruitment, including by using targeted social media and peer-to-peer communications to identify, isolate, and mobilize operatives in the United States.

The FBI Director has stated that there are open “homegrown violent extremist investigations” in all fifty states. The diversity and volume of cases fueled by the ideology of ISIS and al Qaida have challenged U.S. counter-terrorism capabilities to identify, monitor, and determine the seriousness and priority of each case.

It is important that we examine and understand the threat soberly. ISIS, al Qaida, and like-minded groups are neither omnipotent nor comprised of ten-foot giants. They have not been able to mobilize large percentages of susceptible Muslims to violence, and the communities impacted by their brutality have largely rejected their message.

But they have rallied thousands to their cause, perpetrated some of the worst brutalities of the 21st century, and caused major disruptions and dislocation in an Arc of Instability from Central Asia to West Africa. Their rapid and devious adaptations – in attack methodologies, messaging, recruitment, financing, and governance – are dangerous and cannot be ignored or discounted. ISIS’ use of chemical weapons, establishment of a chemical weapons unit, and surveillance of Belgian nuclear infrastructure and personnel raise the specter of a group intent on using weapons of mass destruction.

The blind spots in our intelligence have only heightened concerns of what we are not seeing or hearing regarding terrorist plans. And these groups remain intent and capable of striking the West in strategically impactful ways.