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Five Counterterrorism Strategies for the Next President


What should the next president’s counterterrorism strategy look like?

Michael Vickers is a former CIA operations officer and Green Beret and served as undersecretary of defense for intelligence from 2011 to 2015, and assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations, low intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities from 2007 to 2011.

As we transition to a new administration and perhaps a new counterterrorism strategy, we must objectively review what’s worked and what hasn’t so far in our wars against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Strategies focused on containment haven’t worked. Our pre-9/11 strategy in particular failed to prevent terrorist attacks. Attempts fix the Middle East through regime change failed to produce a politically stable Iraq or prevent the rebirth of the Islamic State. Strategically unsound limitations on the use of precision air power and the combat employment of advisers have allowed global Islamist militant groups to maintain sanctuaries and threaten U.S. interests.  And overly narrow views of the conflicts in Syria and in Yemen and insufficient pressure have allowed our adversaries to gain the upper hand.

Yet there are five counterterrorism approaches that have worked well over the past two decades. The next administration should embrace them, while adapting policy to new conditions.

  • Hardening our defenses. While by no means strategically sufficient, stronger defenses have made us safer. These include restricting travel by potential terrorists; making airliners less vulnerable to takeover; implementing improved screening at airports; and restricting items that can be brought on flights. As recent attacks in the U.S. and Europe have shown, however, there is no shortage of soft targets, and global Islamist militant groups have shifted their targeting priorities accordingly.
  • Intelligence-driven operations. Spies within terrorist organizations, debriefings of captured terrorist operatives, interception of terrorist communications and full-motion video imagery of terrorist hideouts have been the motor behind counterterrorism operations. Intelligence has placed al-Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s leaders, operatives and safe haven providers “on the X” as we say in the business for targeting by airstrikes and Special Operations raids. Aggressive foreign and domestic intelligence operations have disrupted many plots, and intelligence gained from operations has led to additional operations in a virtuous cycle. Intelligence, to be sure, has had its share of failures. But on the whole, it’s been a critical source of U.S. advantage.
  • Aggressive and sustained precision air campaigns. Precision air operations that combine high operational tempo, covert partnerships and multiple forms of combat power have been our primary tool to deny any sanctuary to and dismantle al-Qaeda, its allies and its offshoots. Heavy bombers armed with precision weapons rapidly broke the back of the Taliban in 2001. Policy changes that enhanced U.S. strike autonomy put in place by President George W. Bush in the summer of 2008 and continued by President Obama — as well as a dramatic increase in the number of drone platforms have played a critical role in bringing al-Qaeda closer to operational defeat than ever before, and have disrupted the group’s plots in the Arabian peninsula.
  • Advising and assisting local ground forces. Enabling local forces to rapidly exploit the effects of precision airstrikes has also been very effective, most notably in overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001. Allowing U.S. advisers to engage in combat alongside partner forces; developing policies that are aligned with the aims of our foreign partners; and having partners whose reach is in line with our campaign objectives have been the keys to success.
  • Leadership of a global counterterrorism network. The U.S. has been able to leverage the capabilities of multiple foreign partners to capture terrorist operatives and disrupt plots within and across national boundaries. This “global counterterrorism network” is becoming increasingly important as global Islamist militant groups shift from direct attacks to inspiring their followers to cause harm. Our Muslim partners are central to that network. Alienating them is a bad idea.

Going forward, the next administration will need a more aggressive strategy against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Our near-term aim should be to eliminate the Islamic State’s caliphate in Raqqa and to take more senior leaders off the battlefield. Hardening our defenses against the growing “lone wolf” threat will likely require additional resources for the FBI and strengthened intelligence and cooperation with our European partners.

To bring a satisfactory end to the wider proxy war engulfing the Middle East, we need a reinvigorated Syria policy that places greater pressure on the Assad regime and his Russian and Iranian backers. Completely disengaging after conflict, like we did in Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War, is something we do at our peril. But neither can we afford to get bogged down with large forces in one or two countries. Given the challenges facing the Middle East, a more distributed approach one that involves advisers, intelligence and surveillance, air support and development assistance will be required.

As was the case in the Cold War, strategies that leverage our strengths while minimizing our vulnerabilities will be needed to win our wars with terrorist organizations and bring stability to the Middle East. Knowing what’s worked and what hasn’t is a good place to start.


This article was written by Michael Vickers from The Washington Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.