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GailForce: Nobody Asked Me But Here’s One Proposed Terrorism Strategy

Do we need a NATO for VEOs? Photo Credit: Cherie Cullen, DoD

Do we need a NATO for VEOs? Photo Credit: Cherie Cullen, DoD

My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. —President John F. Kennedy 

Last week, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for two major attacks in the Middle East. The first the attack was against two Shia Mosques in Yemen that killed 137 people and wounded another 280; the second attack was at a museum in Tunisia and killed another 20 people.  Coupled with terrorist attacks by ISIS and Al Qaeda and their affiliates and allies in Denmark, Canada, Australia, France, Egypt, Somalia, Nigeria, Chad and Kenya, to name just a few, reinforces my view that it is not just about our Iraq or Syria policies. This is a worldwide problem that requires a worldwide solution.  In spite of the many critics, the Obama administration does have a very robust strategy for dealing with this issue; I just don’t think it goes far enough in forming an effective global alliance against violent extremist organizations (VEOs). What is needed is an organization much like the NATO alliance formed to deal with Communism during the Cold War, but directed against VEOs.

What is the scope of the problem?  I find it useful to go straight to the source — the analysis and estimates of the intelligence community and the military commanders tasked with dealing with the issue. Each year, the intelligence community puts out an annual threat assessment and present its to Congress. Concerning the terrorism threat, this year’s report stated:

“Sunni violent extremists are gaining momentum and the number of Sunni violent extremist groups, members, and safe havens is greater than at any other point in history. These groups challenge local and regional governance and threaten US allies, partners, and interests. The threat to key US allies and partners will probably increase, but the extent of the increase will depend on the level of success that Sunni violent extremists achieve in seizing and holding territory, whether or not attacks on local regimes and calls for retaliation against the West are accepted by their key audiences, and the durability of the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria.”

I found their comments concerning the Islamic State’s goals particularly interesting and disturbing.  The reported stated the following:

“ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi outlined the group’s ambitious external goals, including the expansion of the caliphate into the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa and attacks against Western, regional, and Shia interests, according to a public statement in November 2014.”

United States Central Command (CENTCOM), the military command charged with responsibility for much of the region where the terrorist groups operate had this assessment posted on their website:

“In recent years, VEOs have increasingly exploited ungoverned or under-governed spaces in USCENTCOM’s AOR. The extremists’ use of these areas threatens regional security, as well as U.S. core national interests. They are able to plan and launch attacks, undermine local governments, and exercise malign influence from these spaces. At the same time, VEOs and other militant proxies continue to exploit security vacuums in countries experiencing political transitions and unrest, namely Iraq and Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon. Chronic instability, disenfranchised populations, and weak regional governments provide new footholds for a resilient and expanding global jihadist movement and an ideal environment for Iran and its allies to aggressively undermine U.S. regional goals.”

United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) analysis of the VEO situation in their region can be found on their webpage. It states:

“Terrorist, insurgent, and criminal groups exploit corruption, regional instability, and popular grievances to mobilize people and resources, expand their networks, and establish safe havens. The nexus between crime and terror is growing on the continent as terrorists and criminals increasingly utilize the same illicit pathways to move people, money, weapons, and other resources. The network of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents continues to exploit Africa’s under-governed regions and porous borders to train and conduct attacks. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is expanding its presence in North Africa. Terrorists with allegiances to multiple groups are expanding their collaboration in recruitment, financing, training, and operations, both within Africa and transregionally. Violent extremist organizations are utilizing increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices, and casualties from these weapons in Africa increased by approximately 40 percent in 2014. These groups have also successfully adapted to the internet and social media, and leverage these tools to generate funds, recruit followers, and spread their ideology to the United States and around the world.

In East Africa, al-Shabaab remains the primary security threat to U.S. interests, despite progress by regional partners in liberating parts of southern and central Somalia from the group’s control…In North and West Africa, Libyan and Nigerian insecurity increasingly threaten U.S. interests. In spite of multinational security efforts, terrorist and criminal networks are gaining strength and interoperability. Al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Murabitun, Boko Haram, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other violent extremist organizations are exploiting weak governance, corrupt leadership, and porous borders across the Sahel and Maghreb to train and move fighters and distribute resources.”

So what is the current U.S. strategy?  President Obama and his security team have taken a lot of criticism concerning whether they do or do not have a strategy for dealing with the crises in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc. His administration actually has a very robust and well defined strategy. The best breakdown on what this strategy actually entails in my opinion was one given by Dr. Mike Vickers, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Department of Defense at last year’s Aspen Security Forum. I’ve blogged about this before but here are some of his key points:

  • There were two basic methods indirect, working with international partners to enable them in capturing terrorists. It spans the gambit from helping the French in Mali to working with individual host countries. The Pakistanis and Yemenis have done very important work in this regard.
  • Our preference is to always use this indirect route and work with our partners because of the distributed nature of the threat but that isn’t always possible. It depends on whether they are capable and willing. We have capacity building programs at State Department, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community.
  • Direct action involves our special operations forces — i.e., the Bin Laden raid, recent capture operations in Libya, and Predator strikes.

It seems to me that this approach is not enough when the threat consists of VEOs that form alliances with like-minded groups around the globe and are not only able to seize and hold territory but have stated goals of further territorial expansion.

The problem as I see it is the current strategy does not present a unified and coherent focus against the entire faction of VEOs. What you have are a number of separate efforts sometimes coordinated with other countries and sometimes not by different actors such as Egyptian air strikes against VEOs in Libya, Iranian supported groups in Iraq, French efforts in Mali, troops from Chad and Niger, assisting Nigerian troops in the fight against Boko Haram.

Additionally, a major component of defeating VEOs that have control of a geographic region requires well trained ground troops. I’m a sailor by training, but it seems that providing air support and military advisers isn’t the best way to go about dealing with the situation especially if the available ground forces capabilities are not the best. Even though the Iraqi Army received some of the best training and equipment in the world, they still collapsed when confronted with ISIS last year.

As I stated up front, I envision the formulation of a new organization made up of all the nations of the world that are dealing with VEOs. The foundation would include a premise similar to NATO’s Article 5, an attack by a VEO against one nation is an attack against all.  It would have a standing rapid deployment force consisting of ground, air and sea forces with personnel from all of the nations as well as an internationally manned and focused intelligence organization to support it and keep track and hopefully ahead of the threat. The military force would only be used if a member nation requested assistance.

NATO provides a good model for this new organization as does the ongoing multi-national naval effort against Somali Pirates. Established in 2009, Naval Forces Central Command’s Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151) is a multi-national force that operates under United Nations Mandates. Command is rotated among participatory nations on a three- to six-month basis.

I understand the conflict with the VEOs is not just a military problem.  Neither was the Cold War.  The failure of the Soviet Economy played a major role in ending the Cold War.  Social messaging was also important.  In The Art of War, Sun Tzu said one of the things you needed to do in order to win is remove your enemy’s hope for victory. I can’t help but wonder if there had been a standing international organization that would have been able to respond rapidly to Boko Haram when they kidnapped those 200 school girls would many of them have been still missing if there had been a quick, competent military response by a well-trained international force?

Think I’ll end here. As always my thoughts are my own.



Gail Harris
Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on

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