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GailForce: Aspen Security Forum Part II – Terrorism

Secretary Kerry presides over meeting of anti-ISIS coalition members at NATO Headquarters in Belgium. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State

Secretary Kerry presides over meeting of anti-ISIS coalition members at NATO Headquarters in Belgium. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State

I went into this year’s Aspen Security Forum with the opinion that an effective terrorism strategy should not just be about addressing our options against Al Qaeda and/or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operations; rather, I viewed defeating these groups as a worldwide problem that requires a worldwide policy. In spite of the many critics, the Obama administration does have a robust strategy for dealing with terrorism; it just does not go far enough in forming an effective, unified global alliance against all violent extremist organizations (VEOs). What you have are separate ongoing, unconnected efforts of various nations, many with varying degrees of U.S. assistance, against groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia.

What is needed, in my opinion, is an organization much like the NATO alliance, which was formed to deal with the threat of Communism during the Cold War. This time around, however, such an alliance would be directed against VEOs. The organization would maintain a multinational standing rapid deployment force that would be dispersed when requested by a member nation. Although the U.S. government, specifically the Department of Defense, has tried to tackle this issue with varying degrees of success, I heard nothing during the forum that caused me to change my views.

Many of the speakers were asked if Al Qaeda was still a threat. Others weighed in with their opinion on whether ISIS or Al Qaeda posed a the greater threat. My takeaway was that while it has been severely degraded, Al Qaeda was still a threat, but ISIS presented what I call a more “clear and present danger” to the homeland because of the efficacy of their outreach and the potential effect of “lone wolfs.”

As I mentioned in my last blog, FBI Director James Comey considers ISIS the greater threat to the homeland. Others weren’t so sure. James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, when asked if the use of social media by ISIS made it a greater threat to the homeland than Al Qaeda replied: “Well, that’s a hard…question because it’s different; it’s threatening. To say one is of greater magnitude than the other at least for me is hard.”

Still, I think Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, summed this issue up best during his talk when he remarked:

[O]ver the last 14 years, since 9/11, we’re seen core Al Qaeda, as everybody knows, AQAP, the Al Qaeda-affiliated elements of Al Shabab, which, while I was at DoD, we were focused on in our counterterrorism efforts. We have done a lot to degrade core Al Qaeda, through our good efforts. We have done a lot to degrade AQAP and Al Shabaab through our good efforts. The global terrorist threat now, as everybody knows… has evolved, and it has evolved in a very significant way from those groups to more groups, [ISIS] being the most prominent example, obviously, and it has evolved from terrorist directed terrorist attacks to terrorist-inspired attacks.… I think that the distinction between terrorist directed and terrorist-inspired is a significant one that the American people need to understand…why we are where we are in our efforts.

And so if you catalog the terrorist attacks and attempted attacks in this country and in Europe, for example, they almost fit neatly into one of two boxes, the terrorist-directed attacks, with an operative who has been recruited, trained, directed overseas and exported to someplace else to commit a terrorist attack, to terrorist-inspired attacks, which very often, most often involve a homegrown or even homeborn threat, and the individual has never even come face to face with a member of [ISIS] or AQ, but is inspired, through the very effective use of social media, to commit an attack or attempt to commit a small-scale attack.

And I think the American people need to understand how we have evolved to this new phase, because it does involve a whole of government approach, it does involve a lot of domestic-based efforts, in addition to the good work of the FBI and in addition to taking the fight to the enemy overseas.

Since most of the terrorism discussions revolved around ISIS, that will be my focus for the rest of this blog. I’m a bottom line kind of person, so it seems fitting to start with defining what is President Obama’s ISIS strategy and the status of the threat and the challenges as described by the intelligence community. The White House was represented by Lisa Monaco, Deputy National Security Adviser and Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. Monaco stated the goal was “to degrade, defeat and ultimately, to destroy [ISIS]. But we’ve got to be very clear-eyed about this. It is going to take time.”

ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “the caliph,” has urged other groups to join them. Many VEOs around the world, such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram have responded and declared allegiance to ISIS. Monaco indicated the Obama administration was prepared to respond to this challenge by taking the fight into areas other than Iraq and Syria.

[ISIS] is undertaking an effort to establish an Islamic State, first in the heartland of Syria and Iraq. But…they’re trying to expand to at least eight provinces at this point, Libya being the most advanced and concerning in terms of sending actual operative focused on external attacks, but everywhere, from North Africa to the Caucasus. So yes, we’re absolutely concerned about their ability to find safe haven, to take root, and to attract fighters and to then extend their reach against our partners, our allies and ultimately to the homeland. And we’re going to make sure that we’re taking steps. If there is a threat posed to the United States from Libya, from one of these places, there should be no satisfaction amongst [ISIS] that they’re going to have a safe haven and that that threat won’t be addressed.

What form these efforts take or how robust they would be was unclear. The Obama administration has been pretty adamant about the boots on the ground issue.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration is working with a coalition of 62 nations to implement its strategy. Former Marine General John Allen, now the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, remarked that the coalition operated along five lines of efforts: military, counter-finance, countering flow of foreign fighters, counter-messaging, and humanitarian assistance and stabilization support. The intent of the effort is to achieve the U.S.’s strategic goals.

As for the challenges the intelligence community faces, the senior leaders present were pretty much in agreement. Clapper best summarized these challenges:

[T]he problem for us in intelligence is with the way people radicalize on their own or are radicalized via social media where they don’t leave out a signature. They don’t emit, if you will — and I mean that in a holistic sense — some attribute or trait or behavior that would lead you to begin watching them.

And so we’re lacking that. And this phenomenon of the radicalization, either on one zone or through the vehicle of social media — and I think [Comey] spoke to the challenge we have now where someone is proselyted by an [ISIS] recruiter sitting in Syria or some place, and then if there is an interest that is evoked on the part of the one being proselyted or the potential extremist, and then they’ll switch to, you know, encrypted communications that we can’t watch, we can’t warrant.

And as Jim has said, probably there are now investigations in every one of the 50 states. And this is a real worry, a real concern for us because I personally think it’s a question of time before we have more of these than we have already. And it’s a very daunting challenge for us. And so — and I think it’s illustrative of how the threat has morphed to a certain extent from, you know, industrial-size attack of the magnitude of the 9/11 in which there are or were, as we learned afterwards, signatures that could have forewarned us had we seen them.

And in this case, you don’t have those, even though there are a smaller scale, but as we’ve seen with the case of the shootings in Chattanooga, the psychological impact that has is, I think, quite profound. So it’s a serious threat.

Think I’ll end here. More to follow on terrorism, cyber and other issues discussed at the Forum in the coming days.



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