Foreign Policy Blogs

Terrorists Attacks at Home & Abroad, Police Officers Shot Down in Dallas – Why Is Anyone Surprised?

Police officers direct family members away from the attack at Pulse early Sunday morning. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Police officers direct family members away from the attack at Pulse early Sunday morning. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” –Winston Churchill

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” –Martin Luther King

Like many, I’ve been horrified and saddened by recent terrorist attacks across the globe either inspired by or directed by ISIS. I was also angered and frustrated to awake to news of 5 policemen in Dallas being killed and 7 more wounded; but I was not surprised by any of these events. Why? I believe those events are symptoms of larger problems that need to be addressed.

I think there are two main issues. First there is a lack of understanding by many in the general public and the main stream media on the scope of both problems. Concerning terrorism, the battleground is not just in Iraq or Syria. We are engaged in a worldwide war against violent extremist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda and their affiliates. As one recent article reported:

“In 2014 the total number of deaths from terrorism increased by 80% when compared to the prior year. This is the largest yearly increase in the last 15 years. Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been over a nine-fold increase in the number of deaths from terrorism, rising from 3,329 in 2000 to 32,658 in 2014. Yet terrorism remains highly concentrated with most of the activity occurring in just five countries—Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. These countries accounted for 78% of the lives lost in 2014.”

These countries might account for the highest number of casualties but the terrorists have shown they can and will attack anywhere on the globe. They can bring down aircraft, they can attack heavily defended airports, shoot up popular night spots, etc. They use the internet and social media as their command and control and to inspire “lone wolfs” to act on their behalf.

High ranking members of the intelligence community have been publically sounding the alarm for quite some time in congressional testimonies, speeches before various groups, etc. As recently as February of this year while testifying before Congress James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence stated:

“US-based homegrown violent extremist (HVEs) will probably continue to pose the most significant Sunni terrorist threat to The US homeland in 2016. The perceived success of attacks by HVEs in Europe and North America, such as those in Chattanooga and San Bernardino, might motivate Others to replicate opportunistic attacks with little or no warning, diminishing our ability to detect terrorist operational planning and readiness. ISIL involvement in homeland attack activity will probably continue to involve those who draw inspiration from the group’s highly sophisticated media without direct guidance from ISIL leadership and individuals in the United States or abroad who receive direct guidance and specific direction from ISIL members or leaders.”

Recent reporting indicates coalition forces have recovered 47% of ISIS held territory in Iraq and 20% in Syria; but intelligence officials warned that because they were losing on the battle field ISIS might step up terrorist activity in other regions. Testifying before Congress in the aftermath of the Orlando attack, CIA Director, John Brennan, spoke on this theme. Key statements from his testimony are:

“Unfortunately, despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.

Moreover, the group’s foreign branches and global networks can help preserve its capacity for terrorism regardless of events in Iraq and Syria. In fact, as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.

Further, as we have seen in Orlando, San Bernardino, and elsewhere, ISIL is attempting to inspire attacks by sympathizers who have no direct links to the group. Last month, for example, a senior ISIL figure publicly urged the group’s followers to
conduct attacks in their home countries if they were unable to travel to Syria and Iraq.”

In spite of warnings by Clapper’s and other senior government national security officials, it didn’t seem to come up on the radar of much of the public. There was also not much reporting of it in the mainstream media until the recent attacks. Why is this important? One of the many lessons learned from Vietnam was the United States cannot win a war without public support. The above Winston Churchill quote to me represents a time when the tide really turned in the war against Hitler. Britain and its European allies had attempted to appease Germany in order to prevent another World War.

It was a noble cause, 9 Million died during WWI a number twice that of previous 500 years of history in a space of just 4 years. For instance, during the Battle of the Somme, which lasted almost five months in 1916, the Allies lost 620,000 French and British troops, and advanced just 5 miles. At the time of Churchill’s words Britain stood alone but instead of surrendering, he inspired his nation to stand tall against evil. They supported him because they understood the magnitude of the threat Hitler posed and even more importantly Churchill understood the need to rally and unify the public behind him.

Without the full support and understanding of the public there will be continued gridlock and delay in establishing new rules and regulations on things like internet use and privacy. If the public gets on board then just maybe that will force Congress to end gridlock, at least on the terrorism issue and come up with solutions. For instance, and I’m only asking and not proposing, if it’s against the law to view and store child porn on your home computer why is it not against the law to knowingly communicate with known terrorist groups on your computer or telephone? Concerning encryption, is there not a solution that protects the privacy of innocent folks just wanting to protect their passwords, online banking etc. but allow the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to still track terrorists when they go “dark”? Until there is a sense of urgency issues like these and others will not be solved.

The second main issue I see that needs to be addressed is in the area of empathy and understanding of people who come from a different culture and/or have different experiences than you. A few months ago I found myself sharing a table at lunch with a group of very distinguished and well known current and former defense, intelligence, and law enforcement individuals. I don’t remember why but the conversation ventured into the white cops shooting blacks topic. I mentioned that I had been pulled over by the police so many times in my life that I had lost count. I added that only in a couple of instances did they give me a ticket for wrong doing. After noticing the shocked expressions on all of their faces, I remarked that it hadn’t been too bad in fact after one encounter, the policeman who’d pulled me over asked me out for what became one of the best dates of my life. They look relieved and laughed.

Later I reflected on the incidents. My comments were true and I wondered why they were surprised that apparently an African American female who was accomplished enough to be at the same event they were could have had to endure those experiences. Did they think that only African American and Hispanic criminals have problems with law enforcement? Did they believe that all of the complaints were false or the people were lying?

I have law enforcement officials in my family and I believe the majority of individuals in that community are doing the best they can in a challenging environment but; its been well documented that African Americans, Hispanics, and other people of color have more negative experiences with law enforcement officers than other groups. That is why I included the Martin Luther King quote at the beginning of this blog. Unjust experiences against an individual or a group can lead to unexpected and/or unintended situations where innocent people are hurt.

Listening to some comments made by some individuals in the aftermath of the Dallas shooting, some are saying it’s the fault of the Black Lives Matter movement. Might I remind folks that movement came about as a result of perceived abuses by the police. When I reached the point in my career that I became part of “senior management”, I learned the hard way that perception by an individual or group of people of a problem is a reality for them. Even if I thought the issue was not important or stupid I needed to look into it and address it. The bottom line if it was perceived as a major problem for them then it became a problem for me. If I failed to address it there were repercussions that I didn’t like and could have avoided if I had only addressed it.

I grew up in New Jersey but spent summers in Alabama. This was during the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Not being able to use public restrooms, drink from water fountains, eat in restaurants, or be able go into the concession stand in movie theaters to buy refreshments is something I experienced not read about in history books. The Alabama experiences were in stark contrast to the overall positive experiences I had in my life in New Jersey.

I’ve long felt that the role of the media in shining a flash light on these and other horrific experiences of African Americans in the south played a major role in ending those human rights abuses. Now social media, average citizens filming and posting on the internet actual encounters between the public and the police is playing a major role in highlighting that some law enforcement officers are stepping over the line and away from their serve and protect role.

To those who say there are no racist police, here’s a story told to me from a good friend who happens to be white of experiences she had while visiting close family members who worked for the police in a major east coast metropolitan area. She gave me permission to use it in this blog. She says on many occasions her relatives hosted office parties while she was in town. She said based on the comments and attitudes of the police officers attending she thought she was attending a KKK rally. One story stands out for me. She says an African American police officer stopped by one of the parties in uniform for a short while. He had to work but just wanted to grab a quick bite and say hello. When he arrived, his host’s 7 year old son had taken his hat for him. As he was leaving he asked the young man for his hat back, the 7 year old replied: “I’m not giving a hat to a “N…..r”. My friend said no one took the young man to task. She went and found the man’s hat, and he graciously made a joke and left for work.

I honestly believe there are just a few bad apples but the police need to police their own. This is a free country and you can think what you want but if it affects the way you conduct yourself at work this is a problem. Many times during my government career I was chosen by the powers that be to be the first woman assigned to an outfit. I asked “Why me and not someone else?” They responded: “Gail because you like men.” I replied, “Huh?” They explained it was no reflection on my morals but simply the first woman would be breaking barriers and would face a lot of resistance and resentment.

For the first they didn’t want to send someone with strong political views and who would make a lot of waves complaining and filing equal opportunity complaints left and right. They reminded me of the famous encounter between Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson when Rickey told Robinson he didn’t want him to respond to the insults and racism he’d have to endure as the first African American Big League baseball player:

Jackie Robinson: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?
Branch Rickey: No. I want a player who’s got the guts *not* to fight back.
Jackie Robinson: You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts.

My role as the first woman was to perform my job well and break down barriers by proving the doubters wrong. If I had an attitude that all the men I would encounter were bad people because they didn’t believe women belonged in the military and/or the work place I would have been ineffective. If you are an individual that dislikes a particular ethnic group and you have to encounter large numbers of that group in the course of your job I don’t see how you can in good conscience do the job.

What has this got to do with terrorism? One of the hottest discussions going on in national security circles is how do you counter the narrative that ISIS is putting out over social media that is attracting homegrown violent extremists. I believe it starts in understanding why would anyone living in a country like the US, France, Belgium, etc. be attracted to violent extremism in the first place? You have to understand and try to see the world through their eyes. Do they feel disenfranchised? Do they feel discriminated against because they speak the country’s language with an accent? Do they feel discriminated against because of their faith?

You also have to message in a way they understand or you won’t be effective. There’s much more but I’ll end by saying in spite of the challenges we’ve faced in the past and will face in the future; the United States is the greatest country in the world; a country where dreams are for everyone and not just a particular group or class. My professional and personal journey is a living testament to that. The challenge is staying true to our values and getting the word out to those who for whatever reason don’t feel that way.

As always, my views are my own.



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