U.S. soldiers of the 21st Infantry Regiment rehearse in the Philippines as part of 2018's Exercise Balikatan.

U.S. soldiers of the 21st Infantry Regiment rehearse in the Philippines as part of 2018's Exercise Balikatan. U.S. Army / Staff Sgt. David Beckstrom

Counterterrorism in the Era of Great-Power Competition

A former Trump administration counterterrorism leader explains what’s changed since Obama, and what ought to come next.

Debate is bubbling about whether the United States remains too focused on counterterrorism when the Trump administration has set priority on “global power competition” with China and Russia, not to mention other threats we expect to face. But like it or not, counterterrorism continues to function as a post-9/11 policy currency of sorts. It was exceedingly relevant to every foreign visitor and overseas partner I met while serving in the Trump White House. And still, while some critics have suggested that a heavy priority on counterterrorism “warps U.S. foreign policy,” I remain concerned instead about the opposite: an overcorrection, in which short-term haste to pivot U.S. attention and resources may lead to long-term setbacks for our counterterrorism goals.

Counterterrorism priorities defined the early months of the new administration — not by choice, but by circumstance. From day one, the National Security Council staff counterterrorism policy team had to address a palpable threat stream directed at commercial aviation and make policy recommendations for a pressing counterterrorism operation directed at al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in Yemen, all done while accelerating its “Defeat ISIS” campaign. Counterterrorism professionals on the NSC staff understood that terrorism posed a serious but not existential threat to the United States, despite ISIS apocalypticism and its Zeitgeist. Accordingly, the counterterrorism team sensibly and carefully worked on its policy priorities, including recovering American hostages held abroad. 

By early spring 2017, a steady approach to counterterrorism was coming into better focus inside the NSC. The Trump administration benefited from a remarkable continuity from the Obama administration, a staying arc that kept the nation safe from attacks anywhere near the scale of 9/11, and the media generally characterized the new administration’s approach as a continuation of an “Obama-era strategy” to avoid large-scale troop deployments. But we did not carry over from Obama how NSC decisions to use force were made. Trump’s national security team was committed to handling a more strategic focus for the White House, while tactical decision-making on the military aspects of counterterrorism was left to the Pentagon. As a consequence, the counterterrorism policy work in the Trump administration was more streamlined. John Bolton, now Trump’s national security advisor, said in 2017 that Obama policy sluggishness allowed Iran and its surrogates to fill a vacuum in Syria, which was a significant defect in its strategy. 

The Trump administration underwent its first year’s counterterrorism work quietly, found its footing, and allowed the president to rightfully claim at the State of the Union address in January 2018 that ISIS suffered substantial territorial loss to its physical caliphate. The contours of new counterterrorism policies were operationalized and tested. And anxious policy watchers waiting for the publication of a formal strategy were not disappointed when a lucid and sensible National Strategy for Counterterrorism emerged — eventually — in October 2018.

The U.S. public may care little about the internal machinery of the National Security Council staff. But it’s worth noting that counterterrorism was front and center for the new Trump administration, which inherited a fairly well-disciplined Obama policy process in terms of counterterrorism decision-making. 

Unfortunately, what also has continued from one White House to the next is an overreliance on heavy-handed militarized solutions to terrorism. Long-term solutions must do more to encompass non-military elements that promote political resolution to long-simmering conflicts. But no administration, or Congress, since 9/11 has adopted sound policy prescriptions that satisfactorily address the root causes that drive jihadist movements. So, unflinchingly the Trump administration prioritized its first year’s counterterrorism work and kept on fighting ISIS in its physical caliphate. Contesting and denying ISIS their caliphate attacked the very heart of a moribund ideological message. The jihadists ‘Golden Dream’ faded. But the movement lives. 

The Trump administration is still faced with serious questions about the future threat from ISIS in Syria and Iraq, not to mention the many other locations around the globe to which the group has spread. On Easter Sunday this week in Sri Lanka, suicide bombers killed more than 300 people at a half dozen churches and luxury hotels. Men affiliating themselves with ISIS and pledging allegiance to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed responsibility for the attack.

A resurgent al-Qa’ida looms large, too. The ISIS movement is resilient — jihadists will go underground, and former ISIS adherents will just rebrand themselves and cohere ideologically with another group of fighters. What seems to have changed, in short, is not just a question of the loss of a ‘physical caliphate’ so much as considering what an ISIS ‘comeback’ will look like as it tries to reconstitute itself. 

Reflecting on all of this, U.S. policymakers should be better armed to think about long-term strategic oppositional movements and working with reliable foreign partners to counter ISIS overseas. Perhaps most challenging, terrorist online radicalization and recruitment must be countered by promoting credible voices on religious tolerance and the futility of change through political violence.

Even those constant critics of forever wars and U.S. counterterrorism policy should know that we who have served as U.S. counterterrorism officials agree that policy work should not disproportionately distract from other serious national security threats to the United States. And it does not. But that’s exactly the point: for more than two years the Trump administration has thoughtfully rebalanced U.S. policy priorities.

Counterterrorism policy never was disproportionally treated above other priorities during my year at the NSC. The counterterrorism enterprise is largely bipartisan and professionalized, including the U.S. intelligence community and our important work with foreign security and intelligence services. It has served the American public very well since 9/11, and should continue unfettered. 

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