The United States should continue to pursue terrorists and fight terrorism like we are now fighting the coronavirus: relentlessly, creatively, and coherently. There’s no miracle drug for stopping terrorism. The best offense for the terrorist contagion is to continue the aggressive treatment that has inoculated the United States from a major terrorist attack since 9/11. Counterterrorism policy prescriptions must be complemented by capable foreign partners and sound operational work overseas — meaning gritty intelligence collection, surveillance, special operations, and especially the surgical targeting of terrorists.
Watching the ongoing global pandemic play out is a piercing reminder of a common conceptual metaphor — the one that says terrorism is like a serious disease, controllable but not curable. That’s worth remembering.
Like many Americans, with more time self-isolating at home I am finding time to reflect on the global coronavirus crisis. I’ve also had time to think about the nation’s counterterrorism work. While a pandemic plays out on the world stage, U.S. counterterrorism professionals will continue to monitor terrorist footprints, which are spreading and mutating like a virus. Predictably, terrorists will exploit power vacuums, chaos and opportunities — any way they can find to infect us. Already during the pandemic, there’s been an apparent spike in apocalyptic jihadist videos spreading across the internet. None of this should come as a surprise. ISIS generates messianic excitement and apocalyptic zeitgeist online. It’s a part of their DNA. And yes, terrorists strengthen their immunities and as with diseases they can become more resistant to strategies to defeat them.
On one hand, there’s room to be cautiously optimistic in the fight against global jihadists — deaths worldwide are down from radical Islamist terrorists like ISIS.
On the other hand, there is another growing malignancy of far-right radicalization, and increasingly white supremacists are menacingly ramping up their hate-filled rhetoric. In other words, terrorist violence is mutating: Far-right extremists are organizing the way jihadist terrorists do. In the middle of the pandemic, for example, a man expressing antigovernment sentiments was being investigated for domestic terrorism and was planning a mass attack at a hospital. It appears that the suspect was mobilizing for violence and was killed in a shootout with FBI agents.
Though details are still sketchy, the incident underscores the danger still posed by lone wolf actors mobilizing for violence. The Department of Homeland Security in their Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence recognizes the threats from far-right violence, and is taking more aggressive action on “targeted violence” as an important public safety issue, regardless of whether those attacks are driven by a terrorist ideology.
Terrorists of any kind should never be allowed to rest. Fatefully, as we are learning with COVID-19, containment alone is not a winning strategy against terrorists like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and its affiliates. To be certain, the effects of containment can be more harmful than intended, particularly if it leaves terrorists uncontested in a sanctuary where they can plan future attacks. That is the danger we face by pulling U.S. troops and capabilities out of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and across Africa, which seems to be underway.
Consider the fight against ISIS. As we observed in the coalition campaign, indigenous partners doing the bulk of the ground fighting in Syria and Iraq, supported by precision airpower from the United States and allies above, was a powerfully effective combination. Containing ISIS to one region was not enough; it required a complementary and aggressive counter-sanctuary terrorism strategy.
The Trump administration made headway by empowering U.S.-led coalition forces to take back terrain from ISIS in its self-proclaimed physical caliphate. But already ISIS has proven capable of reconstituting—or at the risk of overstretching a medical analogy, clandestine ISIS cells are certainly metastasizing in Iraq and Syria.
Additionally, there remains deleterious long-term implications of refugees affiliated with the Islamic State that remain in camps in Northwest Syria. The challenges for repatriating ISIS fighters are daunting enough, but adding a pandemic seems to be a near unmanageable problem. We can conjecture that there will soon be two strains of disease playing out in many of these camps, such as al-Hol: a strain of radicalization of future generations of disenfranchised individuals who will turn to terrorism; and a strain of the coronavirus that will potentially ravage the camps.
ISIS is also ramping up its attacks in Afghanistan. The kind of counterterrorism special operations forces, or SOF, backbone the Trump administration is planning to leave in place in Afghanistan ahead of its troop withdrawals will not treat the underlying symptoms of terrorism. But at least SOF coupled with reliable partners on the ground will continue to hunt ISIS and pressure the Taliban if a peace agreement fractures.
At the same time, there’s alarming evidence that al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS terrorists are cooperating and growing even more virulent in the Sahel region of West Africa and with al-Shabab in East Africa.
Of course, the United States can’t be everywhere to fight a never-ending disease. The Trump administration is considering reducing the U.S. military footprint in Africa significantly to address its global power competition strategy elsewhere. It seems that the French are learning the impact of that decision in the Sahel. With fewer U.S. military resources on the ground, the French with their own foreign partners are left to pressure terrorists with less U.S. assistance. That may be a welcome change for some, but it is a short-sighted decision that may have long term costs.
Even critics of current U.S. counterterrorism policy should know by now what United States policymakers and practitioners already understand: since 9/11 the U.S. commitment to aggressively attack and pressure terrorist networks has made discernable progress, but the contest is frustratingly unwinnable in the short-term. As we are being asked for patience in this frustrating self-isolation to fight the coronavirus, we must show the same patience in continuing to fight terrorism.
So, my unsolicited advice for any of my former colleagues doing counterterrorism work is by all means—with rigor—assess terrorist organizations, study what’s working against them and what’s not, and consider scrutinizing the resources that are dedicated to U.S. counterterrorism work. But in the end, as you diagnose the disease of terrorism consider that there have been no terrorist attacks on anything coming close to the scale of 9/11 attacks in the United States. The disease is occasionally in remission, sometimes it is not, but still it can be relentlessly managed — yet never fully cured. Aggressive surgical strikes and having the right foreign partners on the ground is the best strategy we have —because terrorism is a disease that’s not going to end.
Christopher P. Costa is executive director of the International Spy Museum. He served as the special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.