Getting Our Anti-terrorism Strategy Right
Terrorism presents America with a challenge that is complex, serious and constantly evolving. It does not threaten our existence as a country, but it demands a determined, strong and steady response. Our efforts have made us safer from 9/11 style attacks, but we are not safe enough.
The terrorist threat evolves, and the most worrisome development is the phenomenon of “lone wolf” attacks in which individuals with no direct connection to terrorist groups are inspired to kill or try to kill large numbers of people. We saw this at the Boston Marathon and in San Bernardino and Orlando.
Now authorities are trying to determine whether last weekend’s bombings in New York and New Jersey and knife attack in Minnesota fit the same pattern. At the very least, they have exacerbated the perception that Americans are at risk, making it all the more urgent that we respond correctly.
Meanwhile, ISIS, al-Qaida and their affiliates have proven themselves to be resilient. They have shown they can take a punch. They adapt readily to setbacks and new circumstances.
To respond to the threat, we need a broad and multifaceted approach that includes military action where appropriate, robust efforts to counter extremist ideology, partnerships with allies and coordinated action to protect the homeland. The so-called forever war may not last forever, but we should be prepared for a protracted period of violence and uncertainty, a generational struggle.
We’ve got to carry the fight to terrorist organizations; take measures to prevent their growth and weaken their influence; protect our own people; and respond forcefully when attacks occur.
An effective military response is necessary but not enough. On that front, we have had some success. We have made progress in denying terrorist organizations safe haven in Syria and Iraq from which they can plan attacks on us and others. We have removed a number of their leaders. We have sharply reduced the territory they hold, and their recruitment is down.
Even the leaders of ISIS have admitted they can no longer claim to control a Middle East caliphate.
But fighting these groups militarily is difficult, because they do not offer many hard targets. Once hit, they tend to fade into the environment, only to come back later. President Barack Obama says we will defeat and destroy ISIS and its leaders. We have certainly made progress in defeating them, but we have a long way to go before we can say we’ve destroyed them.
Along with our military efforts, we need an even greater effort to counter the ideology driving the extremists. That includes a better understanding of what motivates disaffected young men who travel to Syria to fight for ISIS or who are inspired to carry out lone wolf attacks. And it includes vigorous and effective ways to blunt the appeal of extremism, including through public diplomacy and social media.
ISIS and al-Qaida have won support in part by challenging corrupt, unresponsive or tyrannical governments. We should aid efforts to improve governance in the regions where terrorist groups are strong. Unless governments become better at meeting the needs of their people, the terrorist threat will continue to thrive.
Our fundamental message of liberty and justice for all is a powerful one. But it will resonate much more if we back up our rhetoric with acts consistent with our pledge.
We will multiply the impact of our counterterrorism efforts if we work effectively with our allies and partners. We need close cooperation with the governments and people of friendly Muslim nations. We need to empower Muslim communities in this country to offer a positive alternative to radicalism.
Like it or not, the United States doesn’t have a lot of credibility with many people in the Middle East. We will have to rely on others, especially Muslims, to make the case for peace and stability.
Finally, we must do all we can to strengthen homeland security and prevent attacks. This is a complex matter that involves law enforcement at local, state and federal levels, multiple government agencies, sharper intelligence, rigorous vetting of immigrants, surveillance and tight border controls. And we need vigilant and sustained oversight of these efforts from Congress, which is currently lacking.
Close coordination is required with the private sector, which controls many of the venues and institutions that may be targets for terrorists. And as important as any part of our strategy, we rely on the watchfulness of ordinary citizens, the true first responders, who take seriously the directive “If you see something, say something.”
Keeping our country safe while protecting the privacy and civil liberties of our citizens is an essential component of our strategy. It’s a difficult balancing act.
The threat of terrorism is real and significant, but we should not exaggerate it. There is no reason to panic. For most Americans, the risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident or from a prescription drug overdose is orders of magnitude greater than the risk of dying in a terrorist attack.
But the threat to our institutions and our sense of security demands we get our counterterrorism strategy right. We have been working on this for 15 years, and the American people have a right to be impatient.
Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana’s 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.