The Evolving Terrorism Threat from Nixon to Trump.

Author:Marks, Edward
Position:Commentary and Analysis

March/April 2017

The U.S. government's efforts to counter international and domestic terrorism have evolved considerably over the past decades but the pace accelerated during the Obama administration. The acceleration was influenced both by changes in the character and scope of the threat and the impact of modern technology. Many of the challenges, issues and programs that emerged in the past will also carry over into the Trump administration, although perhaps in a more intense and unpredictable form.

During the Obama administration some of the key developments included the more sophisticated use of the internet by terrorist groups to spread their propaganda and recruit activists and "lone wolves," the emergence of cyberterrorism threats and hacking, and the continued development of the use of armed drones by the US and other governments. On the "defensive side," the increased deployment of surveillance cameras in urban areas and airports has been useful in identifying terrorist suspects and prosecuting them in courts. Information sharing within the U.S. government and with local and state governments, and with foreign partners also became intensive.

The issues that faced the Obama administration and will face the Trump administration--as well as the basic policies and programs--had roots in previous generations, some of them going back to the 1970's and President Richard Nixon's administration. Many programs conceived and developed during previous administrations continued, evolved, and were expanded during subsequent administrations. These programs include antiterrorism training for American and foreign law enforcement officials, the interagency Counter Terrorism Financing (CTF) and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, and the ever pressing need for improved international cooperation and intelligence sharing. They are likely to continue, in one form or another, as ongoing efforts.

Underlying all counter-terrorist strategy, however, remains the fundamental question as to whether terrorism is an extensional threat to the United States, with the perspective of the "War against Terrorism" initiated by the George W. Bush administration after 9/11, or a serious problem enmeshed in the wider foreign policy concerns of the United States as perceived by President Barrack Obama.

In either case, the world and the United States are now in the sixth decade of the modern era of terrorism and, as the Trump administration came into office, the 15th year of the current era of terrorism that began with 9/11. These have been frustrating as well as tragic years as the terrorist challenge has metastised within the broader problems of a dramatically changing and increasingly violent international environment. The terrorist threat and challenge can be seen as primarily Middle East and South Asian problems--with those regions being the ground zero for terrorist origin and the main terrorist battleground. However the United States is a prominent target, along with people in the Middle East and our Western European allies, such as France and Belgium. At the same time, the United States is the most prominent and historic leader of the effort to develop counter terrorist alliances.

One sober summary balance sheet of the situation was presented by long-time terrorism expert Brian Jenkins of the Rand Corporation:

"Measuring progress in irregular warfare without frontlines is always difficult. The various dimensions and multiple fronts of the US' ongoing campaigning against terrorists make it an exceptional challenge. And much has changed since that campaign began 15 years ago. There not been another 9/11-scale event. Although they attract followers, neither a-Qai'da nor its progeny have become a mass movement. The constellation of groups claiming allegiance to them is far from and effective alliance and the Islamic State has been contained. The leaders of AQ depend heavily on exhortation to get others to fight and the turnout is thin. On the other side of the ledger, the targeted groups have survived, their determination seems undiminished, and their ideology remains powerful. They are deeply imbedded in a number of fragile, divided, conflict-ridden states. Persistent foes, they are able to operate underground and capable of comebacks if pressure on them subsides. The conflict will go on." (1) A primary theme of the past fifteen years, indeed of the past fifty years, has been the evolving character of the terrorist threat, from the so-called "Boutique terrorists" of Western Europe to today's "Islamic State". Earlier terrorist groups usually had relatively specific targets and goals, such as trying to free their imprisoned colleagues or specific nationalistic/territorial demands. However with Al Qaeda, the Tamil Tigers and Hamas, we saw the emergence of suicide and larger attacks designed to kill and wound as many people as possible. The terrorists' goals keep moving and will continue to do so. Not only has there been a significant and dramatic change in the numbers and character and capability of the terrorists themselves, from the fifty or so core Red Brigade members in Germany during the 1980's to the estimated 40,000 Jihadists of ISIS, but the global environment has changed in significant ways.

"The West failed to predict the emergence of Islamic terrorism in general and al-Qaeda in particular across the Middle East and North Africa. It was blindsided by the ISIS sweep across Syria and Iraq, which at least temporarily changed the map of the Middle East. Both movements have skillfully continued to evolve and proliferate--and surprise." Jenkins observed. (2)

The technological developments since 9/11 have especially complicated the situation by further empowering both governments and non-state terrorist groups. The internet, drones, and cyber warfare with the last named even producing its own form of terrorism--cyber terrorism--have changed the landscape for terrorism and countermeasures. For these and other reasons the international character of terrorism and of counter-terrorism has become more marked. There are few countries now untouched by the threat. (3)

Politically and environmentally the collapse of meaningful governance and governmental organizations in the Arab Middle East has created a zone of anarchy. In the ungoverned areas of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen a complex mix of religious, ethnic, national, ideological, and political combatants struggle for power "where ignorant armies clash by night". In the process they have drawn in their neighbors and other players as far distant as the United States. The same is true in parts of Africa, where the French have played a major role in helping their former colonies but the United States has also provided training and other assistance. Major geographic regions are in turmoil and spread abroad its violence.

A cottage industry has developed in trying to analyze terrorist movements in general and Islamic jihadist movements in particular. The experts pretty much agree that terrorist movements are produced by a confluence of factors. A key point in the emergence of the Islamic jihadist movement was the rallying of Muslims to fight the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980's. Subsequently, some individuals were motivated to join jihadist movements by a variety of reasons, ideology, and the desire for meaning in their lives and belonging to a greater cause, anger at the West, even wanderlust. Other conditions enable jihadism to flourish. They include the volatile mix of shifting demographics, notably a surge of youth, higher literacy, and greater social aspirations intersecting with economic woes, growing unemployment, and deepening political malaise or disillusionment. The mix of personal motives and enabling conditions has become even more combustible since the Arab uprisings of 2011. These drivers of extremism are rampant in the Middle East. They differ in local contexts. Six conditions are particularly pivotal today. (4)

  1. The fragility of states

  2. Ideological upheaval

  3. Conflict zones

  4. Foreign intervention for example, the U.S, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia

  5. Socioeconomic factors

  6. Technology

All of these developments are impacting the international environment. Terrorism kills and wounds people, contributes to refugee problems, threatens both national governments and the traditional international Order. Countering terrorism effectively puts a premium on global, regional and bi-lateral cooperation and alliances.

All of these developments and the consequent analysis have made it increasing clear that world cannot simply kill its way out of the problem despite the key role played by military force in attacking and weakening terrorist groups such as ISIS that control territory, enabling them to extract taxes and other payments from locals and sell oil or other resources. Until the ideology underpinning jihadism is defeated, or at least effectively countered, it will continue to be used to recruit new--sometimes very young--soldiers. This realization is increasingly influencing strategic calculations, including the effort to reduce the territory controlled by such...

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