Skip to main content

This article is adapted from a draft of a forthcoming book U.S Counterterrorism efforts, from Nixon to Bush. (CPC Press/Taylor&Francis Group). Ambassador (rtd) Edward Marks and Michael B Kraft are also co-authors of U.S. Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What, by the same publisher, the first unclassified guide to the many agencies and office involved in the counterterrorism office. Ambassador Marks, a retired Foreign Service officer, served in a variety of embassies and positions, including as deputy in the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism. Mr. Kraft served nearly 20 years as Senior Advisor in that office, at the National Defense University and previously as the staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a former foreign correspondent and since retirement from the government has authored other books and chapters on counterterrorism policies and served as a consultant on DOD, DHS and bioterrorism projects.



by Edward Marks and Michael B. Kraft

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 groups and undercut the image they try to project of being the wave of the future.

The first and most basic question affecting strategic approaches is the perception of Islamic extremist violence or terrorism. This question can be posed is a fairly simple form: is the Islamic jihadism terrorism a “serious” threat or an “existential” threat? The answer that governments and officials give to this question determines the part of the response. Just as the threat has been evolving, so has the response of governments, notably that of the United States government. Although terrorism had been evolving in various ways from the 1980’s focus on European and Japanese terrorist movements towards the increasing importance of Islamic based movements from the Middle East, USG policy remained essentially the same during that period, albeit increasing in scale and scope. The expansion of military and intelligence community capabilities was significant.

The Bush Administration
The attack on 9/11 however dramatically changed the scene. President George W. Bush, and the country, now saw a different and more serious threat. To use a word which became common later, the Islamic jihadist terrorist threat was now seen as “existential,” that is, a fundamental threat to the continued existence of the United States and its traditions.

With that viewpoint, President announced a “Global War on Terrorism,” putting the country on a war footing in attitude and behavior if not technically in legal terms, i.e. a Declaration of War by Congress. The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists or “AUMF” became law on 14 September 2001, to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the attacks on 11 September 2001.

The GWOT signaled two shifts in USG policy, to a “war footing” against an existential threat, and to a  concentration on Middle-East/Islamic terrorism.  The “War on Terror (WoT)” or the “Global War on Terrorism” (GWOT), was a metaphor of war referring to the international military campaign that started in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attack. The Bush administration and the western media used the term to argue a global military, political, legal, and conceptual struggle against both organizations designated terrorist and regimes accused of supporting them. It was originally used with a particular focus on countries associated with Islamic terrorism organizations including al-Qaeda and like-minded organizations. President Bush and Vice President Chaney, at the same time, tried to make clear that this was not a war against Islam itself.

The GWOT produced a number of titled military campaigns. Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Active Endeavor were the major operations.

Operation Enduring Freedom was the official name for the War in Afghanistan, together with three smaller military actions, under the umbrella of the Global War on Terror. These global operations are intended to seek out and destroy any al-Qaeda fighters or affiliates. Under this general rubric, the U.S. conducted operations in North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Philippines, working with and to support local governments and sometimes allied countries. The activity in Africa spread into other countries and eventually resulted in the creation of a new US Regional combatant command—AFRICOM.

Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003 with an air campaign, which was immediately followed by a U.S.-led ground invasion. The Bush administration stated the invasion was the “serious consequences” spoken of in the UNSC Resolution 1441, partially on the basis of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration also stated the Iraq war was part of the War on Terror.

To pursue these programs, the Bush Administration oversaw a significant increase in the military services and intelligence services, especially the Army among the military and the CIA’s paramilitary forces. Between 2001 and 2017, $1.778 trillion was spent on or budgeted for the War on Terror. This amount includes spending on the “War on Terror” in the Department of Defense base budget and supporting departments (Homeland Security, the Veterans Administration, and the State Department). It reflects both increased personnel and related costs as well increased operational and acquisition expenses.5   By some estimates the U.S. spends up to $100 billion annually on various counterterrorism efforts.6 But the exact amount is hard to pinpoint because some expenditures, for aircraft or strengthening embassy security, can serve dual purposes such as protecting an embassy against violent protestors. Details of the intelligene community’s budget are classified.As part of the WoT, the Bush Administration created additional structures and new policies for dealing with prisoners and suspected terrorists captured as part of the various military and intelligence operations. A detention center was created at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and detention and interrogation procedures were established. Among the latter were “Enhanced Interrogation Procedures” under Presidential authority, which came under criticism from those who considered them to be torture, and were eliminated in the last years of the administration.

In addition to military efforts abroad, in the aftermath of 9/11 the Bush Administration increased domestic efforts to prevent future attacks. Various government bureaucracies that handled security and military functions were reorganized. A new cabinet-level agency called the United States Department of Homeland Security was created in November 2002 to lead and coordinate the largest reorganization of the U.S. federal government since the 1949 consolidation of the armed forces into the Department of Defense. It brought 22 agencies or offices under one tent, even the Coast Guard.  DHS, with its cabinet level department responsibilities for public security, is roughly comparable to the interior or home ministries of other countries. Its stated missions involve antiterrorism, border security, immigration and customs, cyber-security, and disaster prevention and management.

With more than 240,000 employees in numerous agencies, DHS is the third largest Cabinet department, after the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Many observers have noted that DHS has undergone teething problems in trying to absorb so many agencies. Homeland security policy is coordinated at the White House by the Homeland Security Council. Other agencies with significant homeland security responsibilities include the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Energy.

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration also pushed through The USA PATRIOT Act of October 2001, which  dramatically reduced restrictions on law enforcement agencies’ ability to search telephone, e-mail communications, medical, financial, and other records during terrorist-related investigations; eases restrictions on foreign intelligence gathering within the United States; expands the Secretary of the Treasury‘s authority to regulate financial transactions, particularly those involving foreign individuals and entities; and broadens the discretion of law enforcement and immigration authorities in detaining and deporting immigrants suspected of terrorism-related acts. The act also expanded the definition of terrorism to include domestic terrorism, thus enlarging the number of activities to which the USA PATRIOT Act’s expanded law enforcement powers could be applied. Global telecommunication usage, including those with no links to terrorism, is being collected through the NSA electronic surveillance program for possible use in investigations. The Patriot Act is still in effect.

The Intelligence Community has always been a major element in USG counter-terrorism policy and was called upon to provide critical support to the Global War on Terrorism. In addition the expanded overseas intelligence and paramilitary operations mentioned above, the Intelligence Community’s (IC) working relations with domestic agencies, notably the new Department of Homeland Security, were intensified. New lines of communication and collaboration were opened between the IC and the law enforcement and counterintelligence communities, and with state and local officials through fusion centers in major cities. The IC also built upon longstanding foreign partnerships and established new partnerships to aid in the War on Terrorism. All elements of the IC, including the Treasury Department and its comprehensive attack on terrorist financing, directed greater emphasis to issues of counterterrorism and homeland security, focusing on producing actionable intelligence and timely warnings in support of military forces and law enforcement. These were primarily a continuation and intensification of previous efforts rather than innovations.

The Obama Administration Transformation
President Barrack Obama redefined the terrorist threat from an “Existential Threat” (GWoT) to returning USG counter-terrorism policy into the broader foreign policy perspective, albeit at the same if not higher operational level. This was part of the effort to rebalance the United States role because he felt that the country had overextended itself and bogged down in fighting wars on the ground in the Islamic world, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. It was also reflected in his reluctance to become more deeply entangled in the Syrian civil war by establishing no fly zones to protect Syrian civilians from President Assad’s bombers.

Near the end of his administration, President Obama reviewed his CT policy in a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida on December 6, 2016: 7

“First of all, a sustainable counterterrorism strategy depends on keeping the threat in perspective. The terrorist threat is real and it is dangerous. Today’s terrorists can kill innocent people, but they don’t pose an existential threat to our nation, and we must not make the mistake of elevating them as if they do.

A second and related point is that we cannot follow the path of previous great powers that sometimes defeated themselves through over-reach.

Number three, we need the wisdom to see that upholding our values and adhering to the rule of law is not a weakness; in the long term, it is our greatest strength.

Number four, we have to fight terrorists in a way that does not create more terrorists.

Number five, transparency and accountability serve our national security not just in times of peace, but, more importantly, in times of conflict.

Number six, alongside our outstanding military work, we have to draw upon the strength of our diplomacy.

And finally, in this fight, we have to uphold the civil liberties that define us.”

Or, as John Cassidy put it in an article in the New Yorker,

“Constructed in response to the disaster that was the Iraq War, the Obama doctrine abjures direct U.S. military intervention in countries that don’t represent a direct security threat to the United States, such as Syria. It favors working quietly through allies and proxies, such as Kurdish peshmerga forces, and even, where necessary, Iranian militias, to attack America’s enemies, and also through deploying U.S. military and technological assets that can be operated from afar, such as cyber-spying systems, reconnaissance planes, and drones. 8

Based on this perspective, the Obama Administration shifted its military focus from the deployment of regular troops overseas to a greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, as well as the increased deployment of Special Operations forces. The drone program not only reflects an Administration desire to cut back and avoid extensive use of ground forces but also the dramatic technological increase in drone capability.   Although the use of drones began during the Bush administration, the Obama administration greatly stepped up the number of attacks, targeting not only ISIS bases and units but also individual terrorists, especially key leaders.

The expanded use of SOF also met a perceived policy objective: how to attack ISIS and other terrorist groups, while utilizing a unique American capability and avoiding large numbers of American “boots on the ground.” This approach combined US military SOF forces with CIA paramilitary resources. The expansion of SOCOM (United States Special Operations Command, a joint combatant command) continued during the Obama Administration, in personnel, finances and in mission. Apart from the initial campaign in Iraq, SOCOM has been charged with the military lead in USG global CT operations.  This has largely taken the form of “kinetic” operations although there has been an effort to shift to liaison, training, and intelligence cooperation missions in support of friendly local forces, such as the Iraqi Army, Kurdish units, and some relatively more moderate Syrian rebel forces, and some African governments.

Just as the US military has shifted its strategy from “boots on the ground” to target-specific kills, through both SOF raids and drone strikes, the US iIntelligence community, specifically those involved in “humint” seem to have done likewise. Specifically, traditional resources once used to recruit and penetrate terrorist organizations seem to have been reduced, while targeting and drone killing have been significantly bolstered. Like the military, this seems to indicate some confusion regarding whether certain actions are tactical or strategic in regard to the terrorist target.

One important positive aspect of the Obama administration’s focus on greater collaboration with allies was trying to ensure that the U.S. was not the only one bearing the share of the cost. In dealing with the terrorist and insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq, the U.S. worked to include allies such as Australia, Britain and other European countries as well as Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries as well as Kurds.

That approach was discernable very early on. “Under President Obama, the U.S. was focused on doing things in ways that the rest of the world could understand as rooted in principle and rooted in a set of ethics that they could identify with.”9

The Obama Administration took a strong stance against the use of the so-called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” labeling them as torture, promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prisoner installation, and used the civilian trial process for terrorist suspects.  Congress blocked efforts to close Guantanamo but the Obama administration managed to sharply reduce the numbers by getting other countries to take over responsibility of some of the prisoners that were deemed safe to be paroled from the facility.

Otherwise President Obama continued to support most previous programs, such as those for training foreign law enforcement officials and strengthening their judicial systems and expanding the efforts to curb terrorism financing. The administration also worked to strengthen the coordination and information exchanges with local and state governments notably the fusing of national and local law enforcement agencies, as in the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force program and the fusion centers at the local level that brought together federal and local officials. DHS also increased its program of grants and training to improve the capabilities of the first responders at the state and local level. A former high level NSC official for homeland security told us that the training exercises turned out to be very useful in coping with the bombing at the Boston Marathon and the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif.

Meanwhile the Obama administration continued and expanded programs to Counter Terrorism Financing (FTE), which, like other programs in the tool kit, began in earlier administrations. This program worked to cut off fund raising and money flows to terrorist groups. A related effort was the Justice Department effective use of 1986 legislation developed during the Clinton administration to make it illegal to provide funds or other forms of material support for foreign terrorist organizations or terrorist attacks by individuals. The administration, also through the Treasury Department’s Overseas Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) program continued to impose terrorist sanctions on terrorist-supporting countries, primarily Iran.

One of the major terrorism-related developments during the Obama administration was the emergence of increasingly sophisticated use of the internet by terrorist groups to spread their propaganda, and to radicalize and recruit new supporters and potential suicide terrorists and other foot soldiers.  They also used the internet, often using encryption technologies, to promote operations and send instructions.

One new program received a great deal of new attention, “Countering g Violence Extremism” or CVE. The program aimed at blunting the radicalization of persons, either through the internet or through by person-to person recruitmentefforts by the Al Qaeda and ISIS organizations.

The CVE program had its genesis in the Bush administration’s which had revived a Public Diplomacy program, originally started by Secretary of State George Schultz in the mid 1980’s  but faded away under Secretary of State Baker. The CVE program had undergone various changes in an effort to more effectively deal with a very difficult problem. It tries to work on domestic prevention working with local not only law enforcement but also public health, mental health, or social services providers,  parents. researchers, teachers; businesses, and women’s, religious, and youth leaders.

During the Obama administration, DHS started an extensive program of grants to local agencies to help them identify persons vulnerable to radicalization and address some of the issues that provide fertile ground for radicalization such as estrangement from society, resentments, and personal problems. DHS and the FBI are both involved in CVE efforts and during the early stages there were some coordination and overlap problems. The Obama administration subsequently formed an interagency task force to foster coordination and prevent these issues.  Meanwhile, the State Department and other agencies developed a CVE program to help other countries cope with their domestic radicalization problems. There were even activities to counter the radicalization chat rooms on line. As with many counterterrorism efforts, it is hard to quantify successes. If a young man was being tempted by the siren calls of the recruiters but stepped away because of counter efforts, he is not likely to call up officials to say they convinced him to stay clean.

The Obama administration also paid attention to immigration and visitor entry programs as well as Mexican border issues, including building barriers along the border and stepping up controls. But they came under attack as being inadequate, especially during the election campaign. Not as part of CT policy, but of some relevance, were Obama Administration refugee and immigrations policies. The trend was towards relaxation of limitations, including support of the DREAM Act, the so-called Path to Citizenship, lifting of the HIV immigration ban, changes in deportation policy, and an effort to increase the number of Syrian refugees let into the US.

Another example of the impact of the increasing sophistication of technology emerged in the form of growing cyberterrorism and cyber hacking threats. As with other issues, these threats predate the 2018 elections that brought in the Obama administration. The Bush administration even had an NSC coordinator for dealing with the problem, Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism expert. But the scope stepped up in the past eight years, with hackers breaking into various USG web sites, banks, corporations, and even the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 elections, traced by US intelligence agencies to Russia Most hackers appeared to be criminals, however culprits have been traced to China, Russia and North Korea among others.

Some utilities in the U.S., including controls for a dam in New York state, also have been hacked, but no damage was reported. The DHS mounted an effort to persuade the private sector to do more to strengthen its internet systems against hacking and compromise, but former Obama administration officials said there is still a long way to go.

Overseas, government websites had been attacked in a number of countries, for example, Estonia and Ukraine have been under pressure from Moscow, and in the Arab-Israeli dispute. The Obama administration and Israel meanwhile were reported in the press to have inserted a virus (named stuxnet) into Iran’s centrifuges to slow down its nuclear weapons program.

Impending Policy Questions for the new Administration
The CT policy and program structure of the United States Government is a result of evolution and innovation to respond to an evolving challenge. Over the years and from administration to administration, there has been a great deal of continuity in policies and programs although new programs have been initiated and some modified.

The overall trend as been to expand, in scope, variety and in cost. At least one knowledgeable veteran expert   notes: “The United States is better organized and equipped to combat terrorism, but its citizens remain fearful. The United States’ frightened, angry, and divided society remains the country’s biggest vulnerability. Progress in degrading al-Qaeda’s capabilities or dismantling the Islamic State is almost completely divorced from popular perceptions. Rather than appeal to traditional American values of courage, self-reliance, and sense of community, our current political system incentivizes the creation of fear.”10

Others are less sanguine. “But strategically, the U.S. faces the most parlous international security situation in terms of terrorism, at least since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. According to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), despite our ongoing efforts in Iraq and Syria over the past two years, ISIS has expanded geographically. The NCTC reported that in 2014, when the U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS began, the group had branches in seven countries. By 2015, they had branches in 13 countries, and by 2016, this number had increased again, now to 18. So clearly the Obama Administration’s strategy hasn’t stopped the spread of ISIS.”11

The core question, therefore, facing the new president and the new administration with respect the terrorist threat is the one which all new administrations face—how much to keep and how much to change.

This will require a strategic decision as to the nature and gravity of the threat. The two previous administrations differed, with Bush seeing it as existential and hence the Global War on Terrorism. Obama on the other hand saw it as serious, to be integrated into and balanced with other American foreign policy interests.

The first policy determination for Trump Administration, therefore, will be deciding this question for themselves and then to implement appropriate changes in USG policy and programs. Various remarks and comments by then candidate Trump and his supporters indicated that they would take a new approach. This may not be in the form of a formal statement of policy, but rather in the import and direction of presidential and administration decisions taken over time. President Trump’s use of the phrase radical Islamic terrorism favored by a number of hard liners, marked a departure from the Obama administration, which, along with most counterterrorism professionals, felt the appellation antagonized millions of peaceful Muslims. President Trump’s national security advisor, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, departing from President Trump’s rhetoric, indicated he also shared the concerns of the other professionals. 12

President John F. Kennedy once used a metaphor of an aircraft carrier to describe the US Government—a mammoth creature that only with difficult and time can be moved into a very different direction. Its inertia is enormous. Every single subject in the president’s in-box, such as counter-terrorism, involves a broad range of government responsibilities and authorities all subject to the influence of inertia.

The issues involving U.S. government policy counter-terrorism activities fall into three general areas, all involving hotly contested aspects of government policy and programs:

I. National security law involves important questions of Constitutional law, including the extent of government surveillance and secrecy, and the perpetual question of balancing national security interests and citizen’s rights, including privacy rights.

II. Domestic counter-terrorism policy concerns law enforcement, including the use of sting operations, immigration, visa entry procedures, refugee policy, countering violent extremism (CVE), and domestic intelligence. Operationally, it involves the management and direction of the mammoth Department of Homeland Security with its myriad of domestic agencies and the organizational and management problems which continue to beset this relatively new department. Immigration issues and screening of refugees, and even how many should be admitted, have become controversial issues during the 2016 election campaign and the early stages of the Trump administration, highlighted by the issuance of controversial executive orders.

III. External counter-terrorism policy is the most obvious and the most media prominent. It involves first of all military policy and programs involving questions such as the deployment of US troops, use of drones and air power, Special Forces, and the organization of US military forces. One issue raised early in the Trump administration is whether the regional commands will have more authority to launch air operations without referring back to the White House for clearance.13

Early on, the Trump administration continued the use of military operations in the Middle East. In early March, for example, in Yemen it launched 25 air strikes in two nights against the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 14

This followed a special operations attack in which a Navy Seal was killed, the first military casualty during the new administration. The Trump administration also continued the policy of targeting specific terrorist leaders, in early March using a drone to kill the second in command of al-Qaeda. 15

Meanwhile, the Trump White House and its budget officials proposed deep cuts—about a third—in the State Department Budget and foreign assistance programs. However the State Department plays a major role in the development and Improvement of international cooperation which every past administration has viewed as essential to countering terrorism. The Department also funds a number of programs to help train foreign officials to prevent and counter terrorist attacks as well as to Identify terrorist and narcotics suspects from crossing international borders. The foreign assistance programs also help alleviate some of the economic and social problems that contribute to making persons vulnerable to the radicalization efforts by terrorist groups.

A key issue to watch will be to what extent Congress goes along with the proposed budget cuts and whether the specific counterterrorism programs will continue.

An important element of diplomacy as well as military policy and actions is accurate and shared intelligence, and the response to it.  The Intelligence community is the primary source of the information and analysis.  Open sources and diplomatic exchanges are also important in this respect, and intelligence agencies incorporate them into their work. A key question is to what extent, in view of his past criticisms of the intelligence community, President Trump and his immediate cadre will rely on the intelligence community, especially in a time of crisis or situations where the information is not black and white but ambiguous and grey.

All of these matters must be pursued within a strategic view, whether formally expressed or informally understood. Whether the strategic view is that terrorism is a “serious” or an “existential” threat the response has to be pursued with the context of American foreign policy and the instrumentality of American diplomacy. As the leading instrumentality of foreign policy diplomacy must reflect a useful melding of security policy and counter-terrorism, both “hard” and “soft” elements of both.

After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press and promised that the United States would use “any means at its disposal” to fight terrorism. The practical result of that statement was the Global War on Terrorism, although he also said that this is not a war against Islam.16 President Obama assumed office promising to change national security polices including the executive power claims of his predecessor.

Evaluating the degree to which these two approaches succeeded and the resulting effect on the terrorism challenge is now in the hands of the historians.

It is now the turn of the Trump Administration. It is this history and existing overall structure that the Trump Administration inherits, evaluates, and changes to meet its strategic view and objectives.End.


1. “Fifteen Years On, Where are We in the “War on Terror”?,” Brian Michael Jenkins, CTC=Sentinel, September 7, 2016

2. “The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda and Beyond,” United States Institute of Peace, December 12, 2016

3. For summary of the role of the Russian invasion and Ben Laden’s activities see “Countering Terrorism,” Martha Crenshaw, Gary Lafre, pp 7-9, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, 2017.

4. “The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda and Beyond,  United States Institute of Peace, December 12, 2016

“The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,”
Amy Belasco, Congressional Research Service,  December 8, 2014

6. Gordon Adams, a former OMB Defense budget expert, quoted in “The cost of fighting terrorism” by Jeanne Sahadi @CNNMoney, November 16, 2015 aba

8. John Cassidy, “New Yorker”, December 8, 2016

9. “Al Qaeda Assessment Off the Mark,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Newsletter,” December 8, 2016

10. “Fifteen Years On, Where are We in the “War on Terror”? ” Brian Michael Jenkins, CT Sentinel, September 7, 2016

11. “Comprehensive Terrorism Strategy Needed, “Bruce Hoffman, “the Cipher Brief,” December 8, 2016

12. “Trump should listen to McMaster on “radical Islamic terrorism, ” Denver Post Editorial Board, March 3, 2017|

13. “Trump May Give the Pentagon More Authority to Conduct Raids,” Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt, New York Times,March 2, 2017

14. “More than 30 airstrikes in Yemen mark escalated fight against terror group,” Luis Martinez, ABC News, March 3, 2017

15. “Senior Qaeda Leader Is Killed in Drone Strike,” Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, March 1, 2017

16. Meet the Press Interview with Vice President Dick Chaney, September 16, 2001 S


Author This article is adapted from a draft of a forthcoming book U.S Counterterrorism efforts, from Nixon to Bush. CRC Press/Taylor and Francis Group. Ambassador (rtd) Edward Marks and Michael B Kraft are also co-authors of U.S. Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What, by the same publisher, the first unclassified guide to the many agencies and offices involved in the U.S. counterterrorism effort.

Ed Marks (left) is a retired Foreign Senior Service officer. He serves on the board of the American Foreign Service Association.

Michael B. Kraft (right) is a counterterrorism writer and consultant based in Washington. He is a veteran of the State Department Counterterrorism office, having served 20 years there as Senior Advisor with a variety of duties. He also worked on counterterrorism issues at the National Defense University. He previously served as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. Previously, Mr. Kraft was the chief Congressional Correspondent for the Reuters News agency and a foreign correspondent based in London and Central Africa. Since retirement from the government, Mr. Kraft also co- authored The Evolution of U.S. Counterterrorism Policy (Praeger Security International) and contributed chapters for other counterterrorism books. He also lectured at various universities and the Marshall Center, and been a consultant on Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security and bioterrorism projects.


Comments are closed.