Juan C. Zarate was deputy assistant to President George W. Bush and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009. He is chairman and co-founder of the Financial Integrity Network consulting firm.
In the wake of the atrocities in the French city of Nice and the quickening pace of terrorist attacks around the world, we are in jeopardy of growing callous about the strategic impact of terrorism. How we talk about the threat affects our reaction.
President Obama has declared that the Islamic State does not present an “existential threat” to the United States. This statement reflects an attempt to recalibrate the risk and our response to it — terrorists are not 10-foot giants, Americans should not be panicked into knee-jerk reactions, and resilience is a strategic buffer against terrorism. But this formulation has a dangerous effect. Framing the terrorist threat from the Islamic State and others solely in “existential” terms risks dulling the nation’s sense of urgency in confronting this mounting danger.
Repeated, targeted terrorism has strategic impact. Though the Islamic State may not be able to mount a 9/11-style attack, it has perpetrated terrorism from Brussels to Baghdad and inspired it in Orlando and San Bernardino, Calif. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have called on followers to attack with whatever means possible in Western countries, including driving into pedestrians. Aside from body counts, psychological impact and economic consequences, these attacks exacerbate social cleavages and political instability. They stoke fears of immigration at the height of a global refugee crisis and animate sectarian and reactionary forces.
Viewing the threat in a binary fashion — existential or not existential— also fails to account for its dangerous and predictable adaptations over time. The Islamic State has adapted quickly by leveraging havens, especially in cities, and inspiring sympathetic networks throughout the world to present new threats. It reportedly downed a Russian commercial airliner, targeted the Egyptian navy and launched coordinated attacks under the noses of Western security services.
It is flirting with weapons of mass destruction — using chemical weapons, operating a chemical weapons unit and accessing labs at Mosul University. It has used the cyber domain to radicalize using peer-to-peer technologies and to attack online with a new “United Cyber Caliphate.” The siren song of the so-called caliphate has animated a new generation of extremists, including more women. These adaptations will surely present serious threats in the future.
Further, articulating the threat only in “existential” terms leads to a myopic, insular foreign policy. The Islamic State poses a direct threat to U.S. allies, having a deeper impact on those societies — from genocide and displacement of millions of refugees to the radicalization of Muslim youth and the hardening of reactionary forces. The French president has declared repeatedly that Europe is at war, while mourning yet another attack on French citizens; Kurds and Iraqis are defending their families and communities; Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon endure attacks and the massive weight of refugees. To our friends fighting for their survival with the Islamic State on their doorstep, this threat looks existential.
By seeming to care only about threats to the “homeland,” we damage the perception of U.S. partnership and weaken U.S. influence over the sacrifices our partners must undertake to defeat terrorism in their midst.
All of this matters to our security. Classifying the risks from terrorism is how we calibrate our response, devise strategies and decide policy. We need to be precise about the taxonomy of threats we are facing and account for how they will likely evolve. We also need a sense of urgency. If the threat is not “existential,” we may believe we can sit behind the oceans and contain it. This attitude can dull our willingness to make hard decisions.
Instead, we need to amplify work already being done. The coalition should accelerate efforts to dislodge the Islamic State from its havens, especially its hold on major cities such as Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria and Sirte in Libya — which give it access to resources and space to strategize and innovate. It is stunning in the post-9/11 era that a global terrorist organization has occupied major cities in the heart of the Middle East for more than two years. This effort will require additional assets on the ground and in the air. We must accelerate material assistance to our allies, especially the Kurds and key Syrian rebel allies, and generate greater information-sharing among European security services.
There are hard decisions to be made. Instead of the vague creep of more boots on the ground, we should be clear about our long-term commitment to support allies and our willingness to ensure no new havens emerge. The announcement to maintain NATO troops and support in Afghanistan was an important step. With terrorists hiding behind encrypted communications, we should consider detaining high-value targets consistently to fill intelligence gaps.
The Obama administration should also rethink whether this is the right moment to release the remaining detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to various parts of the world. And we need to support and amplify voices and networks around the world confronting the ideology that animates terrorism — online and in the physical world.
We cannot allow terrorists time, space and resources to innovate. This is not just about the threat we face today, but about what follows the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The words we use to describe this risk matter. They define how we respond as a nation.