Ten Ways To Change the Counterterrorism Game

Continuous, sensationalistic media coverage of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the manipulation of fear by politicians and others who stand to gain from it, has led to severe inflation of the threat posed by terrorism. This fear is coming to dominate domestic politics in ugly, un-American ways: increased Islamophobia, and xenophobic calls to close our borders to refugees.

Americans want to feel safe, yet the public is understandably wary of putting “boots on the ground” and entering into another protracted war in the Middle East. Yet President Obama’s “light footprint” approach, reiterated in his recent speech, has not proven highly effective, and may be contributing to the radicalization of terrorists. Our roundtable brainstormed potential solutions and perspective shifts that could bring much-needed innovation to the field of counterterrorism.

1. Engage in public campaigns to put this threat in perspective.
“One of the great failures of American counterterrorism policy since 9/11 forward has been the failure to address what I think is a case of, essentially, threat inflation,” said Stephen Walt, professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. “Americans believe the danger from terrorism is vastly greater than it actually is.” The chance that an American will be killed by terrorists is around one in four million, said Walt, citing figures from John Mueller and Mark Stewart’s Chasing Ghosts. “Yet Americans think there are active terrorists that are going to attack them at any moment.” Walt suggested that we embrace the “Boston Strong” ethos to build up political and emotional resilience, and recommended that President Obama and his administration make a concerted effort to put the actual danger terrorists pose in perspective.

2. Be aware of cable TV’s tendency to sensationalize threats. 
One, possibly inexorable, component of threat inflation is the 24/7 cable news coverage of every terrorist attack, and potential attack, in the Western world. “I’m a big believer in a wide open media conversation,” said Walt, “but this is a case where in fact most media organizations in the United States are making the problem worse…In order to keep eyeballs glued to the screen, you have this constant drumbeat of ‘Are you scared enough?’ coming out of CNN and Fox and lots of other places. This is precisely what ISIS wants.” Given that these media organizations are acting from a purely rational, self-interested place, it’s hard to imagine this problem going away anytime soon. What media consumers can do, however, is to be more selective about the media they choose to consume, and to recognize the potential self-interest that lies behind sensationalized, highly covered media spectacles.

3. Work closely with leaders in the Muslim American community to reject ISIS’s ideology.
President Obama alluded to the importance of working with leaders in the Muslim American community to condemn the ideology of ISIS and present a united front in his recent speech. Executive Director of PEN American Center Suzanne Nossel expanded on this idea by suggesting that we rally cultural figures to help sway individuals who might be teetering on the fence of radicalization, and make a bold public statement, such as closing Guantanamo. “There are Muslim Americans who want to play an active and positive role in fostering dialogue and education about these issues,” Nossel said. “I see positive steps being taken to amplify those voices and ensure that they’re part of the discussions about how we all react to this.”

4. Spend more on human intelligence abroad.
The balance within our current counterterrorism strategies of mostly air-based tactics and some intelligence needs to be flipped, said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Our intelligence needs to be increased, particularly our human intelligence,” said Kleinfeld, “which has been under-funded for years compared to signals intelligence – we need both, but human is always the way you get more deeply involved and understand these situations.”

5. Get serious about gun control to thwart potential terrorists.
As President Obama, Co-Founder of VoteVets.org Jon Soltz, and many, many others have reiterated, the fact that a person can be on the no-fly list and still legally purchase a gun is inherently detrimental to the safety and security of the American people. “We live in a country right now where you can’t get on an airplane because you’re on a terror watch list, but you can buy an AK-47 at Walmart, walk down the road and shoot everyone you want,” said Soltz. “In 2010, Al Qaeda made a recruiting poster about our gun laws.” Suzanne Nossel referred to the accessibility of guns in the United States as an “invitation for too many people” that “lowers the barrier to committing acts like this, and it’s within our power to address.”

6. Help governments of struggling countries to mitigate radicalization of future terrorists.
“I think one of the things we in America need to look at is how to become less US-centric,” Kleinfeld said, “and focus on helping people counter the threats in their own areas, because they are the ones at risk, and they are the ones who can solve the problems. Terrorism comes from poor governance. These governments that treat their people badly, that create grievances that terrorists can grab onto and turn into a jihadist threat what was once a local threat or a grievance of one sort or another. Helping those governments become better is something that requires work, but not military work, and will ultimately be the way that we try to fight terrorism abroad.”

7. Stop trying to force regime change in the Middle East (and everywhere else).
In addition to poor governance, another force that contributes to the radicalization of terrorists is outside interference, particularly an invasion or forced regime change. “The terrorism problem does not come out of nowhere,” said Stephen Walt. “To say that doesn’t justify what terrorist groups do, but it is to say that terrorism is a first approximation, a reaction, to many decades of outside interference, beginning with the British and the French and continuing with the US as well…My own view on this one is that we would be much better off if we were killing fewer Muslims, much less actively involved in the Middle East, not trying to play traffic cop or referee in a large, multi-dimensional political conflict.”

8. Let go of the US demand for Assad’s removal to broaden the coalition against ISIS.
The Obama administration’s opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has proven to be a difficult hurdle in the navigation of a Russia/US coalition against ISIS. “We have to figure out how we’re going to create a [broader] alliance against ISIS,” said Jon Soltz. “Right now we’re very far from that. Specifically because there’s this perception that Assad has to go. I’m certainly no fan of Assad, but I will tell you that he’s got tremendous strategic support from the Russians, and the Iranians.” On the subject of Assad, Suzanne Nossel referred to loosening our hardline stance on the dictator as a “fairly obvious step…If it truly was a coalition of the United States, Russia and Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council all genuinely on the same team, I think the psychological dimensions of this would shift.”

9. Consider that rampant overuse of drones creates more terrorists. 
It’s unfortunately not always obvious that the individuals responsible for counterterrorism strategies have made serious attempts to weigh the costs and benefits of their tactics. “We can kill a lot of alleged terrorists with drones, but we may be creating more than we are actually killing,” said Stephen Walt. “We are constantly being told about all the successes we’re having, the thousands of terrorists that we’ve disrupted or killed, and yet the problem seems to be getting worse. That suggests there’s something not working. In particular, we’re not balancing expense and effort and possibly counterproductive effects of this policy with what the benefits are. How much more danger would we be in if we were doing less of some of these things?”

10. Give people something to do with their fear instead of panicking.
The goal of terrorism is to create fear, and allowing this fear to control our lives and domestic politics means the terrorists have won. In order to prevent this, we need to try to convert this fear into rational action. “We need a president, and we need some leadership, that discusses this fear as something that’s reasonable – that it’s fair to be afraid, but let’s not let the terrorists win here. Let’s take that fear, and do something with it,” said Kleinfeld. “In disasters, they come up with all sorts of things for people to do that are not necessarily useful to the disaster, but they’re useful for giving people something to do so that they don’t panic. Right now the only politician giving anyone anything to do is Trump, and Trump is giving really bad things to do.”