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Trump’s new counterterrorism strategy

A realistic—but challenging—plan for an age of conflict

Clifford D. May
10th October 2018 - The Washington Times

“We remain a nation at war.” President Trump’s new National Strategy for Counterterrorism (NSC) begins with that simple statement of fact. The 21st century is an age of conflict. That’s unlikely to change any time soon.

We don’t like that. It’s more comforting to believe, as President Obama apparently did, that “the tide of war is receding,” that eliminating Osama bin Laden was tantamount to defeating al Qaeda; that such terrorist groups as the Islamic State are merely “JV” teams; and that we have experts trained to “counter violent extremism.”

“This war, like all wars, must end,” President Obama instructed us in 2013. “That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

Actually, if history advises anything it’s that wars are seldom ended by fiat. And surely if democracy demands anything, it’s to be defended from anti-democratic forces. Of which there are many.

In World War II we defeated racial supremacists. In the Cold War we defeated class supremacists. In the current war, the Long War, as I think it makes sense to call it, we will either defeat religious supremacists or they will defeat us.

They have grievances, to be sure, but more to the point, they have ambitions. You value peace, tolerance and prosperity? They value power, conquest and glory. You favor diversity? This is what the real thing looks like.

At a White House briefing last week, National Security Advisor John Bolton told reporters that the new NSC recognizes “that there’s a terrorist ideology that we’re confronting. Without recognizing that, we can’t properly address the terrorist threat.”

The 34-page document refers to “radical Islamist terrorist groups,” a phrase President Obama avoided out of fear it would offend Muslims. Let me suggest that most Muslims are not fools. They know that from Asia to the Middle East to Africa to the Balkans to Michigan, Islam is interpreted and practiced in different ways.

Though Islam is not a monolith, a small but fanatic minority of Muslims are determined to make it one. Day after day, they slaughter Muslims who disobey or even disagree. The Arabic word for such a theological bully: takfiri. We can and should ask Muslims to stand up to them. We have an obligation to support those who do.

Note that Mr. Trump’s new strategy talks about Islamism, which can be defined as an ideology based on the imperative of re-establishing the dominance Islam enjoyed throughout much of the world for nearly a thousand years.

Radical Islamists believe the path to the future must be cleared by the sword -- by waging jihad against infidels, apostates and heretics. Or, as al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri phrased it a message timed to coincide with the most recent anniversary of the 9/11/01 attacks, against “the major international criminals – America being the foremost.”

Iran’s rulers, though Shia, not Sunni, are no less radical Islamist, a fact the Trump strategy states without equivocation. It characterizes the Islamic Republic as “the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism, through its global network of operatives and its ongoing support to an array of terrorist groups.”

The theocrats in Tehran have been “the world’s central banker of international terrorism since 1979,” Mr. Bolton said, adding that “Iran-sponsored terrorist groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad continue to pose a threat to the United States and our interests."

Fighting wars means staying on a war footing. It means killing enemies. The new strategy prioritizes “strengthening military approaches.” Mr. Bolton said the president also will place “an increased emphasis on non-kinetic means.” The document candidly acknowledges that “we have not developed a prevention architecture to thwart terrorist radicalization and recruitment.”

The administration intends to “dismantle terrorists' networks and sever the sources of strength and support that sustain them, that allow them to regenerate, and that permit them to adapt.”

In other words, the use of economic weapons will increase in an attempt to deprive both Iran’s rulers and non-state terrorists groups of the resources they need to fight effectively over the long run.

Terrorist funding continues to come from Middle Eastern petroleum which is why the administration would be well-advised to seriously consider policies that would encourage transportation fuel diversification. 

The administration would like America’s allies to be better partners, to shoulder more responsibilities. “America First does not mean America alone,” the NSC notes.

Other components of the plan include continuing to detain unlawful combatants at Guantanamo (once on American soil they are legally entitled to all the rights of American citizens), “building strong borders, strengthening security at all ports of entry into the United States, protecting its critical infrastructure, and facilitating preparedness.”

At this moment the U.S. electrical grid is vulnerable to cyber weapons as well as an EMP attack (the detonation of a nuclear weapon high above the U.S. mainland). Prevention is preferable to cure but we should have a backup plan, one that makes it possible to restore electric power within days, not months.

President Trump’s new NSC is not the last word on counterterrorism. Our enemies learn and adapt, and so must we. History’s advice aside, military strategists for millennia have been counseling that, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” With the tide of war rising rather than receding, that’s a conservative estimate of the number of battles that lie ahead.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), host of FDD's Foreign Podicy, and the foreign desk columnist for the Washington Times. Follow him on twitter @CliffordDMay

FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD, and follow Foreign Podicy @Foreign_Podicy.

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