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Panel 2

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Are We Still Fighting a War on Terrorism?


  • Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  • Mary Beth Long, former Assistant Secretary of Defense
  • Matthew Olsen, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center
  • Fran Townsend, former Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
  • Moderator: Juan Zarate, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and former Deputy Assistant to the President

Juan Zarate opened the panel discussion by observing that after the death of Osama bin Laden, many analysts argued that the “death” of terrorism was also near. Instead, he said, the threat today is more diverse and arguably, even more dangerous. Panelists debated the extent to which terrorist groups have managed to gain territory and influence across the Middle East, and the threat they continue to pose to America’s homeland and allies.

On understanding our adversaries:

  •  Gartenstein-Ross: The ideological differences between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are slight – both favor the establishment of the caliphate and differ only in how to establish it. It is like “rooting for different sports teams” – all are ultimately playing the same game. Al-Qaeda operates “in the shadows,” often masking its involvement in attacks, while IS uses “outright deception” (including false media reports) to make itself appear stronger than it actually is.
  • Townsend: We have seen IS develop propaganda capabilities nobody ever imagined. “The terrorists believe they’re at war with us; we certainly haven’t acted like we’re at war with them.”
  • Long: Who is the enemy? Politicians may not want to put a name on it, but it critical we identify it as violent, radical Islam.

 On U.S. support for allies:

  •  Zarate: Our strategy relies on “partner capacity” but that is collapsing in places like Iraq and Libya, and non-existent in places like Somalia and Syria. The U.S. cannot be everywhere at once, but also must not be wholly reliant on others.
  •  Long: Our leaders seem to be more interested in meeting with our enemies –Venezuela and Cuba, for example – than with our allies. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf have noticed the criticism Washington has levied at the Israeli government, and are wondering if American support can still be counted on. The United States is also “incredibly inconsistent” with its application of force.
  • Townsend: The Saudis feel threatened on all fronts, and the U.S. is not supporting them adequately in confronting the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.
  • Gartenstein-Ross: The Kurdish Peshmerga have been “one of the most effective fighting forces” against IS, but the U.S. has “left them out to dry.” Kurdish autonomy in Iraq is the most successful democratic experiment in the region, and we are not supporting it sufficiently. The Kurds are the only fighting force in Iraq that will not terrorize the civilian populations of land it seizes.

On Iran:

  • Townsend: It is a mistake to believe you can negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran and ignore that it is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
  • Long: The question has shifted from “Should Iran have nuclear weapons?” to “When will Iran have nuclear weapons?”

On U.S. leadership and the severity of the threat:

  • Olsen: Although the U.S. has successfully prevented another large-scale attack like 9/11, smaller-scale incidents are harder to interdict, presenting a “risk-management” challenge. “You can’t stop every Boston bombing.”
  • Townsend: The U.S. has pulled inward at a time when the world faces a critical need for leadership. There are three elements to fighting terrorists – find, fight, and finish – and we are woefully deficient at the last one. This is a fight that will last at least two generations.
  • Long: The U.S. has “led from behind,” but “if you’re not present and you’re not strong, you’re not there. And if you’re not there, you’re not credible.” This is “by far the most dangerous time” since World War II, and we need to “get serious” about combatting terrorism to prevent another large-scale tragedy like those of that era.