During the first year of the Trump administration, Colonel (Ret) Chris Costa was detailed to the White House as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism. Costa’s 34-year government career included 25 years in counterintelligence, human intelligence, and with special operations forces (SOF) in the United States Army. He served in Central America, Europe, and throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan. He ran a wide range of intelligence and sensitive operations in Panama, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Colonel (Ret) Costa earned two Bronze Stars for sensitive human intelligence work in Afghanistan. Assigned to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group with Navy SEALs, he served as the first civilian squadron deputy director. In 2013, he was inducted into the United States Special Operations Command’s Commando Hall of Honor for lifetime service to U.S. Special Operations. Colonel (Ret) Costa has been the executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., since 2018.

CTC: You served as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism during the first year of President Donald Trump’s administration. Can you discuss what your team’s responsibilities were and where the team was situated within the NSC’s [National Security Council’s] organizational structure?

Costa: First of all, I want to say that I inherited an extraordinary team of professionals, something I recognized before I even stepped into the NSC. Our mission was to provide options for the president of the United States as it related to counterterrorism (CT) and hostages. As the Senior Director for Counterterrorism, I was the convening authority for the Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG)—the body that pulls together the interagency, at the assistant secretary level, and develops options for the President for dealing with CT issues. These issues would come from our office—and the CSG—to deputies, to a principals committee, and, ultimately, to the president for consideration.

My team was composed of 15 people at its highest point and consisted of professionals from across the interagency, including the FBI, State Department, Department of Justice, National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense (DoD), and the National Counterterrorism Center. I also had military officers that were detailed to the office from Army Special Operations and Naval Special Warfare.

Our team was part of the broader NSC, which consisted of about 12 other directorates, when I was there. Typically, the other directorates are either geographic or functional in focus, but ours was both. It was, essentially, a hybridization of the national security structure within our directorate and was responsible for providing options for the president across seven different priority areas. The first was protecting the homeland and overseas interests, including embassies. Two individuals on my team focused on identifying terrorist threats worldwide and mitigation strategies for those respective threats, to include threats to commercial aviation. Additionally, I had a team that was focused on defeating ISIS, because, at that time, taking away the physical caliphate remained a significant priority. To be clear, they were focused not just on Syria or Iraq, but also on the affiliates and branches of ISIS, which were developing and coalescing worldwide. The third priority for our directorate was continuing to focus on both core al-Qa`ida and but also al-Qa`ida affiliates, groups like al-Shabaab, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Hay’at Tahir al-Sham.a We also recognized that we were going to put significant pressure on Iranian proxies. We were going to put pressure on Iran as a state, and we wanted to focus on Hezbollah. We recognized that it wouldn’t be kinetic necessarily, but this was our fourth priority area. Fifth, we wanted to focus on countering terrorists’ use of the internet, which is also related to counter-radicalization.

Another of our priorities was hostage recoveries and strategies. I was responsible for convening the Hostage Response Group (HRG), another interagency body, in concert with the Hostage [Recovery] Fusion Cell, housed at the FBI,1 and the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the Department of State. The hostages our team was concerned with were Americans held by terrorists, in addition to those held by countries that wouldn’t acknowledge holding U.S. citizens, like Iran holding Robert Levinson, or Syria’s detention of Austin Tice, among others.b This was important because the unique tools of CT can be artfully employed to support recovery options.

Lastly, we also focused on foreign fighters and terrorist detention issues. For instance, developing strategies for dealing with ISIS foreign fighters who were being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the future disposition of GITMO [Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility].

It was a relatively small team covering down on all those areas of concern. I think, though, our team was well equipped for two reasons. One, because I was extraordinarily lucky, just like my predecessors, to have a professional team of incredibly talented individuals; and two, because their job was not to exclusively ‘own’ these issues but to work collaboratively with the interagency to generate and deliver appropriate policy options for the president—options that translated the overall strategy into policy and ‘operations,’ executed by departments and agencies. My goal was to avoid ‘tacticization’ from the White House; I didn’t want us to be in the tactical fight. When we had to think about diplomatic options, we worked with the State Department. When we were considering military options, we worked closely with the Pentagon. When thinking about the sanctions that we could employ and other financial tools, we worked with Treasury and State. Our job was to coordinate with the interagency to ensure that we had strategy and policy alignment and to make sure the interagency had consensus to the extent that we could. When we didn’t have consensus, we had to flag that to our leadership, which for me was the Homeland Security Advisor and the National Security Advisor. All this, I want to note, included constant engagements with our foreign partners. They wanted to know, what were we doing, how our policy options might impact South Asia, for example. What was our strategy going to look like when it was published? What was our position on Guantanamo Bay? We had to also engage with the diplomatic community in D.C. and our intelligence partners when they came to the NSC. All of that coordination happened, with regard to CT and hostages, with our 12 to 15 people in the directorate.

I also think that it’s important to highlight that we worked hard to keep politics out of the CT process. We recommended policy outputs that were well informed by sound intelligence. That’s one place where I had an advantage as a policymaker after all those years being an intelligence officer. I was well taken care of by the interagency and by the intelligence community. I knew who to talk to and what questions to ask. At the same time, I was well informed and I felt like I was on very firm ground when I made recommendations, which were informed by intelligence.

CTC: What did the threat picture look like as your team took over in January 2017?

Costa: At the end of 2016, and the beginning of 2017, there were attacks happening in Europe.2 Some were ISIS-directed, complex attacks and some were ISIS-inspired, but it’s important to remember that there were a dizzying number of attacks taking place in Europe. ISIS still controlled Raqqa, arguably their center of gravity.3 There was a completely disrupted landscape from the Sahel to the Maghreb to the Horn of Africa, and from Afghanistan to the Philippines. ISIS was expanding outside Syria. There were affiliates and branches that were growing. We knew that we were going to have to accelerate our [counter-]ISIS campaign.

With that background, I want to talk about what I call ‘day one, week one problems.’ The Monday after Inauguration Day, we had four significant issues within the directorate, day one, week one. First, we had to make a decision that first week on whether U.S. Special Operations Forces were going to conduct a raid against AQAP in Yemen.c Second, we had a persistent, pervasive, and dangerous threat to commercial aviation. We knew groups like AQAP wanted to bring down commercial airliners, and we knew, because there was continuity between the administrations, that this was a significant problem and we were going to have to handle it. It was not an easy problem, and it required complex policy decisions to mitigate that threat, along with actions that had to happen overseas.d

All of this was wrapped in, within the first week, the need to accelerate the campaign against ISIS.e As I mentioned, we did not want to manage that campaign from the White House, but we did see a need to accelerate the campaign and had to make sure the right tools and authorities were given to General [Joseph] Votel [then Commander of U.S. Central Command] in order to do that. The last issue that we were dealing with revolved around hostage recovery. We had hostages in Africa that we wanted to bring home, we had hostages in the Middle East that we wanted to bring home, and, of course, we had hostages in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area that we wanted to bring home. Those were some of the problems that we were dealing with just in the first week.

Chris Costa

CTC: What were some of the basic assumptions that underpinned your effort to craft the framework for the Trump administration’s counterterrorism strategy?

Costa: Going into the administration, I really hoped we would write the National Strategy for Counterterrorism (NSCT) during our first year, under my tenure. Ultimately, we didn’t do that, but what we did do was operationalize and test CT concepts. We were new as a team, so during that first year, we ended up framing the debates that the NSC and interagency would address. In the end, I’m glad we didn’t finish [the strategy] that first year, because I think the time we took to think through and debate the issues made it a better product.

My first assumption walking in was that we could no longer focus on just kinetic activities, although, to be clear, we had to spend a great deal of time that first year focused on direct action. If there was one major policy success my team had, in that first year, it was policy work on direct action.f I will say, however, that the flip side of that is that I recognized we couldn’t spend all of our effort on kinetic activities, so the strategy was going to have to focus on other instruments of national power. It was going to have to focus on strategic communication and on different, innovate ways of countering radicalization and focusing on terrorism prevention.

The second assumption I had going in was that our approach to CT was going to be evolutionary and not revolutionary and that I needed to set expectations accordingly. I had to go to my bosses, look them in the eye, and say, “if there are big new ideas to win this fight, I do not know what they are.” I had to explain to them that there was going to be continuity between our approach to CT and previous administrations. We were going to build on lessons learned from pre-9/11, through 9/11, through post-9/11, and through my immediate predecessor [Jen Easterly]. At times, my bosses, the National Security Advisor and the Homeland Security Advisor, were looking for something that was markedly different from what we had done in the past. I knew, though, that we had been successful, as a nation, in preventing another 9/11-scale attack, so while there were some ways that we could make the strategy different, it would also build on the success of the past. That was a very important assumption.

Third, I knew, and my team knew, that we couldn’t go it alone. We were going to need a wide range of partnerships. We just can’t do CT independently; foreign partners are absolutely crucial. The fourth assumption was related to everything we’ve talked about so far; the threat landscape had changed. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levantg [the Islamic State’s predecessor] was not mentioned in the 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism [the previous NSCT] because they did not exist yet, but it was very much focused on one jihadist-AQ-threat strain.h Initially, I contemplated that we could stay focused on ISIS and perhaps publish an ISIS-specific strategy and then publish a broader CT strategy. I’m glad we didn’t go down that path. While the strategy took longer to publish, when it was published, it covered down on a greater array of threats and more accurately reflected the environment. If we tried to publish the strategy in the first year, we wouldn’t have met the very objectives that I wanted to attain, so I give a lot of credit to the team that followed, because they did the hard work of getting the 2018 NSCT across the finish line. But, because we broadened the strategy, we ended up focusing on groups that we’d never talked about in our history of fighting terrorists, like white supremacists.

CTC: You’ve mentioned in other forums that the 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism represented a “staying arc of continuity” between administrations, but also that you felt it is the “best [CT] strategy the nation has ever had.”4 What aspects of CT policy were crucial to maintain across administrations, and what were some of the most important changes your team made?

Costa: First and foremost, and this isn’t reflected in the CT strategy directly, but I inherited a great team and systems for addressing CT issues. The first thing I wanted to maintain was the CSG [Counterterrorism Security Group] process. I wanted to ensure that [the CSG] maintained its integrity and that there was continuity in how we approached CT problems as an interagency team. I also adopted some of the human resource processes. These things might not sound important but I think they were for continuity. I could have made adjustments to the CSG process, for example, but it worked so efficiently and effectively I wanted to maintain that continuity so the actors within the interagency knew the mechanisms we’d be using to deal with CT issues. As far as my team, I wanted to ensure that we had nothing but professionals, who focused on the art and tools of the unique discipline that is CT. We genuinely needed to understand the multi-dimensional threat environment we were dealing with, and I wanted to maintain the professional ethos that included, among other things, how we used intelligence, no cherry-picking of intelligence, and no politicization of CT issues. As I mentioned before, I was really committed to the idea of evolutionary, not revolutionary CT policy, and organizational continuity was an important part of that.

We also had the chance to operationalize Presidential Policy Directive 30, the Obama administration’s reorganization of the U.S. government’s hostage recovery enterprise. We brought home Caitlin Coleman and her children after being in captivity for five years.i That’s a great example, in that first year, of continuity as we operationalized the strategy and directives that were published. I think that’s some good news that the American public needs to know.

Despite all the continuity, there were places we felt like the CT strategy needed to evolve. There were three important changes that grew out of the debates we had as we framed the issues and that the team subsequently built into the 2018 strategy. The first one was that we wanted to include domestic terrorism by white supremacists and we wanted a greater focus on state-sponsored terrorism, which included Iran. Arguably, we had never placed as much emphasis on state-sponsored terrorists before in a national CT strategy. We had primarily focused on al-Qa`ida. We had to include racially motivated violent extremists, which has become a term of art, but it gets to the heart of the far-right white supremacists that might employ violence. Take, for instance, the Russian Imperial Movement. That’s a great example of a white supremacist organization that has a nexus to overseas political violence and planning, and broadening the scope of the 2018 NSCT allowed the administration to take action against them.j

Second and related, as I already mentioned Iran, we wanted to focus more attention on proxies like Hezbollah, but not kinetically. Our implementation strategy included putting pressure on Hezbollah with sanctions, Rewards for Justice,k and other non-kinetic tools. From a CT standpoint, Hezbollah is cash starved right now and operating on a shoestring budget.l This is a result not just of the strategy, but of actions taken during that first year, to expand focus on Hezbollah while still focusing on ISIS and al-Qa`ida.

The third change was that we wanted to broaden our work on counter-radicalization. I inherited a term, “countering violent extremism” (CVE), that we knew were going to get rid of because it was too politically charged. I came on board a believer that we had to do counter-radicalization work, unquestionably. But we also knew that we needed to get rid of that term and assess what the previous administration did. The Department of Homeland Security, at the time it was [led by Secretary of Homeland Security] General (Ret) John Kelly, was going to assess those programs on CVE. While those assessments were taking place, we framed the argument that we needed to focus more on a prevention architecture, and that’s been institutionalized in the 2018 strategy.m That’s a very important point and its framing in the 2018 strategy contributed to the U.S. intelligence community and DHS trying to understand the nexus between right-wing extremists and foreign actors.5

CTC: You mentioned wanting to broaden the administration’s work on counter-radicalization, but also said that a great deal of your time was taken up with the application of kinetic counterterrorism pressure against the Islamic State. What are the other non-kinetic tools that you think the United States should be investing in?

Costa: We have to continue working on strategic communication and counter-messaging. The government is not going to solve all CT problems. NGOs and in some cases the private sector have to be involved with these programs. We instead have to rely on partners in countries like Jordan to counter malign jihadist messaging. King Abdullah [of Jordan], for instance, has a private sector and civil society foreign partner forum to discuss the terrorism content on the internet.6 Those are the kind of engagements we need to encourage.

One project that I am personally involved as a private citizen now deals with former terrorists who have served their time in the U.S. prison system. We need to think about how we’re going to engage with those individuals in the long term, after they’re released. We’re going to have some four hundred jihadists that have been prosecuted in the United States. In the next few years, scores of them are going to be released. I have interviewed Bryant Viñas, the first American post 9/11 to become a member of al-Qa`ida,n and Najibullah Zazi, the would-be [New York City] subway bomber,o to understand their path to radicalization, but also to leverage what they told me and get the word out on the false promises of waging violent jihad, either via podcasts or in published articles.7 It is really important to chip away at jihadist messaging—so letting terrorists, former terrorists, in their own voice, counter that messaging. These are things that I want to see more energy focused on in the future.

To the point about being so focused on kinetic targeting, I did come into the administration hopeful that we could focus more on counter-radicalization. But given the problems that we had, our priority first was taking away ISIS’ physical caliphate. But even that, in essence, is an important strategic message, that ISIS lost their so-called caliphate. In doing that, you’re taking away an important message from ISIS themselves.

CTC: Partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces has been important for U.S. efforts to defeat the Islamic State. Some have argued that this type of “surrogate warfare” will continue to be employed as states seek to pursue national interests in an increasing complex 21st century security landscape.8 Why was the decision to work with a partner force so central to the “defeat ISIS” campaign?

Costa: The first point is that the U.S. is moving away from large-scale deployments. I don’t think this president, in particular, will support large deployments of the U.S. military, and I think his sensibilities are right. Americans do not want endless wars. So, in cases where the U.S. national interests dictate kinetic action, the conflicts will require surrogates.

Secondly, the United States can’t solve every problem. It’s not going to be the U.S. providing whatever comes in the aftermath of a more settled Syria or Iraq. These issues are long-term, and when CT operations happen, they will likely be executed with a small U.S. footprint and partner forces, which I think is consistent with the goal of having less U.S. troops deployed.

The third point is that these discrete CT campaigns, what I call wars within wars, are part of broader non-kinetic fights for influence that some refer to as grey zone conflict.9 It took a year at the NSC to fully process and recognize that. There are whole other dimensions, aside from the CT fight. There were dangerous political faultlines; Iranians were in the battlespace, Russia was on the ground, Israel had significant concerns with Hezbollah. Syria was certainly operating inimical to U.S. interests, plus they held American hostages. The president also had to worry about Turkey, and at the same time, we had to balance not having a precipitous withdrawal. That isn’t an environment where large deployments of U.S. forces are going to be useful. It’s instructive to look at what we were authorized to do. We were authorized to work with partners, to give the SDF the equipment they needed to ramp up their efforts in Raqqa.10 This NSC, however, did not focus on the day-to-day tactical fight, but rather on monitoring the grey zone conflict that was playing out and to ensure that we were postured to keep pressure on ISIS. Now, I’m happy to say that there remains a small U.S. footprint on the ground in Syria.

CTC: What were some of the challenges of trying to work through a partner force to achieve such an important U.S. priority? How did you mitigate those challenges?

Costa: There are a number of challenges working through partner forces, and it’s easy to get caught up in the tactical challenges of those partnerships. We had trust, however, that General Votel [then CENTCOM Commander] and General Dunford [then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] were handling those challenges with regional partners. They were engaged with the SDF, with the Kurds in particular, and were engaging with the Turkish military and had open lines of communication with the coalition against ISIS. As all of that was playing out, our job at the NSC was to oversee regional security, to ensure lines of communication with partners remained open, and to focus on the broader geopolitical issues. It can be hard to maintain that high-level focus with CT, which often looks incredibly tactical.

One challenge in particular was the regional implications of arming our partner force, the SDF, which was heavily Kurdish. We knew, obviously, that Turkey would be disturbed by that, so we had to carefully generate options for the president to consider what type of support we would provide. What type of equipment, what type of weapons, what type of ammunition? We had to generate policy options that would allow the SDF to conduct operations to defeat the Islamic State, yet also not create undue regional tension. Ultimately, the president was going to sign off on equipping the SDF, so it became important to develop a plan to communicate that to our regional partners, Turkey especially.11 Those were the types of problems, in concert with the interagency, that our directorate had to work on.

CTC: How do you think about the balance between risk, political and strategic, and providing latitude for military commanders to pursue a campaign that allows for maximum initiative? Special operations forces are designed to shape the strategic environment, so how do you hedge against decisions or failures that can have significant strategic implications while keeping tactical decision-making out of the National Security Council?

Costa: We had to deal with that in the first week with the raid against AQAP. I was responsible for having discussions with the National Security Advisor, and other deputies and decisionmakers, while the planning was playing out. President Obama made a concerted effort, evidently, not to make the final decision to authorize the operation against AQAP because it was unfair for it to play out in the middle of a transition, literally around Inauguration Day. We understood that we inherited an operational plan that the new administration had to decide on.12

All of that said, I did what I had learned cumulatively over a career. First, I received the operational plan at a macro level. I’ve made points previously about eschewing the tactical aspects of operations at the NSC, but in this case, as a policymaker, I needed to better understand the overarching plan so I could contemplate the risks. Second, once I understood the broad contours of the operation, I was prepared to discuss those risks with the National Security Advisor so he could lay it all out for the president.

Third, I understood my role if something went awry. When I was woken up by a call from the Situation Room in the early hours of the morning, I made my way into the White House and called my counterparts at the Pentagon and simply asked them if there was anything they needed from my office. If not, I wanted them to know I’d be there for the rest of that Sunday. If they needed to call me, needed me to push any information to the president through my chain, I was there. What I didn’t do was ask for constant updates; I didn’t insert myself. I wanted them to do the appropriate notifications. I wanted them to assess the intelligence that was taken from their sensitive site exploitation on the ground in Yemen. I had to focus on other strategic issues. What were the implications of this with the Yemeni government? Would the United States still be able to conduct operations on the Arabian Peninsula? What other impact would this operation have in the region? These are the things I had to focus on, and it was difficult to do, it was gut-wrenching. I remembered Ryan Owens [the U.S. Navy SEAL killed]; I knew others who were there on the ground. There is a human dynamic to policy decisions.

I think that operation, how we handled it, set the tone for our partners in the interagency because we trusted them to do their jobs and didn’t ask them to push us a lot of data. How do you strike the balance between understanding the risk without squashing initiative? I think you arm yourself with as much information as you need to be cleareyed about the risk, ensure you communicate that risk, and once a decision is made, support the organizations responsible for the operation. I think it was the cumulative years of managing and mitigating risk that allowed me to do that.

CTC: One of the debates in counterterrorism revolves around how much of a CT policy to make public.13 In implementing its CT strategy, the current administration has reduced some of the reporting requirements for counterterrorism operations.14 As someone who has had experience in both classified, compartmentalized units and, now, in a public-facing organization, what do you think the right balance is between secrecy and transparency in CT policy and operations?

Costa: When we wrote the National Counterterrorism Strategy, we wrote it for multiple audiences. We’re writing to our adversaries, we’re communicating to our strategic partners, and, of course, we are writing to the American public. We all unquestionably decided that the CT strategy needed to be a public-facing document, to provide its trajectory and share the president’s CT strategy for the nation. At the same time, however, we all recognized that some of the work would not be made available to the public because of classification. The question becomes, how do you strike the balance of secrecy and transparency? I think every administration does it differently, and we recognized a need to be more opaque on some details than the previous administration.p We decided we did not want to communicate our techniques and procedures for how we conduct direct action, for example. We did not want to ‘telegraph our punches’ to our adversaries. Some argued that our foreign partners would insist on seeing the details and that our strategic relationships could suffer, but those concerns were overblown.

The American public generally does not want to know the details of direct-action work. What they should know is that it’s working well and that the U.S. is not dismissing our obligations for proportionality and protecting non-combatants. I can’t speak to the reporting of civilian casualties, but I will tell you that the direct-action policy is a sound policy. We have significantly streamlined the process. The policy overall is effective and efficient.

CTC: There have been a number of recent developments that have reduced the pressure the Islamic State is feeling, with a metrics study published in the May 2020 issue of CTC Sentinel finding that the group has “recovered from its territorial defeats since 2017” and is mounting “a strong and sustained resurgence as an insurgent force inside Iraq.”15 How do you think about the threat from the Islamic State over the next few years?

Costa: I am cautiously optimistic that we have taken away the message of the caliphate, by that I mean that we’ve destroyed the physical caliphate, which has taken away one of the group’s main messaging narratives. At the same time, however, I am absolutely confident that some group, whether an offshoot from ISIS or some other group, will emerge out of the ashes. That’s what happened with al-Qa`ida in Iraq when we pulled our forces out [in 2011], which I think was done precipitously. So, we must consider that there will be some resurgent group that organizes clandestinely and builds on the work that ISIS did. Terrorism is not going to go away. It sounds cliché, but this is a generational fight and we can never declare the mission completely accomplished, which is why it’s more like the metaphor of a disease. It is not going to go away, but we can treat it, we can focus on it. But at the end of the day, it is going to continue.

We can enjoy partial success, on some level, in the fact that whatever group emerges is likely to be more localized. It will be a primarily regional issue. That’s where we are going to have to rely on foreign partners, like the government of Iraq. They’ll have seen this cycle before and understand what happened when they did not nip a burgeoning ISIS in the bud. Look at Mosul in 2014, for instance. This is where it goes full circle and where we’re going to have to redouble our efforts to work with foreign partners. We’re also going to have to maintain HUMINT capabilities, meaning networks of sources reporting on the ground. Our SOF forces and other intelligence agencies will have to continue to develop sources and be the connective tissue with the right actors on the ground.

Of course, we have to balance all of that with other intelligence problems, such as the [COVID-19] pandemic, dealing with a China that is acting more threatening than they have historically, and a Russia that will continue to test us. But we’re a great nation and we can do more than one thing at a time.

CTC: The shift toward near-peer competition as exemplified in the 2018 National Defense Strategy has led to funding, policy attention, and resources flowing away from counterterrorism, both in the military and intelligence agencies. Additionally, the COVID-19 crisis may put further pressure on counterterrorism budgets because of the bleak economic outlook and the overwhelming need to tackle the current global public health emergency.16 Given these new parameters, how do you think counterterrorism operations and focus will change over the next several years to support the pivot to near-peer competition as CT forces operate in a constrained environment while still meeting the threats from terrorism actors you’ve discussed?

Costa: In short, the bottom line is there are going to be some budget cuts, there will be some reapportioning of resources. That’s just natural in light of a pandemic, North Korea, and other priorities. At the same time, however, we are at a greater risk of overcorrecting on the CT front. People have argued that there is a “terrorism trap” with people like me saying “if you take away our resources there is going to be a 9/11.” Conversely, here’s what I actually argue: There hasn’t been another 9/11. There have been attacks, but for all intents and purposes, we’ve been successful at preventing another attack on that scale. If what we have built works, and it’s not broken, then we should continue, at a consistent level, with how we have operated, because it has protected the nation. Yes, some resources might need to be reapportioned. There might be more fat that can be cut from the CT budget, but I think the greater risk is overcorrection. And the CT enterprise works. The National Counterterrorism Center works. Small-footprint SOF operations, working with local partners, working with foreign partners, these things work. HUMINT, as well, is important and, relatively speaking, is inexpensive. I think it’s important to identify and reinforce the successes we’ve had in the CT sphere.

The other point I’d like to make is that everywhere I went, from France to Israel to Jordan to the Palestinian Authority, in all those places CT is a currency. Everyone wanted to talk about it. It’s important even to countries that are not always happy with our broader foreign policy. It evens the playing field, so to speak. Virtually all nations worry about vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks. Whether from violent right-wing extremists, violent left-wing extremists, or something in between, everyone worries about violent extremists and terrorism.

All of that said, I think we can do both CT and rebalance for other threats at the same time. Our nation has tremendous resources. I think the answer is working with foreign partners; focusing on our robust intelligence capabilities, HUMINT in particular; and leveraging our special operations forces. Our rebalancing can’t be binary; it can’t be an either/or proposition. We can’t, for instance, focus on North Korea or China and forget about CT. We’re going to have to figure out a way of doing both.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s note: Al-Qa`ida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra rebranded in July 2016, taking the name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and ostensibly dropping its links with al-Qa`ida. In January 2017, it merged with other groups, taking the name Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. There is a debate among analysts about how close it remains to al-Qa`ida. In May 2018, the U.S. Department of State designated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham an alias of Jabhat al-Nusra, essentially labeling the new group a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). See Aymenn al-Tamimi, “The Formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Wider Tensions in the Syrian Insurgency,” CTC Sentinel 10:2 (2017) and “Amendments to the Terrorist Designations of al-Nusra Front,” U.S. Department of State, May 31, 2018.

[b] Editor’s note: Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, disappeared in Iran in 2007 while reportedly on a CIA operation and was suspected of being held by the Iranian government. In March 2020, it was revealed that he had died in captivity. Austin Tice, a freelance journalist, was detained in 2012 in Syria after being stopped at a checkpoint south of Damascus. The identity of his captors remains unclear, though in March 2020, President Trump appealed directly to the Assad regime for his release. See “For First Time, Iran Says Case Is Open on Missing C.I.A. Consultant,” Associated Press, November 9, 2019; Adam Goldman, “Ex-F.B.I. Agent Who Vanished on C.I.A. Mission to Iran Is Most Likely Dead, U.S. Concludes,” New York Times, March 25, 2020; Nisan Ahmado, “Parents of US Reporter Missing for 7 Years in Syria Still Await His Return,” VOA News, November 14, 2019; Carol Morello, “Trump asks Syrian government to ‘work with us’ to free journalist who disappeared,” Washington Post, March 19, 2020.

[c] Editor’s note: In late 2016, a raid was being considered to gather intelligence in order to “gather the information needed to map out [AQAP] and to prevent future foreign terrorist attacks.” The operation was initially planned under the Obama administration but, when its execution was delayed, was considered and approved by the Trump administration. The raid, conducted by U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) in January 2017, resulted in the deaths of one U.S. Navy SEAL, 14 AQAP operatives, and a number of civilians, including 8-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and the daughter of the previously killed AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki. See William M. Arkin, Ken Dilanian, and Robert Windrem, “Inside the Navy SEAL Raid in Yemen Targeting al Qaeda,” NBC News, February 2, 2017, and Terri Moon Cronk, “U.S. Raid in Yemen Garners Intelligence,” DoD News, January 30, 2017.

[d] Editor’s note: In March 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a ban on carrying select electronic devices onboard flights from several Middle Eastern and North African airports to the United States. This threat, described as “very sophisticated, real, and targeted at certain airports” by then Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, required coordination with intelligence agencies, DHS, and foreign countries to ensure the explosive devices could be detected. See Ewen MacAskill, “Laptop ban on planes came after plot to put explosives in iPad,” Guardian, March 26, 2017; John Kelly, comments at “Securing the Homeland in the Post-Post 9/11 Era,” moderated by Pete Williams, Aspen Institute, July 19, 2017.

[e] Editor’s note: The U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State began in 2014. President Donald Trump pushed to accelerate that campaign and the total destruction of the caliphate and organization. See Karen DeYoung, “Under Trump, gains against ISIS have ‘dramatically accelerated,’” Washington Post, August 4, 2017, and “Trump to Explore Military Options for Defeating Islamic State,” Associated Press, January 27, 2017.

[f] Editor’s note: The U.S. government defines direct action as “lethal and non-lethal uses of force, including capture operations, against terrorist targets outside the United States and areas of active hostilities.” “Procedures for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets Located Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities,” The White House, May 22, 2013.

[g] Editor’s note: The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was formed in April 2013, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the merger of the Islamic State of Iraq (previously al-Qa`ida in Iraq) with Jabhat al-Nusra, a decision that was not sanctioned by al-Qa`ida. This announcement led to a public rift between AQ and ISIL, ultimately leading to ISIL’s independence from al-Qa`ida. See Bryan Price, Daniel Milton, and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant: More than Just a June Surprise,” CTC Sentinel 7:6 (2014).

[h] Editor’s note: The 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism was written to outline “an approach that is more focused and specific” than previous strategies and claimed that the United States was “at war with a specific organization – al-Qa’ida.” See “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” The White House, June 2011.

[i] Editor’s note: Caitlin Coleman and her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle were kidnapped in 2012 and held for five years, probably by the Haqqani network, U.S. officials told Reuters. Caitlin and Joshua, along with three children born in captivity, were freed by Pakistani military forces. The New York Times reported U.S. officials urged Pakistan to carry out the operation after the family was located by a CIA drone in northwest Pakistan. See David Brunnstrom and Jonathan Landay, “CIA chief says U.S. Canadian couple held for five years in Pakistan,” Reuters, October 19, 2017, and Adam Goldman and Eric Schmitt, “Navy SEALs Were Ready if Pakistan Failed to Free Family Held as Hostages,” New York Times, October 17, 2017.

[j] Editor’s note: In April 2020, the U.S. Department of State designated the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, making it the first white supremacist group to be designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. See Michael Pompeo, “United States Designates Russian Imperial Movement and Leaders as Global Terrorists,” U.S. Department of State, April 7, 2020.

[k] Editor’s note: Rewards for Justice is a Department of State counterterrorism program designed to “bring international terrorists to justice and prevent acts of international terrorism against U.S. persons or property.” The program provides monetary rewards for information that leads to the arrest of terrorist leaders, terrorists plotting attacks against U.S. persons, or that disrupts terrorist financing. See “Program Overview,” Rewards for Justice.

[l] Editor’s note: The increase in non-kinetic U.S. government pressure against Hezbollah began in 2015 under the Obama administration with the passage of the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 and the designation of 21 Hezbollah-affiliated individuals as Specially Designated Global Terrorists in 2015 and 2016. Under the Trump administration, the pressure intensified through increased U.S. sanctions against Iran and designations of the group’s members and affiliated financial institutions. This pressure, described by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as a “form of war,” has reportedly strained the group’s finances. See Seth Loertscher, Daniel Milton, Bryan Price, and Cynthia Loertscher, The Terrorist List: An Examination of the U.S. Government’s Designation of Terrorist Groups and Individuals (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, forthcoming); Bassem Mroue, “US sanctions squeezing Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Associated Press, October 4, 2019; and Ben Hubbard, “Iran’s Allies Feel the Pain of American Sanctions,” New York Times, March 28, 2019.

[m] Editor’s note: The 2018 NSCT lists one of its priority actions as institutionalizing “a prevention architecture to thwart terrorism” under the “Counter Terrorist Radicalization and Recruitment” lines of effort. See “National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America,” The White House, October 2018.

[n] Editor’s note: Bryant Viñas was the first American to be recruited into al-Qa`ida after 9/11. He was captured and eventually turned on the group. See Mitchell Silber and Bryant Viñas, “Al-Qa`ida’s First American Foreign Fighter after 9/11,” CTC Sentinel 11:8 (2018).

[o] Editor’s note: Najibullah Zazi traveled to Pakistan to join the Taliban and while there was convinced by al-Qa`ida to conduct attacks in the United States. In 2009, he and others planned an attack on the New York subway system, but Zazi was arrested after the plot was discovered. He has since cooperated with the U.S. government. In September 2019, CNN reported that Zazi had been released from jail after serving his 10-year sentence. See Emily Saul and Laura Italiano, “Would-be NYC subway bomber Najibullah Zazi to be released on time served,” New York Post, May 2, 2019, and Erica Orden, “Najibullah Zazi, who plotted to bomb the New York subway, gets a second chance,” CNN, September 28, 2019. For more on the plot, see “Al Qaeda Operative Convicted by Jury in One of the Most Serious Terrorist Plots Against America since 9/11,” U.S. Department of Justice, March 1, 2012.

[p] Editor’s note: In May 2013, President Obama approved a presidential policy guidance on direct action and laid out the basics of his administration’s counterterrorism framework during a speech at the National Defense University. The presidential policy guidance on the use of direct action in counterterrorism operations was declassified and published in 2016, preempting a court order requiring the guidance be made available for review in a Freedom of Information suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. See “Remarks by the President at the National Defense University,” The White House, May 23, 2013, and Josh Gerstein, “Obama releases drone strike ‘playbook,’” Politico, August 6, 2016.

[1] Editor’s note: For more information about the work done by the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, see Seth Loertscher, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Rob Saale, Former Director, U.S. Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell,” CTC Sentinel 13:1 (2020).

[2] Editor’s note: See, for example, Mark Hanrahan and Jessica Wang, “Number of fatal terrorist attacks in western Europe increasing, data show,” Reuters, July 12, 2017.

[3] Editor’s note: Bassem Mroue, “US-backed Syrian forces launch offensive to retake Raqqa from Isis,” Associated Press, June 6, 2017.

[4] Michael Morell, “International Spy Museum’s Executive Director on the World of Espionage,” Intelligence Matters Podcast, May 7, 2019.

[5] Editor’s note: Kathy Gilsinan, “DHS Is Finally Going After White Supremacists. It’s Not Going to Be Simple,” Atlantic, September 20, 2019.

[6] Editor’s note: Michael Burnett, “Winning the War Against Terrorist Messaging,” The White House, March 1, 2019.

[7] Jeffrey Kaplan and Christopher P. Costa, “On Tribalism: Auxiliaries, Affiliates, and Lone Wolf Political Violence,” Terrorism and Political Violence 26:1 (2014): pp. 13-44; Bryant Neal Viñas, “Why We Should Take Back Americans Who Fought for ISIS,” New York Times, March 4, 2019; Chris Costa, “An American’s Path to Al-Qa’ida: A Conversation with Bryant Neal Viñas,” SpyCast, October 9, 2018.

[8] Andreas Krieg and Jean-Marc Rickli, Surrogate Warfare: The Transformation of War in the Twenty-First Century (Washington, D.C.: George Washington University Press, 2019).

[9] Nicholas Heras, “Gray Zones in the Middle East,” Center for a New American Security, September 18, 2017.

[10] Editor’s note: Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Trump to Arm Syrian Kurds, Even as Turkey Strongly Objects,” New York Times, May 9, 2017.

[11] Editor’s note: Ibid.

[12] Editor’s note: William M. Arkin, Ken Dilanian, and Robert Windrem, “Inside the Navy SEAL Raid in Yemen Targeting al Qaeda,” NBC News, February 2, 2017.

[13] Boaz Ganor, The Counterterrorism Puzzle (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008), pp. 45-46; Livio Di Lonardo, “The Partisan Politics of Counterterrorism: Reputations, Policy Transparency, and Electoral Outcomes,” Political Science Research and Methods 7:2 (2019): pp. 253-269.

[14] Margaret Talev, “President Trump Cancels Rule Requiring U.S. to Report Civilians Killed in Drone Strikes,” Bloomberg, March 6, 2019.

[15] Michael Knights, “Remaining and Expanding: The Recovery of Islamic State Operations in Iraq in 2019-2020,” CTC Sentinel 13:5 (2020); Hassan Hassan, “Islamic State is back and this time the west is ill-prepared to take it on,” Guardian, May 24, 2020.

[16] Greg Myer, “With ISIS and Al-Qaida Weakened, U.S. Faces An Evolving Anti-Terror Mission,” NPR, March 27, 2019; Stephen Tankel, “Doing More With Less: How To Optimize U.S. Counterterrorism,” War on the Rocks, May 22, 2018.

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