Lieutenant General Michael K. Nagata assumed the position of Director, Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning at the National Counterterrorism Center on May 13, 2016. Previously, LTG Nagata served as the Commander, Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT), a sub-unified command of CENTCOM, from June 2013 to October 2015. A native of Virginia, Lieutenant General Nagata graduated from Georgia State University and commissioned as an Infantry Officer in 1982. He initially served as a Platoon Leader in the 2d Infantry Division before volunteering for Army Special Forces in 1984.
Throughout his career he served in various positions within Army Special Forces to include: Detachment Commander, Executive Officer, Battalion S-3, Operations Center Director, BN Executive Officer, and Group Operations Officer. Later, he served as the Commander of 1st BN, 1st Special Warfare Training Group, responsible for the Special Forces Qualification Course. In 1990, he volunteered and assessed for a Special Missions Unit (SMU), in which he served at various times throughout his career as a Troop Commander, Operations Officer, Squadron Commander, and SMU Commander. After graduating from the National War College, Lieutenant General Nagata served in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. He then served within the Intelligence Community as a Deputy Director for Counter Terrorism. As a general officer, he has served as the Deputy Chief, Office of the Defense Representative to Pakistan (ODRP), the Deputy Director for Special Operations and Counter Terrorism (J-37) of the Joint Staff, and Commander, SOCCENT.
CTC: In your view, what is the scale and scope of the terrorism threat that we face? And which organizations, movements, or issues are you the most concerned about? How long do you think the current challenges the United States faces on the terrorism front will last? Do you think this is the new normal?
LTG Nagata: I’ll take that last part first. The phrase “new normal” is not a bad description of this, but in my judgment, it’s an imperfect phrase because it appears to allude to the notion that whatever the “new” is, that’s the way it’s going to stay. And I would argue that what we’re seeing, not just on the terrorism landscape but frankly across the global stage in all of its dimensions, is unrelenting change. I can’t actually think of anything except maybe human biology that is remaining static. And that’s true not just in the security sphere of which terrorism is a subset, but I would argue that’s happening politically, it’s happening economically, it’s happening demographically, it’s happening societally, it’s happening culturally. Very few things remain static; that includes the phenomenon of terrorism. So I do believe that rising and rapidly adapting international terrorism is what we are going to see for the rest of our lives. So “new normal,” it’s not a horrible description, [but] I think it more important to recognize that terrorism in its various forms is not just “here to stay” but is going to continually adapt and seek growth in ways that we probably cannot completely anticipate or predict.
In terms of scope and scale, I don’t want to be guilty of hyperbole here. Terrorism is not the worst problem the world faces. But it is certainly a much larger problem today than it was 10 years ago. Unfortunately, its opportunities for growth are significant, and it is imperative that both the United States and the international community find more effective ways to both arrest its expansion, and ultimately to eliminate the drivers and root causes of this phenomenon. We have made some obviously significant strides against terrorism, but today I would argue the biggest deficit we have is on the prevention side, not the countering side.
I think a fair indicator of what its scope is and what it will someday be is simply to reflect on the journey we have taken with Sunni violent extremism, which of course is only one form of terrorism. On 9/11, the dominant Sunni extremist actor, which was al-Qa`ida, existed in essentially four places: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and the Sudan. Where is it today? The answer is not reassuring. That is probably an instructive trajectory to consider when one asks the question, “Where will it be in the next 10 years?” It will probably be more expansive than it is today. And when you have this very unusual phenomenon of the Islamic State, I actually don’t think it’s a linear slope, and we must ensure it does not become exponential in nature.
Let me talk about scale because I think ISIS is the best example of the kind of scale we’re going to see. We don’t know how many people have joined the Islamic State since its inception. One could make the argument that it [the Islamic State] began with the fall of Mosul, but obviously, ISIS had to exist before the fall of Mosul. Our knowledge of how it was germinated and how it grew and how it expanded so rapidly is imperfect. We do know many of the survivors of the AQI experience, some former Ba’athists, some people who reverted over from al-Qa`ida, a number of other people formed a nucleus of what became ISIS. Today, about four years after it arose in Syria and Iraq, and we should consider how resilient this adversary has proven to be. For example, we now know that U.S. and Coalition military operations have killed tens of thousandsa of ISIS combatants in one of the most impressive military campaigns against terrorism we’ve ever seen. The fact that we’ve inflicted so much harm on ISIS is inarguably a good thing. However, we should reflect a little on what would be the state of any nation-state’s armed forces, including our own, if they had to absorb this much damage in such a compressed period of time? The fact that ISIS has been able to absorb this much damage and yet still somehow continue to resist the Coalition, albeit in weaker form, to this day, and even more impressively continue to direct, enable, or inspire terrorist attacks around the world should be a sobering and instructive demonstration of organizational resilience. That doesn’t directly answer the question of “how big is this problem?” but when I consider how much damage we’ve inflicted, and they’re still operational, they’re still capable of pulling off things like some of these recent terrorist attacks we’ve seen internationally, I think we have to conclude that we do not yet fully appreciate the scale or strength of this phenomenon.
CTC: To follow up on that a little bit, you talked about the exponential growth of al-Qa`ida. You talked about the organizational resilience of the Islamic State. What do you attribute that to, especially given all of our counterterrorism efforts over the last 15-plus years?
LTG Nagata: Good question. Well, first of all, I want to stipulate something. When I made these assertions in other forums, occasionally I get asked if I am arguing that the efforts by the international community and/or the United States have actually accelerated this problem. That is not what I’m trying to suggest. I would actually argue that had the world not exerted itself, were the world not exerting itself today, it would be much worse. I would argue that, obviously, the world’s efforts against this kind of terrorism have been imperfect, but it’s had a significant retarding effect on the growth trend in international terrorism. That said, as your question suggests, we’ve not collectively been able to stop the expansion of al-Qaida or other groups such as ISIS. The best we seem to have been able to do is slow down its growth, which is a good step. It’s a necessary first step. But it begs the question, though, “Are both the United States and our international partners able to take the next step, which is to stop its growth and then eventually begin rolling back its growth?” Arguably, we’re still in the trying-to-slow-it-down phase.
To more directly answer your question, my own view of what we have learned to do effectively against terrorism has been impressive, but it’s suffered from an imbalance. Obviously, given my Special Operations background, what I’m most conversant in and what I have the most practical experience in has been this rather extraordinary journey that military and intelligence organizations have taken—not just in the United States but around the world—in rapidly improving our ability to identify, to track, to pursue, and to precisely target. It’s become almost doctrine in the U.S. counterterrorism community—something that General Stanley McChrystal is often cited as the pioneer for, the “find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, disseminate” (F3EAD) philosophy, which I personally believe has been incredibly effective, and remains so today. And there are other things as well. That’s not the only impressive progress achieved by what I will imperfectly call the kinetic side of counterterrorism. Both Special Operations and General Purpose Forces across many countries have made great strides in making military operations against terrorists much more effective.
However, here’s where the imbalance becomes more visible. We know from our experience over the last 16 years that these kinetic activities to capture/kill individuals, to disrupt plots, to interdict finances, to interrupt propaganda and media activities, to hinder recruitment prospects—as important as they are—we’ve learned that none of these things are decisive. Or said more simply, none of these things deliver permanent results. Because inevitably the financier is replaced, the propagandist recovers his media or builds more media, the enemy finds and promotes replacement leader, they find a new courier, etc. I subscribe to the school of thought—this is certainly not original thought by me; I think I actually began hearing this more than 10 years ago—that these kinetic activities primarily buy time and space, for mostly non-military, non-kinetic activity that have a fairer prospect of creating durable results. They are things such as countering effective propaganda, counter-messaging if you will, stopping illicit financing that flows into the coffers of terrorist organizations, and impeding or ending the international travel of either terrorists or people who aspire to be terrorists. We’ve made clear progress in all these arenas, but I think if you stack up the progress we have made on the kinetic side, with all these other primarily non-kinetic things, it’s a lopsided picture.
So in other words, where we’re really strong as a global community is in achieving military/kinetic effects that will probably not create permanent results, and where we’re comparatively weak is delivering durable results that predominantly flow from non-military/non-kinetic means. And in my own view, so long as that imbalance remains the way it is, we’re likely to be limited to hindering the growth of extremism, but we’re not likely to bring an end to it.
CTC: Do you think part of that is potentially a metric issue? If you look at al-Qa`ida’s ability to plan external plots and attacks, we have significantly degraded their capability in that area. However, if you look at their manpower and the territory where they have some level of influence, it appears as though that has grown over the last decade. Do you think part of our issue or challenge with respect to this broad phenomenon, how we’re managing the problem, is that the metrics we have primarily been using to evaluate the problem have mostly been focused around issues like external plots and less on the sustainment mechanisms you mentioned?
LTG Nagata: That’s a great question. You made me think of discussions we’re having in my office with a number of people across the United States government. In my view, we’ve not settled yet on a consistent approach to evaluating our own progress. Some people focus very heavily on the kinetic effects, which actually are fairly easy to measure, such as counting enemy casualties. The problem is that this is an incomplete measure of progress, and we have to have a more sophisticated approach that encompasses how effectively we are eliminating the drivers that propel individuals and groups from peaceful co-existence, to radicalization, and ultimately to terrorist violence.
There are many people, including my own office since we have a specific mission to conduct counterterrorism assessments, who are striving for ways to effectively measure our effectiveness in both arenas, but it’s an incredibly complex endeavor because both the adversary, and the world’s response to the adversary, are an incredibly complex situation.
My own view is that we have try a number of pathways both countering and preventing terrorism, and each one will probably require a somewhat different approach toward measuring progress. We can’t rely on just one approach. One example is that we cannot solely rely on how many terrorists have been killed, captured, or arrested. Another example is that we cannot solely rely on quantitatively measuring the volume of terrorist activity on the Internet as the sole indicator of whether or not the world is successfully preventing online radicalization. Perhaps even more fundamentally, we must be willing to continually experiment with different approaches to both; I don’t think anyone can plausibly argue that either the U.S. or the international community is as effective as we need to be today. There are going to be some instruments that we attempt that will not work, but the only way we will know they don’t work is if we attempt them, and once we realize they do not work, we persevere and try the next idea.
CTC: As part of that, how would you assess how we’ve done in identifying our own strategic objectives in this campaign that you’ve just mentioned? To be able to assess against something, you have to identify what you’re trying to achieve. From a strategic perspective, do you think we have identified the right objectives in the counterterrorism campaign we’re engaged in?
LTG Nagata: That’s a very good question. I’ll start with what’s happening now. The new U.S. Government is currently developing a new ISIS strategy. Because ISIS is a global phenomenon, it is intended to be a global strategy. As you might expect, this will require the strongest possible collaboration between the United States and the international community. Identifying our strategic objectives, therefore, cannot be done in a vacuum; it will require a conversation with all of our allies and partners around the world to ensure that we have sufficient agreement on those objectives. Otherwise we risk inadvertently working at cross-purposes. It will take some time before the work to create this new strategy will be complete, though we obviously enjoy the advantage that we can build on some very good work that had already been done since the rise of ISIS in 2014. Specifically regarding objectives, though it doesn’t completely answer your question, I think we will find broadest agreement across all stakeholders that we will never completely eliminate all terrorism everywhere; to assume we could is probably as unwise as assuming we can someday completely eliminate crime everywhere.
Instead, my presumption is that we’ll likely renew our belief that reducing terrorism down to the level that local actors, local law enforcement, local communities can effectively handle cases of radicalization-to-violence effectively is both the desirable and achievable goal across all stakeholders. Beyond that, I’d be speculating too much about what the contents of our new strategy will be, so I can only tell that there is “more to follow.”
Also, at the risk of repeating one of my earlier answers, I think we’re starting to see the limits of how far down we can take this problem with just pursuing kinetic objectives. It begs the question about our ability—the world’s ability, not just the United States’ ability—to more effectively articulate and pursue non-kinetic, mostly non-military objectives.
CTC: You had a ground floor view and were a key contributor to a number of important organizational change initiatives related to counterterrorism. These changes, as typified by the institutionalization of operational, inter-agency task forces and enhancements made to the targeting methodology used by the United States, greatly enhanced U.S. counterterrorism effectiveness. When you look back on that time what are the key lessons that you take away that you think might be important for the future challenges that lie ahead?
LTG Nagata: Thank you, that’s one of my favorite topics. I’m going to start with an analogy that you might find a little odd, but personally I find it very instructive. It’s a sports analogy. I don’t care what professional sport we’re talking about—basketball, baseball, football—it really doesn’t matter. I doubt there’s any sports fan around the world that has not seen what I’m about to describe. Team A is owned by some incredibly wealthy person who buys nothing but superstars. But they never truly coalesce as a team because they don’t like each other, are rivals with each other, won’t cooperate with each other, etc. Then, they get beaten by a less capable team that, player for player, is nowhere near as capable as the superstar team. But they get beaten by this arguably weaker team because the supposedly “weaker” team actually plays like a team. They know each other, they like each other. Because they like each other, they’re willing to trust each other. They’re willing to make sacrifices for each other. That’s real teamwork, and I would argue that’s where the USG has made the greatest progress in counterterrorism is wherever we’ve been willing and able to make this kind of journey—where actors from different agencies and professions are willing to set aside their differences, build strong personal relationships with each other, come to trust each other, and start delivering the kinds of strength and effective performance that comes from true “teamwork.”
One of the things I look for in the counterterrorism world, both in the U.S. Government and in the international community, is “integration.” Integration is more than coordination; it is more than collaboration. Both of those words are important, but I’ve come to believe that “integration” is where the CT community must go because it promises the greatest degree of effectiveness that we can achieve. Of course, coordination remains important, but I think we’ve squeezed all the profit we can get out of better interagency or international coordination. Collaboration is important as well, but like coordination, there’s limited room for growth there as well. The next step is creating—again I’m going to use government speak here but I would argue it applies to more than just governments—integrated environments where countries or agencies are willing to put their people and capabilities together into the same missions and into the same organizations so they get to know each other, so that they get to like each other, so that they get to trust each other. And then they eventually start doing, referring back to my sports example, things that were previously impossible for each country or agency on their own. Integration creates opportunities for activities and operations that would otherwise be impossible to pull off effectively.
So there are many obstacles to what I’m suggesting, to include cultural obstacles. This makes people very uncomfortable. But if you can pull it off, I’ve seen [the benefits] first-hand. I saw General McChrystal do it. I’ve seen other people do it. I like to think I’ve done it in my own small way. I’ve seen a degree of effectiveness emerge from integration that I’ve been unable to find anywhere else. It’s also one of the hardest things one can try to do because there are so many obstacles, even antibodies against what I’m suggesting. Because it’s a challenge to the normal. It’s a challenge to the expected. It’s a challenge to the “way we’ve always done things.” It can make senior leaders, it can make entire organizations, it can make outside observers very uncomfortable. But, I do believe it is the path to far greater effectiveness.
CTC: What issues keep you up at night?
LTG Nagata: I do have an answer for your question. It’s related to terrorism, but it’s actually something that terrorism is only a subset of. A lot of this is not original thought, but here goes. Terrorism is often perpetrated by non-state actors, unless those entities happen to be state-sponsored. Said differently, there are “malign” non-state actors, while there are many other non-state actors (e.g. non-governmental organizations) that are wholly benevolent and beneficial to mankind.
Regardless, all non-state actors, whether malign or benevolent, are both finding enormous profit in two related phenomena. The first has been the amazing global growth of the free flow of information, goods, services, and people. The fact that you can be anywhere in the world, buy something, and have it delivered to you within three days is simply amazing, but increasingly commonplace. The second has been the arrival of the so-called “Digital Age,” where it is now possible to have a supercomputer and high-speed access to information about virtually anything wherever one happens to be around the world at one’s fingertips. The power and advantage this is generating has been enormously beneficial for most of mankind, but malign actors can profit just as much.
One of the results we’re now seeing unfold before us is that non-state actors, whether malign or benevolent, can accrue power, influence, capability, and reach that were once exclusively available only to nation-states.
A positive outcome of this is how extraordinarily effective non-governmental organizations and commercial ventures and actors have become in delivering positive outcomes, goods, services, information, and advantages for people all over the world. Unsurprisingly, this does not keep me up at night, and in fact my own family profits from all of this, as does my community and my country.
A darker outcome has been how much advantage any malign non-state actor can find for the very same reasons. A particularly vivid example today is how much military and terrorist capability ISIS is finding in the widespread availability of cheap-but-powerful technology that they can freely purchase on the open market anywhere in the world and online places like Amazon. One example of this is the rather nefarious usages that ISIS is finding in the employment of cheap, affordable commercial drone technology—you can see from media reporting alone that they’ve successfully weaponized such things.
CTC: And you can buy them on Amazon.
LTG Nagata: That’s right. What I mean by this is I think we need to do more to appreciate the phenomenon of the rapidly rising power of the non-state actor, and I don’t think I see commensurate awareness or adaptation in the nation-state community. Not necessarily to contest it. Not all non-state actors are bad, as I’ve previously described. But I think that we in the nation-state community sometimes have difficulty even seeing this trajectory. It’s a little reminiscent—this is going to sound like an odd analogy, but every time I consider this, I think of that moment more than a century ago when Admiral [Matthew C.] Perry sailed his black fleet into Japan to signal the United States’ desire that Japan end its isolationist period, under the Tokugawa government, and there are accounts of some of the Japanese who were at the harbor who reported being unable to see the ships. They reported that because they were so strange, so unusual, they reported not being able to see them. I sometimes think that’s what I’m observing when I watch nation-states struggle to recognize what is happening on the non-state actor side of the equation. CTC
[a] Editor’s note: In February 2017, a senior U.S. military official stated more than 60,000 Islamic State fighters had been eliminated by the anti-Islamic State coalition. Ryan Browne, “US Special Ops chief: More than 60,000 ISIS fighters killed,” CNN, February 15, 2017. The figure is likely to have risen significantly since then.