The 2015 Senior Conference featured open and honest discourse among a wide range of participants, including senior representatives from the military, counterterrorism practitioners, policymakers, NGOs, international institutions, and partner nations. The result was a deeper understanding of the challenges facing the counterterrorism community and the identification of some signs pointing the way ahead for the field.

These successes were made possible by the balance of informal conversations, keynote presentations, and formal panel discussions organized under Chatham House rules. The attendees were able to approach the topic of unconventional approaches to the unconventional threat of terrorism in a way that encouraged honest reflection and genuine sharing of viewpoints and ideas. As a result, only those participants who have contributed formal articles to this publication will be quoted.

Understanding the Problem
Addressing the threat emanating from terrorism and developing effective and appropriate counterterrorism strategies and tactics is contingent on understanding the basic nature of the problem. As one participant stated, “being clear about the problem is the key to getting strategy right.” It’s a warning that has a long history. [1] And yet, from the vantage point of some of the participants, the Western counterterrorism community has collectively come up short on this count. “We have done a poor job of knowing the enemy. We won’t name them, and we won’t talk about them.” This comment from one conference participant alludes to debates not about specific organizations such as al-Qa`ida or the Islamic State, which clearly governments will name, but rather concerns the naming of the broader, long-term threat posed by groups on the basis of their ideological persuasions.

It is no surprise that a critical spirit defined the conversation in a conference designed to explore unconventional approaches to counterterrorism. This spirit is driven in large parts by the struggles of successive U.S. administrations to devise effective and lasting ways to reduce and manage the spread and appeal of terrorism through strategy and policy. [2] One attendee succinctly summed it up, stating, “Before 9/11 we got it wrong, and we got it wrong afterwards. Asleep at the switch before, overestimated the threat afterwards.” This individual underlined their belief that the consequences of some early mistakes in this conflict continue to generate serious challenges, including the ascendance of the group that now calls itself the Islamic State.

The problem, though, is far more severe than simply either over- or under-estimating specific terrorist groups. Many of the participants noted how a lack of an appreciation for, or focus on, the complex factors that drive and help to sustain terrorism has contributed to a narrow view of tools or strategies available to combat this phenomenon; a narrow view, which has led the United States and other states to place perhaps too much emphasis on kinetic solutions at the expense of other approaches. The consequence, one individual declared, is that the United States has “grossly under-resourced the non-military aspects” of counterterrorism.

Reframing the Problem
Discourse at the conference soon moved to an old, but surprisingly useful analogy for thinking about the problem. This paradigm sees terrorism and global society in holistic terms with the political, economic, and social systems akin to a complex organism whose health is dependent on a number of interrelated factors. In this analogy, terrorism is a disorder, or a malignancy like cancer, that requires treatment.

The dangers of pursuing this analogy too far are obvious. Like any shorthand—as highlighted by Dennis Gleeson later in this issue—it can encourage absolutist and limited thinking. Equally though, it can be useful in framing the problem and highlighting avenues of research.

The analogy was introduced by a presenter, Yaneer Bar-Yam, who discussed new approaches to complex strategic environments (a topic he explores more deeply in his article later in this issue). He argued that global society is “a highly interdependent system” that consists of multiple distinct, complex sub-systems. Thus, the “comprehensive global strategy” to counter terrorism, as was called for by several attendees, is more usefully understood as one that addresses the political, economic, social, and cultural realms. This is because “the violent extremists we are talking about are not separate from the systems they are embedded in,” and their actions demand a multifaceted set of treatments within the multiple social systems in which they operate. The discussion turned to how understanding the science of complexity and the impact of scale can help shed light on the problem, yielding some interesting avenues of exploration regarding the different types of organizational structures and the environments in which they perform best. Bar-Yam pointed to the similarities between the organizing principles of regular unit structures in the armed forces and the neuro-muscular system (e.g., centralized command, large scale response), and between special operations forces units and the immune system (e.g., distributed command, small scale response).

And at the risk of abusing the healthy body analogy, the malignancy of terrorism demands “we need to be as concerned about the health of the tissue as we are about the pathogens themselves.”

Failure to address the basic conditions necessary to promote a healthy society can produce unintended negative consequences. As evidence, one participant held up the example of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, an event that spawned a vast array of unanticipated downstream effects. This individual pointed out that “we were confused” as to why “we were not welcomed as liberators who brought Jeffersonian democracy to the people,” before going on to explain that “when your basic needs are not met,” then one’s needs “become very primal and less idealistic.” By failing to meet the “basic needs” of Iraqi society, the speaker implied, the door was opened to the chaos that has ensued.

Distinguishing unhealthy elements in society from healthy ones in order to develop well targeted strategies gives rise to the challenging problem of data and metrics, which occupied a central place in the conference’s discussions. Unfortunately, this discussion yielded more questions than answers and more challenges than solutions, highlighting the difficulties faced in gathering usable or reliable data on terrorists. “Getting metrics is hard because we are not sure what our goals are,” was one rejoinder from the conference. And while there is a tendency for all oversight systems to be gamed, metrics are essential within the counterterrorism community in order to evaluate the effectiveness of programs and inform changes to policies and tactics.

A related challenge is that a concentration on goals and the data needed to achieve them can lead policymakers and practitioners to overlook vital concerns. If the counterterrorism community only attempts to answer questions for which there is data available, then it risks missing new threats. One participant argued that using the number of “bad guys” eliminated as a primary metric of success only leads to a game of “Whack-a-Mole,” neglecting the detection of future threats, the evolution of organizations, and/or their control over territory. Nonetheless, the conversation turned to an innovative program that regularly surveys intelligence analysts regarding the key questions that need to be answered, as well as the data necessary to answer them. While the “right” data may not be available, this bottom-up approach at least casts a wide net in determining the needs of those who are on the front lines of data gathering and analysis for the purposes of counterterrorism.

A more grassroots approach to gathering metrics is one that uses data from social media in communities where terrorist organizations are embedded or likely to gain a foothold. The appeal of such an approach—though difficult to operationalize efficiently—is that it is “organic” and not necessarily constrained by the biases or blinders of intelligence gatherers. The realities of participation in social media as raised in the discussion do, however, point to some concerns about the viability of this approach to generating representative data about the public mood in areas of concern. One participant warned that “only one percent of social media users are content creators, with an additional nine percent of users as contributors.” The challenge continues to be developing robust, metrics and reliable data sources that can better help policymakers and practitioners detect, target, and address the underlying causes of terror before violence occurs. The consensus seen during the symposium was that the United States and other Western nations are frustratingly far from solving that challenge.

Addressing Challenges
Terrorism—like many malignancies—should be understood as a chronic problem with moments of acute threat. Effective counterterrorism operations require vigilant monitoring and ongoing action across the various complex systems that comprise societies if we are to minimize the probability of terrorism’s reemergence. This, historically, has been a challenge for the United States and our short national attention span, one that leads us to downplay threats in the absence of major terrorist attacks. While the absence of such attacks is commendable, one speaker noted, it does not mean that we can afford complacency given the evolving nature of terrorist groups.

One participant argued that when it comes to the issue of facilitating action and strategy against the dynamic terrorism threat, there is a need for the U.S. government to develop a “middle way.” In the view of this participant, this approach would grant the United States a set of standing counterterrorism authorities to deal with terrorism problems that sit between those that it can affect from the two main sets of authority that guide U.S. counterterrorism policy: 1) the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF), which has been used to guide the U.S.’s war against al-Qa`ida and to counter large-scale terror problems; and 2) the more restrictive and smaller set of authorities which allow the United States to conduct targeted counterterrorism actions to prevent, shape, or respond to a specific event. The participant’s point in suggesting this was really a call for the United States to realize that the polarity of the low and high response authorities associated with each of these approaches are not aligned with many of the middle ground threats that the United States now faces.

Furthermore, as has been regularly documented in past U.S. counterterrorism conferences, effective counterterrorism requires coordination. Each of the agencies, actors, and governments involved in counterterrorism activities must communicate and collaborate rather than stovepipe their operations. A participant warned the room that we must “mind the gaps,” lamenting that despite significant progress having been made over the last decade, “the CIA, Department of Defense, NGOs, the private sector, and international partners are not pulling together today” to develop and implement a comprehensive global strategy on terrorism. While this is certainly not a novel finding, the fact that this issue is still being raised after 14 years of counterterrorism conferences and studies is of note in and of itself.

Indeed, the question of leveraging partnerships with foreign governments, the private sector, and the NGO community occupied significant parts of the conversation during the conference. But the discussions surrounding partnerships were marred with difficulties, not all of which could be easily addressed. For example, how should humanitarian organizations and other NGOs fit into a counterterrorism framework? Indeed, the activities of NGOs are essential in a world where civilians tend to be the primary targets of terrorist groups and are often victims of collateral damage; yet what if in some cases, as one participant asked, supporting NGOs “inadvertently funds the enemy?”

Further, from the perspective of humanitarian organizations, terrorism is a political label, which could mean that “today’s enemy can be tomorrow’s ally,” a nuanced understanding that echoed comments from other participants who warned about the dangers of oversimplifying the language used to describe terror groups and their goals.

More importantly, such organizations are keen to distance themselves from the political dimension of the problem. Among the many reasons for this is to protect their primary mission of saving lives; if their stance is deemed partial to any of the parties to the conflict, their mission is politicized, which often leads to the flow of operating funds being constricted and/or the movement of their personnel hampered. In short, to paraphrase one participant, humanitarian organizations do not favor partnerships, but they are always willing to collaborate. Since saving lives is what is at stake, collaboration may involve any and all parties, including terrorist groups.

Yet, if partnerships may be considered a liability for some NGOs, there were compelling arguments that in other domains, partnerships are essential and that there aren’t enough of them. One participant strongly appealed to go beyond building local and national partnerships, calling for “synchronizing across regions.” Further, it was pointed out that partnerships should not be at the mercy of timetables and termination dates extraneous to conditions on the ground. Such an approach inevitably undermines partner capacity and often causes mission failure. Put differently, the United States should not be in the habit of overpromising and underachieving.

Additionally, one participant suggested that one of the main issues hindering the United States’ ability to forge deeper and more meaningful counterterrorism partnerships was often tied to the United States’ reluctance to share or declassify information (so it can be shared) with its partners. The participant acknowledged that an understandable hesitancy among policymakers to share information was certainly warranted, but he cautioned the audience that the United States’ aversion to more risk in this area might actually damage such relationships because that caution could be misconstrued (or correctly construed) as a lack of trust.

Marketing and communications proved to be interesting and fertile ground. One speaker called to mind a 2007 speech by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who noted that “public relations was invented in the United States, yet we are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals.” [3]

Inspiration for a more effective communications strategy came from Pete Favat who was involved in the highly effective and innovative “Truth” anti-smoking campaign. That campaign is explored in depth later in this issue, but its lessons about the impact of guerilla marketing, understanding of the target market, the importance of prompting unconventional thought, and the role private-sector communications professionals could play in developing more effective information campaigns designed to prevent the spread of terrorist ideologies cannot be ignored.

Rehabilitation of former terrorists also offered some insights that could be folded into a media campaign. Society should have a way of reintegrating former jihadis. Failing to do this could merely create additional problems in the future. The innovative intervention techniques, integrating physical training, peer discussion, charismatic leadership, and theological discussions used in some programs hold some promise despite challenges in scaling up the most successful of them. Usman Raja, who directs such a program in the United Kingdom, shares his experiences later in this edition.

The diversity of representation at the conference engendered novel approaches to counterterrorism that move the discussion forward in meaningful ways. As the global community struggles with the ascension of the Islamic State, it seems clear that policymakers can draw on unconventional sources of inspiration, such as the anti-smoking campaign, as models to stem the Islamic State’s appeal.

More precisely, instead of devising counter- and de-radicalization policies focused on peaceful theology, would a campaign using an approach similar to that of the Truth anti-smoking campaign be more effective in turning youth away from violence? Should democracies engaged in counterterrorism model their interactions with non-democratic states on the basis of collaboration rather than partnership, as humanitarian organizations do, lest their support of autocratic regimes breed more terrorism? There may yet be more questions than answers, but the 2015 Senior Conference helped to point out useful avenues of inquiry.

Nelly Lahoud is an Associate Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy.

Robert Person is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Comparative Politics in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy.

The views expressed here are reported by the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] Jeffrey D. Simon, “Misunderstanding Terrorism,” Foreign Policy, Summer, 1987.
[2] Rosa Brooks, “U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy is the Definition of Insanity,” Foreign Policy, June 24, 2015.
[3] Robert Gates, “Landon Lecture (Kansas State University),” U.S. Department of Defense Public Affairs, November 26, 2007.

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