Brigadier General (Retired) Russell Howard served as the director of the CTC between 2003 and 2005. He also served as the Head of the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. He later served as the director of the Jebsen Center for Counter Terrorism Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and directed the terrorism research program of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He is currently the President of Howard Consulting Services and a distinguished senior fellow at Joint Special Operations University.
Colonel (Retired) Kip McCormick served as the director of the CTC from 2005 till the beginning of 2006. He subsequently served as Defense Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. His prior service in the U.S. Army included working as Chief of Staff, United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission in Seoul. He is currently the Associate Pastor of Cornwall Church and the Chaplain for Whatcom County’s Sheriff Office in Bellingham in Washington State.
Colonel (Retired) Joseph H. Felter, PhD served as the director of the CTC from the end of 2005 till 2008. He later served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia between July 2017 and September 2019. He is currently the Director of the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University. His prior roles at Stanford included serving as Co-Director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and Director of the Hacking for Defense Project.
Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Reid L. Sawyer served as executive director of the CTC between 2003 and 2008 and director between 2008 and 2012. Between 2013 and 2015, he served at U.S. Central Command, including as the Chief of the Operational Assessments Group. He previously served as a senior advisor to the FDNY from 2003 to 2015 and as an Advisory Board Member at University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats. He is currently a Managing Director at Marsh McLennan, where he heads the Emerging Risks Group, and leads U.S. Cyber Risk Consulting.
Colonel (Retired) Liam Collins, PhD served in leadership roles at CTC between 2009 and 2012, first as executive director then director. He is currently the executive director of the Viola Foundation and the Madison Policy Forum. Between 2015 and 2019, he served as Director of the Modern War Institute at West Point. Among his previous roles, between 2016 and 2018 he served as executive officer for the then U.S. Senior Defense Advisor to Ukraine for Defense Reform, General (Retired) John Abizaid.
Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Bryan C. Price, PhD served as the director of the CTC between 2012 and 2018. He previously served as an Apache helicopter pilot, with combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and as an Academy Professor at West Point. He was Founding Executive Director of the Buccino Leadership Institute at Seton Hall University from 2018 to 2022. Today, he is the founder of Top Mental Game.
Brian Dodwell served as the director of the CTC between 2018 and January 2021, and has served as executive director since January 2021. Previously, he served as deputy director between 2014 and 2018. Prior to that, he served as Operations Branch Chief at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security National Exercise Division.
Colonel Sean Morrow has served as the CTC’s director since January 2021. He has served in a variety of roles in the U.S. military including as Battalion Commander in the United Nations Command in Korea and a Battalion Operations officer and a Brigade Executive Officer for the 10th Mountain Division in southeastern Afghanistan.
CTC: What in your view has been the overall contribution of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) to the CT enterprise?
Howard: Educating cadets for what they will encounter in their future careers has been the Combating Terrorism Center’s most important contribution. Providing newly minted counterterrorism specialists an opportunity to teach, learn, and conduct research while beginning their careers is a close second. Enabling the CT community a publication platform to share research has also been an important CTC contribution.
McCormick: I agree with Russ. One of the things I love most about the contribution of the CTC to the CT enterprise is how it plants seeds about CT in the lives of the cadets. We have no idea how those seeds will be nurtured over the years. However, we can be sure that there will be a group of young women and men who become experts in this field because of what they learned through the CTC. We tend to focus on the big muscle movement projects that move forward the CTC vision and mission. But in reality, it’s those day-to-day actions with the cadets that have the long-term impact on the CT enterprise.
Felter: I believe one of the most significant contributions of the Combating Terrorism Center to the CT enterprise is a fundamental appreciation of the importance of understanding the hostile ideology driving violent terrorist attacks against the U.S. and her allies and partners, and that the best way to discredit and delegitimize this ideology is through the words and discourse of individuals (e.g., scholars and thought leaders) whose opinion and ideas resonate with these extremists. In my first Senate testimony as CTC Director, for example, I argued that “You can’t capture, kill, or incarcerate an idea” to underscore the importance the CTC placed on effectively addressing the root causes—not only the symptoms—of terrorist attacks.
A second important contribution of the CTC is the role it has and continues to play in identifying and making important information on terrorist threats available to the broader scholarly and policy community given its unique position and trusted relationships.
Sawyer: The Combating Terrorism Center’s contribution to the overall CT enterprise was and remains significant in three ways, starting, as has already been pointed out, with the first part of the mission we designed: educating cadets. For a generation, the CTC has educated future leaders on the complexities of the evolving threat environment, challenging their thinking about critical issues relating to CT, homeland security, and more broadly understanding the world around them.
The second dimension, equally tied to the original vision of the Center, speaks to the intrinsic value of the CTC and that is its ability to remain focused on the longer-term issues, its rigorous research, and its willingness to challenge convention. Prior to 9/11, there was a dearth of institutional CT knowledge, let alone an independent institution, that was focused on the deeper currents rather than the surface turbulence. Finally, the CTC occupies a unique position sitting at the intersection of academia, policy, and operations, which enables it to inform and shape thinking for each of these audiences.
Collins: I became the director towards the end of the Center’s first decade. By this time, my predecessors had already built the CTC into a powerhouse that was well integrated across the CT enterprise. They had created a Terrorism Studies Program for the cadets at West Point that include a minor, and the CTC was teaching counterterrorism to the FBI and other government agencies around the United States. The CTC Sentinel had been around for three years and was a “must read” for CTC professionals around the world.
In 2009, we established the General Wayne A. Downing Scholarship Program to provide U.S. Army officers with graduate school education. We felt it was important to invest in the intellectual capital of our very best, and often our most deployed, officers. We started with only two the first year, but it has been so successful that we now select up to eight each year. As a testament to the program’s success, 100 percent of Downing alumni have been selected for battalion command, and JD Keirsey, the current commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, was a Downing scholar.
Price: I’m not sure there’s another entity as unique as the CTC. First, I don’t know of another organization that has the CTC’s three-pronged mission of teaching cadets and CT practitioners, publishing original research, and briefing CT professionals both at the tip of the spear and at the most senior levels of our government.
Some think-tanks in the CT world would call it a successful year if they hosted a 4-star general, an ambassador, and a SEAL Team commander. That’s a regular week at the CTC. That access provides a comprehensive insight into the threat that no other organization has in the CT space.
Additionally, most of the CTC’s faculty have top secret clearance, which provides researchers the ability to engage with material, operators, and policymakers on the classified side. Finally, you have the fact that the CTC is financially independent from DoD and privately funded through donations via the Academy’s 501(c)(3). It doesn’t have the constraints placed on other DoD think-tanks that limit their creativity and their research agenda.
This special combination creates the conditions for an unparalleled understanding of the terrorism threat. In my opinion, that’s the CTC’s special sauce.
Dodwell: It’s difficult to add to the excellent comments from my friends and colleagues above, and I wholeheartedly agree, especially with the emphasis on the mission of training and inspiring the next generation of CT leaders, a mission that continues to be the beating heart of the CTC. Without the grounding experience of walking into a classroom of this nation’s best and brightest every day, we would not be as effective in all the other things we do.
In terms of the CTC’s research mission, the genius of Russ [Howard] and his team was that, from its foundation, they structured the CTC in such a way that we could maintain our focus on those larger, strategic questions that continue to challenge the terrorism studies field—the kind of deep research that Reid [Sawyer] discusses above. Over the past several years, the U.S. national security architecture has undergone a shift away from what was likely an over-emphasis on the counterterrorism mission. While a rebalancing across a wider range of missions is healthy, we as a community tend to struggle with doing multiple things at once. And so, if history is any guide, we now run the risk of over-correcting, and turning a blind eye to the very significant threat that remains from terrorism and violent extremism.
The CTC has experienced pressure during this period to deviate from its original CT-focused mission. Thankfully, given the structure created by our founders and the generosity of our donors and partners (providing the independence that BP [Bryan Price] described), the CTC has remained committed to maintaining an unblinking eye on the terrorism problem set, while also demonstrating an ability to adapt and explain how this problem set is inextricably linked to broader strategic competition.
Our core operational partners, those who never deviated from the CT mission, have consistently expressed to us how much they value our persistent focus. So, in addition to helping to prepare future Army leaders to think critically about terrorism and counterterrorism, the CTC’s enduring contribution to the CT enterprise is going to continue to be original research that meets the needs of the operational community.
Morrow: CTC continues to make three key contributions to the CT enterprise. First are the cadets and Downing Scholars we educate every year and the impact they have at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of our national security enterprise. Second, CTC is the people who have served here and who have built a global reputation as independent, rigorous, and trusted partners. Not only do CTC teammates make a lasting impact while at West Point, but they continue on to even more impactful roles in government, business, and academia. Last, CTC serves as a crucial bridge across stakeholders in the CT enterprise. CTC never takes for granted the tremendous access we have, and CTC understands the responsibility to judiciously share that access and the insights that it holds so that the counterterrorism enterprise can maintain and increase pressure on the threats.
CTC: Looking back, what was the key work done by the Combating Terrorism Center during your tenure as director? What are you most proud of? What are your favorite anecdotes?
Howard: Imagining the early design and securing the funding for the Center from Vincent Viola were the two most important things I did as the first CTC director. Vinnie’s original financial contribution gave the CTC the “capitalization” required to make an early and sustained impact on combating terrorism. Hiring General Wayne Downing and Bruce Hoffman was a close second. Having General Downing on the CTC letterhead gave the CTC instant access to the halls of Congress and the White House. Having Bruce’s name on the letterhead gave the CTC instant credibility in the halls of academia, think-tanks, and the research establishment.
Key work during my tenure included publishing the “West Point” series of CT-related textbooks (seven altogether) and providing CT policy guidance to DoD, DoS, and other government agencies.
With regards to policy guidance, most people don’t know but the CTC’s early, personal discussions with Governor Tom Ridge had some influence on what was to become the Department of Homeland Security.
Reid Sawyer deserves credit for the early “West Point” series of “Terrorism/Counterterrorism” textbooks published by McGraw Hill. He oversaw the publication efforts, which entailed a lot of work. However, the efforts were valuable not just to students and the general public but also the CTC. The books were edited volumes featuring articles by the best terrorism and counterterrorism experts of the time. We, Reid and I, had to read all of the submitted articles for publication, which made both of us better informed subject matter experts and also acquainted us with the authors, many of whom became important friends and contacts for the CTC.
McCormick: My tenure at the CTC was short but a total blast (2005-2006). Department Head Colonel Russ Howard asked me to lead it after my good friend Reid Sawyer was selected for the PhD program at Columbia. I could barely spell “terrorism,” being a Northeast Asia/Russia/Balkans Foreign Area Officer. The good news is that Reid had formed a solid team with a firm foundation that was ready to expand the CTC’s footprint.
Jarret Bachman was a CTC employee and, at that time, a PhD candidate with an entrepreneurial spirit and a sharp mind to go with it. He introduced me to William McCants, a brilliant scholar with that same entrepreneurial spirit. He had done some work with us in the past. Jarret and Will had this bizarre idea to look at, in their eyes, what really fueled al-Qa`ida. Without going into details, we got the green light to go to SOCOM and brief the project to get some funding for it.
During that SOCOM briefing, things were a little testy (read, “not favorable”) in the room until, midway through the presentation, Will pointed out a hole in the al-Qa`ida link analysis diagram the SOCOM folks had hanging on a wall in the room. It was a stroke of genius. He and Jarret spoke their magic of how we could help fix holes like that in their analysis and the rest was history. We received a significant funding grant that would give us the means to shift gears at the CTC. With that, we were able to lay down the roots for what would become the Harmony Project.
We brought on Clint Watts, poured into the then recent hires Lianne Kennedy-Boudali and Thalia Tzanetti, and made Will McCants a fellow at the CTC. We leveraged other SOSH [West Point Department of Social Sciences] faculty to help us do the work. We started doing some projects we felt would move the needle forward in the war. Colonel Joe Felter would step into the fray (he could spell “terrorism”) and after I’d leave, he’d lead the CTC to the next level. These guys would remind me of that great leadership lesson: Surround yourself with people of character who have the expertise, give them right and left limits, and then let them do their job. I was so fortunate to be surrounded by such heroes.
Felter: I came to SOSH from a Stanford PhD program in summer of 2005. Brigadier General Russ Howard was transitioning out with Mike Meese as SOSH Head. Russ was my former SF Group Commander, and I will be forever indebted to him for his support as an SF company commander in Okinawa through my selection for SOSH and tenure as CTC Director. Kip McCormick followed Russ Howard as CTC Director that summer, and I had the privilege of taking the reins from Kip in December 2005 when he was promoted to Colonel and PCS’d [permanent change of station] from USMA. I stayed on as Director from December 2005 until PCS’ing to my War College Fellowship at Stanford in August 2008.
I felt like my tenure spanned the transition of the CTC from a “startup” that was somewhat internally focused on our priority mission to educate cadets (James Forest, [our] Director of Education, was doing an extraordinary job) to a more established center with an expanded emphasis on its research and policy outreach. My farewell plaque presented by General Abizaid and the team at the time remarked that we had finally “come out of the garage” as a nod to the center moving beyond its startup phase at last!
To be clear, everything we accomplished during my tenure is a tribute to the extraordinary drive, selflessness, and commitment to excellence of our center members, Distinguished Chairs, and SOSH/USMA leadership. It was a privilege to work with and lean in with this amazing team.
The things I am most proud to be associated with during my time as director include two broad areas:
1) Helping build and empower an amazing team of “insurgents” as our Chair General Wayne Downing described us (to list a few would mean leaving out many others; they know who they are!) and
2) Leveraging this team and the unique position and access we enjoyed as a quasi-independent center at West Point to (a) prepare cadets for the extraordinary challenges that they would face when commissioned at the height of the GWOT [Global War on Terror] and (b) supporting practitioners engaged in the CT fight with insights gleaned from our research that helped them understand and address real terrorist threats.
When it comes to specifics, I’m proud of the work we did on CTC’s Harmony project. Taking a hand-off from Russ Howard and Kip McCormick and ensuring that we further established, operationalized, and exploited the Harmony Project with SOCOM—e.g., taking the first limited tranche of cleared documents and making them publicly available via the CTC through our first publication using Harmony (Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting Al-Qa`ida’s Organizational Vulnerabilities1) as well as completing and publishing the Militant Ideology Atlas, an intensive project led by Will McCants and coordinated by Jarret Brachman to map ideological influence using a citation analysis. Follow on Harmony reports included Al-Qa’ida’s (Mis)adventures in the Horn of Africa.2 CTC XO [executive officer] Clint Watts led that effort.
I’m also proud of our launch of CTC’s flagship publication CTC Sentinel in late 2007. The CTC was hitting hard with its education mission, and we believed we could expand the impact of the center and develop a regularized “battle rhythm” if we published a periodic journal that would help position the center as a thought leader in the field that we knew we could be. We dedicated the Sentinel to our recently passed Chair General Wayne Downing in the lead article of that first issue. Jarret Brachman and Director of Research Brian Fishman were on point for this, but all leaned in to get this off the ground.
During my time as director, the work the CTC did on the Sinjar Records3 was another standout contribution. We were provided a trove of information from recently captured documents from the Iraqi border town of Sinjar describing the background and experiences of foreign fighters entering Iraq from abroad. I set up an “in house” data coding effort where we coded key fields of information from the foreign fighter dossiers into a database and used statistical analysis tools to paint a picture of where these foreign fighters were coming from, why they joined, how they joined.
CTC also did important work on Iranian influence in Iraq during my time at the helm. Brian Fishman and I deployed to Iraq with the 75th Ranger Regiment and then RCO Colonel Richard Clark to support a JSOC task force charged with addressing malign Iranian influence in Iraq. I can’t go into much more detail than that, but the experience provided extraordinary access to information on the activities of Iraqi Shi`a militia members that trained in Iran and returned to Iraq to conduct deadly attacks on U.S. and coalition forces—e.g., employing the devastating milled shaped-charged IEDs known as EFPs (explosively formed penetrators) —and IRAM [Improvised Rocket Assisted Munition] rockets. Drawing on primary sources and declassified Harmony documents, we authored a report4 that revealed for the first time the depth and degree of Iranian penetration into the Iraqi government and the details of how the Shi`a militias were recruited, moved to Iran for training, and supported when they returned to Iraq to attack U.S. and coalition forces.
There are so many good anecdotes. Hours after publishing Harmony and Disharmony, I received calls from multiple USG sources telling me that we had violated classification rules. Fortunately, our SOCOM sponsors backed us up. I naively put my email address as a POC for the report and got well over 1,000 emails!
Then there was the time Ayman al-Zawahiri put out a tape that featured the CTC—with its crest!—and specifically the work of Jarret Brachman and Will McCants claiming that the CTC publications were misguided and should not be believed!a
We liked to aim for the skies at CTC, sometimes literally. I remember when CTC’s then Executive Officer Clint Watts and I met with Ross Perot on his private jet to update him on CTC progress and secure his continued support on a flight from D.C. to Chicago. He loved the CTC, and it was well worth the trip to join him—it was the only window free he had.
Then there was the time Brian Fishman and I pulled an all-nighter to complete the Sinjar Records report. I was the data guy crunching the numbers and sending Brian findings and Brian putting all into context. It was like Elton John and Bernie Taupin in “Between 2 Rooms”! At another time, Brian and I deployed to Iraq to support JSOC. The helicopter we were flying from Balad to Baghdad unexpectedly “tested” its machine guns over the Euphrates River. Needless to say, this more than got Brian’s attention!
Sawyer: I am most proud of the relationship we developed with the New York City Fire Department. The Center was barely established when FDNY leadership approached West Point to assist with its rebuilding efforts and the development of its post-9/11 strategy. What started with a simple meeting in Lincoln Hall at West Point led to a 20-year relationship, beginning with the development of a graduate course taught first to the most senior leaders of the [Fire] Department and over time now includes company grade officers accelerating the learning opportunity afforded by the partnership.
First conceived by Ms. Kate Frucher, then Special Assistant to the Fire Commissioner; First Deputy Commission (then Chief) Joseph Pfeifer; Chief Peter Hayden; Chief (and later Commissioner) Salvatore Cassano; Chief John Norman; and Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, the Counterterrorism Leadership Program proved transformational, impacting a generation of officers and assisted the Department in defining its strategy. Moreover, the CTC assisted the FDNY in establishing its own center, the FDNY Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness, which has made immeasurable contributions to the Department, New York City, and the broader Fire Service.
The hallmark of a great partnership is the investment made by each party, and the FDNY has done a great deal for West Point and the Army, including hosting the CTC’s Homeland Security Course (first established by Alex Gallo) teaching the cadets about crisis management, providing internships for the likes of now Congressman Pat Ryan (NY-19th), CTC alum such as LTC Adam Scher (White House Fellow), and Mr. Kyle Brengel (former 10th SFG(A)). It is hard to overstate the impact these two storied institutions have had on one another and will continue to do so into the future.
Collins: We released many great reports during my time as director, but two stand out. On May 3, 2012, we released Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?5 This was the first report to analyze some of the documents that were captured during the Abbottabad raid in which bin Ladin was killed. We worked extremely hard to complete the report after receiving the first batch of declassified documents. I did not anticipate the demand for the report nor the inability for our server to handle it, so our website crashed when we released it. People had to go to other news media outlets, who had posted our report before our system crashed, to read and download the report. The report was the lead news story around the world on the day we released it.
We also released Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right.6 While the violent far-right has featured much more prominently in the media in recent years, back in 2013, it was not getting the attention it deserved and our understanding of these groups was not where it needed to be given the threat these groups posed to the United States. The report generated a lot of pushback, but it was clear that many of those who criticized the report had not read the executive summary, let alone the report. Ultimately, it was an important contribution to the literature that helped practitioners better understand the threat.
Price: Without hesitation, I’m most proud of our people. Being an Army officer, it was the first time in my career that I had the opportunity to hire people and build a team, and that team was special.
We made the deputy director a civilian post and created the director of research position. We revamped the CTC Sentinel and created the “A View from the CT Foxhole” series. We also revamped our website, making it easier than ever to search, sort, and display the vast research the CTC has done over the years.
For the first time in our history, we created a special course called Combating Terrorism and hired subject matter experts in Africa and South Asia. On the research side, we established the CTC Perspectives line. I was also proud of our work on ISIS, foreign fighters, hostages, terror group designations, and the prescient work done on extremist right-wing terrorism.
We quadrupled the number of internships for our cadets, including new placements on the National Security Council, JSOC, and the State Department. We bolstered the Downing Scholar program and executed Senior Conference in 2015 for the Department of Social Sciences, which was focused on innovative approaches to the CT threat.
Finally, testifying in front of Congress in 2016 on the CT lessons learned since 9/11 remains one of my most cherished personal and professional highlights.
Dodwell: I think I probably had a bit of a different experience than my predecessors. I came into the Director role as the first civilian to hold the position, having been asked to take on this role during a two-and-a-half-year gap between military leadership. It’s important to emphasize how grateful I am that Colonel Suzanne Nielsen (SOSH Head) told me I was the Director, not the Interim Director, and gave me her full support to lead our amazing team accordingly (something I couldn’t have done, by the way, without Rachel Yon, the CTC XO and my deputy in all but name). In addition, I came into the position having served in the Center for eight years prior to taking on the role (and continue to serve today). So in terms of discussing the things I’m most proud of from my tenure as Director, it’s difficult for me to disaggregate all the amazing things that happened over the full 13 years that the CTC has been my home. I feel an attachment to all of it.
Having served as BP’s deputy for four years, I was extremely lucky to have learned from one of the best leaders out there (and someone who’s now made a whole second career out of leadership education!), so my goal when I took the job was to not only maintain the amazing momentum we had built up, but also to live up to BP’s mantra of relentless improvement. As he mentioned earlier, it’s all about the people and the team, so one of the things I’m most proud of is how we were able to expand an already amazing group of researchers by adding expertise in some areas of critical importance for the future of the CTC, to include the Iran Threat Network and terrorist innovation and use of technology.
Also in the category of relentless improvement was the work we did to reinvigorate our research with the special operations community on captured material. After the early successes of the Harmony Program, there had been a lull in the release of this material. It took a persistent effort by our team, in cooperation with a core group of innovative thinkers on the operational side, but we gradually got the spigot reopened. We started this effort during my time as deputy, and by the time I was director, the CTC was again producing innovative research using primary source materials to better understand our adversaries. Importantly, these projects were directly tied to requests from our operational partners, who were generous with their time and resources, to include supporting multiple deployments of CTC team members overseas to collect data and better understand the needs of the force. This high level of engagement helped to ensure the relevance and impact of our work. None of this happens without the brilliance and hard work of my partners in crime on this effort: Daniel Milton, Don Rassler, and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi.
The ultimate demonstration of the CTC’s impact at the nexus of academia and operations was the so-called al-Mawla Project. This effort, which resulted in the publication in 2020 of several articles and the release of 56 Tactical Interrogation Reports7 of the then-leader of ISIS from his time in custody a decade earlier, was the perfect marriage between operators, academics, and journalists. Each group brought their unique skills to bear, resulting in an end product that had demonstrable impact.
Morrow: I inherited an organization that was extremely well led by Brian Dodwell and stands on the shoulders of giants before him. In just two short years, I already have a book full of favorite anecdotes. Last fall while briefing foreign military attachés, one raised his hand to let us know that in his attaché training, they are explicitly told to read the CTC Sentinel. I asked the room if any other attaches read CTC Sentinel. Of the 40 senior officers in the room, all but a few said they do. On another occasion, Brian Dodwell and I were overseas at a major CT conference. The director of a foreign national counterterrorism center said hello and made small talk. She only seemed mildly interested in what we did until she heard we publish CTC reports and the Sentinel. She then made the connection and enthusiastically said that they read everything that CTC publishes. In late December 2022, as-Sahab, the media wing of al-Qa`ida, referred to “research by the Combating terrorism center issued by the US military academy in West Point which is considered the most advanced in America.”8 When your adversaries are reading your output, you know it must be valuable.
At this stage of my tenure, however, it’s not the research and accomplishments of the team that I am most proud of, but rather how the team is evolving in the face of change. The nation placed many demands on the Combating Terrorism Center during what CTC senior fellow and former Acting Director of the CIA Michael Morell called “the great war of our time,”9 and CTC exceeded those expectations.
As attention, priorities, and resources turn away from the CT fight, I offer that the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point might be more valuable to America in the next 20 years than it was in the previous 20 years. As others turn attention elsewhere, we will continue to educate cadets, officers, scholars, and practitioners to think through the complex challenges posed by terrorism. CTC will never succumb to the zeitgeist. We won’t yield to the pressure to be everything to everyone. I borrow something Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted in her description of the law through the eyes of the Supreme Court, because it applies perfectly to the current study of terrorism and counterterrorism: “the Court should never be influenced by the weather of the day but inevitably they will be influenced by the climate of the era.”b
Our nation’s national security priorities must ebb and flow to meet the world where it is, and where it will be. Terrorism might not present the same existential threat that other actors pose. However, terrorism will also never go away. CTC’s value to the nation is that we will continuously prepare cadets, scholars, and practitioners with the tools to face the threat now and in whatever form or shape it may re-emerge. To summarize it, although I am early in my tenure, I am most proud to be on a team that somehow evolves constantly without ever forgetting our enduring purpose.
CTC: How do you see the evolution of the terror threat landscape and counterterrorism challenges? How do you see the evolution of efforts by the scholarly and practitioner community to understand the problem set? What needs to guide our scholarship over the next 20 years?
Howard: I worry that present-day emphasis on Great Power Competition will take our collective eyes off the terrorist/counterterrorism ball. The United States is not in an either-or situation. Instead, it is all of the above. The CTC will make sure we (nationally and internationally) keep our eyes on the ball.
McCormick: We tend to discount the precise nuts and bolts of religion in this CT landscape. Our fear of offending, especially when it comes to religious ideologies and naming the specific issue, can be the issue. All religions have specific areas that can be exploited and twisted by people bent on doing damage and wreaking havoc. Those exploited areas don’t necessarily represent the complete ideology of that given religion. We have to be able to step into those areas and not sugarcoat what is happening and how these bad actors are using their twisted interpretation of a given religion to achieve their ends.
Felter: America must maintain a disciplined commitment to understanding the nature of the prevailing terrorist threats and investing in sufficient CT capabilities despite competing threats and budget priorities. Counterterrorism scholarship, including by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, should help us to remain vigilant in this commitment to continuously strive to identify, understand, and provide insights and recommendations to help practitioners interdict these threats.
Difficult decisions and compromises lie ahead for policymakers in determining the appropriate allocation of resources to defend against terrorist threats concurrent with prevailing in the competition with strategic rivals and addressing other threats to U.S. vital and important interests. Counterterrorism scholarship, including by the CTC, can help us make appropriate compromises and tradeoffs based on the real and enduring nature of the threat of terrorism.
No president or political leader can unilaterally declare that our war against terrorist threats like those responsible for catastrophic events like the 9/11 attacks is over—our enemies get a vote!
Sawyer: While terrorism will continue to evolve and be centered in the physical dimensions, the evolving technological dimensions of the threat will certainly manifest in ways we have not seen to date. Whether from further exploitation of commercial UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] platforms or leveraging dimensions of the forthcoming metaverse, we will face new challenges. This is the strength of the Center—that it is an enduring institution, committed to focusing on near-term and over-the-horizon challenges.
Collins: History has shown that terrorism constantly evolves. Therefore, we must constantly study it so that we do not underreact or overreact to terrorist threats, because when we do, we often exacerbate the challenge and the threat. Thus, what guides our scholarship over the next 20 years should be the same thing that has guided our scholarship over the past 20 years: rigorous academic research that is designed to inform good policy decisions.
Price: Not surprisingly, one of the few constants in the field of terrorism is change. Who could’ve predicted the pace and scope of ascendance of ISIS?
Our national security strategy documents provide one interesting medium from which to observe the evolution of the threat landscape. Almost two years after 9/11, the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism stated that the enemy was not one person or a single regime, nor a religion. Instead, it stated “the enemy is terrorism,”10 which in hindsight seems a very broad and unrealistic mandate given that terrorism is a tactic. In 2006, an updated CT strategy declared the new focus was a “transnational movement of extremist organizations, networks, and individuals.”11 In 2011, the focus changed yet again, this time on “al-Qa’ida and the defeat of its affiliates, adherents, and ideology.”12 The 2018 version declared our principal threat was radical Islamist terrorist groups.13
What should be the CT focus in the next couple of years? For me, three topics come to mind. First, how will the combination of technology, AI, and misinformation contribute to political radicalization? Second, how will climate change and the resulting energy, water, and food shortages accelerate terrorist threats? Third, how will transnational groups use drone technology to conduct terrorist attacks against the U.S. and our allies?
Dodwell: Again, my predecessors have done an excellent job covering the key challenges we will face moving forward. Keeping pace with the change and evolution highlighted by Liam [Collins] and BP [Bryan Price] will be one of our prime challenges, especially in an era of reduced funding for CT activities. One of the key evolutions is the continued diversification of the terrorism threat. It’s not as simple as highlighting, as many have, the increased threat posed by domestic terrorism. Many of the new threat actors we face (and even some of the old ones) do not neatly fit into one of the traditional buckets the terrorism studies field has historically used to categorize threats. Our research efforts must grapple with this nuance to help inform tailored CT policies to combat specific threats.
I would also double-down on BP’s mention of the impact of technology on violent extremism. I agree that we need to tackle the important questions he raised regarding AI, misinformation/disinformation, and Unmanned Aircraft Systems. To those, I would add the challenges posed by developments in the chemistry and biology fields that impact the availability and potential use of chemical and biological weapons by a wider range of actors. The CTC tackled this topic in a recent pair of special issues14 that we hope added value to the field and will prompt further scholarship and policy discussion.
Morrow: The challenges of countering terrorism over the next 20 years will likely be characterized by speed, the intersections and alliances of states and non-state actors, and the challenges of information and disinformation. A concern I have is that studying terrorism is no longer in vogue. Those in the field across academia and in policy and practice continue to do critical work at the cutting edge of scholarship, technology, and practice. While I don’t have data at hand to support this, it seems that it is harder and harder to find young people choosing to focus their studies and their life’s work on terrorism. However, the good news is that the challenges I listed in the first sentence above lend themselves to attract brilliant minds. Those who study the complexities of political violence, international relations, technology, and disinformation will be well suited to quickly adapt those skills to the challenges imposed by the threats of terrorism. Much like terrorism is a tactic, so are the skills which can detect, deter, disrupt, and in some cases defeat those who use terrorism to challenge our nation and the world. It is up to practitioners, scholars, and policymakers to leverage assets and organizations like the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point to ensure a small cadre of professionals and future officers maintain the knowledge and networks to integrate historical CT experts with the up-and-coming talent to face the future challenges posed by terrorism. The CTC will serve as a trusted global hub inside and outside of government, continuously monitoring and understanding current and evolving VEO [violent extremist organization] threats, and ready to bring our knowledge and network to scale as threats emerge. CTC
[a] Editor’s Note: At another point, Usama bin Ladin wrote, “Please send all that is issued from the combating terrorism center of the American military.” See “Request for Documents from CTC,” Declassified Material – May 20, 2015, Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
[b] Editor’s Note: Justice Ginsburg stated: “A great constitutional scholar Paul Freund once said, ‘the Court should never be influenced by the weather of the day but inevitably they will be influenced by the climate of the era.’” “Transcript: Interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” New York Public Radio, September 16, 2013.
 Editor’s Note: James J.F. Forest, Jarret Brachman, and Joseph Felter, Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting Al-Qa`ida’s Organizational Vulnerabilities (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2006).
 Editor’s Note: Nelly Lahoud, Stuart Caudill, Liam Collins, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, Don Rassler, and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2012).
 Editor’s Note: The TIRs are available on the CTC’s Harmony Program webpage. For the articles, see Daniel Milton and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, “Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s Future Caliph,” CTC Sentinel 13:9 (2020) and Daniel Milton, “The al-Mawla TIRs: An Analytical Discussion with Cole Bunzel, Haroro Ingram, Gina Ligon, and Craig Whiteside,” CTC Sentinel 13:9 (2020).
 Editor’s Note: Media release by al-Qa`ida Central’s as-Sahab, late December 2022.
 Editor’s Note: See Michael Morell, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism from al-Qa‘ida to ISIS (Twelve Books, 2015).
 Editor’s Note: See “The National Strategy of the United States of America,” The White House, February 2003.
 Editor’s Note: “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” The White House, September 2006.
 Editor’s Note: “National Strategy For Counterterrorism 2011,” The White House, June 2011.
 Editor’s Note: “National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America,” The White House, October 2018.