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SIS Experts Debate Responses to Terrorism

By Antoaneta Tileva

Distinguished Practitioner in Residence Lt. Gen. David Barno (Ret.), Distinguished Scholar in Residence Nora Bensahel, and Distinguished Journalist in Residence David Gregory debated U.S. strategy on terrorism at a SIS Special Forum on February 3.

Facing the rise of the Islamic State group in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria, recent terrorist attacks in Paris, and extremist groups elsewhere, the United States and its allies are grappling with how to combat extremism and prevent and respond to terrorism. A panel discussion at the School of International Service on February 3 -- U.S. and European Responses to Terrorism: Do We Have It Right? -- addressed these challenges.

Moderated by Distinguished Journalist in Residence David Gregory, the former host of Meet the Press, the panel included Distinguished Practitioner in Residence Lt. Gen. David Barno (Ret.), who was senior commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003–05, and Distinguished Scholar in Residence Nora Bensahel, a national security expert.

“This is a conflict that defies easy explanations,” said Barno, noting that the presence of terrorist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram is threatening to destabilize the entire Middle East and North African region.

Bensahel noted that it is not a traditional military challenge alone. “These types of threats are a response to U.S. conventional supremacy, and since they do not take place on a force-on-force battlefield, even state adversaries are turning to irregular tactics like terrorism to achieve their goals.”

She noted that the Al Qaeda model of the past was a centrally-organized unit, which offered more options to counter it. Al Qaeda has since morphed into many different groups with different agendas, which makes a central strategy to combat it very difficult.

Both panelists concurred that the United States has a geographic advantage that allows it to mostly avoid terrorist attacks at home, and that the United States takes a “if we fight them there, we do not have to fight them here” approach to radical combatants.

Europe, on the other hand, is vulnerable to domestic terrorist attacks, given its proximity to North Africa and the Middle East and its continuing challenges to assimilate its Muslim communities. Europe “sees terrorism as a criminal activity -- as such, it is a law enforcement problem,” said Bensahel. This non-military based response differentiates the fight against terrorism waged by Europe from that waged by the United States.

Gregory asked about the legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the consequences for global terrorism. Barno noted that these wars were plagued by a number of issues. He pointed to a “lack of any continuity and zigzagging far too much” and suggested that the U.S. approach has lacked a proactive element. “We have to figure out how to get at the ideology of militant Islam. We have to limit their ability to recruit by removing their ideological legitimacy, attack their finances, and also address the humanitarian crisis they leave in their wake,” he said.

Bensahel and Barno both said that a containment strategy is more realistic than a “seek out and destroy” worldview. “Instead of talking about ‘defeat and destroy,’ a more realistic goal might be ‘degrade and contain geographically,’” said Barno. To that end, intelligence and law enforcement cooperation is crucial and there is also a greater need to understand dynamics on the ground -- particularly difficult in Syria, which is wracked by a civil war.

At SIS, Barno and Bensahel are collaborating on a book on military adaptation and the future of U.S. warfare. Follow them and David Gregory on Twitter: @DWBarno76; @norabensahel; @davidgregory.

Watch a video of the event here: http://www.american.edu/sis/events/SIS-Forum-Terrorism-and-US-Strategy-in-the-Middle-East.cfm