Young Professionals Briefing Series: The Threat of Terror at Home and Abroad

Tuesday, September 6, 2022
AHMAD GHARABLI / Contributor / Getty Images

Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, Council on Foreign Relations; @hoffman_bruce

Fellow, American Enterprise Institute; CFR Term Member


Senior Advisor, Executive Office and MENA Center, United States Institute of Peace; CFR Member

Young Professionals Briefing Series

BUECHE: Thank you for joining us tonight for this session of the Young Professionals Briefing Series. I’m pleased to welcome you, those of you here in Washington back in the office, as well as our participants on Zoom. I’m Carrie Bueche, deputy director of Washington meetings here at the Council on Foreign Relations.

CFR is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit membership organization, think tank, and publisher. On our website, you’ll find links to past events, reports, podcasts, and analysis from our fellows. CFR aims to be a resource for its members and for the public, and to provide public—provide timely analysis on U.S. foreign policy. The purpose of the Young Professionals Briefing Series is to engage college graduates and those in their 20s who are not yet eligible for term membership at the Council on Foreign Relations, but who are interested in international relations. We organize about one event a month in this series and send out a newsletter that highlights the Council’s meetings and recent publications.

Tonight, we’ll have about thirty minutes of conversation amongst our panel and then thirty minutes of Q&A, during which we encourage you to participate and raise your hand and engage in the discussion. In Washington, we’ll also have a reception afterwards. So, thank you, again. And now I’ll invite our panel to join the stage and turn things over to our presider, Mona Yacoubian, who is senior advisor in the Executive Office and Middle East and North Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace.

YACOUBIAN: So welcome. It’s such a pleasure to be here. This is my first time back in a big CFR setting. So thrilled to be here. As was announced, I’m Mona Yacoubian. I’m a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace. And I’ll be presiding over this evening’s session, the inaugural CFR Young Professionals Briefing, on the threat of terrorism at home and abroad. It’s my pleasure to introduce our two esteemed speakers.

Bruce Hoffman is Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has been studying terrorism and insurgency for four decades. He’s a tenured professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She focuses on the global Salafi jihadist movement and counterterrorism. She also studies the al-Qaida network and related trends in the Middle East and Africa, including al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and al-Qaida in the Sahel. She’s also an advisor to AEI’s Critical Threats Project.

So let’s dive in. And let me start first, Bruce, with you, if I could. Give us a sense of the global terrorism threat landscape, given, in particular, what’s happened over the past year or so. You’ve had somewhat chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on the one hand, but also the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaida, fairly significant event. Taking that into consideration, and other factors that you are looking at, what’s your sense of where we are today?

HOFFMAN: Well, first, let me say how delighted I am to be at an in-person event at CFR for the first time since February 2020. So this is great. Thank you, Mona, for doing this and, Katie, for coming across from AEI.

Well, you know, when one looks at terrorism today, I think the most obvious thing to say is that, especially after two and a half years of a global pandemic and health crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s saber rattling with Taiwan, the immense amount of climate upheaval we’ve seen for successive summers, no one really wants to think about terrorism. And consequently, there’s, I think, a profound desire to put the threat in the rearview mirror. And we hear lots of that. That was part of the rationale for leaving Afghanistan, that we could control this threat through over-the-horizon capabilities.

You know, the trouble is, I think, having studied terrorism now for more than four decades, it leads you to be an inveterate pessimist. And I would say we’re in a profound period of transition. I’m going to give you a comparison. In 2004, Israel—not that I’m holding Israel out as an exemplar of counterterrorism, but I think this is a useful parallel. Israel killed Sheik Yassin, the founder and leader of Hamas, and then a few months later—so, let’s say, the bin Laden equivalent, roughly speaking. And then a few months later killed Abul Aziz al-Rantissi—let’s say, the al-Zawahiri equivalent. And, you know, Hamas has not gone away. If anything, one could argue it’s more powerful now than it was back then. So I think a lot of the hopes that we killed bin Laden over a decade ago, very recently we’ve killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, that somehow the threat has receded. I don’t think it’s necessarily the case.

And what worries me is that transitions always bring new opportunities for terrorists. And in terrorism, the coin of the realm is killing people and violence. And whomever, and I have a pretty clear idea, and I’m sure Katie and I probably agree but maybe not, but who al-Zawahiri’s likely successor will be, that person, to prove his mettle, could be even more violent, and could decide, well, I’ll come out with it now. I think it’ll be Saif al-Adel, for example, who’s always been more of a warrior than a thinker. You know, al-Zawahiri last year wrote a 900-page treatise on the fate of the Western nation state. Someone like Saif al-Adel, who’s served in the Egyptian Army’s special operations forces, wrote very practical manuals to persuade foreign fighters to come to Iraq in 2003—not to defend Saddam Hussein, but to resist the United States. So with that sort of warrior mentality and practical bent, he could take al-Qaida potentially—if he is the successor, in an entirely different direction than it’s in now.

So one way or the other—I wouldn’t say terrorism, as it had been from 2001 to 2018 or so, is the preeminent threat. It probably shouldn’t have been the preeminent threat anyway. It certainly shouldn’t be now. But at the same time, it doesn’t go from 150 mile an hour, you know, sportscar, truck barreling down a highway to 10 miles an hour type of challenge. It’s something that I think we can’t afford to completely ignore.

YACOUBIAN: So, Katie, let’s pick up on that. How do you assess the phenomenon? And in particular, how do you weigh on the one hand, again, this withdrawal from Afghanistan, which the idea was, yeah, it’s kind of done, we’re over this, you know, phase of counterterrorism. But the chaotic sense of it. And not the fact that we were able to kill al-Zawahiri, but the fact that he was actually in Kabul also, what does that say? And where are you on the question of who Zawahiri’s successor will be, and what does that say about the evolution of al-Qaida going forward?

ZIMMERMAN: Well, starting with the global picture, I really do agree with Bruce on this one that as we’re looking at the terrorism threat worldwide from both al-Qaida and the Islamic State, it remains fairly high, but it’s not the top priority for the United States. This is a challenge that we’ve faced now for twenty years. We’ve become exquisitely excellent at defeating the terrorism threat. But we’ve been unable to stop it from reemerging time and time again. So this is looking at the ability of the United States to kill the terrorism leaders, to disrupt financial networks, to degrade the group’s abilities to operate on the ground. But our inability really to defeat the groups themselves.

And part of that comes from the way that we’ve been fighting it. It’s a heavily securitized approach, as you know well, Mona. But looking at these groups really as a security threat rather than their ability to operate within local communities and the resonance they’ve been able to generate with various sectors of the populations where they’re working. And also the fact that we’re twenty-one years past 9/11, almost, and technology has changed. And so when you look at the ability of groups to innovate in the technology space to kill people, because that is the goal of terrorism fundamentally, it’s a lot easier to take something off the shelf today and make it quite dangerous.

And so when you think about 9/11 and the surprise that we had when al-Qaida used commercial airplanes as bombs, we should think about all the technology we have today that has been wonderful for connecting the world, but we’ve already seen aspects of it used in an evil way, where there’s evil creativity behind it. And so some of the drones, et cetera, that are able to allow terrorists to have precision weapons that cost almost nothing. So we’re looking at a threat that has changed, and yet our capabilities and how we’re fighting it have not really changed, other than how we’ve managed to become even better at killing somebody, or better at finding information on the ground.

I think Zawahiri being in Kabul is a clear example of that. It’s a challenge for the United States that the Taliban is providing sanctuary—knowing or unknowing, I believe it was knowing—to an al-Qaida leader. And even more challenging when you start to read why we decided on the tactic of killing that we did. When you weigh the cost of a counterterrorism raid in a heavily populated area in an enemy state, it means that it’s going to be a highly risky operation that would require a large footprint and access. So we weren’t going to conduct a counterterrorism raid to capture Zawahiri alive, which leaves us only with the option of killing him.

And we can do that, right? The ninja missiles are incredible with the fact that we can kill one person in a building in the middle of the city and have no other casualties. But we lost the intelligence. We lost the ability to protect force into there. And we’ve also, I think, fundamentally lost the ability to perceive these groups as anything other than terrorist organizations and threat cells, which leads us to this perennial counterterrorism fight rather than shifting our effort and really realigning some of our counterterrorism resources with our other strategic priorities in rolling back some of the gains and stabilizing some of the states where these groups have gained ground.

YACOUBIAN: So I want to pull on this thread a little bit further with you, because I do want to talk a bit more about how we should be counter—what U.S. counterterrorism strategy should look like going forward. But I want to pull a little bit more on this thread about the evolution of al-Qaida, in particular. And I’m curious, can you talk a bit about, Katie, how the al-Qaida affiliates have evolved? Whether it’s al-Shabaab in Somalia, or AQAP in and around Yemen, or, frankly, to my mind even more interesting is what are you seeing in sub-Saharan Africa and what does it mean? What does it mean in terms of how we should understand it?

ZIMMERMAN: I think the first point that I like to make when talking about the al-Qaida affiliates is that al-Qaida core, the senior leadership, is not the group that we think it is. We think of it as only the individuals that were around Osama bin Laden, around al-Zawahiri, based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And that’s an outdated assessment. It’s one that we cling to, because it means there is a set of individuals we can kill which will eliminate al-Qaida. But when we look at how al-Qaida has evolved, the senior leaders by 2010 were dispersed among the affiliates, particularly inside of Yemen, where we saw Nasser Wuhayshi, who founded AQAP al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula—he was not only elevated to be al-Qaida’s general manager, but he played a significant role in the global organization organizing attacks, trying to coordinate with groups in the Maghreb and North Africa, and linking some of these networks that were not coming directly from bin Laden.

So when we look at al-Qaida today, we need to understand that the senior leaders of the organization are not in the same space, they’re not geographically together. They are in Afghanistan, certainly. And there are ones that have just been released a year ago who are back on the field. There are some still in Yemen. We’ve killed many in Yemen, but there are still a few left on that checklist. And the individuals who we might not have called senior leaders ten years ago, when we killed bin Laden, now have ten more years under their belt. And they’ve certainly made it up the leadership ranks. They’re not the junior officers that they once were. So we’ve seen the beginning of the next generation coming to the fore.

The affiliates themselves developed over time as organizations that are both linked ideologically to al-Qaida, and following strategic guidance, but operating within—with a local independence, where the fortunes of other affiliates aren’t directly affecting them. And their local focus is something that they are fighting in these theaters to achieve a strategic vision, but also the leadership in particular is focused on that global jihad. And so some of these groups—AQAP transitioned first to fighting the global jihad. We know, right, it’s behind the underwear bomb attack and many other attacks after that. Al-Shabaab did so in 2019. Very clear that Al-Shabaab is still pushing that forward. And so we need to really transform how we think about both the senior leadership of the al-Qaida organization and how these local versions of al-Qaida are threatening the United States, and how they could develop in dangerous ways.

YACOUBIAN: So, Bruce, let’s pick up on that point. What are the trends that you are seeing right now that give you the greatest concern? What keeps you up at night? Is it, again, sort of the deepening bench, if you will, of al-Qaida affiliates in various ungoverned and unstable parts of the world? Is it access to technology, drones and such? Where do you see this threat? How do you see it evolving? What gives you the most cause for concern?

HOFFMAN: Well, the easy answer is all of the above. But something Katie said I think is enormously important. And she’s mentioned Al-Shabaab in 2019. And I would say 2022, because we know for a fact that two members of Al-Shabaab, which I would rank as probably the— technologically the least proficient, or least impressive of the al-Qaida affiliates—one was arrested in South Africa and the other in the Philippines undergoing the exact same training that the 9/11 pilots did before September 11th, 2001. In my view, I’m sure they’re not the only two.

And the fact that the least-technologically adept al-Qaida affiliate is sending out its—you know, hand-picking its fighters. I mean, it’s Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab, of course, had more of an international footprint than we imagine. I mean, there were thirty-six Americans that were recruited into Al-Shabaab’s ranks, for example. And not just Somali Americans, but also converts, like Omar Hammami, for example. That these groups have remarkable resiliency, unfortunately, which is why we can’t put terrorism in the rearview mirror.

They’re still plotting and planning and thinking along pre-9/11 lines. And, you know, regardless of whether it’s true or not, I believe a lot of these groups remain absolutely convinced that if they can once again successfully target commercial aviation, that they’ll throttle the global economy. I mean, that’s their motivation. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but it doesn’t matter. That’s why they’re going back to sort of the same tactics.

As you pointed out, Mona, throughout history it’s commonplace that battlefield tactics and technology have migrated into urban centers. So of course, especially in Ukraine when we see how invaluable drones have been on both sides, how Russia is rushing to replenish its resources with Iranian drones, how Ukraine has become dependent on the United States and its Western supporters for their own drones. Surveillance and reconnaissance, but also for actual attacks. I mean, think of a swarming attack in a metropolitan, urban center. Very low ordnance delivered by drones, but nonetheless governments have no real solution to it. Or, if it happens in multiple cities.

I mean, terrorists are always trying to create—or, recreate the same fear and anxiety, I would argue, that emerged after 9/11. That’s what they’ve hitched their fortunes to being able to do that again. And just as Katie pointed out, there’s so many technological avenues available to them to do so. We know for a fact, for example, that ISIS was maintaining chemical and biological weapons facilities, both at the University of Mosul where they had, like, real-life scientists that they could enlist, but also at Tal Afar. So these groups haven’t forgotten things that we tend to—don’t remember. I mean, WMD, for instance, is something because of Iraq no one really talks about, but al-Qaida’s own CBRN, you know, chemical, biological, radiological—the nuclear was, admittedly, not even half-baked but quarter-baked, but it was still serious.

But they were attempting to weaponize all these different unconventional types of capabilities. What worries me is that their successors haven’t forgotten about that either. And history has told us that terrorists are most dangerous when they have access to sanctuary and safe haven. I mean, it’s a fact of life, they have access to more sanctuary and safe—and you name it. Sahel, West Africa, East Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and so on. You know, this is exactly why we can’t afford to completely dismiss this threat.

YACOUBIAN: So you mentioned ISIS. And that’s kind of—that’s one other area I wanted to probe with both of you a bit. And, you know, ISIS was, of course, territorially defeated in 2019. But then, as with al-Qaida, we’ve seen affiliates and others—and in particular the one that’s caught my attention certainly is ISIS-K, ISIS Khorasan Group. I mean, I’m curious whether—for example, I just saw that they apparently claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the Russian Embassy in Kabul. And of course, I think we believe they were behind the suicide attack against Afghan citizens and others at the airport in that chaotic withdrawal.

HOFFMAN: Oh, right. Yeah, absolutely.

YACOUBIAN: So maybe very—just quickly, Bruce, starting with you, and then over to you, Katie, kind of what’s your sense of ISIS as a threat, ISIS-K in particular? Is this something that, you know, we need to stay worried about?

HOFFMAN: I’d say the short answer is never underestimate their capacity as killers. I mean, they’re homicidal maniacs, basically. In fact, I would say they’re kind of like the Manson family, and al-Qaida is more like La Cosa Nostra, like an organization that is intent on constantly replenishing its ranks and surviving. And again, that’s not to denigrate ISIS’ killing capability, but it doesn’t—I mean, it had a strategy, but it was very—it was very impractical and short-lived. And it was like a comet that burnt out.

Al-Qaida, the problem is, is playing the long game. So ISIS has an enormous capacity, as you described, to kill people. And especially whether it’s, you know, desperate Afghans seeking to leave the country, more commonly it’s been Hazaras, members of the Shia minority community in particular, because that’s less controversial. But I think their external operations capability has been derailed. I don’t think it’s been destroyed. But it’s been derailed because of the collapse of the—the defeat of the caliphate, I should say, and the collapse of its leadership.

But I think that’s been the problem. The last few years it’s been ISIS, ISIS, ISIS. And we’ve kind of neglected al-Qaida. And unfortunately, in the aftermath of this highly successful killing of al-Zawahiri, when you can have the intelligence to identify a top leader like, well, it shows how comfortable he was that it was so easy to identify him. But the point is that it was great that we killed him, in terms of eliminating a key mastermind behind al-Qaida. But for them, because, as I said, like, combatting the mafia, that it’s an organizational entity that wants to constantly replicate itself, it’s much more of a long-term challenge.

YACOUBIAN: Katie, where are you on ISIS affiliates, ISIS-K?

ZIMMERMAN: I will start by saying that I start as an al-Qaida analyst. So I will agree with Bruce on al-Qaida being probably the longer-term threat, just in terms of strategy and the fact that it’s been able really to moderate its violence in a way that, you know, we don’t have the documents to prove it, but I believe is reactionary to counterterrorism policy and pressure, in order to stay behind a—below a certain threshold, and grow in the spaces until it opts to fight us. The Islamic State has a very different take on its ideology and it’s looking for action now. It’s one of the core critiques from ISIS against al-Qaida.

But the challenge that I really do see right now is the world is shifting away from counterterrorism. So even though we have achieved incredible gains against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it’s starting to come back. There’s not enough attention being paid to what is happening in northeastern Syria with the renewed ISIS campaign. I think we’re—you can’t talk about ISIS in that area without looking at the displaced persons camps and the prisons where we still have ISIS fighters.

This is the challenge from when we started the anti-ISIS campaign, is we actually never figured out how to eliminate the ISIS threat. We simply took away the territory. So we still have the people that made up the caliphate, those that we haven’t killed. And they are simply in camps now. And their beliefs are as fervent as ever, and they believe in killing people. So we have this time bomb in Iraq and Syria—well, mostly in Syria at this point—that at some point is going to break unless we’re willing to prop it up, you know, in perpetuity.

I think the other challenge that we face are the gains that the Islamic State has made in Africa. And, you know, certainly al-Qaida is quite strong in eastern Africa an in the Sahel. But when you look at the Lake Chad Basin area, the Islamic State has really taken over and expanded. It’s almost doubled in size. It is growing exponentially. I think one of the reasons why I look at al-Qaida as a more persistent threat is the networks and the way these two groups operate, from what I can tell, is slightly different. Where al-Qaida has a lot more of a lateral relationship amongst its affiliates—so there are horizontal relationships that connect these organizations, that make it much more resilient to traditional counterterrorism decapitation and targeted strikes.

For the Islamic State, it still has these centralized offices that are running the regional affiliates. So and there is a centralized office that’s running southern Africa. And there’s a centralized office in Somalia that’s running what ISIS is doing inside of eastern Africa and is also crucial for access into Afghanistan. And when you’re looking at some of these nodes, there is a much more targetable network still within the Islamic State that presents this interesting opportunity—which I don’t think anyone will take advantage of—but to start to degrade that global network really rapidly, which breaks the Islamic State network apart.

I think we’re going to not take advantage of it. I think that Islamic State will evolve in ways that makes it resilient, the way that al-Qaida did. And we will end up with this long-term, dual-pronged Salafi jihadi threat, where they are competing internally but their threat against us is the same. And it’s double-sided for us.

YACOUBIAN: So, Bruce, let me turn to you. So both of you have painted a fairly complex picture of what the landscape looks like. And you’ve both noted in different ways that our focus, our U.S. national security apparatus focus, has pivoted somewhat away from these traditional counterterrorism—or, terrorism threats. What, Bruce, should we—what would you recommend to President Biden going forward on how to address the evolving global terrorist threat? What did we—you know, the era of big footprint forever wars is over. We did see this over-the-horizon strike that got Zawahiri. I’m sure there is a temptation to say, hey, look, we were able to do this. You know, problem solved. Let’s move on. What’s your sort of thinking on what—where U.S. counterterrorism strategy should go?

HOFFMAN: Well, first and foremost, I don’t think we should be deluded by the fact that, as successful as the operation against al-Zawahiri was—I mean, after all, his tradecraft, his personal security, is pretty awful. If he was going out on the balcony in a very, you know, trendy or tony area of Kabul every day at the same time, you know. It’s—and also, don’t forget, we have, you know, potentially tens of thousands of assets in Afghanistan, the people we left behind, who obviously could be enlisted—I assume, I don’t know for a fact, but I assume by our intelligence community—to put eyes on a target like al-Zawahiri, in addition to all the satellite imagery that doubtlessly was employed, and perhaps even communications intercepts.

I think my biggest criticism would be the United States only knows two speeds—full speed ahead or just kind of, you know, a very slow jog or trundle along. I think we’d be much better in countering terrorism if we were much more consistent. So, you know, we go from invading and occupying countries with an excess of 150,000 ground troops—which obviously wasn’t the best strategy—to thinking that zero’s the right number. And I think Somalia’s a case in point. I mean, President Trump withdrew our special operations and intelligence assets there. President Biden has reintroduced some of them, but not at the same level. And that’s perplexed me.

Obviously 130(,000) or 150,000 ground forces was not the right number, but I never understood why 8,600 U.S. military forces in Afghanistan was a luxury we couldn’t afford, and ridiculous statements that you read in the newspaper. Or that even some senior administration officials say that, well, we had to withdraw from Afghanistan so we could pivot to focus on the threats from Russia and China. Well, we’re not much of a superpower if 8,600 troops is too much of a—is too much of an expenditure.

But I think earlier Katie, and of course your own work, you know, hit on what has been the problem. Is that, you know, if you only have a hammer every problem is, you know, hitting a nail on the head, which is to say kinetics. Taking out leaders, invading and occupying countries. And we really have never—and obviously, there’s people—my colleague Farah Pandith at the Council here—argue we’ve never really genuinely engaged in the war of ideas, even though President Bush talked about that, now, twenty-one years ago. And it’s always been under-resourced. There’s no clear metrics that one can point to in the lifespan of a presidential administration. You can have a chart with Xs on it of all the terrorist leaders you’ve taken out and impress everyone that way, but changing people’s minds, diverting them from a path of radicalization, before even they become terrorists, is—it’s impossible to quantify. But it doesn’t mean, though, that that’s not actually the solution.

I remember really clearly in 2004, when I was briefly working in the CIA, I was working with someone—I was—obviously, I’m much more on the analytical side. I was working with one of these toughened operators who had actually been a former Marine and been overseas on the kind of paramilitary deployments the CIA undertakes. And this is in 2004. I remember very clearly he said to me: We don’t have enough bullets to kill all of our enemies. We’ve got to find a different way. So it was obvious back then, but yet we’re still not recognizing that. I’m not saying do away with the kinetics, but we can’t kill our way to victory, as many people have argued. Yet, that’s the default strategy that we continue to embrace.

YACOUBIAN: Katie, what’s your thinking on this? What does—what would a more effective U.S. counterterrorism policy look like?

ZIMMERMAN: It looks like what I wrote in 2019. (Laughter.) But in all seriousness, just to add to what Bruce has said, I think, you know, the fundamental challenge has been we’ve put the terrorism threat from al-Qaida and the Islamic State in a terrorism box, which has dictated counterterrorism policy from the United States. And it means that you are treating them only with a set of descriptions that includes, to some degree, countering violent extremism, which is to prevent people from joining the organization, targeting to attrit the organization, counter-threat finance to prevent the organization from being able to spend money on anything.

And what we haven’t looked at really are the environments in which these groups thrive. And we haven’t been able to marry our counterterrorism strategy with the country or regional strategy. And fundamentally, they’ve been at odds in certain places, and we have partnered with some very awful figures in the name of counterterrorism and been surprised when it didn’t work out. We have also really looked the other way when the going got tough. And I think this is one of the challenges that we face in terms of policy, has been in, you know, the early years of our—the global war on terror, radicalization was tied to poverty or the lack of opportunity.

And so big USAID said, we’re going to fix poverty. We’re going to give everyone jobs. Every Afghan is going to have a cellphone. And you kind of look through these development checklists, and it was not really what was driving the terrorism challenge. What we know from the correspondence that we’ve been able to recover from particularly al-Qaida is that the communities are receptive to the organizations not when they come in first with their ideology, but when they come in and say: We’re going to defend you.

And so what Abu Musad Zarqawi did in Iraq, as much as al-Qaida hated it, was brilliant strategically, in creating Sunni-Shia strife in order to defend the Sunni. What al-Qaida did in Syria, ten years give or take later, in terms of defending the Sunni, the Syrian armed opposition, against Assad, very similar in terms of gaining acceptance. Al-Qaida has done that actually very strategically in the Sahel, moving through various community and identity groups, working within these communities to generate a demand for its service. So, you know, it really is like the mafia, where it’s looking to require communities to need its presence, for security, for justice and, at times, for some of the goods that they can deliver.

We don’t have a strategy to fight that. We have a strategy that puts special forces next to local partners to go kill those individuals. We have a strategy that might invest a very targeted program in secondary education because there are studies done that those with secondary education are less susceptible to radicalization. What we don’t have is something that says: There are endemic problems in these communities. We need to address them, not because we care about making Timbuktu, you know, the next New York City, but because the vulnerabilities within the communities, the decline in resilience among the local people, has created opportunities that these groups exploit. So it’s more closing off the opportunities to the groups, rather than going out and trying to win hearts and minds, which was the mindset for twenty years in counterterrorism.

YACOUBIAN: So I want to bring the audience in. But before I do, I think it would be remiss if we didn’t touch on the domestic angle, since the title of this evening’s briefing is The Threat of Terrorism at Home and Abroad. And so, Bruce, I want to turn briefly to you to just talk a little bit, from your kind of very seasoned eye, at the evolution of this kind of newer threat. I don’t think in an earlier CFR event like this we would have been talking about domestic terrorism. Now we are. President Biden last week in his speech called extremism at home a threat to the very foundations of our republic. So can you just tell us briefly how you see the threat of domestic terrorism evolving?

HOFFMAN: Well, certainly it’s tied into everything we’ve been discussing because, of course, for the first twenty years of the war on terror, which I would argue still continues, we were laser focused on the Salafi jihadi threat and on the threat that emanated from overseas and was directed against the United States. I mean, that’s why we’re in such a unique position now is that many of the three-letter agencies that have responsibility for intelligence gathering to keep the homeland safe and for law enforcement are pivoting their assets away from focusing on the foreign threats and, rightly so, focusing on domestic ones.

I think it’s enormously challenging for a number of reasons. Firstly, unlike the foreign threat where it’s terrorist organizations, I think we’re talking mostly about individuals or individuals in small cells, or individuals with loose affiliations. That have a consequential networking dimension to them, because of course on January 6th Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Three Percenters, we know that they were all connecting with one another, that they made those events on Capitol Hill that much more consequential. They were able to gain access to the building. They actually had a plan.

But I would say that generally we’re talking about—well, we’re back in the 1990s. I mean, I’m old enough to remember that very clearly. Pre-Oklahoma City, where there’s tremendous divisiveness and polarization, I would argue. Not to the extent there is today, but it existed then. There was not social media then, which of course hypersonically empowers the reach of conspiracy theories, the proliferation of disinformation, of false information that has no factual basis but is repeated enough that it gains traction. And, you know, one thinks it was, you know, one individual working with two friends, one of whom became a much closer confederate, that until 9/11 visited on the United States the most significant terrorist incident. Hundred and sixty-eight persons were killed in Oklahoma City on April 19th, 1995.

So that’s my main worry, is that we’ve become extremely good—as this entire discussion has really focused on—in weakening organizations, in taking down caliphates, in eliminating the Mr. Bigs, the leaders. We’re talking about a completely different phenomenon in the United States, that I don’t think we quite understand, that has become extremely partisan, which makes any unified approach or any agreement on how best to counter it extremely fraught. And I think what worries me the most is that, you know, we’re just a breath away from another tragedy like Oklahoma City that will be an absolute gamechanger.

Now, in 1995, that resulted in intense focus on the militia movement, FBI penetration of these groups, and their neutralization for another two decades, let’s say. I’m not so sure we could have that kind of nonpartisan, unified response to taking down this threat now, which also worries me. I think there’d be a lot of division. And after all, terrorists are always trying to provoke some reaction, to divide publics, to undermine confidence in elected leadership. I mean, enough of that is already occurring. But terrorists are seeking to even push that further. So I mean, we’re in a unique position where, as Katie and I have been discussing, we still have to worry about the threat of foreign terrorists, and it hasn’t gone away. But now we have this huge threat staring us that we still haven’t really come to grips with in this country and, I would argue, we still don’t fully understand.

YACOUBIAN: So I want to invite participants now to join the conversation, both of those of you in the room and those online, with your questions. It’s a reminder that this conversation, this event, is on the record. And I think what you can do is simply raise your hand. And we have folks with mics around the room if you have a question. And once you’re recognized, I would ask that you just state your name and affiliation.

So I see this gentleman right here is the first person I caught. Yes, please.

Q: Thanks so much—

YACOUBIAN: Just hang on one sec for the mic, because that way folks online can hear as well.

Q: All right. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. I’m Jay Brooks. I’m in med school now up in New York, but before that I was in the Marines and spent most of my time in counterterrorism.

So my question is mostly on when success of counter terrorism that you’re talking about, advise, assist, and enable. And from my deployments, what I saw was the most success of how we could have leaders go into a meeting and say: We need the Iraqis to come out with this plan, but it can’t be our thought. It can’t be our plan, because if we fail then they’ll blame us, we’ll lose their partnership. So what leaders or what qualities of leaders did you see were most successful at going into those meetings and getting the Iraqis to plan or getting the partners to plan well? And how should the military screen for that and train for that, or the government, so that we can get more people like that?

YACOUBIAN: Who wants to take that?

ZIMMERMAN: I can start. You know, I can’t speak to the specific qualities of the successful U.S. leaders who can recognize fundamentally the politics of our counterterrorism games. This is our military officers who are also very much involved in local political development. We have a trope here that, you know, we divide the military and the use of force from politics and soft power. But as our soldiers and men and women on the ground know very well, they are the face of the United States in most places. And particularly, you know, our troops who are serving in Africa, where they’re—just because of the way that our foreign service has worked and our military service has worked, the most senior officials that most African leaders and officials meet are military officers.

The core challenge that I see today is less in screening for the qualities. There is a challenge that particular special forces have where because we have focused so much on breeding a kinetic capability, the counterterrorism raid, right, the door kickers, in our special forces, of course, the recruits have slanted away from what our special forces historically have done. So our FID, foreign internal development, developing internal forces so that we have partners forces on the ground. The challenge is that, as I believe Bruce mentioned, we’re looking to draw down our forces even more. We have the sense that we don’t need to put Americans in any type of harm’s way in order to achieve effects.

This is why President Trump made the decision to pull our troops out of Somalia. He was told by his advisors that we could do what we were doing with the partners we had on the ground from next door. And if you’ve ever tried to change someone’s mind from, you know, across the street, across the county, across the country, it’s a lot harder to be convincing when you’re not in person. And I believe it was General Townsend still in office who said that the troops are commuting to work. The relationship is just different when you’re not side-by-side with your partners. And I think that’s something that Washington took a while to learn, and I don’t know whether they actually learned that lesson.

So that’s one, is that it’s a policy here that we need to change, which is that we need to make sure that we set our officers up for success, not by putting them in harm’s way irresponsibly, but by weighing the risks of what it means to have a local partner willing to take the brunt of the fight, and ensuring that our enablers are right there next to them to advise, one. Two, I think that we also need to show that we’re in the fight. And this is a challenge that we are now going to face, especially after Afghanistan, where a lot of our local partners are shifting away from the United States because we are pulling back, we’re reducing our resources, and our resources come with a lot of strings attached. So circling back to some of our other national priorities, Chinese in particular influence but also Russian—the Russians and Chinese don’t have strings.

And so when we are sitting there, half-in, half-out, saying, oh, you also need to abide by all of these Leahy laws, and we need assurances, and we’re going to do a one-hour briefing on human rights, and your troops all need to sit through this. And the Chinese are saying, we’ll give you the weapons, you can go out and shoot up that village, then we’re actually making it a lot easier for our partners to not choose us. So, you know, a lot of this gets wrapped up in how we are envisioning our partnership and getting away from this mindset that because we’re the partner of choice, we’re the only choice.

YACOUBIAN: Do you want to add a little something, and then I want to make sure we get more questions.

HOFFMAN: Sure. Well, I was thinking, you know, more specifically, like, who people emulate. And the top three—so if you had to say three it would be General Mattis, who, you know, talked about that the most important, you know, battlespace is between your ears, is using your brain. Who emphasized the process of learning and the importance of reading, which I always tell my students, that you have these opportunities to learn. Who understood the value of forging local ties, that they can’t do it alone and we can’t do it for them. But also, I would say that the two other big innovators were not Marines like yourself but Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, certainly. Who, again, learnt lessons and understood that we couldn’t keep doing it the same way, and we had to find a better way.

And one of the—you know, there’s been a lot of twists and turns in the war on terror, but certainly the success that we achieve in Iraq in the 2007 to 2009 period, you know, when Generals Petraeus and McChrystal were there, because of applying that learning, was enormously significant. What I worry now is that we’ve pivoted so far away from anything that has to do with counterterrorism or counterinsurgency, except on a very, very modest and limited basis and mostly a nonhuman basis, which is, say, using drones and other technology, is that we’re going to lose that huge reservoir of knowledge we have built up, and that it’s now being drained.

YACOUBIAN: Other questions. This young woman right here.

Q: Hi. My name’s Emma Morrison. I work for the Special Competitive Studies Project. But before that, I worked for the House Armed Services Committee, where I was working on SIV immigration issues during the Afghanistan refugee crisis.

I’m curious if you could talk about how you reconcile the need to help refugees in getting them out of the country in a timely manner with threats of terrorism. What does that look like?

YACOUBIAN: Bruce, you want to start on this one?

HOFFMAN: Well, first, having a plan and having measures in place to do so effectively. I mean, everything about the withdrawal last year from Afghanistan was both shambolic and shameful. And we abandoned people who made lots of promises to. And we just really had no systematic way to deal with, you know, planning that withdrawal. Now, part of that, of course, was because of the Afghan government and because they didn’t want us to precipitate sort of a brain drain, or anything like that. But we also didn’t think seriously enough about it. And I think we allowed—I think, look, I mean, the front page of the Washington Post the other day talked about the thousands of Afghans who are still marooned in Albania. And there were some people that I helped to get out of Afghanistan that are stuck in Albania as well.

I mean, we have plenty of ways that we could have done this—we could do the screening and that we could facilitate and even hasten that process. But it’s a matter of political will. I mean, just like we want to put the war on terrorism in the rearview mirror, there’s any number of entities in Washington that want to put Afghanistan, and especially the events of last year, in the rearview mirror, and really aren’t dedicated to that. And now you can see the shift that—not that there’s not—that there’s not a huge need, and not that it’s at all inappropriate. I’m not implying that. But there seems to be almost a facile pivot to refugees from the Ukraine, when we still haven’t taken care of many of our former allies from Afghanistan.

YACOUBIAN: Katie, do you want to add anything to that?

ZIMMERMAN: I mean, I think it’s just what Bruce has noted. And I would also say, you know, so if you’re weighing the terrorism threat from the individuals who have yet to come into the country, it’s putting resources behind it to do the screening. And that’s something that, right, Congress can put the resources toward it, President Biden could ask for those resources, and we could also support our partners—various partners—who have complained to us. I’ve heard many partners in the Gulf complain about the fact that there was no plan at all from the United States, except when we needed something. Which now they’re hosting tens of thousands of people.

And we really—I mean, we really screwed over our partners on that front. And because we have zero tolerance for any risk in terms of letting a single individual into this country who should not be here, it means that we are hurting, you know, hundreds of thousands of people. And that, you know, when you look at both the individuals who should be here and their families and their networks that are supporting them and putting the burden on people that really shouldn’t be bearing it for us.

YACOUBIAN: I’d like to turn now to one of our online participants who has a question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Alhassan Yasin.

Q: Hello. My name is Alhassan Yasin. I’m affiliated with John Hopkins University and also the Applied Physics Laboratory.

So my question is about the technology. So we advanced technology in a rapid pace, right? And I see when we look at news and media a lot of times these individuals are getting technologies that we’ve developed over the past five to ten years. And as we advance, that technology also becomes something in their arsenal, in some capacity. Like we talked about drones. And my concern now is probably eventually the cyber aspect as well. So can you maybe allude to how we get on top of these things, or what things you kind of foresee in these situations that we’re not maybe thinking about, or how we might be able to alleviate it?

And my second part to this question is it’s really challenging to think that they’re only motivated by killing. Is there other goals preceding this? Is there other reasons behind some that we could potentially find a solution to? And pardon for the long question.

YACOUBIAN: Who wants to take a stab at both the technological issues, challenges online? I think cyber is one thing mentioned. And, if possible, motivations?

HOFFMAN: Well, I didn’t want to give the impression earlier that, you know, ISIS—that its only ideology was killing. I mean, certainly it claimed to have a much more faithful interpretation of bin Laden’s strategy of the Salafi jihadi ideology than they believed al-Qaida was embracing. And they were also technologically enormously innovative, not necessarily in killing. I would say that ISIS really changed the course of terrorism history by their incredible deft adaptation of social media and recognizing in 2013 and 2014 the power of social media as a means of global radicalization and recruitment.

So what worries me the most thinking ahead is, you know, what’s the next new thing that terrorists can use to attract new recruits and new supporters into their ranks, because terrorists, you know, as I’ve—one of my favorite aphorisms about terrorism, as I’ve written, is that they’re like the archetypal shark in the water. They have to constantly move forward to survive, which means they have to constantly identify new sources of support, new recruitment. And whether ISIS in the future becomes more threatening will depend on that ability, not just on their killing Russian diplomats or certainly killing Shia Afghans, but on their ability to draw new support into their ranks.

So when I think of the biggest next threat from terrorism, it’s how they harness technology to ensure their longevity and their resilience, more than facilitating attacks. Although we can’t ignore that, but we tend to often not—we tend to think of even that only in kinetic terms, and not how they’re becoming so much more successful at communications. I mean, ISIS, you know, changed the course of history by recruiting, you know, 40,000 foreign fighters from something like 120 to 140 different countries. I mean, there are 193 countries in the United Nations. They were hitting well over half of them. I mean, that’s—they were the first truly international terrorist movement. So what we’re seeing is what’s the next iteration of that?

YACOUBIAN: Well, and essentially establishing a proto-state, which is, you know, crazy to think about.

HOFFMAN: I mean, size of England, Wales, and Scotland, actually, which was, you know, no mean achievement.

YACOUBIAN: Exactly. Exactly, yeah. Katie, what are your thoughts?

ZIMMERMAN: You know, I think the technology aspect, as Bruce noted, is very concerning. But it’s also a space where we just need to be alive to the benefits that we have from technology. Because, again, it’s one of those spaces where, yes, the Islamic State was able to recruit widely on the internet, but they also put everything they were doing on the internet. And so we knew exactly what the Islamic State was doing in almost all spaces, which is a type of intelligence that ten, fifteen years ago analysts would be tripping over to get their hands on. And so there is a give and take in terms of how this technology moves forward.

And certainly the U.S. has vulnerabilities on the cyber front. And I think the U.S. government has pushed that forward with Cyber Command. We’re much more concerned about state actors, for obvious reasons, but what we’ve seen is, you know, they’re looking—the terrorists are going to look for the soft underbelly. And there are definitely spaces where they can use technology to get to the United States. They used technology not just, I think, to pull communities together, but to generate international hit lists, which is really concerning to a lot of people whose names appear on those hit lists because it’s actually quite easy now for a cyber criminal to come up with your name, home address, vacation address, where you are, where you’re saying. And your digital footprint becomes a liability.

So there are a lot of spaces to think about in terms of how terrorists can exploit technology, but also the upside, which is we’ve done a lot on the programming side to identify the anomalies and the patterns of terrorists on the internet to bring them back. And, you know, I think the last—the last bit here is, you know, looking at the fears, connecting the technology with WMD or CRBN weapons, which is something that we need to be concerned about. And it’s been used before, right? We have the Tokyo sarin gas attack, which actually wasn’t that deadly. It’s a very complex challenge. And the fact that we have sanctuaries now is what concerns me most because that’s the space where they test the technology. This is something that we’ve forgotten about since 9/11, is that, you know, all the planning, all the coordination, the training occurs in physical space. And we’ve ceded that ground again.

YACOUBIAN: Time for another question. Yes, let’s take this gentleman right here. Yeah.

Q: Hi, there. So my name is Nick DeMassi. I work at the Treasury Department and I’m also a grad student at American University.

So the question I have for you is about the financing of terrorism and terrorist organizations, because it’s very difficult to run an organization of any kind without any money. So specifically how would you rate the success of the United States in being able to disrupt those flows of finance, either through sanctions or through other means? And can you think of an example in which it has been successful on our part, in which we have interrupted something major?

YACOUBIAN: Maybe one of you do this one on terrorist financing, because I want to make sure we get at least one more question in.

ZIMMERMAN: I think, briefly, terrorist financing is an incredibly important aspect of our counterterrorism activities, preventing them from getting resources. The sanctions and the work that we’ve done to close individuals out of SWIFT and the international system has made it harder for them, it doesn’t make it impossible for them, to use money. I think there are a variety of studies on the ground that show that the majority of these organizations actually are working within the local environment to raise money and spending, and they’re in the local economies. And so falling back on Al-Shabaab, that organization is really tapped into both the licit and the illicit economy inside of Somalia. And no amount of sanctions is going to make it so that Al-Shabaab doesn’t have money anymore.

I think, you know, the space where we need to watch is the innovations, again. So I think the Journal or the Post just had an article on the Islamic State selling NFTs to get around our sanctions. So it’s the constant give and take with new technology, new digital currency, new ways to move money, and our ability to keep up with it.

YACOUBIAN: Are you OK if I take another—

HOFFMAN: Yeah, absolutely.

YACOUBIAN: OK. I want to make sure we get as many. Let’s go all the way in the back. Yes, exactly.

Q: Thank you. Doug Klain. I’m a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

I want to come back to the domestic threat. You talked about the shift from countering foreign terrorists to domestic terrorists, and the need for a new strategy for that. Do we have a toolkit for countering domestic terrorists?

HOFFMAN: Well, we—well, we do. I think it’s unproven yet. But of course, a year ago President Biden tasked the NSC with coming up with the first ever domestic counterterrorism strategy, which was—and it’s an excellent strategy. But of course, as everyone knows, it’s one thing to have a great strategy. It’s another to achieve its implementation. I actually think we are making great inroads in implementing it. And certainly a lot of the reforms we’ve seen in the Department of Defense, especially at the end of the year with—the end of last year with Secretary Austin’s directives and rooting out extremism in the military is an important step forward.

But of course, all those things are only as good as the next attack. And that’s going back to my earlier point, is that it’s such a disparate threat and it’s so hard to track. Is I think we do have a strategy now, and that’s great. We never had one before, and it’s appropriate to the threat. But because it’s, I think, such a dynamic and evolutionary threat one—it’s difficult to have the same confidence. I mean, we have great tools for overseas threats. I mean the designation of foreign terrorist organizations, which completely undermines any kind of material support—fundraising, arms purchases, even recruitment radicalization. We have nothing like that to counter domestic threats. And that, to me, is one of the gaps that I’ll be very interested to see, in the long run, how the new domestic terrorism strategy is effective in countering the domestic threat without key tools, essential tools, like that one in particular but there are others as well.

YACOUBIAN: I think we have time for one more brief question. Let me—the young woman right here in the—yes, the glasses. Yes, sorry.

Q: Hi. Thank you. My name is Lege Votah (ph), or Rey (sp) if you want to be able to pronounce that. I’m from J Street.

And it’s a two-parter too, but very quick. Clarification for Katie, did you say that you don’t think we should apply Leahy laws to other militaries or organizations?

ZIMMERMAN: I fully support Leahy laws. It’s an obstacle when working with partners who have other alternatives to nations that are more ready to look at—to ignore the human rights abuses.

Q: OK. Thank you.

And then for my second part question, I find it particularly interesting—I’m an Israeli, if you can’t tell by my accent—having to balance terror organizations that then become legitimate political actors, and that you have to do diplomacy work with. What is your attitude against what governments should do when that transition and the dual relationship exists between a terror organization being something you combat against, and something that you have to discuss with and make peace with.

YACOUBIAN: Bruce, I’m going to let you take that one, because you referenced Israel.

HOFFMAN: OK. Well, I’ve yet to see the model in the Middle East, but something like the Good Friday Accords in Northern Ireland, where the IRA ceased to be a terrorist organization. It surrendered its weapons. It foreswore the use of violence in pursuit of its political aims. And now Sinn Féin is the second most popular political party in Northern Ireland. Probably with the demographic changes that will unfold in the next few years it will become the most popular. It’s been very effective at governance and winning popular support, even from the Protestant community, remarkably. So that has to be, I think, the essential prerequisite. But, as I said, it’s something that is espoused more in aspirations than it actually materializes. And we can hope for the day in the Middle East where that does occur.

YACOUBIAN: So I’m afraid that’s going to have to be it. We could go on, I think, for some time. I want to thank our excellent panelists for really a very rich discussion. Thank you all as well for joining. And thanks to those online. This event will be available, both the transcript and the video, online. And with that, thank you all very much for coming. (Applause.)



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