We must do more than over-the-horizon to fight terrorism

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Conservative Opinion

Katherine Zimmerman

Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
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The White House says over-the-horizon counterterrorism is the future in America’s war on terror. President Biden singled out the assassination of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri by drone strike last July in Afghanistan as proof that the new strategy works. But with terrorism still a top concern stateside, is waging this war from a distance the best long-term approach? Straight Arrow News contributor Katherine Zimmerman says to keep America safe from terrorists, we need to change the way we fight.

The problem is not whether the United States can target and kill terrorist leaders in various parts of the world. Rather, it is the idea that over the horizon is a desirable and sustainable solution that best secures American interests.

First, intelligence and access remain a challenge for over-the-horizon counterterrorism. We need to be able to identify potential threats and target them. Clearly significant resources went toward finding al-Qaida’s leader, but what of the next no-name operative who might procure a bomb and make it through our borders? Like the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab did in 2009. Satellite imagery and intercepts can only go so far. Human intelligence networks can also dry up. Syrian tribes are feeding information on ISIS for revenge, but they can just as easily stop. 

We also need to fly our drones over these spaces. That’s a problem for Afghanistan in particular, which is landlocked without a nearby drone base. Second, over-the-horizon counterterrorism relies on partners to combat terrorist groups on the ground. Partners can be problematic. They’re often less capable and not as well trained. Some look the other way when human rights abuses occur; some take actions that strengthen rather than weaken local insurgencies.

Some partners have rolled back terrorists, like the Iraqi military and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces against ISIS. But others have been unable to stop terrorists advance, like the Somali security forces against Al-Shabab. And where partners are weak or bad or absent, terrorists now have growing sanctuaries. Finally, over the horizon counterterrorism will not deliver the decisive victory that eluded us for over 20 years. The money, time and other resources spent tracking down terrorist threats and supporting partners fighting al-Qaida and the Islamic State on the ground probably won’t lead to the defeat of any terrorist group.

Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have tapped into local grievances and exploited vulnerable populations to strengthen. They gain support by defending communities, providing aspects of governance like security or justice, and being a better alternative to the government. Armed force won’t change that. 

We should know by now that we can’t kill our way to victory.

Over-the-horizon counterterrorism is just managing the terrorist threat. Instead, we should change our framework for combating al-Qaida and the Islamic State to target the ways they gain local support. That means competing with the minimal services they provide in places we never thought we needed to care about, and preventing the further breakdown of governance by addressing state fragility, especially where extremists are expanding in parts of Africa.

American investments in those places might not only make more permanent gains against al-Qaida in the Islamic State, but they also grow American influence, reducing the space for actors like Russia or China – A top national security priority for the United States. America can win this war. We just need to change the way we fight.

The Biden Administration has pointed to two successful strikes on terrorist leaders as proof that Over-the-horizon counter terrorism works. In July, a U.S. drone strike killed a top ISIS leader in Syria. Proof, the President said, that the United States does not require thousands of troops in combat missions to identify and eliminate threats to our country. In August, a U.S. drone strike killed the leader of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The president again said he had made the decision that the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect Americans from terrorists. It can fight them from afar.

Over-the-horizon counter terrorism essentially replaces ground presence with drone operations to keep the threat in check. The problem is not whether the United States can target and kill terrorist leaders in various parts of the world. Rather, it is the idea that over the horizon is a desirable and sustainable solution that best secures American interests.

First, intelligence and access remain a challenge for Over-the-horizon counter terrorism. We need to be able to identify potential threats and target them. Clearly significant resources went toward finding Al Qaeda’s leader, but what of the next no-name operative who might procure a bomb and make it through our borders? Like the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab did in 2009. Satellite imagery and intercepts can only go so far. Human intelligence networks can also dry up. Syrian tribes are feeding information on ISIS for revenge, but they can just as easily stop. 

We also need to fly our drones over these spaces. That’s a problem for Afghanistan in particular, which is landlocked without a nearby drone base. Second, Over-the-horizon counter terrorism relies on partners to combat terrorist groups on the ground. Partners can be problematic. They’re often less capable and not as well trained. Some look the other way when human rights abuses occur; some take actions that strengthen rather than weaken local insurgencies.

Some partners have rolled back terrorists, like the Iraqi military and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces against ISIS. But others have been unable to stop terrorists advance, like the Somali security forces against Al-Shabab. And where partners are weak or bad or absent, terrorists now have growing sanctuaries. Finally, over the horizon counter terrorism will not deliver the decisive victory that eluded us for over 20 years. The money, time, and other resources spent tracking down terrorist threats and supporting partners fighting Al Qaeda and the Islamic State on the ground probably won’t lead to the defeat of any terrorist group.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have tapped into local grievances and exploited vulnerable populations to strengthen. They gain support by defending communities, providing aspects of governance like security or justice, and being a better alternative to the government. Armed force won’t change that. 

We should know by now that we can’t kill our way to victory.

Over-the-horizon counter terrorism is just managing the terrorist threat. Instead, we should change our framework for combating Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to target the ways they gain local support. That means competing with the minimal services they provide in places we never thought we needed to care about, and preventing the further breakdown of governance by addressing state fragility, especially where extremists are expanding in parts of Africa.

American investments in those places might not only make more permanent gains against Al Qaeda in the Islamic State, but they also grow American influence, reducing the space for actors like Russia or China – A top national security priority for the United States. America can win this war. We just need to change the way we fight.

 

 


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