The Success and Foreboding of American Counterterrorism

Weekly Article
Pepperer85 /
May 9, 2019

Almost 18 years after 9/11, no foreign terrorist organization has carried out or directed a successful deadly attack inside the United States. Though that fact can’t be attributed entirely to American counterterrorism, the development of a professionalized field of counterterrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks has been largely successful.

And yet, these successes are still haunted by the failure to match this success with regard to terrorism overseas, and the ongoing—even lengthening—American wars abroad.

Last week, an audience largely of national security professionals listened to panelists discuss this very dynamic at New America’s Future Security Forum, listening in particular to lessons learned from the fight against ISIS. The panelists included three former senior directors for counterterrorism on the National Security Council (Jen Easterly, Joshua Geltzer, and Christopher Costa), as well as Nicholas Rasmussen, formerly the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Above all, they stressed the many, very real successes of the campaign against ISIS.

How do you measure success? For one: the very existence of the panel. As Jen Easterly, a New America International Security Program senior fellow and former Senior Director for Counterterrorism on the National Security Council, stated, “there’s a key theme here in terms of the non-partisan nature of counterterrorism—you have three senior directors for CT across three administrations, which shows you that this really is the purview of professionals and not a political activity, which I think is good news.”

It was a perspective echoed by Costa, who served as Senior Director for Counterterrorism on the NSC as the Trump administration took office. Costa began by stating, “First point I want to make [is that] we are colleagues and friends, and that says a lot about our community.” He added that he “inherited an excellent process” and that “there was a staying arc of continuity on counterterrorism issues between administrations.”

One issue he emphasized as having received little public attention but being an example of under-discussed success was the work of returning Americans held hostage abroad—something that he noted all the panelists have worked on.

Given the lack of attacks directed by foreign terrorist organizations since 9/11, this rhetoric of success isn’t unearned. For his part, Costa remarked, “The counterterrorism enterprise is in a good place” and on a “solid footing.” Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, argued that, for a future president, “the threat may have shifted up or down from some degree of 10/15 percent one way or the other, but my guess is it will look largely like the threat environment we face today.”

Yet for all these claims of success, there was also an undercurrent of foreboding. The sense began before the panel started its discussion, when the audience was surveyed regarding the question, “In 2030, how many U.S. troops will be operating on the ground in Syria and Iraq?” Fewer than 10 percent of those who responded said zero, with about 30 percent expecting there to be more than 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground in 2030.

In other words, the vast majority of a well-connected audience of D.C.-area national security professionals expects the United States to remain militarily engaged in Iraq and Syria 27 years after the United States’ 2003 invasion, continuing what would by then be just short of four decades—covering at least six presidencies—of U.S. military action in Iraq, going back to the H.W. Bush administration.

Perhaps the audience simply foresaw a world in which a stable, peaceful U.S. military presence is accepted by Iraq and Syria and not a future presence made possible only by its role in ongoing war. But such a view seems at odds with the way Iraqi politicians currently see the U.S. presence, the history of Iraqi views of U.S. troops, and certainly the Syrian government’s attitude toward the presence of American forces in its territory after the United States called for the departure of Bashar al-Assad and provided at least initial limited support to Syrian rebels.

That foreboding was also present in Rasmussen’s comments. Even as he noted the successes in building a professional counterterrorism community that protects the homeland with continuity and stability, he also warned against the dangers of having high expectations. More specifically, he emphasized the need for “humility” and more “realistic” and “candid” strategy-making. Rasmussen cautioned against the “D-words”—words like “defeat, destroy, or deny”—which sometimes represent “very ambitious objectives that, even if we were maximally resourced, even if everything broke our way in the international environment, even if every positive projection of the international environment you could develop came true, we still would have struggled to meet those objectives on the kind of timeline we were setting for ourselves.”

Instead, he suggested words like “cope” and “manage” and “resilience.”

Combined with the survey result at the start of the panel, Rasmussen’s comments serve as both a marker of success (within the existing constraints) and as a warning, as such candidness and realism often remains lacking. In many ways, Rasmussen’s comments could be read as echoing the result of the survey: “We will be playing in this threat environment from now through this presidency, the next presidency, and I would argue the presidency beyond that,” he said.

Of course, these warning signs shouldn’t distract from the fact that the United States has not experienced a single deadly attack directed by a foreign terrorist organization in the now almost 18 years since the 9/11 attacks. Neither should they diminish the success of having created a professionalized counterterrorism community.

Still, the United States remains embroiled in a range of wars across the Greater Middle East and its periphery as a result of the approach it took after 9/11. That should inspire everyone to proceed with caution: counterterrorism professionals, yes, but also the American people and Congress, the latter of which has done little to provide accountable structures, guidance, and oversight for those tasked with protecting the United States from attack, both at home and abroad.