Audrey Kurth Cronin is a Professor at the School of International Service at American University and the Director of the Center for Security, Innovation and New Technology. She is the author of the 2020 book Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists and How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. She has served in a variety of roles in the U.S. executive branch, including director of the core course in War and Statecraft at the U.S. National War College, and was a Specialist in Terrorism at the Congressional Research Service, advising members of Congress in the aftermath of 9/11. Follow @akcronin
Lieutenant General (Ret) Michael Nagata is the former Director, Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning at the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center and is now a Senior Vice President & Strategic Advisor for CACI International and owner of Hanada Bridge LLC. He previously served as commander of Special Operations Command Central, where he helped to oversee the campaign against the Islamic State. He had more than three decades in top posts with Army and Joint Special Operations Forces, the U.S. intelligence community, and multiple assignments at the strategy and policy levels of Washington, D.C.
Magnus Ranstorp is the Research Director at the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish Defense University and Special Adviser at the European Union Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN), a practitioner-led network of 7,000 practitioners and policymakers working on CVE issues across the European Union. His research over the last three decades has focused on Hezbollah, al-Qa`ida, and the Islamic State. He previously developed the world-renowned Centre for the Study of Terrorism & Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews. Follow @MagnusRanstorp
Ali Soufan is the chief executive officer of the Soufan Group. As an FBI special agent, he served on the frontline against al-Qa`ida and became known as a top counterterrorism operative and interrogator. His most recent book, Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State, was published in 2017. He is the author of several feature articles for CTC Sentinel, including the authoritative profile of deceased IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. Follow @Ali_H_Soufan
Juan Zarate is a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center. He served as the Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism from 2005 to 2009, and was responsible for developing and implementing the U.S. government’s counterterrorism strategy and policies related to transnational security threats. Mr. Zarate was the first-ever Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes where he led domestic and international efforts to attack terrorist financing and leverage Treasury powers in national security. He is the global co-managing partner and chief strategy officer for K2 Intelligence/Financial Integrity Network, the Chairman of the Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a senior national security analyst for NBC News. Follow @JCZarate1
Editor’s note: The virtual roundtable was conducted over email between mid-May and mid-June 2020 and was lightly edited.
CTC: COVID-19 has been described as a generation-defining moment, with a scale and impact across various areas (economics, travel, personal interactions) even more profound than 9/11. It has also been suggested that “Covid will permanently change the way every generation lives.”1 As you think about COVID-19 and look toward the near-term future, what do you see as the initial implications for the issues of terrorism and counterterrorism?
Cronin: COVID-19 is a boost to non-status quo actors of every type. Reactions to the pandemic—or more specifically, reactions to governments’ inability to respond to it effectively—are setting off many types of political violence, including riots, hate crimes, intercommunal tensions, and the rise of criminal governance. Terrorism is just one element of the growing political instability as people find themselves suffering economically, unable to recreate their pre-COVID lives.
At the same time, traditional forces of order such as navies, armies, police forces, and even border guards are struggling to execute their missions as they face exposure, quarantine, contagion, and infection. This affects the whole pipeline of training, education, and deployment of forces. Skills atrophy, and counterterrorism units miss opportunities to gather key intelligence and gradually tamp down the threat, as in the Sahel, Afghanistan, or Iraq.
Meanwhile, economic and political strengthening of a range of non-state actors is well in train, as people look for scapegoats and alternative sources of economic support. Criminal organizations are investing their gambling- and drug-driven cash into distressed businesses, gradually taking them over. The Afghan Taliban, the Italian mafia, and MS-13 have all gotten into the public health business. Terrorists and criminals are siphoning off government relief funding, online and in person.
And the pandemic is seen as proof of whatever ideology terrorist groups spouted before it. Right-wing groups incite general chaos by deliberately spreading the virus or targeting Chinese, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, Blacks, or others. Islamist groups argue that COVID-19 proves the world is evil and must return to fundamentalist precepts. Name your group and the basic message is “I told you so.”
The one dimension where the world has joined together is accelerated dependence upon digital technologies—a development with great promise alongside risk of growing polarization and invasion of privacy. On the positive side, tech companies like Google and Apple are developing creative solutions like the contact tracing API (application program interface) they rolled out [this spring].2 The South African government uses a WhatsApp chatbot to dispel COVID-19 myths.3 The London-based artificial intelligence startup BenevolentAI scanned millions of scientific documents and identified a promising drug, Baricitinib, now in U.K. clinical trials.4 Digital solutions could help shorten the pandemic and mitigate its effects, disproving dystopian narratives.
On the negative side, digital media are increasing political divisions in society and providing new attack vectors. Social media increases anxiety and anger, through disinformation, bogus cures, and greater access and susceptibility to fringe messages. Contact-tracing apps play into American right-wing group paranoia about federal government interference.a Conspiracy theories about 5G technology spreading COVID-19 have sparked more than 50 arson attacks on U.K. cell phone towers.5 Meanwhile, terrorist groups have shown interest in technologies such as armed UAVs, 3D-printed weapons, facial recognition tools, and a wide range of internet-connected devices. Now they have the time and space to develop new skills.
As often happens in history, the terrorist threat will likely be gradually overshadowed by bigger problems as economies fail and we face the prospect of a global depression. The most effective counterterrorism at the moment is to support robust public health efforts to rapidly end the pandemic, and plan how to steadily restore order and economic viability as it wanes.
Nagata: Mankind’s record in predicting the long-term effects of disaster, whether man-made or naturally occurring, is checkered at best. One example was the once-popular designation of World War I as the “war to end all wars.” Of the many strategic consequences of that catastrophe, an end-to-war was not among them.
With this in mind, I nonetheless believe the aftermath of today’s pandemic will be characterized by terrorism finding a more hospitable global environment for recruitment, growth, and action than before.
1. If one believes, as I do, that terrorism flourishes best in arenas where significant mistrust exists or is growing between a government and its population, we should anticipate that these countries are now more vulnerable to the growth of terrorism than previously. Popular dissatisfaction with governmental pandemic performance, at national, state, provincial, and community levels, is common across the globe. Unhappily, this includes the United States, and we had already witnessed a substantial increase in domestic terrorism for many years prior to COVID-19.
2. Some of the international community’s reaction to COVID-19 appears to have also strengthened fear and mistrust among and between both national and ethnic populations in locations around the world. One example has been anti-Chinese backlash, even against ethnic Chinese in their diaspora who were neither born nor raised in China. Another has been the hijacking by unscrupulous actors of obviously prudent travel bans as validation of the need to ‘keep away those not like us.’ Trends like these create the impression of deliberate governmental or societal prejudice/discrimination and constitute a nutrient-rich breeding ground for terrorism.
3. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, people in many parts of the world found they were able to rely more on the internet, their mobile devices, and privately owned or commercially available services and information than they could their own government’s services or information. This pandemic-based experience only serves to compound the already growing popular belief that government-provided services and information are of decreasing utility and importance in daily life. Terrorists can and will use this weakening “reliance” by populations on their governments for strategic advantage.
4. The global economic damage created by COVID-19 will also likely add nutrients for cultivating terrorism. As people suffer prolonged shortages of both supplies and services because of struggling economies, terrorists can and likely will capitalize on their miseries, psychological and emotional trauma, and frustrations in the manner that they always have and offer them salvation through taking up the sword. Not everyone will heed such a call, but many new adherents likely will.
Accordingly, the time has come to acknowledge the stark fact that despite enormous expenditures of blood/treasure to “kill, capture, arrest” our way to strategic counterterrorism success, there are more terrorists globally today than on 9/11, and COVID-19 will probably lead to the creation of more. Certainly, some threats will always require the employment of physical force. However, the world must become more serious about preventing the creation of terrorists, though this will require a large and sustained international change in how we resource and implement counterterrorism globally. Without such a shift in emphasis, undoing the terrorism-related consequences that are now flowing from the pandemic will be far too difficult.
Ranstorp: COVID-19 and extremism are the perfect storm. Salafi-jihadists have exploited the COVID-19 crisis for multiple purposes and see it occurring within a larger eschatological framework as divine punishment against infidels and destroying the West’s societal infrastructure and economy. ISIS has appealed to sympathizers to commit terror against the West and weak states to amplify the chaos. Vulnerability and social distancing may alter terrorist targeting preferences to new sites such as grocery stores and hospitals. COVID-19 is viewed as an opportunity by ISIS in its intense efforts to liberate prisoners held in Syria, Iraq, and other detention facilities. In certain areas, jihadist groups will try to expand their operational footprint and seize territory while their enemies are distracted by dealing with COVID-19. Within the West, jihadi extremists have ought to use the social isolation to target and prey on new recruits and to flood social media with propaganda to sympathizers. Violent extremists are also infiltrating gaming platforms to find new recruits.
Far-right extremists have seized on the COVID-19 crisis, trying to reinforce the sense of imminent state collapse and exploit feelings of fear, suspicion, and uncertainty within populations. Far-right extremists are stepping into the void as community organizers and service providers for local residents. Simultaneously, they are projecting hate, racism, and conspiracy theories about the origins and purpose of COVID-19, blaming particular ethnic or minority groups for the virus. In particular, many right-wing extremists are virulently anti-Semitic and single out COVID-19 as a Jewish-led global conspiracy to create a new world order. This will likely accelerate an increase in digital hate and physical attacks against Jewish targets. Some may even try to mass spread the virus deliberately to their enemies through disguised means. At the same time, right-wing extremists are pointing to the dangers of lockdown and technological surveillance to detect and control the pandemic as proof that governments are deliberately trying to take away their rights through increased control and suppression.
Research has shown that every financial crash over the last 130 years was followed by increased support for extreme right-wing rhetoric. One of the major fallouts from COVID-19 is the loss of millions of jobs, which creates a perfect storm of fear, uncertainty, and anger that far-right extremists will likely be quick to further exploit for recruitment. Extremists alongside organized crime groups are also cashing-in on government support to businesses and in the welfare sector. In a worse-case scenario, accelerationistb far-right extremists may use violence to try to cause social collapse. In the rebuilding of society, these accelerationists advocate a race war. Within the E.U., a possible new refugee crisis from Syria and Turkey would greatly exacerbate the economic fallout from the pandemic and accelerate far-right populism.
The rise of the extreme far right will also likely be accompanied by targeted financial support from foreign governments that seek to capitalize on the COVID-19 situation to sow discord and split between the E.U. countries. Disinformation campaigns and the promotion of conspiracy theories and digital hate by these groups and particularly Russian coordination create further polarization between and within Western societies. Transnational linkages between extreme far-right and the alt-right will likely further increase and act in lockstep.
The COVID-19 pandemic is undermining international efforts to counter ISIS and other jihadist groups. This will likely result in a surge in terrorist attacks locally and internationally. It has also the potential to weaken internal security with rising discontent. It is likely to result in rising inequality, deep social tensions, and polarization conditional on how long this global pandemic will last. Within E.U. states, COVID-19 lockdowns have weakened signal detection of threats, which can be seen by the dramatic drop in violent extremism referrals in the United Kingdom and other states.6 At the same time, a large number of terrorist convicts are due to be released across E.U. states over the next two years.
The effects of COVID-19 are far-reaching and will cascade across several interlocking dimensions for terrorism and counterterrorism over many years. In the developing world, it is likely millions more children will fall into extreme poverty and UNESCO warns that over 60 percent of the world’s students are affected by school closures.7 This will likely result in increased vulnerability of youth to become radicalized. For counterterrorism, the effects of COVID-19 will likely be mixed. Social distancing and isolation will likely increase the pool of radicalized youth who are interconnected. Surveillance technologies applied to the health sector will likely expand and increase monitoring of general movement in the West. Efforts to curb disinformation risk limiting freedom of expression in some developing states. Human rights gains in less democratic states risk reversal. Censorship of already-curtailed media will likely increase in the developing world. Closure of borders and restriction of travel will likely lead to an increased effort in human trafficking of migrants. Economic stress may lead to reduction on funding international counterterrorism efforts and measures preventing violent extremism.
For Europe, the COVID-19 crisis may herald opportunities to fuse security and public health responses. It is likely that government biosecurity centers will be modeled after terrorism intelligence fusion centers such as JTAC and NCTC,c which fuses the combined efforts across different agencies.
Soufan: This is the first time in our generation that the world is responding to a global crisis without the United States at the helm. The convergence of the coronavirus pandemic, a lack of global leadership, and the proliferation of disinformation is changing the global terrorism landscape. The combination of socio-economic, health, and political factors—including a looming recession and pre-existing societal grievances around the world and the rise of China— means entities will likely continue to argue that Western-style democracy is no longer good nor stable enough to underpin the world order. This argument will affect the United States’ ability to address major global challenges, including terrorism. People around the world will still look for simple answers that inspire ‘hope’ and things to believe in as this vacuum widens, which provides a cognitive opening for extremist narratives to take footing.
As governments across the world are grappling with the societal, economic, and political consequences of the pandemic, terrorist organizations are seizing opportunities through their “health-jihad.” Terrorist groups, including the Taliban, Hezbollah, and al-Shabaab, are providing services in lieu of governments, which allows militants to acquire and consolidate political legitimacy.8 Many of these groups view their struggle through a zero-sum lens—where the government is unable or unwilling to respond, these groups can do so, especially since many have specific units dedicated to charity, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance. Moreover, oil shocks and economic disagreements among Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other major oil producing countries and economic powers will likely only serve to exacerbate the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis. Wealthier countries in the MENA region will likely have more difficulty providing aid to their poorer neighbors, who are already in dire need of economic supports. Moreover, fewer employment opportunities for the MENA region’s large youth population coupled with protests that persist due to deep political and socio-economic grievances are likely to add fuel to pre-existing extremist narratives in the Middle East and beyond.
In recent months, the Islamic State has been more active in both Iraq and Syria, targeting a mixture of civilians, security forces, and in Iraq, government-affiliated militias. There are also grave concerns over the state of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) detention facilities, given previous prison-break attempts.9 Indeed, COVID-19 has directly opened up new opportunities for the Islamic State to attack; the U.S.-led global coalition’s troops have drawn down following the suspension of training, U.S. troops are consolidating bases, and local security forces are otherwise preoccupied or drawn back to urban areas. While deteriorating political and military conditions in Iraq pre-date the spread of the coronavirus, the pandemic has significantly compounded the security challenges Baghdad faces.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also provided fertile ground for the disinformation-terrorism nexus to take root. With the increased time people are spending online coupled with rampant modern disinformation campaigns spread by state and non-state actors alike, terrorist organizations have increased opportunities to peddle hate, recruit, and promote acts of violence. For example, white supremacists have put forth the idea that COVID-19 is a result of foreigners, Jews, immigrants, and other minorities. U.S. anti-government extremists have seized on the government’s stay-at-home orders to stockpile their arsenals and lament the growing role of local, state, and federal agencies in the everyday lives of citizens. Unsurprisingly, adversarial states including China and Russia have piggybacked on these recent developments and have amplified divisive and contradictory messages through sophisticated disinformation campaigns. These state-sponsored disinformation campaigns will likely continue to amplify the fringe and extreme in society, directly or indirectly contributing to extremist narratives and acts. It is possible that when law enforcement, terrorism analysts, and researchers look back at 2020, it will be a watershed moment in recruitment for a range of extremist non-state actors, chief among them white supremacy extremists.
For the United States, the abdication of global leadership and abandoning of our values will only serve to strengthen the appeal of our traditional and non-state adversaries, including terrorist organizations—both at home and abroad. The United States desperately needs to take concrete steps to repair the country’s image globally, which has been deteriorating for the last two decades. With a renewed focus on soft power, diplomacy, and support for multilateral institutions, the United States has the potential to rebound from this catastrophe and restore itself to a position of global leadership, including most notably in the fight against the evolving global terrorism threat we face.
Zarate: The COVID-19 crisis presents core challenges to the counterterrorism community globally, beyond the stress of disrupted operations, distracted partners, and diminished resources. The greatest danger lies in the demonstration effect of all that the COVID-19 crisis reveals, amplifies, and enables.
As with any crisis, terrorist groups and networks will take advantage of the weaknesses in governments’ overwhelmed capabilities and find the seams in the system, whether from weakened responses, failed international cooperation, or a diminished focus on terrorist operations. The more sophisticated groups and movements with global aspirations will undoubtedly also take long-term lessons from the crisis.
The severity and extreme disruption of a novel coronavirus will likely spur the imagination of the most creative and dangerous groups and individuals to reconsider bioterrorist attacks. The threat of a pathogen unleashed wantonly on the world—or worse yet, a genetically engineered bioweapon designed to maximize transmission and lethality—has always loomed large in the nightmares of every counterterrorism official. With the world now reeling simply from a novel coronavirus with a relatively low lethality rate, some extreme terrorist groups and rogue scientists willing to venture into apocalyptic fields might see this moment as a catalyst for exploring again the possibilities of bioterrorism. The Islamic State and al-Qa`ida have already touted the destructive effects of the virus on the West, and white supremacist groups have called for their adherents to use the virus in spray bottles to infect specific targets.10
This is also a moment in which terrorist groups are likely dissecting the weaknesses of national defenses and counterterrorism systems. Faltering responses to the crisis have exposed weak health security infrastructure; failures in bio-defense detection and prevention systems, protocols, and medical supplies; and an overall lack of international coordination. Terrorists hoping to weaken economies, shake confidence in institutions, and create social and political chaos have seen all of this come to pass in just a few months of this virus racing across the globe.
Importantly, this is also a moment of fear, isolation, and tribalism, with the risk that extremists’ ranks will be strengthened, and the extremist ecosystem reinforced in ways we have yet to understand. Extremists of all stripes are using this as a moment to drive attraction to their ideologies—stoking fear of the other. The European Union’s counterterrorism chief has noted that this crisis would exacerbate extremism on both the right and the left, with people driven to their respective ideological corners during this period.11 The prowess of extremist groups to recruit online and to create digital or anonymous arenas for like-minded voices to congregate is only amplified in a period of physical distancing and social isolation. Furthermore, as fears and uncertainties are combined with a fertile ground for misinformation, extremists are likely to continue to stoke divisions within societies to drive membership and attraction to their ideologies.
The demonstration effects of this moment for terrorists with destructive, global ambitions represent one of the most dangerous externalities of this crisis. This then requires a deliberate focus on countering bioterrorism, as an element of a broader global response to this crisis. It further underscores the need for societies to counter the messaging of violent extremists, and to ensure that their citizens are not tempted by the siren call of division and terrorism. This is all hard to imagine while we are still dealing with an unfolding global pandemic and its aftermath, but we must.
CTC: As Juan Zarate just noted, “the demonstration effects of this moment for terrorists with destructive, global ambitions … requires a deliberate focus on countering bioterrorism, as an element of a broader global response to this crisis.” In April 2020, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, amidst the current global public health crisis, warned that a bioterrorist attack involving a pathogen with a high death rate “is kind of the nightmare scenario” and the next big potential threat the world has not been paying sufficient attention to.12
As far as is publicly known, terrorist actors have never come close to having the capability to launch a catastrophic biological attack. But given the rapid advances in biotechnology (for example, gene editing), the increasing numbers of “DIY” bio-labs set up by amateurs and entrepreneurs, and the open-source nature of knowledge in the bio field,13 to what extent does the counterterrorism community need to revisit the threat of a large-scale bioterror attack and how can the international community prevent such an attack from occurring, mitigate its impact, and build resilience?
Nagata: The U.S. counterterrorism community has long held that the use of a biological agent of some kind for a major terrorist attack is not a matter of if, but when. While bioterrorism attacks have certainly happened, we should be grateful that attempts thus far to use substances like anthrax in the mail or ISIS’ adherents’ generally fruitless efforts at biological weaponization have proven to be more tactical nuisances or worries than actual strategic threats.
Yet this should give us only cold comfort. If one considers the interdependencies between human technological advances and the equally impressive progress that biological and health sciences have made, the future should be easy to predict. We should already conclude that the likelihood of a future terrorist using a highly potent, clandestinely produced, difficult to detect/identify/track, easily transportable and dispersible, and quite lethal biological weapon is rising significantly. If someone can 3D-print a firearm in their basement, or build a weaponized drone in their garage, why should anyone believe that a do-it-yourself bio lab cannot produce an effective biological weapon?
That said, we can also operationally assume that terrorists are likely to provide early warning by failing several times in the process, despite improved technologies or capabilities. A useful example is our understanding today, in hindsight, that the failed Twin Towers bombing in 1993 was in many ways a ‘learning laboratory’ leading to AQ’s spectacular strategic success in 2001. The question is whether the CT community can become far more capable of quickly and effectively intervening in the space that could exist between 1) terrorists’ initial bioweapon failure and 2) eventual and spectacular success, and thereby prevent that success?
Assuming the foregoing is reasonably accurate, we should confront the question of whether the U.S. counterterrorism community, our policymakers, congressional representatives, and the American people are informed and aware enough of the trajectory we are now on? I believe the answer is a resounding “no.” During my career as a CT operational practitioner, all the way through my final years as the senior CT strategist at NCTC, the amount of energy, focus, and resourcing devoted to bioterrorism is a small fraction of what is still given today to more conventional threats like car bombings, improvised physical attacks, and the like.
Of course, terrorists’ use of other new technologies like weaponized drones does today attract significant policymaker attention. However, the fact that the United States is still struggling to find strategic solutions to this weaponizing of rapidly developing aviation technology (ISIS first began attacking coalition troops with drones in 2014, six years ago) does not inspire confidence that we are seriously preparing to be much more agile and rapid in dealing with a future, highly sophisticated bioterrorist threat.
Like all things in life, we have choices to make about how prepared we wish to be. The question is, will we make them today before a disaster happens or be forced by catastrophe to make them tomorrow?
Ranstorp: The recognition of biological warfare agents as an effective weapon system can be traced back to antiquities when infected animals were sent or catapulted over fortress walls to weaken enemies. Similarly, the unfolding COVID-19 crisis will likely inspire some rogue states and terrorists as the pathway to follow to cause anarchy and chaos intended to weaken and destabilize their enemies. So what does the threat look like in theory? Extremely small amounts of deadly bacteria and viruses could be concealed, transported, and dispersed into a population. Emerging biotechnology could enable viruses and microbes to be weaponized through gene-editing and laboratory 3D-printing technology. Genetic modification could not only make the pathogen more resistant to medication and vaccines, but it could also boost transmission and virulence. Advances in drone technologies as a dispersal platform could make it an ultimate terrorist weapon. So why has it not happened before?
The most likely terrorist groups interested in such indiscriminate mass-casualty carnage are groups such as ISIS/AQ and neo-Nazi ‘accelerationists’ elements—groups that seek to destroy society through societal meltdown to rebuild it. Most other groups have more narrowly defined ideological agendas and a range of targets combined with limited ‘imagination’ and ‘talent’ within their ranks. Most terrorist groups also follow ‘the path of least resistance’ principle using low-cost, high-impact attack methods against symbolic targets. Their calculus is driven partly by enemy security measures, available weaponry, and technological-scientific talent. Most terrorist groups have limited biotechnology expertise and lack access to bacteria, viruses, and toxins or effective ways to handle and disperse these. Their calculus is also driven by other tactical trade-offs in terrorist tactics and targeting opportunities.
That is not to say that they have not given the idea of bioterrorism some serious thought. Some have even expended efforts to go down the bioterrorism route such as Aum Shinrikyo (anthrax, Q fever bacteria, botulinum toxin, and Ebola virus). My understanding is that ISIS had some bio-terrorism expertise. Separately, in 2014, there was the reported discovery of ISIS files on how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.14 Although its biological weapons program was extremely undeveloped and ineffective, ISIS is certainly a group to be concerned about in the future with regard to bioterrorism ambitions. A bioterrorism attack does not have to have global ambition but can serve limited destabilization purposes. As shown by their propaganda, ISIS has sought to capitalize on the current COVID-19 crisis by urging followers to strike at critical infrastructure in the West.15
For the West’s counterterrorism efforts, the global pandemic and subsequent fallout will undoubtedly provide focus on biological agents, which will likely strengthen the overall detection capabilities, preparedness, and focus on the issue. The focus needs also to be on securing high-priority organisms or toxins (Category A/B agents)16 in national stockpiles and laboratories. Keeping tabs on biotechnology companies will likely be prioritized from a security perspective as well alongside more closely monitoring the insider threat. Equally the focus also needs to be on understanding how COVID-19 may have changed the calculus of use of bioterrorism by rogue states (using non-state actors as a delivery mechanism and plausible deniability). The risks to agriculture and food security are equally of increasing concern because of the risks of an economic meltdown and societal chaos. This crisis will invariably lead to counterterrorism efforts that will become more technologically integrated with global health efforts to detect and respond to these kinds of pandemics or catastrophic events in the future. The really good news is that one effort will strengthen the other.
The likelihood that terrorists will go down the route of trying to acquire the technical skills to isolate, synthesize, weaponize, and disperse bio-agents is still pretty small. There are still significant biotechnological barriers and more cost-effective means for these groups. It will remain beyond the interest and capability of most terrorist groups. Nevertheless, new technology is emerging on multiple fronts, and it is essential to analyze how ideas spread within/between terrorist groups and the mechanisms of their operationalization in this new post-COVID-19 world.
Cronin: First, to address the threat of traditional biological attack: I agree with Magnus’ conclusion that most terrorist groups do not have the technical skills to isolate, synthesize, weaponize, and disperse traditional bio-agents. The pandemic has not increased my fear of the kinds of classic bioterrorism threats (anthrax, ricin, botulin toxin, Y. pestis (plague), smallpox, etc.) or chemical weapons threats (VX, sarin, etc.) that we worried about throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The traditional chem and bio threat remains about the same as it has been in recent decades.
We learned a lot from Aum Shinrikyo and the 2001 anthrax attacks. Both required sustained access to a lab, a lot of trial-and-error, and agents were still difficult to deliver effectively. Aerosolizing microbes (as they exist in nature) is not easy, and with people practicing social distancing now, it will be that much harder to kill large numbers of them. Plus, once correctly identified, there are antidotes or treatments for most known agents: those who took Cipro after the anthrax crisis already realize this. The insider threat is still the priority, and the best defense against most of these naturally occurring microbes is a robust public health system.
Let’s also do a quick reality check of our current biological event: over 100,000 have died from COVID-19 in the United States, over 40,000 in the U.K., over 30,000 in Italy, about 30,000 in both Spain and France, over 40,000 in Brazil.d These figures are rounded, not exact, and the crisis continues—but we should keep in mind the magnitude.
A bioterrorist attack deploying COVID-19 might kill a dozen or more, who would die a few weeks later, with hard-to-prove attribution. The event would not accomplish the political effect that most terrorists seek. It is easier to carry out successful terrorist attacks when there is an element of surprise. Right now, people are a) physically inaccessible and b) highly sensitized to the bio threat. The COVID crisis has both an offensive and defensive element, and during social distancing, the two offset each other.
The question’s main focus is on synthetic biology, however, which is extremely important because it is a new vector of innovation. With the ability to alter DNA through easily accessible tools like CRISPR/Cas9, individuals can change known bacterial or viral pathogens to make them more dangerous. Far more people have access to the means to do this, much more rapidly than ever before. Synthetic biology can also change human physiology in unpredictable ways, such as by engineering autoimmune disorders or making an operative immune to an agent’s effects. Such sophisticated human experimentation is technically much harder to do but still a threat. There’s a great deal more to this topic. The bottom line is that we need to work with international partners to develop adaptable treatment approaches and better tracking capabilities, such as via machine-learning through legally protected human databases. Synthetic biology is moving quickly, and we are way behind.
Meanwhile, the kinds of groups that counterterrorism experts mainly focus on—the jihadists, the neo-Nazis, the alt-right, for example—are not at the forefront of synthetic biology and have not, thus far, attracted highly capable scientists to help them. There, the threat is more about clusters of accessible new technologies, as General Nagata explained. For example, small UAVs can carry known agents to be dispersed from the air through small explosives. I have written a lot more about the evolution and interaction of newly democratized technologies, including autonomous vehicles, social media, robotics, UAVs, the Internet of Things, and others, in my book Power to the People.
To mitigate a bioterror attack in the United States and build resilience, the counterterrorism community should focus on two things. First, fix the public health system. Juan is right that the pandemic has demonstrated our weaknesses: the floundering U.S. public health system is first among them. We cannot engage in effective population surveillance or treatment without improving it. Second, pay much closer attention to developments in synthetic biology. We should be better prepared to identify groups or individual actors who pose a threat and to work with scientists to identify new pathogens and develop defenses for them. Bioterror is a cross-disciplinary, interagency problem that cuts a new way. The old approach of identifying and keeping track of known agents, alongside following known groups and threats, is outdated and insufficient. We must build teams of synthetic biologists, biotechnology experts, infectious disease experts, public health experts, intelligence experts, and terrorism experts.
To answer the last element of the question, the best way for the international community to mitigate the impact of a bioterror attack is to (re)build and depoliticize institutions of international health cooperation like the World Health Organization. Here, I agree with Ali that the United States’ failure to assume global leadership of the pandemic fight is a mistake of historic proportions.
Soufan: I echo Mike and Magnus’ fears that, indeed, terrorist organizations have long had an interest in bioweapons, chief among them those organizations that believe in the destruction of the current state of the world in order to rebuild theirs according to whatever creed they adhere to.17 Observing the devastation and destruction—both from a human health/life as well as economic perspective—caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could spur a new desire for terrorists to pursue biological weapons, especially since many Western countries have shown a faltering response and a weakness in preparedness for this type of threat. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed how white supremacist extremists have encouraged followers online to intentionally spread the disease among minorities, such as the Jewish population. This threat was deemed credible enough that Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen instructed that individuals who intentionally seek to or threaten to spread the virus can be charged under terrorism statutes.18
Although the barriers to entry for terrorists to get their hands on bio weapons remain high, they are gradually being lowered due to technological advances and the democratization of science. The threat of bioterrorism, or even a clandestine, state-sponsored biological attack, has intensified because of miniaturization, proliferation, and the manipulation of genetics, all of which diminish the probability of detection and enhance plausible deniability for potential attackers. There will be also serious challenges posed by technologies that digitize physical data (e.g., gene sequencing technology and the ability to send genome data by email). This is another area where barriers to entry are being lowered, offering more opportunities for individuals and small groups to do harm. Importantly, as Mike points out, we may witness some trial-and-error attacks at first and although casualties from such failed terrorist attacks may be low, we should not underestimate the psychological impact it could have on a population.19
It is important to stress that there is a difference between intent and capability. We have long known that terrorists and terrorist groups have been interested in pursuing weapons that can cause great harm. During his time in Sudan, Usama bin Ladin sent al-Qa`ida operatives as ‘purchasing agents’ looking to acquire nuclear materials, but, fortunately, they were cheated and ended up with red mercury. Jose Padilla, an American citizen and al-Qa`ida recruit, was arrested in 2002 and accused of a plot to detonate a ‘dirty bomb’ in a major U.S. city.e So the intent of groups and individuals to use WMD in a terrorist attack is not new, but the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies, including the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), have been active in working to disrupt plots and prepare for these kinds of attacks across the interagency. There is a reason we have not seen a WMD attack on U.S. soil in the nearly two decades since 9/11; much of it has to do with the professionalism of those tasked with keeping us safe.
But the threat is real, and terrorist groups will not be deterred easily.20 Bioterrorism could be planned and carried out anonymously by a relatively small group, either independent or state-affiliated, with catastrophic results, given the difficulty of containing the effects, whether contagion of humans or animals, or contamination of food sources or medicines, among other critical industries and infrastructure. As Audrey has pointed out in her excellent book,21 we now live in an “age of lethal empowerment,” where individuals and small groups seeking to do harm can have outsized effects unlike most other eras in human history.
This is now. Today. When we take into account the human ability to advance technologically and the difficulty with which governments, legislation, and global governance have keeping up with technological innovations, the future of this threat becomes even more ominous. Emerging technologies could drastically influence the WMD threat space as well as the ability to address this threat because these technologies offer a wide range of actors a set of capabilities previously unattainable. Emerging technologies will lower barriers to effective development and use of WMD; create new pathways for developing and using WMD; reduce the risk of detection of WMD activities; and offer nefarious actors new capabilities to cause mass devastation and destruction.
It is clear that our security priorities must be refocused to include countering future pandemics and other disasters—man-made or natural. Spending the last decades droning or sanctioning our way through the world, the U.S. must reorient its security priorities, including in the counterterrorism space.
Zarate: A large-scale bioterror attack is horrifying to imagine, but it must be reimagined in light of the COVID-19 crisis. The concern over bioterrorist threats, of course, is not new. The potential that apocalyptic terrorists or extremists might acquire weapons of mass destruction is a high-consequence, low-probability threat that has remained a fundamental concern for counterterrorism officials around the world.
This explains why the Bush administration placed so much national security focus post-9/11 on preventing and responding to man-made and naturally occurring diseases that could decimate populations. It was a core conclusion of the Graham-Talent Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism in 2008: “terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon. The Commission believes that the U.S. government needs to move more aggressively to limit the proliferation of biological weapons and reduce the prospect of a bioterror attack.”22 And this concern explains in part why the Trump administration published the National Biodefense Strategy in 2018.23
As Ali and Audrey rightly note, however, the intent of terrorist groups and apocalyptic extremists to perpetrate these kinds of attacks has not been matched with requisite capabilities to execute them properly or at scale. It is dangerous and difficult to deploy a mass biological attack. And certainly, terrorist networks—especially those under stress—will always resort to simpler means to execute more dramatic, assured, high-impact attacks.
But the barriers to entry for bio attacks are being lowered. The imagination of apocalyptic terrorists and extremists will be reignited with the COVID-19 crisis, witnessing the mass number of deaths along with wholesale economic and social dislocation. With new technologies and open sources allowing for easier access to more sophisticated biotechnology and more widespread bioengineering globally, there are lower technical barriers to entry. And the vectors for attack can now be made more virulent. In the wake of this crisis, imagination and intent may meet with greater access and capability.
Yet, this may not manifest as a biological big-bang attack. The threat may emerge in stages or ways not yet foreseen. As Mike notes, there may be small-scale bio episodes that signal the march toward a more cataclysmic bioterror attack. Loosely tied groups bound only via social media or independent actors (‘lone scientists’) could emerge from within labs or constructed bio labs in basements to unleash a new disease. A committed or greedy bio-expert in the vein of A.Q. Khan could spark a bio-proliferation nightmare, or an anarchist underground bio-expert could instruct a cadre of crazed ‘how-to’ followers. Rogue state actors could decide to grow more aggressive against sworn enemies and provide terrorist proxies with biological agents to inflict massive harm asymmetrically with more difficult attribution.
The human, economic, and psychological consequences of a successful bioterror attack would be horrific, even if not catastrophic.
The good news is that addressing such threats looks much like what we need to do to restore our ability and confidence to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 crisis and prepare for future pandemics. For example, the work of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), established in 2006, to develop medical countermeasures for biological attacks will likely prove critical to the mass production of a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States.24
We will need to repair the tools of prevention and information-sharing globally; restock the equipment, supply chains, and medical system upon which we rely for our health and resilience; and restore faith and confidence in the institutions of government critical to our health security and defense. And the long pole in the tent will remain intelligence and data sharing and overall awareness—not only between counterterrorism agencies but also with and between the scientific community, academia, and industry. As Magnus notes, in the wake of the crisis, Western counterterrorism work will benefit from more focus on biological agents, tracking stockpiles, and collaborating with biotech firms.
Ultimately, the United States needs to treat global health security as a core national security imperative, as highlighted in the recommendations from the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security, published in November 2019.25
This is not easy. There are limits to what can be done to prepare for and respond to a biological attack. Stockpiling for every contingency is not possible. But for two decades, we told ourselves that pandemics were real and that we were prepared. But we weren’t. This crisis was not a failure of imagination but a failure of preparation. Even if costly or difficult, we have to keep imagining and preparing to counter a devastating bioterror attack in the future.
Ranstorp: Just a few reactions to previous excellent points:
1) Further to the what I was saying earlier about the theoretical versus actual threat, scientists tell me that they do not believe gene modification of viruses is a realistic option for terrorists as it is not an easy process to command to control the desired effect, from cultivation in animals, extraction of organisms, and dispersal methods. Altering a genetic sequence creates huge uncertainty in terms of virus behavior, survivability, and longevity. Gene modification requires pretty major technical laboratory skills and processes that are (for now) outside most terrorist groups’ capability. There are too many variables where it can go wrong, and controlling this process is too difficult.
2) The combination of UAVs and bioterrorism is not very likely either as there are too many variables for the effective distribution of organisms (dispersal techniques), and weather conditions will impact as well.
3) A major deterrent for terrorists is achieving the desired attribution in the current COVID-19 environment, especially when people are exercising social distancing and have adopted an emergency mindset. The surprise element is now lost. So, for terrorist groups, how do you ensure attribution? And if you get attribution, how do you ensure survival because states will seek and most likely destroy groups and individuals unleashing bioterrorism weapons. This leads me to conclude that the most likely actors to use bioterrorism will be rogue states if they are skillful enough to conceal that they are the source. What COVID-19 has done is to expose our interconnectedness and major vulnerability, which can be exploited in specific major crisis situations. I worry about the possibility of secret military bio labs by certain states such as Russia and Iran where we have no idea what they are ‘cooking’ and cultivating in these labs.
4) Preparedness for pandemics will inevitably raise the capability for most states on bioterrorism preparedness in the post-COVID-19 period. There will be cascading effects from intelligence warning and crisis management mechanisms to more preemptive intelligence and military actions to prevent states and non-state actors from acquiring and deploying bio weapons.
Nagata: It’s hard to match the sophistication and expertise of this group, but I’ll dare to respond to a couple of different points. I approach this with all due humility … retired Army generals are notorious for believing they are experts in arenas where they are rank amateurs!
1. I believe U.S. national security leaders should err on the side of believing terrorists can be proficient in bioterrorism. It seems to me far better we assume this and discover that we didn’t need to, rather than the other way ‘round. Perhaps more practically, I personally think that all one needs to do is examine the astounding attack capabilities of the “tribal militia” called the Houthis in Yemen for an instructive example of how proficient non-state actors (such as terrorists) can become with advanced technology. Today, the Houthis are capable of effectively launching short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, employ (and increasingly fabricate on their own) long-range, weaponized (and increasingly autonomous) drones, and effectively employ precision-guided anti-ship cruise missiles. Of course, we know that much of this is because they are beneficiaries of their state sponsor (Iran), but it seems to me unwise to assume that such a group could not also become operationally proficient in utilizing a biological weapon.
2. Regarding the amount of actual mortality/death that a terrorist use of a bio weapon might create, I would urge caution in assuming there is an important connection between 1) the amount of death it creates, and 2) the downstream political/economic/societal damage it will create. I think it’s useful to recall that the classic definition of terrorism (the use of violence to cause illegitimate political change) contains no mention of death being a goal, or even being important. An attack on a nursery that kills (or even just threatens) two or three infants will resonate in the public and political mind far more than an attack that kills a dozen or more adults. Similarly, there are tens of thousands of traffic deaths every year in most developed countries, but that generally does not “move the political needle” in any of them. By contrast, the enormous political and legislative changes that have occurred in the United Kingdom, in Germany, in France, etc., as the result of inspired ISIS attacks using knives, rental vans, and other improvised weapons that have killed a relatively small handful of people, are illustrative of the generally weak connection between mortality and the political/strategic consequences [of] terrorism. We should therefore expect that the ‘novelty’ of a future terrorist bio-weapon attack and the public fear that will be stoked by what will surely be massive media coverage, will create strategic effects completely out-of-proportion to how many, if any, actual casualties result from it.
Cronin: It seems to me the group largely agrees; but we should clarify key dimensions:
1) What actors exactly? Are we only talking about classic nonstate terrorist groups, or are we also including insider threats, proxies, and state-sponsored groups? Agree strongly with General Nagata’s point about the Houthis. And that also applies to UAVs.
2) In what time span? Now vs. post-COVID vs. five or 10 years from now? These are evolving threats. Being in the middle of the pandemic alters the political impact of any death toll—large or small. After the pandemic ends, then it will be easier to draw news coverage and leverage shocking events again, even with small numbers.
3) With what future regulatory policies? E.g., synthetic biology is virtually unregulated at the moment. If the answer to #1 is that we’re including the insider threat or proxies, then I think the threat is greater than Magnus’s first statement implies; but if we’re talking strictly about classic terrorist groups, then Magnus and I agree. This is also the case with other new or emerging technologies.
CTC: In the last two years, the global terrorist threat has ameliorated thanks to the efforts of the international coalition assembled to fight the Islamic State. But there is now cause for concern that COVID-19 could darken the global terrorist threat picture because of the potentially severe economic impact in fragile states, because of the impact it may have on counterterrorism efforts, and for all the other reasons so far discussed.f At the same time, the United States and its partners may, because of the bleakest economic outlook in generations and the overwhelming need to get on top of the COVID-19 crisis and its related ramifications, be less able and less willing to allocate resources to counterterrorism. The pressure, or need, to focus on other critical priorities becomes even more apparent when one considers that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security”26 and that many Americans have “changed the channel”27 nearly 20 years since the United States suffered a catastrophic terrorist attack.
In your view, given the range of global security challenges that exist for the United States and its partners today, (1) how much of a priority should counterterrorism continue to be for the United States and its allies? and (2) given the potential need to do more with less, how should the counterterrorism community approach this new world? And how can it persuade the public to continue their support so that an appropriate level of resources remains available?
Nagata: One of the common errors that governments make in pursuing their security is to assume there is a zero-sum game between countering violent extremism (typically against non-state actors) versus all other forms of national security effort (typically against state actors). For the U.S., as interest in great power competition (GPC) has grown, many policymakers have assumed that any increase in policy support, resources, or operational effort for GPC must entail a proportional reduction in counterterrorism.
Certainly, there are commonalities between the two missions. One example is that both require exquisite intelligence collection and analysis. Both require the effective, and hopefully integrated, employment of all applicable instruments of national power. However, I believe the supposition that increased support for either GPC or CT must lead to the other ‘doing more with less’ is inherently flawed. Certainly, there will be people, capabilities, or effort that may require displacement from one to the other, but the nature, timing, volume, and durability of such shifts are subject to a very large number of variables.
One variable is the often shifting political and policy priorities that govern both GPC and CT. Since 9/11, the U.S. priority has clearly been on CT. Since approximately 2013 (beginning of the Ukraine crisis), U.S. priority regarding GPC has also risen sharply. Accordingly, the U.S. government has made periodic efforts to ‘shift’ resources from CT to GPC, but the effort has proven strategically frustrating for many reasons. One example was Obama administration efforts to constrain or reduce CT efforts in Africa to support the strategic “Pivot to Asia.” However, in the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attack, not only were our CT efforts fully restored in Africa, they were enhanced above the levels that existed prior to the previous reductions. In just the past year, U.S. military resources for the CENTCOM arena have increased, not decreased.
Another set of variables flow from the degree to which a government’s ‘theories of success’ regarding GPC and CT are identical or different. For example, if both theories emphasize the use of military force to directly contest a GPC or terrorist foe, then the likelihood of a zero-sum relationship in resources is probably high. But what if the GPC theory emphasizes diplomacy and economic incentives? What if the CT theory emphasizes terrorism prevention (vice capturing/killing terrorists)? What if the GPC theory emphasizes the use of the U.S. military to improve the professionalism of an ally’s armed forces, thereby instilling public confidence in that allied government, which also hardens our ally against interference by a U.S. competitor? In short, the degree to which our own government, and our allies’ governments, approach to GPC and CT can be differentiated, the less likely our own policymakers will be confronted with zero-sum choices.
Finally, when it comes to U.S. public support for government efforts in either GPC or CT, I believe the burden is nearly identical for policymakers. Both require them to effectively communicate the strategic stakes regarding American interests. Both require a strategically sophisticated and describable theory of success. That said, this second requirement has proven to be the most elusive, particularly in the CT arena. For too long, U.S. policymakers have adopted the view that capturing and killing terrorists will lead to ultimate strategic success, instead of the more accurate view that kinetic operations are necessary primarily to save lives, rescue hostages, and similar operational or tactical goals.ﾊMeanwhile, the global volume of terrorists and terrorism, including those that threaten U.S. interests, has steadily risen despite our efforts.ﾊIf someday, U.S. policymakers adopt terrorism prevention as the key to strategic CT success, they will have both 1) embraced the most difficult, but also the most important strategic approach to CT, and 2) dramatically reduced the likelihood that CT will be a zero-sum-game problem regarding other important U.S. national security activities.ﾊWe would be wise to not repeat this theory-of-success mistake when it comes to GPC.
Cronin: More than ever, we need a comprehensive strategy that is broad, realistic, balanced, and builds on our strengths. We have not had such an approach for a decade. COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis bring into sharp relief fundamental weaknesses that the United States can no longer ignore.
Since 9/11, we have relied on military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and then on targeted killings and special operations. The former imposed massive costs on us and produced diminishing returns over time; the latter were short-term, tactical responses. Our armed forces have been unequaled in their excellence and selfless dedication to their country, but we owe them a better relationship between ends and means. In counterterrorism, we have been doing less with more; it was inevitable that a crisis of one type or another would force us to do more with less.
We must rationalize our goals with our capabilities. As it unfolded, the almost total focus on counterterrorism post-9/11 had no clear strategic end state in mind and was economically unsustainable. Ending terrorist campaigns, engaging in terrorism prevention, and taking a balanced approach to using all of our national tools (diplomacy, economic aid, intelligence cooperation, informational resources, etc.) were successful approaches that had worked in other countries facing terrorist challenges. They were also our publicly stated counterterrorism approach for many years—but very rarely what we did in practice.
Moving forward, we will have to build the ability to surge in response to terrorism, almost certainly accepting more risk. Above all else, we must work more effectively with allies and confront the fact that they do not see counterterrorism priorities in their own countries and regions in the same way that we see them. We have very often been ignorant of local cultures, histories, and long-standing grievances, insisting that our short-term priorities take precedence, and we are in charge. We must rebuild longer-term relationships with allies and partners, especially in intelligence, information operations, and diplomacy.
Now we are facing a pandemic, an economic recession, and severe domestic strife. It is time to return to first principles. Effective counterterrorism depends above all on presenting a just alternative to the political argument presented by terrorist leaders. Our counterargument was predicated on the rule of law, rights, responsibilities, and opportunity for all—ideals expressed in the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution. The first step in effective U.S. counterterrorism is to reunite around those ideals to restore and rebuild our image in the eyes of the world.
Soufan: Mike puts it eloquently and approaches this question in a way that I agree with. There is a false narrative that frames the issue as binary—you either support a robust CT capability or you pursue the ends and means necessary to engage in great power competition (GPC). But the United States can “walk and chew gum” at the same time. And indeed, there are numerous seams where CT and GPC overlap and reinforce each other. Indeed, geopolitics and CT go hand in hand. Success in dealing with the former will breed success in enabling the latter and facilitate stronger partnerships in the process. One area in particular is security cooperation and building partner capacity with allies overseas, which Mike also alluded to. By working by, with, and through partners and host-nation forces, the United States can leverage key intelligence capabilities that are critical to countering both great powers like Russia and China, but also regional heavyweights like Iran and North Korea. In addition, there are numerous areas in the world where our CT and GPC goals overlap, including in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and the Sahel, to name a few. Many of our adversaries do not view the world through such a black-and-white lens, which is one of the reasons why there has been increased attention devoted to analyzing the so-called “gray zone,” an area where many U.S. adversaries are comfortable operating.
Counterterrorism should remain a significant priority for the United States now and into the foreseeable future, and I would like to provide two comments on how to enhance our capabilities going forward in a world with a changing geopolitical landscape:
First, “doing more with less” doesn’t call for tearing down the counterterrorism architecture that the U.S. has constructed over the past two decades, but instead looking for areas of redundancy and waste, where CT efforts can be streamlined and made leaner, without allowing high-level capabilities to atrophy. One example is relying less on a physical presence but more on world-class intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, including advances made over the past several years in sensor networks. And while technology is not a silver bullet and should not be viewed as one—the United States is fairly unique in its ability to leverage certain technological capabilities as a force multiplier—oftentimes, ISR can have a dual usage in CT and GPC, like, for example, in Libya.
Second, and this is long overdue, we need a robust CT strategy in which we lead with our values. In the so-called Global War on Terror, we have proven that, operationally, there is nothing the U.S. cannot accomplish: most of al-Qa`ida’s leadership, including Usama bin Ladin, has been neutralized and nearly all the territory taken by the so-called Islamic State has been recaptured. Strategically, however, we have failed. Globally, al-Qa`ida’s membership stands at about 40,000. This number does not include the so-called Islamic State, [and]—although the territorial caliphate no longer exists—the ideology that fueled it in the first place is resurging across the globe. In addition, we have a rising threat posed by white supremacy and other right-wing extremists and lack a comprehensive approach to dealing with this threat, especially its transnational manifestations.
I have said this before, so excuse me for sounding like a broken record but I think this is so important that it bears repeating—where we have failed is in the battlefield of narratives and diplomacy. We do not need the full force of the U.S. military and boots on the ground in order to win on this battlefield. When tasked with clear objectives and properly resourced, the military can create a minimally stable and conducive environment for diplomacy to take hold, not to provide a holistic solution to the underlying issues that produced and exacerbated the conflict in the first place. Precision-guided munitions can destroy a terrorist training camp, but they do nothing in terms of improving governance and ameliorating sectarianism. By engaging diplomatically, with our friends and perhaps even more importantly with our adversaries, the United States can reduce the oxygen necessary for terrorist organizations to thrive. Accordingly, we will not only succeed in limiting the vacuum these organizations exploit, but also limit the influence of our GPC adversaries along the way. What we need is smart aid, robust diplomacy, investment in education, and—above all else—we need to lead with our values. Coincidentally, such a holistic CT strategy will help us tackle traditional and non-traditional security threats in the future, whether it is GPC, climate change, or pandemics.
In terms of maintaining public support for CT efforts, I believe that transparency is key. This means avoiding the fearmongering and threat inflation that can creep into politics and media coverage of terrorism. Being honest with the public about what the threats are, and what they are not, can lead to a healthy view on risk and how to prepare for and adjust to risk. Transparency might include frequent public hearings and briefings on the topic of counterterrorism, especially if the threat level changes as organizations evolve and certain ideologies assume a more extreme form. Part of this transparency is also for policymakers and the administration to acknowledge the threat white supremacy extremism poses to the [U.S.] homeland, while calling for action to designate more white supremacy organizations overseas that have ties to individuals and groups here in the United States. Moving forward, we cannot afford to keep politicizing the terrorism threat; we must remain agnostic to the ideologies motivating political violence while at the same time working to gain an intimate understanding of how they incite violence. By making terrorism a partisan or political issue, it distracts from the strategies crafted to counter these lethal organizations and alienates the public’s trust in the crucial work the men and women in law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the military do every day to keep us safe.
Ranstorp: The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an unexpected pause in the U.S.-led Global War on Terrorism that has raged continuously and on multiple fronts over the last two decades. From a European perspective, the U.S. global counterterrorism leadership role has been absolutely essential in galvanizing and directing international support for intelligence and military actions against key jihadi leaders and cadres. Without it, the overall counterterrorism efforts would not have been so effective as witnessed by the killing of bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida leadership in AFPAK as well as the pushback against ISIL and locating al-Baghdadi and many other senior leaders. U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Syria and Iraq, leading the anti-ISIL coalition forward, cannot be underestimated. But it did not solve all problems; it certainly created anger and pushback on targeted killings and some human rights transgressions; and there are significant challenges ahead. The fact that the United States is exercising troop drawdown in Syria/Iraq and parts of Africa sends the wrong signals to allies and enemies.
The global coalition on counterterrorism, under U.S. leadership, needs to be executed with sharper focus and smarter prioritization. It would be smarter to rethink U.S. military contributions to peace and security as part of a broader, more integrated parallel effort to non-counterterrorism missions. U.S. security-sector assistance and humanitarian assistance together with European allies can be key to reduction of political conflict. Leveraging the military presence to support developing countries when these are struck by natural disasters and viruses should be part of a broader package with development assistance and human rights monitoring. Signaling and exercising hard power opens up space for effective promotion of softer measures in developing areas around the world. This carrot/stick approach reinforces U.S. values, leadership, and partnerships and one that sets it apart from authoritarian regimes and rivals. There are too many conflicts and flashpoints around the world that need to be dealt with to avoid more terrorist surges. The international community needs to put pressure on terrorist structures and capabilities to prevent them from plotting and planning undisturbed against the West.
Counterterrorism is inextricably intertwined with geopolitical calculations. In many ways, in the Middle East, it is like playing three-dimensional chess under water with all the pieces moving simultaneously. From a European perspective, there are a number of priorities in the counterterrorism arena:
Firstly, there needs to be justice for all the human rights transgressions committed in Syria and specifically by ISIL. There need to be some kind of mechanism for establishing an international criminal tribunal or hybrid tribunal in the region. There needs to be measures dealing with returning foreign terrorist fighters.
Secondly, counterterrorism efforts need to focus on developing rehabilitation/exit programs as there are thousands of terror convicts and radicalized violent extremists to be released from prisons across the E.U. states in the next few years. Thirdly, migration waves from Turkey and regional conflicts will likely further spur xenophobia and far-right extremism.
The rise of far-right extremism needs to be further prioritized by both E.U. states and the U.S. government as the transnational interlinkages are multiple. Links between neo-Nazi groups are forged across countries, and there is significant interaction between neo-Nazi groups and the alt-right milieus, which share metanarratives about “the great replacement,” “white genocide,” and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In the mix of these multiple linkages are Russian attempts to split NATO countries through polarization and influence operations. Russians operate through a range of proxies such as Systema martial arts clubs,28 MC [motorcycle] clubs and football [soccer] hooligans29 and the Russian Imperial Movementg and their “Partizan” training courses.30 Simultaneously, Russia hosts, trains, and funds various extreme far-right groups while these groups cooperate more closely between themselves by courtesy of their host/sponsor. Significantly, the financing of extreme far-right groups and other violent extremists operates increasingly through cryptocurrency as their regular bank accounts are shut down in various countries.
Fourthly, E.U. states need to confront the financing and export of salafism from the Gulf States to E.U. states that greatly influences integration efforts, polarization dynamics, and violent extremism.
Finally, the E.U. states will need to accelerate the use of biometrics and further intelligence-sharing technologies to curtail the nexus between organized crime, terrorists and human trafficking, and movement across borders.
Both the United States and E.U. states will be forced to continue to focus on counterterrorism in a much more complex global environment. The intelligence-sharing mechanisms function well, and the counterterrorism partnership between the U.S. and E.U. states will continue and will deepen. It is essential that the United States does not withdraw from its leadership role in counterterrorism but instead forges closer relations through the Five Eyes partnershiph and the other bilateral relationships with European states. While there is an absence of [major] terrorist attacks for now, the public support for closer counterterrorism collaboration will likely always return with every major perpetrated attack in the West.
Zarate: Though the reality of terrorist threats may recede from our collective memory, counterterrorism should remain a priority for U.S. national security, complementing evolving security challenges and our view of global threats and vulnerabilities.
It is easy to forget the threats that global terrorist movements pose, especially as the world grapples with a pandemic crisis, economic collapse, and a shifting geo-political landscape. Counterterrorism success has often bred a luxurious forgetfulness of the threats countered. It is also commonplace to evaluate the risks from terrorism through a myopic lens of past experience without anticipation of innovation.
In the first instance, history teaches us that organized terrorist movements adapt, often when they are given time, space, and resources to operate. Since 9/11, there has been a fervent wish for the war on terror to be over—without consideration for how violent extremist groups have adapted or reformed in the wake of counterterrorism pressure and when afforded opportunities. After the death of Usama bin Ladin and the apparent sidelining of al-Qa`ida’s ideology amidst the Arab revolutions, there was a desire to see the post-9/11 era at an end. With a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, policymakers appeared blindsided by the rise of the Islamic State and the establishment of a notional caliphate that ultimately stoked instability in the Middle East, birthed new terrorist footholds globally, and launched and inspired successful terrorist attacks in Europe, Asia, and North America.
Indeed, even now as chronicled by CTC Sentinel,31 we are witnessing a resurrection of the Islamic State in Iraq, with active branches and a terrorist diaspora throughout the world. Al-Qa`ida remains active and even resurgent in places like West Africa and Yemen. And the Iranian-supported Shi`a proxies remain as active and relevant as before, with Hezbollah serving as a strategic player in Lebanon and Syria.
These terrorist groups or those inspired by them can launch terrorist attacks that can have strategic impact, exacerbate conflict, and even bring states to the brink of war. The 2008 Mumbai attacks remain seared into my memory when I sat in the White House as two nuclear-armed neighbors were brought to the brink of war. The 9/11 attacks, of course, drew the United States into conflict in Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. and NATO troops remain on the ground nearly 20 years later.
Terrorist groups can serve as shock troops in larger proxy battles between state forces, exacerbating conflict and raising the stakes for broader war. The ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen represent an expanded form of state-on-state proxy battles relying on terrorist groups and militant forces to influence the course of conflicts and broader state competition. In Lebanon and Iraq, foreign-sponsored terrorist groups have been accepted as legitimate political actors, graduating former proxy forces into positions of power.
Independent of state actors, terrorist groups and movements can gain strength and adapt within growing extremist ecosystems, where ideologies of different political stripes mirror each other and raise the stakes for stoking violence, inspiring madmen, and deepening social cleavages. The 2011 Breivik attack in Norway represented a political terrorist attack ideologically countering violent Islamic extremism.
The rise of transnational extremist groups on the right and left of the political spectrum suggests a more complicated and globalized terrorist landscape in the years to come. With enough time and resources, terrorist groups can also gain new capabilities, as with the use of drones or cyberattacks, and form alliances of convenience, as with criminal syndicates and cybercriminals.
It is difficult to maintain national focus on notional terrorist threats, especially when they are not obviously manifesting at home and may feel like a vestige of a past era. Terrorism still has the potential to disrupt society, economies, and geopolitics.
Our counterterrorism response, however, should not be driven by eternal dread or despair at the Hydra-like forms of terrorism. It is critical to understand that terrorist enemies of whatever brand can only succeed strategically by exacerbating internal social or economic turmoil and baiting the United States further into conflict internally and externally. Thus, there is a need to remain practical in a counterterrorism approach, blending tactics and sharing resources to address a multitude of threats and vulnerabilities, while doing everything possible to undermine the global and strategic reach of sophisticated terrorist movements.
This means that defending against terrorist actors should form part of a broader effort to defend the nation’s key infrastructure and systems, defending core systems regardless of the actor or group. As this discussion group has already explored, the defense against bioterrorist attacks will likely follow the tracks of defending against future pandemics. Protecting the global financial system and the nation’s energy grid needs to be a priority regardless of who might attack.
Countering influence operations from Russia, China, and Iran will also allow the United States and allies to counter violent extremism and non-state proxies online. Stopping the trafficking of people, wildlife, narcotics, arms, and illegal goods will undermine the ability of terrorist groups to profit and pilfer. Preventing illicit capital, corruption, and money launderers from threatening the integrity of the financial system will make it harder, costlier, and riskier for terrorist networks to raise and move money around the world.
Counterterrorism will always resolve back to the physical need to disrupt and dismantle terrorist networks, safe havens, resources, and leadership. This does not mean that the United States should be the world’s policeman or remain in perpetual war, but it also cannot mean that we lose sight of where terrorism threatens our allies and stability.
We need to support partner capacity in key countries and regions to suppress the rise of terrorist groups with global ambition. The abandonment of our Kurdish allies in northern Syria was a major mistake in this regard. We need to continue to support our leading allies like the French in West Africa and the Australians in Southeast Asia to enable regions to counter recurrent terrorist threats. We need to consider new basing opportunities—as in Irbil—and small footprint operations to address the threats of the future. And we need to forge better counterterrorism alliances, as with India, that allow us to partner in key regions of the world and address new terrorist threats. All of this counterterrorism cooperation will enable greater trust building and coordination on other threats and vulnerabilities beyond the terrorism domain.
Conceptually, the global community must continue to isolate those willing to use terrorism to advance political interests as enemies of humanity—and counter the ideologies that stoke a sense of heroism, legitimacy, and allure to the cause of terrorism. We have lost the strategic thread that targeted the concept of terrorism as anathema to the global community—to be outlawed and shunned as with slavery, piracy, and hostage-taking. That argument must be reasserted and won.
Finally, America and her allies must realize that the greatest defense against terrorist threats lies in the strength of our social and political resilience and the capacity of individuals, communities, and civic society to counter corrosive ideologies and divisions. This is a project that goes well beyond countering terrorism. In the United States, it requires the renewal of the American dream and faith and confidence in American democracy, community, and institutions—especially now. CTC
[a] Editor’s note: One survey suggested most Americans would not download a contact-tracing app because of privacy concerns. Chandra Steele, “Most Americans Reject COVID-19 Contact-Tracing Apps,” PC Mag, June 18, 2020.
[b] Editor’s note: According to the Anti-Defamation League, “Accelerationism is a term white supremacists have assigned to their desire to hasten the collapse of society as we know it. The term is widely used by those on the fringes of the movement, who employ it openly and enthusiastically on mainstream platforms, as well as in the shadows of private, encrypted chat rooms.” “White Supremacists Embrace ‘Accelerationism,’” ADL, April 16, 2019.
[c] Editor’s note: The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) is based in MI5’s headquarters in London. The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center leads and integrates U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
[d] Editor’s note: These figures were updated shortly before publication with the latest tallies from The New York Times. See “Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak,” New York Times.
[e] Editor’s note: According to Reuters, in 2014 Jose Padilla was re-sentenced “to 21 years for a 2007 terrorism conviction after an appeals court deemed the original 17-year sentence too lenient. … He was accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in a U.S. city, but was never charged with that.” Zachary Fagenson, “U.S. judge re-sentences Jose Padilla to 21 years on terrorism charges,” Reuters, September 9, 2014.
[f] The examples of Iraq and Afghanistan may be instructive. As noted by Michael Knights and Alex Almeida in the May 2020 issue of CTC Sentinel, the COVID-19 crisis has completed a “perfect storm” for Iraq, which already faced a resurgent threat from the Islamic State and now faces a deep recession because of the collapse in the global oil price and less outside train-and-assist support from its international partners (because many non-U.S. outside trainers have been removed for COVID-19-related reasons). Michael Knights and Alex Almeida, “Remaining and Expanding: The Recovery of Islamic State Operations in Iraq in 2019-2020,” CTC Sentinel 13:5 (2020). In late May 2020, The New York Times reported, “The Pentagon believes that at least 50 percent of Afghan security forces most likely have the [COVID-19] virus, meaning that any training and joint operations between United States and Afghan forces have been paused, halting a key pillar of the American war effort, especially against Islamic State enclaves in the country’s east.” Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Julian E. Barnes, “Trump Wants Troops in Afghanistan Home by Election Day. The Pentagon Is Drawing Up Plans,” New York Times, May 26, 2020.
[g] Editor’s note: The Russian Imperial Movement and its leaders were designated as global terrorists by the U.S. State Department in April 2020. “United States Designates Russian Imperial Movement and Leaders as Global Terrorists,” Press Statement by Michael R. Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, April 7, 2020.
[h] Editor’s note: The Five Eyes (FVEY) is an intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
 Editor’s note: See Salem Solomon,” South African-Created Mobile Alert Puts COVID Info Into Hands of Millions,” VOA, April 4, 2020; and Kim Harrisberg, “Here’s how Africans are using tech to combat the coronavirus pandemic,” COVID Action Platform, World Economic Forum, April 5, 2020.
 Editor’s note: See Cade Metz, “How A.I. Steered Doctors Toward a Possible Coronavirus Treatment,” New York Times, April 30, 2020 (and updated May 4, 2020), and “Trial launched testing existing drugs in bid to treat coronavirus patients,” ITV News, May 21, 2020.
 Editor’s note: See, for example, Vikram Dodd, “Fears of rise in UK terrorist recruits as anti-radicalisation referrals collapse,” Guardian, April 22, 2020.
 Editor’s note: See “Education: From disruption to recovery, UNESCO, accessed June 19, 2020.
 Editor’s note: See, for example, Josh Margolin, “White supremacists encouraging their members to spread coronavirus to cops, Jews, FBI says,” ABC News, March 23, 2020.
 Editor’s Note: Biological Agents/Diseases are classed by the U.S. government as being Category A, B or C with A the highest priority category. For a list of agents/diseases in each category, see https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/agentlist-category.asp#catdef
 Editor’s note: For more on the reported Islamic State interest in such weapons, see Moussa and Doornbos.
 Editor’s note: For more on these dynamics, see Richard Danzig, “Catastrophic Bioterrorism—What is To Be Done?” Center for Technology and National Security Policy, August 2003, p. 2.
 Editor’s note: For more on these dynamics, see Jenna McLaughlin, “The Invisible Threat,” Foreign Policy, September 21, 2017.
 Audrey Kurth Cronin, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).
 Editor’s note: See Bob Graham (Chairman) and Jim Talent (Vice Chairman), “World at Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism,” Vintage Books Authorized Edition, December 2008, p. xv.
 Editor’s note: See “National Biodefense Strategy,” White House, 2018.
 Editor’s note: For background, see the Biomedical Advance Research and Development Authority’s website at https://www.phe.gov/about/barda/Pages/default.aspx
 Kelly Ayotte, Julie Gerberding, and Stephen Morrison, “Ending the Cycle of Crisis and Complacency in U.S. Global Health Security: A Report of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security,” CSIS, November 2019.
 Editor’s note: For more on the reported links between Russian intelligence services and martial arts clubs that teach the martial arts style “Systema,” see Andrew Rettman, “Fight club: Russian spies seek EU recruits,” euobserver, May 23, 2017.
 Editor’s note: For more on these dynamics, see Michael Carpenter, “Russia Is Co-opting Angry Young Men,” Atlantic, August 29, 2018.
 Editor’s note: For reporting on the “Partizan” training course, see https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/russian-imperial-movement-rim