A View from the CT Foxhole: Joseph Felter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia
December 21, 2017
Dr. Joseph Felter is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia. He serves as the principal advisor to senior Department leadership for all policy matters pertaining to development and implementation of defense strategies and plans for the region. Dr. Felter is responsible for managing the bilateral security relationships with nations of the region and guiding DoD engagement with multilateral institutions.
Prior to joining the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), Dr. Felter held teaching and research appointments at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, the Hoover Institution, and the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. His previous academic positions include Director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Assistant Professor in the U.S. Military Academy’s Department of Social Sciences, and adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs.
A former U.S. Army Special Forces and Foreign Area Officer, Dr. Felter served in a variety of special operations and diplomatic assignments. He received a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy, a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University.
CTC: This month’s publication marks the 10th anniversary of CTC Sentinel, a product you began when you were the director of the Combating Terrorism Center from 2005 to 2008. In fact, you wrote the first-ever article in the CTC Sentinel. Can you share with our readers what you were hoping to accomplish with a monthly publication of counterterrorism research and how this initiative started?
Felter: First of all, congratulations on all the great work you and the team at the CTC are doing and the impact you are making in so many important ways. Thank you for the opportunity to share some of my personal thoughts with you on these topics. On this question, CTC Sentinel has truly met and exceeded our hopes for it when we published the first volume 10 years ago this month. When I came on board at the CTC in 2005, the country was still smarting from the 9/11 attacks a few years earlier. Al-Qa`ida in Iraq was on the rise, violence was up, and many were predicting the U.S. would imminently withdraw in defeat. There was a palpable sense that we desperately needed to do something different to prevail in what we then called the Global War on Terror.
General (Ret) Wayne Downing, the Center’s Distinguished Chair and fresh from commanding SOCOM and [serving as] the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, encouraged us to focus on developing a better understanding of the threat we were facing—jihadist extremist ideology—and to educate cadets and the broader community on the nature of this threat. Basically, follow Sun Tzu’s dictum to “Know your enemy.” General Downing affectionately called the CTC his “band of insurgents” and gave us the guidance, support, and top cover we needed to take initiative as we strove to build the CTC into the internationally recognized center of excellence we all believed it could—and should—be.
We received rave reviews and great feedback on the value of some of the Center’s early publications like “Stealing al-Qaeda’s Playbook,” which Ayman al-Zawahiri personally commented on in one of his video releases; “Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al-Qaeda’s Organizational Vulnerabilities,” the first publicly released report drawing on internal AQ [al-Qa`ida] documents from the Harmony data base; and the “Militant Ideology Atlas,” which developed a never-before-published mapping of ideological influence within AQ and other extremist groups. These publications helped establish the CTC’s reputation for high-quality, cutting-edge terrorism research across the military, academic, and policy communities. We appreciated that West Point provided us an extraordinary platform and wanted to take full advantage of this to have maximum impact. The idea for a journal published monthly by the CTC came up in a small group meeting we had with the CTC research and faculty team as part of our effort to identify ways to maximize the reach and impact of the center.
We wanted CTC Sentinel to be a resource to the academic, scholarly, and policy community, to fill the space between established academic journals that may lean a bit more theoretical and military professional journals that could lack the scholarly rigor to attract top academic contributors and readers. So we designed CTC Sentinel to include both high-quality scholarship from leading scholars as well as articles grounded in practitioner insights, such as after action reports from recently returned combat leaders.
We bootstrapped the effort, tapping the center’s research faculty including Jarret Brachman, Brian Fishman, and Assaf Moghadam to do the heavy lifting. In a major coup, we were able to convince Erich Marquardt from Jamestown’s Terrorism Focus and Terrorism Monitor to jump ship and join as the Sentinel’s editor. Our editorial board was also recruited internally and included Social Sciences Department leadership—Mike Meese and Cindy Jebba—and James Forest, our director of terrorism studies. The line from Field of Dreams, “If you build the field, they will come,” comes to mind as we were thrilled with the interest from contributors when we put together the first issue as well as consumers of CTC Sentinel when the issue was published. It’s a testament to the West Point brand and growing reputation of the CTC but also to the commitment of the contributors who appreciated the importance of the audience we were targeting and the potential to leverage the unique platform we enjoyed at West Point.
CTC: As the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, can you discuss the value of open-source publications like CTC Sentinel in your position and others like it in the broader counterterrorism community?
Felter: In my current position, I am blown away by the quality of U.S. intelligence products and the incredible resources and capabilities of our intelligence community. Every morning, I have a briefing from an exceptionally qualified intelligence professional from the Defense Intelligence Agency who compiles and briefs relevant products from across the community. My portfolio is pretty expansive, covering India through Southeast Asia to Australia and the Pacific Islands. Every country and every issue gets attention from our intel community. Prior to any trip I take or event we host, I can get deep-dive briefings and products from a range of intel organizations to help us prepare. It really is a privilege to have access to such information, and it very much supports our mission.
But I think there is a myth that persists in the defense and intelligence communities that classified information is inherently more important than open source. Classification refers primarily to the sources and methods used to acquire the source material and, with a few exceptions, not analytical conclusions. The production of classified analysis has a role to play in making policy, but there are a greater number of very smart and informed people outside that rarefied world than inside. In the DoD and across the government, we need to incorporate the findings and viewpoints of a diverse range of experts from a wide lane of sources and avoid the myopia that comes from staying in the classified bubble. The CTC Sentinel and other quality open source publications focusing on counterterrorism issues provide an important opportunity to tap into these broader resources and for some of the best minds to present fresh ideas on our most pressing security challenges. We began publishing CTC Sentinel soon after our first reports and resources from the Harmony Project were published, in the same spirit of making some of the best information and analysis available on CT issues accessible to the broadest audience possible. This is not some esoteric academic effort. Folks involved in making decisions read these publications. I know the SecDef [Secretary of Defense] is just as likely to bring up an issue he read in the Early Birdb that morning as he is to refer to classified material.
CTC: You were integral to the development of U.S. Special Operations Force (SOF) operations in the Philippines, which are often positioned as a successful model of how SOF should be done. But the months-long fight for the city of Marawi and President Duterte’s relatively cold stance toward the United States have demonstrated that both the hard-fought gains Philippine and U.S. forces made together over the last decade and the strength of the U.S.-Philippine alliance might not be as strong or as lasting as one might hope. In your view, what are the important lessons we should draw from this?
Felter: Before coming on board at OSD, I would have described the U.S.-Philippines relationship with the phrase “Yankee go home … take me with you.” What I meant by this is that the Philippines is a proud sovereign nation, charting their own course and understandably sensitive about their U.S. colonial past, but also is extremely close culturally to the United States, based on our long, shared history. They remain one of our closest allies and partners in the region, but we must be careful to respect their sovereignty and appreciate that while our interests overlap, they are not perfectly aligned. We can expect them to pursue policies in their interests, not necessarily our own.
It is very hard, if not impossible, to surge capabilities or trusted relationships in a time of crisis or emergency. We’ve engaged closely with the Philippine military for over 70 years since their independence and even more closely with their CT forces since 9/11. When the Marawi crisis erupted, our forces were prepared to provide support, when invited, and worked together, as we do through our regular training, along with key allies like Australia to effectively dislodge ISIS [the Islamic State] from Marawi.
Fortunately, I do not believe our decades-long investment in the relationship with the Philippines, and in particular the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), is being seriously eroded. In fact, it’s paying off in many mutually beneficial ways. Nearly every officer in the AFP has received training in the U.S. or by U.S. forces in the Philippines, and the personal bonds established between the members of our militaries cannot be overstated. The U.S. is unequivocally the defense and security partner of choice for the AFP, and we endeavor to continue to earn this through continued investment in the relationship, down to the individual level. We anticipate that our strong institutional defense bonds will ensure we can weather any fleeting storm created by domestic politics on either side of the relationship.
I’m actually upbeat on the U.S.-Philippines relationship. I traveled with [U.S. Defense] Secretary [James Mattis] to Manila in October for an ASEAN event and was with him when he met with President Duterte. They had a great dialogue, and my sense is that President Duterte very much appreciates the importance of our alliance both now and going forward. He thanked Secretary Mattis for the U.S. contributions to the fight in Marawi, and the whole exchange seemed friendly and supportive. I was not with President Trump’s delegation on his subsequent visit to Manila in November but am told he too had a very positive meeting with President Duterte as well.
If I had to point to any particular lessons from the Philippines case, I would emphasize the positive, that trusted relationships based on shared values and common interests matter and are worth investing in over the long term. They will pull us through any rocky times we may encounter. But back to my earlier description of the nature of the U.S.-Philippines relationship, the U.S. must be careful to remain in support of its treaty ally and not get ahead of it when pursuing our common interests in their country and the region. The Special Forces mantra of working by, with, and through partners could not be more applicable. A great case of how to do this effectively is the role of our Special Forces advisors from 1st Group that deployed to support AFP CT efforts under the command of Colonel Dave Maxwell in 2002.
CTC: To what degree was the jihadi takeover of part of Marawi a wake-up call for the United States, and what role did the United States play in pushing them out? Did you detect communication/coordination between the militants who took over Marawi and the Islamic State in Syria/Iraq?
Felter: The insurgent takeover of Marawi was a shock, even to those of us who were growing increasingly concerned about the security situation in Mindanao. I think it was a common assessment that as insurgents in Syria and Iraq came under increasing pressure, they would be looking for safe havens, and the southern Philippines was certainly on that list. But I think it is important to note that whatever level of coordination there was between militants in southwestern Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu, and elsewhere, the individuals who attacked Marawi were part of a much older, local confrontation that has, to some extent, been co-opted by the ISIS cause.
I think the more important question to ask is how did that happen, and I think the answer lays more with the pervasive influence of ideas transmitted across the internet, as opposed to a direct command/control relationship between persons in Raqqa and Marawi. Our role was—as it always has been—advisory, to the extent it was asked for. We provided assistance in the form of information and intelligence sharing and ISR platforms along with our Australian allies. Ultimately, this is the Philippines’ fight, and any assistance that we provided was at the invitation of the AFP. But the actual hard work was 100 percent theirs.
In hindsight, I believe we may have drawn down our previous Joint Special Operations Task Force in the southern Philippines prematurely. At the time, ASG [Abu Sayyaf Group] and AQ were disrupted to a point that Philippine Security Forces could adequately manage [countering the threats from them]. What was unknowable at that time were the resources and ideological draw that ISIS would have on Philippine terrorist groups.
And yes, we believe ISIS in Marawi was in contact with ISIS Core. Philippine authorities report that militants in Marawi coordinated with ISIS Core to transfer $1.5 million.
CTC: In October, the Philippine military achieved a significant victory against Islamic State-affiliated groups in that country when it killed Abu Sayyaf’s leader, Isnilon Hapilon, and the Maute Group’s leader and co-founder, Omarkhayan Maute. The previous month, it had killed Omar’s brother and the group’s other co-founder, Abdullah Maute.1 Given these developments and the culmination of the Battle of Marawi, what is your assessment of the strength of the Islamic State in the Philippines today? What are your concerns about the group’s capability within and from the Philippines moving forward?
Felter: When I was at the CTC, I remember Will McCants in public forums effectively answering the question of “how strong is al-Qa`ida” by stressing that it’s important to assess this both in terms of the strength of AQ as an organization and the strength of AQ as a “brand.” In assessing the strength of ISIS in the Philippines, I believe you have to address these two component parts as well.
The strength of ISIS in the Philippines as an organization was severely degraded in Marawi. The AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] reports that over 800 militants were killed and 80 captured. Its leadership was decapitated. The group lost its emir and deputies and senior lieutenants. But what the group lost in human capital was balanced in some respects by what has been spun to many as a strategic victory for ISIS, which builds its brand. Think about it, a small group of militants claiming allegiance to ISIS occupied and held portions of Marawi—a major Philippines city—in the face of a full on government offensive for over five months. With only a little spin and propaganda, this was presented by ISIS Core as a strategic victory and one that could end up helping them regenerate their ranks and bolster the group’s appeal. Unfortunately, on top of this, while ISIS claimed this strategic victory, I’ve read in open source reports that the reputation and legitimacy of the Philippine government was eroded in the eyes of many of the citizens in Marawi and the local area, given the vast destruction of the city of Marawi and displacement of several hundred thousand civilians as a result of the operations to clear the city.
Given you can make the case that the ISIS brand in the Philippines was bolstered locally and abroad based on the events of the Marawi siege, we may also expect this to help ISIS to recruit and garner international support for what are largely localized VEOsd that have incentives to be “joiners” with ISIS. This “reflagging effect” allows them to knit together previously unaffiliated extremist groups, such as ASG, Maute, KFRGs,e and others, and could be a problem down the road in another Marawi-like scenario. The continued strength of the ISIS brand also helps it attract financial support and resources from ISIS Core and other international donors sympathetic to the group’s cause.
So let’s be clear, the Philippine military ultimately prevailed in a brutal urban fight. Huge credit must go to them for regaining control of the city and degrading ISIS as a coherent and effective organization in the process. Admittedly, it’s a bit personal for me as I am still very close to many in the AFP and especially the Scout Rangers and other SOF forces that bore the brunt of the fighting. My concerns about the group’s capability going forward hinge more on the ISIS brand in the Philippines and the region and the ability of the Philippine government to erode the strength of ISIS’ ideological appeal. I learned in the early days at the CTC that discrediting and delegitimizing an ideology is best achieved from within or just on the margins of these groups, by individuals whose opinions and judgment resonate with the target audience. The Philippine government and certainly Western governments are not well positioned to provide these voices.
One last point I’d like to stress regarding ISIS and militancy in the Philippines is that the factors responsible for ISIS’ attack and occupation of Marawi are local, not international in origin. Mao’s famous dictum that insurgents are the fish and the population is the sea in which they swim applies in this case. Disenfranchised Filipino Muslims who are dissatisfied with their government’s ability or willingness to address their needs are more inclined to provide tacit, and sometimes direct, support to anti-government activities. Some number of residents of Marawi, for example, were surely aware of militants stockpiling arms and munitions in the lead up to the siege, but they opted not to alert authorities. Enduring solutions to [the threat posed by] ISIS and other VEOs in the southern Philippines must include efforts that address root causes of conflict in the region, for example, restarting the stalled peace process and funding programs that help build the legitimacy of the central government.
Going forward, it will be important to maintain pressure on ISIS and other extremists. However, the real challenge for the Philippine government will be addressing the conditions that drove many of these militants to violence and will drive the next generation to similar ends. This must complement [military] efforts, if any enduring solutions are to be achieved.
CTC: According to an early 2017 United Nations report, the threat from the Islamic State to Southeast Asia is “gaining momentum,”2 with the group increasing its focus on the region as a potential recruiting ground. How many foreign fighters do you believe traveled from the region to fight with jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, and are you detecting an increase in Islamic State fighters returning to Southeast Asia since the collapse of caliphate? How are the United States and its regional partners working to interdict returning foreign fighters?
Felter: We know some limited number of foreign fighters of Southeast Asian origin traveled to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Khatiba Nusantara is reportedly an ISIS unit established in Syria composed of militants from Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore. The unit’s purpose was to recruit would-be fighters and facilitate their travel to ISIS battlefields in Iraq and Syria. This group is known to recruit fighters through videos, printed materials, and the internet/social media in the Bahasa/Malay language. It’s difficult to estimate the number of fighters returning to Southeast Asia from the Middle East, but we are working with partners in the region to do our best.
Open source reporting indicates that during the height of the fighting in Marawi, ISIS recruiters encouraged aspiring fighters from Southeast Asia to avoid the long, costly, and dangerous trip to Iraq and Syria and instead travel to the southern Philippines and join the fight there.
Estimates vary widely, but open source reporting suggests that of the 1,000 or so ISIS-affiliated militants in Marawi, approximately 100 of them were of foreign origin. While the overwhelming majority of these foreign fighters came from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, there are also unverified accounts of individual fighters traveling from South Asia, the Middle East, and even northern Africa.
Now that options to fight in Iraq and Syria are becoming increasingly limited, we can expect recruiters to divert recruits to fight locally in places like southwestern Mindanao or the porous islands in the Sulu and Celebes seas.
The U.S. remains in close contact with its allies and partners in the region, expressing our concern for the return of individuals with combat experience and radical ideas. They share our concerns and are making real efforts to identify those persons and to inhibit their movements. Adding to the challenge, in some key countries, domestic laws inhibit their ability to detain and question or arrest individuals suspected of having connections to terrorist organizations. The role of the United States largely falls into the category of intelligence sharing, but we are also focused on augmenting their ability to better secure their borders with training and technological solutions that include ISRc as well as advanced biometrics and facial recognition. For many of our regional counterparts, the U.S. is the CT partner of choice, and there is a great interest among our regional counterparts for “lessons learned” discussions from our experience both on the ground in the CT fight as well as in cyberspace and in big data analysis. I think these last two items, in particular, is where there are huge opportunities to leverage our comparative advantage in technology in the CT fight.
CTC: The last few years have seen a string of plots in which extremists were in communication with Southeast Asian Islamic State “cyber-coaches” inside Syria/Iraq.3 However, to date, there has not been an Islamic State-directed plot in Southeast Asia by returning foreign fighters from Syria tasked with carrying out attacks. Are you concerned this could change?
Felter: While it is true that we have not seen any ISIS-directed plots in Southeast Asia to date, it’s a risk that I believe may be increasing as the fighting draws down in the Middle East. At the height of ISIS’ fighting in Iraq and Syria, the hard-core and committed militants were more likely to stay and fight. Those who left were often the disillusioned and less ideologically committed or those that did not succeed in ISIS as fighters and were not welcome to stay on. Now that violence—in Iraq at least—is subsiding and the government is seizing control, some of the returning fighters may be those that would have stayed if there was still a fight to join but opted to return home. This strikes me as a potentially more dangerous demographic and one that we should anticipate will be at greater risk of causing trouble when they get back due to their exposure to hard-core ISIS training and ready-made terror network relationships that could be operationalized.
CTC: Both al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and the Islamic State have claimed attacks in Bangladesh in recent years, including against secular bloggers and a cafe popular with Westerners in Dhaka in July 2016.4 What degree of connectivity and coordination do you see between Bangladeshi militants aligned with these groups and senior al-Qa`ida and Islamic State leaders overseas? What are your concerns about the evolving threat in Bangladesh?
Felter: AQIS was formed in 2014 as an affiliate organization of al-Qa`ida Central (AQC) by a merger of several jihadist groups operating in South Asia. The self-described goal of the group is to develop an Islamic caliphate in South Asia within Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. AQIS has attempted in the past to collaborate with other groups and has received verbal endorsement from AQC. AQC was instrumental in the foundation of the group, and AQC leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appointed Asim Umar the emir of AQIS in 2014, when he announced the formation of the affiliate. The association has allowed for increased collaboration between the two groups, which includes safe haven and training. AQIS members have been killed and captured in training camps in Afghanistan, including the emir of the AQIS-Bangladesh group Tariq alias Sohel in April 2017 by a drone strike outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan. While there is an active threat from AQIS in the region, our South Asian partners are effectively targeting the networks of both groups. Neither group has conducted a successful attack in Bangladesh in 2017, and both have experienced significant setbacks as a result of counterterrorism operations. The U.S. and our partners will continue to prioritize CT efforts in the region, with ISIS and AQIS priorities in that effort.
CTC: There have been reports of Islamic State/Islamic State Khorasan and AQIS activity in Kashmirf and an attempt by both groups to establish a presence in the region. What is your assessment of the level of threat of either group in Kashmir and the potential effects on the relationship between the two nuclear powers of South Asia: India and Pakistan?
Felter: India is doing an effective job of containing ISIS/ISK and AQIS activities in Kashmir. We are, of course, concerned about any potential for destabilizing events between India and Pakistan and the risk of proliferation and watching this closely. On the topic of U.S.-India security relations more broadly, check out the new U.S. National Security Strategy and forthcoming U.S. National Defense Strategy. I think the U.S.-India strategic partnership, based on shared values and common interests, is a game changer in ensuring we maintain a rules-based order in the region and one we plan to invest in.
In closing, let me thank you again for the remarkable contributions of the Center and all you do for all of us. The Long War is living up to its reputation, and we are lucky to have you all in the fight. It’s an honor to be a proud CTC alumnus, and I wish you all continued success. CTC
[a] Editor’s note: Brigadier General (Ret) Michael Meese is a former head of the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. Brigadier General Cindy Jebb also served as head of the Department of Social Sciences and currently serves as the 14th Dean of the Academic Board at West Point.
[b] Editor’s note: The Early Bird Brief is a daily roundup of military and defense news stories curated by Military Times and Defense News.
[c] Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
[d] Violent extremist organizations
[e] Kidnap-for-ransom groups
[f] Editor’s note: On December 11, 2017, the Telegram channel “al-Qaraar” (the Decision), which claimed to represent the “mujahidin of the Islamic Caliphate in the gateway of India (Jammu & Kashmir),” started posting messages praising the Islamic State, calling for recruits, and threatening the Indian and Pakistani armies. See also Kabir Taneja, “New complexity emerges with ISIS footprint in Kashmir,” Asia Times, November 29, 2017.
 Ruth Abbey Gitathird and Anne Peralta-Malonzo, “Isnilon Hapilon, Omar Maute killed in Marawi,” Sun Star (Manila), October 16, 2017; John Unson, “Meet the Maute brothers: 2 radicalized OFWs,” Philippine Star, May 26, 2017; “Abdullah Maute is dead, says military,” ABS-CBN News, September 5, 2017.
 “Nineteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qa`ida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities,” United Nations Security Council, January 13, 2017, p. 18.
 Rukmini Callimachi, “Not ‘lone-wolves’ after all: How ISIS guides the world’s terror plots from afar,” New York Times, February 4, 2017.
 Animesh Roul, “How Bangladesh Became Fertile Ground for al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State,” CTC Sentinel 9:5 (2016); Bangladesh siege: Twenty killed at Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka,” BBC, July 2, 2016.