Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Price, Ph.D., is the outgoing Director of the Combating Terrorism Center and a former Academy Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy at West Point. LTC Price is a former aviator and FA59 strategist who has served in a variety of command and staff positions in operational assignments, to include deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in History from the United States Military Academy, a Master of Arts in International Relations from St. Mary’s University, and a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University. His research interests include the organizational behavior of terrorist groups, counterterrorism policy, and the effects of leadership decapitation against terrorist organizations.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Combating Terrorism Center, United States Military Academy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
CTC: Congratulations on a highly successful six-year run as the director of the CTC. I was thinking we could start by reflecting on those six years. What has been the most surprising or interesting development that you have seen in the terrorism domain in that timeframe? And you can’t say the emergence of the Islamic State—too easy.
Price: Well, the emergence of the Islamic State may be too easy of an answer, but that doesn’t make it any less true. If I told you in 2012 that the successor organization to al-Qa`ida in Iraq and subsequent rival to the AQ brand was going to govern territory across two sovereign countries, one of which was occupied and supported by the U.S. military for eight years, you would’ve thought I was nuts. To top that, consider that this organization would then make enemies with powerful states like the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and France, not to mention regional powers like Iran. And yet with all of this counterterrorism attention squarely on it over the years, the Islamic State is still a dangerous threat.
But let me give you a surprising development on the positive side. Given how easy it is to obtain guns in this country and coupled with the persistent calls for homegrown jihadis to conduct attacks here in the United States, I’m surprised at how few jihadi attacks there’ve been in the homeland. We have certainly suffered tragic attacks—Orlando, San Bernardino, Boston, etc.—but I’m pleasantly surprised that we haven’t suffered many more. That is a credit to our counterterrorism efforts, an American Muslim community that has bought into the American dream rather than the Islamic State’s lies, and in some cases, good luck. But as Bill Parcells used to say, and former CTC Distinguished Chair Michael Sheehan liked to point out, you are what your record says you are. And thankfully, the bad guys have been unable to successfully conduct a strategic attack against the homeland since 9/11.
CTC: What is your assessment of the global terrorism landscape today? There seems to be a constant debate over how we define and apply terms like winning and losing, defeat and contain. So where do we stand against the jihadi threat?
Price: I hate the word defeat when it is used in a counterterrorism context. I know that sounds odd coming from an Army officer, but we are not talking about taking down another country’s military formation. As you’ve heard me say numerous times, there will be no surrender ceremony with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Aymen al-Zawahiri on a U.S. warship to mark the end of the so-called Long War.
Saying we’re going to defeat al-Qa`ida or defeat the Islamic State may make us feel good and as though we are serious about combating the threat, but it is hard to defeat an idea. It is even harder to defeat a virulent ideology like the one jihadis are promoting, in part because they don’t view defeat like we do in the West. When jihadis lose on the battlefield, they don’t internalize the loss and second-guess their socio-political system like our 20th-Century adversaries did. No, when jihadis lose on the battlefield, they blame it on the fact that they were not committed enough, not pious enough, and not dedicated enough. Jihadis are also defining the duration of this game in decades and generations, whereas we want to claim victory at every turn in the short-term.
What concerns me about the current terrorist landscape is the fact that I don’t believe we have learned the lessons of the past 17 years. One of the constant refrains we’ve heard at the CTC over the years, from combatant commanders to cabinet-level officials, is that we cannot kill our way to victory. And yet, we have invested the most resources in killing and capturing terrorists all over the world, often at the expense of other non-kinetic programs. We, of course, need a CT military force that can operate globally, but I believe we can only get marginally better at hunting down terrorists. There is lots of room to improve, however, in the other elements of national power when it comes to the CT fight.
Think about the socio-political and economic conditions that gave rise to the rebirth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2011. At the risk of oversimplifying a really complex situation, the corrupt and incompetent governance of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq created incredibly fertile ground from which disenfranchised Sunnis in both countries could be recruited. Here we are in 2018, and while the coalition has successfully taken back almost all of the territory the Islamic State used to govern, what has changed in those very same socio-political and economic conditions that were present in 2012-2013? You can make an argument that the future for Sunnis in both countries was brighter in 2012 than it is today. Until that changes, until Sunnis in the region feel as though they have a viable and alternative form of good governance that is better than what the jihadis purport to provide, the outlook for jihadi violence in the Muslim world is not good.
Since 9/11, some pundits have characterized U.S. counterterrorism efforts as mowing the proverbial grass. Well, as one visitor to the CTC quipped, we have been mowing the grass for so long that our grass clippings are now fertilizing the lawn for more and more grass to grow. At some point, we have to start doing something about the underlying conditions that give rise to jihadi violence. I’m struggling to see what our big advancements in helping vulnerable countries improve their ability to govern are. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that our ability to influence good governance in these vulnerable countries is more limited today than it was when I came to the CTC in 2012.
Beyond jihadi terrorism, I also think we’re going to see an uptick in other types of terrorism. We’ve already seen an uptick in extremist right-wing violence in both the United States and Europe. Since many of Europe’s welfare states are already stretched thin in terms of resources, the infusion of hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees fleeing from Syria into Europe is taxing an already stressed system. This has led to populist, nativist policies and political violence in the name of those policies, which plays very nicely into the hands of jihadi propagandists.
I also think we’ll see more left-wing terrorism, particularly from environmental groups, as water and other natural resources become scarcer. Finally, we haven’t seen the end of ethno-nationalist terrorism either. The fight against the Islamic State has put Kurdish independence on a bit of a back burner in the past couple of years, but the issue has not gone away. Same with political violence in Kashmir.
CTC: And you know I had to ask you a question I’ve watched you ask of some of the most influential counterterrorism professionals in the field: What keeps you up at night?
Price: Worrying about my successor as the director of the CTC. Just kidding. First, nobody will ever have a better answer to this question than our Secretary of Defense, who said, “Nothing. I keep other people up at night.”
Other than my wife with my snoring, I don’t keep other people up at night, so I will say terrorist exploitation of commercially available technology. Today, terrorists can communicate with other terrorists using commercially available, end-to-end encrypted apps that we have neither the technology nor the legal authorities to crack. That is a very scary thing when you think about it.
Additionally, I’m concerned about terrorists using commercially available drone technology to conduct attacks here in the United States and against our allies abroad. Drone attacks in the United States is a question of when, not if. We’ve seen what the Islamic State could do in a relatively short amount of time in Iraq and Syria with weaponized drones. The Islamic State has learned a lot through trial and error, and I fear that this steep learning curve will pay dividends at our expense here in the homeland.
CTC: Switching focus to the terrorism studies field, how has the field reacted to the evolution of the threat over the past six years? Where has it performed well and where has it fallen short?
Price: I think we have seen some excellent work in the past six years, to include work by the CTC on a variety of topics. I’m thinking of topics like counter-threat finance, foreign fighters, terrorist propaganda, and terrorist cooperation. I think the field has taken advantage of what data is available, including big datasets like START’s Global Terrorism Database, the gold standard in the field, and Victor Asal’s BAAD I and II datasets. There have also been major strides in our understanding of extremism, such as GW’s [George Washington University’s] Program on Extremism. Another positive trend I’ve seen over the past six years is that the U.S. government is more interested in what cutting-edge scholars are studying than ever before.
Visionary leaders like General [Joseph] Votel at CENTCOM and Lieutenant General [Austin Scott] Miller at JSOC have empowered their organizations to actively seek out what terrorism scholars are studying, publishing, and thinking. That is a great trend and one that I hope continues.
On the negative side of the ledger, I think there is so much more we need to know about radicalization, de-radicalization, and resilience in societies affected by terrorism. I think we have done a poor job of telling the stories of those who have radicalized and joined the jihad only to leave disillusioned and bitter later on. In my opinion, we’ve done little to maximize this opportunity.
In addition to these areas, I think another topic ripe for research is counterterrorism effectiveness. What little we know about how and why individuals radicalize dwarfs what we know about which counterterrorism tools are effective, when they are most effective, and why. What is the return on investment you get from one particular CT approach versus another?
CTC: Related to that, where is the biggest need and/or what is the biggest opportunity that is ready to be taken advantage of in the field?
Price: This is a no-brainer. If you consider what an enterprising and entrepreneurial journalist like Rukmini Callimachi [of The New York Times] has been able to recover in terms of Islamic State documents, imagine how much information produced by the group is out there that we have yet to strategically assess and evaluate. To give our readers an idea of what I’m talking about, consider that one of the CTC’s most high-profile reports, written in 2007, was based on a computer hard-drive recovered by U.S. forces in Sinjar, Iraq, that contained information on 700 foreign fighters. Today, we find 10 times that amount of information on a single cell phone. While that is great in terms of information access, it presents serious throughput problems for our intelligence community.
The biggest opportunity that we have today is exploiting the terabytes of information that groups like the Islamic State produce but which never see the light of day due to over-classification issues. In other words, this kind of material is scooped up every day by friendly forces all over the world, but there are no incentives in place to make this data available to academics who can help to make more sense of it.
No country in the world is better at exploiting captured enemy material for targeting purposes, but there is a lot left on the cutting-room floor that can help aid our understanding of our enemies’ strategic trajectory but that we fail to exploit. There have been significant improvements in this area over the past year, but we still have a long way to go.
CTC: In your own research, you have focused on questions surrounding the efficacy of leadership decapitation of terrorist organizations (a shameless plug for your book coming out from Columbia University Press this fall). Without asking you to regurgitate all of that fine work here, how have your findings held up against events of the past couple years? What have been the most significant recent events that have influenced your thinking on this topic?
Price: Leadership decapitation is another topic that we know a lot more about now than we did six years ago. To put my cards on the table, I argue that killing or capturing terrorist leaders ultimately decreases the effectiveness of their organizations and contributes to organizational death. Timing matters, however. Kill or capture the terrorist leader in the first year of its existence, and the group is more than 8.7 times more likely to end than a non-decapitated group. After 10 years, the effect is decreased by half. After 20 years, killing or capturing the top leader may have no effect on the group’s mortality rate.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my findings, I hope that, at a minimum, policymakers consider one important takeaway. Because it is so easy to base counterterrorism decision-making on anecdotes and emotion, it is important to analyze the data. While any given policy or CT tool may have negative short-term consequences, it is important to consider the long-term consequences as well. We do this with other types of policy decisions—healthcare, macroeconomics, education. We should do the same with counterterrorism tools and policies.
Take cancer treatments. If we based the efficacy of chemotherapy on the short-term negative side-effects like chronic nausea, hair and weight loss, doctors would have stopped using this treatment long ago. We know, however, through the scientific method, that chemotherapy’s long-term benefits often outweigh its short-term side-effects. Killing or capturing terrorist leaders have both short- and long-term consequences; both should be evaluated before determining any tactic’s efficacy.
CTC: I want to be sure to give you an opportunity to pat yourself on the back, so which of the Center’s accomplishments or what aspect of its evolution are you most proud of?
Price: Our people. I’m most proud of the team and the culture we have created. While I’m tremendously proud of the increased opportunities we’ve created for cadets and the cutting-edge research that has helped to inform policymakers and practitioners over the years, the greatest source of pride for me is the team at CTC today. We have a group of people that care more about the reputation of the CTC than they care about themselves or even their relationship with the boss, and that is rare.
If I’ve learned anything in the Army, it is that people are your most important asset. Hire hard, manage easy. Hands down, the greatest source of pride I have today can be found on the CTC website tab appropriately named “Team.”
CTC: Finally, which was the more thrilling experience during your time here at West Point: meeting the President of the United States as the CTC Director or calling the Army-Navy baseball game at Fenway Park?
Price: When I came on board at CTC, former CTC Director and current DASD [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense] COL (Ret) Joe Felter told me to get ready for some amazing opportunities that simply don’t exist in the course of a regular Army career. Needless to say, he was correct.
Yes, I’ve met the President of the United States. I’ve testified in front of Congress. At CTC, we’ve briefed the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Army, numerous combatant commanders, the last five JSOC commanders, and leaders from the CIA, FBI, DHS, and NCTC. I’ve been invited to speak in Israel, Germany, China, and Iran.
I’ve been blessed to call games as the color commentator for Army baseball, broadcasting alongside the incomparable “Voice of the Black Knights” Rich DeMarco, at Camden Yards, Fenway Park, and historic Doubleday Field.
However, my most memorable experience actually took place on the same day that I met President Obama. While meeting the President of the United States will always remain a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, later that day I had the opportunity to officiate a commissioning ceremony for one of my students. It is always a flattering experience when a cadet asks you to perform their commissioning ceremony because it is the physical manifestation for when they go from cadet to officer. It is often held in a place on West Point that has special significance for the cadet, in front of his or her family and friends after graduation. The only two prerequisites are that an officer officiate the ceremony and that the oath of office take place in front of an American flag.
I was honored when Scott Machcinski asked me to commission him at Trophy Point after graduation. For those that are unfamiliar with West Point, Trophy Point offers arguably the most iconic view of West Point, looking north on the Hudson River towards Newburgh where George Washington had his headquarters during the Revolutionary War. It just so happened that Scott’s uncle was also Joe Pfeifer, one of the CTC’s most beloved Senior Fellows and FDNY’s Chief of Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness. His other uncle was Kevin J. Pfeifer, Joe’s brother, and one of the 343 FDNY firefighters who died on September 11th.
The flag for the ceremony was no ordinary flag. It was the flag that draped the coffin of Kevin Pfeifer—Scott’s uncle, Joe’s brother, and a family member that would have most definitely been at that ceremony if not for the events of 9/11. Given the symbolic nature of the flag, the iconic backdrop of Trophy Point, and the company in attendance, this was the most meaningful moment I’ve had at CTC. It was where Joe Felter’s words about the amazing moments being the CTC Director rang truest. To put this into perspective, a few hours earlier, I was shaking hands with and meeting the President, and yet that was the second most meaningful experience I had that day. CTC