In the opening remarks of his confirmation hearing for secretary of state last Wednesday, Rex Tillerson described two theaters of the war on terror: the physical battlefield in the greater Mideast and the increasingly digital conflict of ideology. Defeating the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations “will not occur on the battlefield alone;” he argued, “we must win the war of ideas.”
This boilerplate language isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is at least troublingly outdated and perhaps a preview of a Donald Trump administration that offers little in the way of the radical foreign policy rethink the president-elect has promised. For though traditional warfare and online propaganda have by no means disappeared, the terrorist du jour is the lone wolf attacker.
“Increasingly,” as ISIS loses territory and al Qaeda decentralizes, terrorist groups are relying “on what Syrian terrorist Abu Musab al-Suri called ‘individual terrorism.’” This is when “individuals and small autonomous cells may increasingly take the initiative in both the murderous and messaging dimensions of violent extremism,” said a little-noticed report circulated in late December by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the agency responsible for tracking terror incidents worldwide and providing counterterrorism data to peer agencies like the FBI and CIA.
“The new landscape [has] few formal boundaries or solid structures,” the NCTC continued, so “groups can form wherever resources permit and circumstances are favorable.”
If the Trump administration is serious about pursing an effective, responsible foreign policy which “finally learns from the mistakes of the past,” it must take this evolution of terror into sober account—and the result of that reflection must be a meaningful shift away from the reckless approach of the last decade and half.
The bipartisan establishment assumption of the last 15 years has been that terrorism is best stopped with a two-pronged attack of bellicose interventionism followed by nation-building abroad and, at home, an aggressive surveillance state with little regard for constitutional privacy and speech protections. That method has failed—dramatically, consistently, and expensively—to produce peace or even basic stability in the seven countries where the United States is now entangled in the Middle East and North Africa.
As terrorism trends toward lone wolf attacks, it is an more unsuitable strategy still. The “individual terrorists” the NCTC report describes will not be affected by the fate of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. How many acres Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his brutal army control makes no difference to whether this new sort of terrorist successfully stabs people at a Minnesota mall or puts a bomb in a New York City dumpster.
Worse yet, there is credible evidence that ill-advised military intervention makes lone wolves multiply. "[ISIS] is clearly weakened on the ground, but the nature of the losses it is suffering has strengthened its legitimacy among certain segments of the Sunni world," explained Hassan Hassan at Foreign Policy following one individual attack. "This is a trend that should be of grave concern to U.S. officials," he wrote, "as the group's continuing support could lay the groundwork for its eventual resurgence—and more lone wolf attacks."
Indeed, even “where armed intervention has achieved a semblance of tactical success — the ousting of some unsavory dictator, for example — it has yielded neither reconciliation nor willing submission nor even sullen compliance,” notes Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian. “Instead, intervention typically serves to aggravate, inciting further resistance. Rather than putting out the fires of radicalism, we end up feeding them.”
Digital surveillance or censorship is likewise the wrong tool to fix this fresh threat. Lone wolf attackers, many of whom have no real contact with terrorist organizations abroad before carrying out their crimes, are lost in the massive "haystack" of information federal agencies collect via mass surveillance—and that’s if they put anything online that could tip off law enforcement in advance. Thus the success rate of the NSA’s mass surveillance in combatting terrorism is zero percent.
As for digital censorship, even leaving aside issues of free speech and constitutional rights, the truth is that a lone wolf need not be well-informed about the extremism motivating his violence. Online propaganda may inspire some attackers, but the connection between homegrown radicals and terrorist organizations overseas is almost never as substantial as both groups like to imply.
The Orlando nightclub shooter, for instance, does not seem to have understood the difference between ISIS and Hezbollah. The former is a Sunni group that considers the latter, as Shiites, to be enemies and heretics worthy of death. Similarly, two British men convicted of terrorism charges several years ago apparently ordered books including Islam for Dummies, The Koran for Dummies, and Arabic for Dummies on Amazon. Online censorship of ISIS videos clearly would not have mattered to any of these dummies.
As Trump and, probably, Tillerson prepare to take office, they must acknowledge that this two-pronged approach of recent years is a double dead end. They must recognize that endless military interventions and mass spying have not worked to stop the terrorist threats of recent years and not suited to address the threats of today. Fundamentally, they must exchange pugnacity for prudence and recklessness for restraint.