On 4 October, President Donald Trump released his National Strategy for Counterterrorism (NSCT). The NSCT is the first comprehensive policy on battling terror to come out from an American administration since 2011. President Trump sees the NSCT as part of his broader vision to ramp up national defense as a whole. In his address announcing the release of the Strategy, Trump related to his previous accomplishments in fighting America’s enemies at home and abroad. “Under my leadership, the United States has accelerated efforts to defeat terrorists.” The president referenced a variety of accomplishments from “decimat[ing] ISIS in Syria and Iraq” to “end[ing] United States participation in the horrible Iran deal.” On the administrative end, Trump reminded his audience of the “historic increases in defense funding to rebuild [the] Nation’s military.” In the president’s narrative, the National Strategy for Counterterrorism is the next important next step.
What does the NSCT add to the defense landscape?
From one perspective, NSCT doesn’t add too many “new” insights into combating extremism. Many of the themes discussed through the pages of the document have been discussed at length by both policymakers and security experts over the past several years. The contribution of the NSCT is not in its originality per se. NSCT is important because it formalizes many of these goals as official policy—the importance of this cannot be overstated.
As everyone with any experience observing the grind and groan of politics knows, there is quite a gap between recognizing a need, or even advocating a given policy on the one hand and taking steps to apply them on the other. Controversy between competing interests, the two parties, and even within the same administration, create significant obstacles to formulating a clear plan of action. The publication of NSCT means that pursuing many long- recognized needs in fighting terror has now become U.S. policy.
The NSCT puts a large emphasis on cutting terror groups off from sources of logistical, monetary, and other forms of material support. It is perhaps the single most important topic discussed in the document.
Of course the importance of identifying and drying up terror resources is not new. Experts have long pointed to the growing networks of funding available to extremist groups. This phenomenon has grown exponentially due to technological advances that have created an interconnected world in which it is easier than ever to quickly move funding and material across the globe. The NSCT puts forth a range of general methods by which the government plans to disrupt this funding. These include the very important step of increased information-sharing with the private sector, as channels for transfering money through international banking and alternative platforms such as PayPal and other online payment systems have become attractive modes of operations for militant groups. The administration also pledges —in partnership with allies— to “promote effective enforcement” of international laws that safeguard the commercial sphere from manipulation by terror groups. This means a major crackdown on the massive illicit business activities of groups like Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and ISIS.
Another major focus for NSCT is imperative to actively seek terror groups in their countries of origin. There are two aspects of this policy that the administration took time to emphasize. First off, this policy has a rather assertive, one might say aggressive, element to it. NSCT states how terror groups take advantage of “countries with weak governments” in which “disenfranchised populations” provide the perfect breeding ground for spreading their ideologies and recruiting members. Some militant groups end up becoming just as or more powerful —both politically and militarily— than the official powers that be. Thus those governments are forced to “do their bidding” by harboring these groups or providing support. The solution says the NSCT is to circumvent these “weak governments” and pursue militants regardless. This is indeed a bold assertion— essentially calling for the trampling of foreign countries’ national sovereignty in certain cases. But once again, it is only clearly articulating a policy position everyone understands is often necessary. All over the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. has conducted operations to eliminate terrorist assets without any coordination with local governments— from the Osama bin Laden assassination in Abadobad, Pakistan in 2011, to the more recent series of special forces raids authorized by Trump in Yemen and other countries.
Second, is the preemptive quality of this protocol. According to Trump’s NSCT, the United States does not and should not need to wait for evidence a given group is seeking to harm America’s citizens or its interests. All that is necessary is confirming the group has the means and the motive to execute an attack. That is enough to place them on the hit list. One ramification of this is that a wide range of militant groups have now been brought into the category of America’s enemies. Many of these groups have not exactly been priority number one until this point. Take, for example, the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the terror organization behind the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, and mentioned by name in the fourth section of NSCT. LeT’s primary enemy is India. Its stated objective is to introduce an Islamic State in South Asia and to “liberate” Muslims residing in Indian Kashmir—ie.: dislodge Indian rule from the area. On the surface, LeT is not a group that poses an imminent threat to the United States.
Under the NSCT however, LeT does fall under the category of worthy targets, as they have shown themselves to be no friends of the U.S. LeT has publicly declared the United States —along with India and Israel— to be “existential enemies of Islam.” LeT facilities have been used to house terrorists that have executed attacks on the U.S. such as Mir Aimal Kansi, convicted and executed for the January 1993 killing of two Central Intelligence Agency officers. Additionally, many would-be terrorists seeking to kill Americans on U.S. soil have had strong ties with the LeT, such as the infamous Virginia Jihad Network.
In summary, Trump’s new strategy on fighting terror puts down some very important guidelines for ramping up the fight against the modern versions of militant extremists.
We can only hope they’ll be implemented both prudently and swiftly.