After the U.S. Presidential election, we are entering a particularly vulnerable period as militant Islamists seek to test the new American president just as al-Qaeda (AQ) tested President George W. Bush shortly after the 2000 election.

We are now 15 years into the fight against Islamic-inspired terrorism. The day after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US and its allies launched a global anti-terrorism coalition to crush AQ and its allies; a fight that many expected to last a generation. The timing was not wrong, but the nature of the threat itself was both misunderstood and underestimated.

That threat is now even greater than it was before 9/11.

A war that was expected to last a generation has become entrenched and intensified, and has expanded globally. It will last for decades to come. It has and will continue to intensify beyond the historic lands of the Caliphate. It is therefore noteworthy that the Islamic State has shifted its focus from a Muslim audience to a western audience in its magazine, “Dabiq,” at a time when the Islamic State has also called on its followers to carry out attacks in their home countries rather than travel to Syria or Iraq, the lands of the ISIS-proclaimed caliphate. 

Today, there should be no doubt that both the Islamic State and AQ are interested in acquiring and using weapons of mass destruction (WMD); their words and actions confirm their intentions in this regard. The appeal of WMD lies in possessing a capability to confront a militarily superior adversary, in advancing their shared ideology, and in accomplishing their ultimate goals and objectives. The debate within the leadership of AQ in the mid 1990s for and against introducing WMD into the war was settled in 1998 by the group’s leader himself. Following Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa and declaration of war against the United States, al-Qaeda launched leadership-driven programs to acquire nuclear and biological weapons. The appeal of acquiring WMD has not been questioned within the militant Islamist movement since the use of WMD was first justified in a 2003 fatwa published by three Saudi clerics.

This raises the critical question of whether the world is better prepared now to counter large-scale terrorist plots. The US missed the 9/11 attacks despite serial warning signs, including the February 1993 World Trade Center Bombing; the disrupted January 1995 “Bojinka” plot, which was a large-scale, three-phase attack planned by Islamists Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed involving airliners and the assassination of the Pope; Osama bin Laden’s 1998 Fatwa extraordinary declaration that AQ would attack the West, invoking both his religious authority and the Islamic duty to warn enemies; and changing patterns of the movement of people and money in East Africa before the 2001 Cole bombing.

The warning signs were there, but the buildup to 9/11 revealed surprise and a failure of imagination. We failed to predict the attack because we could not imagine a plot of such a creative design and unprecedented scale.  If recent events in Europe are any indication, the evidence indicates that we may not predict the next surprise. The attacks in 2015 and 2016 in Belgium, France and Germany revealed structural weaknesses in laws, information sharing and joint cooperation among counterterrorism partners. Furthermore, inadequate surveillance in Europe on terrorist networks was not due to lack of technology but to the law. On policy, law enforcement and intelligence, more generally, the US and its allies have rejected intrusive surveillance and harsh interrogation measures that challenge our norms of morality and justice.

Taking this reality into account—that we cannot eliminate the terrorist threat— two principles follow in making adjustments to U.S. efforts in combating terrorism. First, we must accept the fact that we are in a perpetual state of terrorist threat and must plan our lives around the threat, managing the risks as a routine in our way of life that does not capitulate to fear nor change the values that we hold most dearly.

Second, we must recognize that WMD terrorism risk factors rise and fall based on many factors, including the effectiveness of global efforts to secure nuclear and biological weapons-usable materials and reduce the risks of their proliferation. The evolving nature of militant Islamic movement itself, and by the changes to our (largely) quantitative means of combating terrorism also impact on risks associated with mass casualty attacks.   Accordingly, the qualitative character of militant Islamist plans and intentions to acquire WMD must also be continuously assessed on the basis of the attractiveness of such weapons as a means to accomplish the jihadist’s ends. Such predictive analysis requires an understanding of militant Islamists’ motivations, goals, and terms of victory in their long war against the US and its allies.

In this context, there are three easy and three difficult ways to lower the WMD terrorism threat over time.

Three Easy Things to Do

First, the US needs to broaden the terms of its bilateral intelligence engagement. Such an effort should include: comprehensive, rapid information sharing across agencies at home and abroad; closer integration of intelligence with law enforcement agencies at all levels; and emphasizing joint operations (active forms of engagement) over liaison sharing (passive sharing of information and analysis) with foreign allies, friends and even our adversaries. In all, we need to exercise prudence but not restraint in reaching out to any and all sources for leads, indicators and harbingers of terrorist WMD plans and intentions.

Second, the US should ensure there are dedicated resources to counter terrorist weapons of mass destruction and other asymmetric threats, such as cyber and attacks on critical infrastructure.  Special threats must be managed with special means that are tailored to meet the demands of the problem.

Third, the President should designate who is in charge of WMD terrorism in the policy, military and intelligence communities. Countering WMD terrorism requires a counter-proliferation (CP) effort to thwart the acquisition of WMD capability (supply side), as well as a counterterrorism (CT) effort to identify and neutralize terrorist WMD plans and intentions (demand side).  Accordingly, senior officials must ensure clear lines of responsibility and accountability are drawn to ensure there are no gaps in coverage between the CP and CT policy and intelligence communities.

Three Hard Things to Do

The most immediate requirement to reverse the gains of militant Islam globally is to end the Syrian civil war. The Lavrov-Kerry agreement was a potential basis for action, because it defined a common enemy—both US and Russia want to defeat IS and AQ—and both want Syria to remain a unified state. But there are key points of disagreement, including what to do with Syrian President Bashar Assad once the war ends and the operational measures needed to bring that war to an end. Also in dispute are which groups are the enemy (Russia sees all opposition to Assad as ripe for bombing, while the US differentiates among hardline and extremist opposition to Assad) and concern over the longer-term regional and global balance of power. Despite such areas of disagreement, the U.S. and Russian defense and intelligence communities (“special services”) must set aside their differences and work together in the Iraq-Syrian theater to eliminate the militant Islamist threat and help forge a political agreement that will be accepted by the Syrian people.

As great powers, the US and Russia bear a special responsibility to help lead a multilateral international coalition to combat the global jihad, an idea Russia proposed to the Harvard-sponsored US-Russian Elbe Group. Setting up a coalition to stamp out militant Islam globally must start by defining the enemy – the terrorist – in specific, objective terms that are consistent with international law.  Creating a global counterterrorism coalition requires a long view of confronting the militant Islamist movement that the US, Russia and their allies lack at present. However, given the fact that Russia faces its own jihadist struggles within its borders, emanating from the Caucasus and now in the form of returning foreign fighters, its national security interests are clearly aligned with the Europeans, as well as with the US on this question.  For its part, the possibility of another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland should inspire a greater sense of urgency to broaden and deepen U.S. exchange of military and intelligence information on a global multilateral basis.

Finally, the US should engage the Islamic world on the problem of the ideology of militant Islam, recognizing that matters of the Muslim faith must be addressed by the Islamic world, not the West. With due regard for the sensitivity and appropriateness of addressing the social, economic and political underpinnings that fuel and sustain Islamic terrorism, the US should encourage and support the efforts of Islamic authorities to refute violent Islamism at its religiously based core of support.

The unwillingness, and perhaps incapacity of Arab governments to address the root causes of this conflict, remains the sustaining element of the “global jihad.” While it is true that the long war within Islam cannot be fought and won by the West, neither can the US fail to support constructive efforts in the Muslim world to represent and defend the true believers of their faith.  In the end, the world’s ability to vanquish violent Islamic extremism hangs in the balance of the Islamic world’s ability to purge itself of this malignancy in its ranks and in the perversion of its teachings.

This article draws on a paper co-authored by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen and Monica Toft that was commissioned by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). The authors wish to acknowledge NTI’s support in contributing this article and these recommendations for countering WMD terrorism.  This post reflects the views of the authors alone and not the U.S. Navy.

Image: Wikimedia Commons