Letting Diplomacy Lead US Counterterrorism: What Would That Look Like?

President Joe Biden, in opening his first foreign policy speech since taking office, proudly proclaimed, “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” He then expounded on his vision of reinvigorated diplomacy and development and how it would help us with complex foreign policy challenges from China to Yemen.

But while it’s reasonably clear what better diplomacy might look like for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions or addressing Chinese trade practices, what would it look like to put diplomacy at the center of our counterterrorism policy?

In his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken actually provided a good jumping off point. As I wrote at the time, Blinken offered a pragmatic yet fresh take on counterterrorism: he recognized the persistent nature of the threat and stated that we can’t “take our eye off the ball.” He did not foreclose continued military action against the threats the United States faces, but he put diplomacy and development in their proper places as priority instruments of national power to use in the counterterrorism struggle. He discussed the need for a reinvigorated State Department workforce, the urgency of addressing underlying causes such as state fragility, and the dynamics of implementing tricky diplomacy in terrorism’s hot spots.

These are all sensible ideas, but now the hard work begins – building the capabilities, securing the resources, and revamping the policymaking processes to fulfill Blinken’s vision. The goal here should not necessarily be to displace military and intelligence approaches, but rather to establish diplomacy and aid as co-equal tools in the U.S. campaign, in an effort to make counterterrorism more comprehensive and sustainable, and over time, less violent. Biden’s State Department has the opportunity to bring much-needed civilian expertise to preventing and countering violent extremism, managing the complex geopolitical dynamics around terrorism, and ensuring military operations complement diplomatic approaches. Here are four big things the department could do to fulfill this vision:

  1. Invest in a reinvigorated and expeditionary workforce.

The Trump years were devastating for State. Large numbers of resignations, reduced applications to the Foreign Service, politically-motivated retaliation against career employees, low morale – these will form the legacy of the Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo years. Blinken has repeatedly emphasized his commitment to empowering career professionals, and Biden’s early appointments, which include many career Foreign Service officers promoted or coming back into government service, suggest he’s following through.

But from a counterterrorism perspective, the department needs to go further, ensuring that State has both access to expertise, whether inside or outside government, necessary for counterterrorism missions and the wherewithal to deploy such experts safely to where they are needed. This means, first, prioritizing efforts to cultivate a cadre of experts on things like policing, institutional capacity building, and the rule of law who can be deployed to countries facing terrorist threats, as part of larger U.S. government efforts to address state fragility.

The 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review is instructive here. It notes that despite policy consensus on the need for expeditionary civilians, the U.S. government has often failed to authorize, fund, and structure the experts needed to be successful in conflict environments. The past 15 years’ work addressing fragility and conflict has produced diverse ideas on how to build this capacity. But the core elements remain the same – maintaining substantial expertise within the U.S. government to work in conflict environments, cultivating a strong set of contractors and non-governmental implementing partners able to augment federal government capabilities, and enabling country teams to appropriately request and utilize such expertise. It’s clear what happens when the United States doesn’t invest in these capabilities: it either relies on the U.S. military to fill these functions, militarizing missions that should be led by civilians, or the missions simply don’t get done.

But cultivating personnel isn’t enough; the U.S. government also needs to better deploy them to where they are needed. The men and women of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have shown incredible courage in the years since 9/11, deploying in large numbers to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other dangerous locations, and losing some of their best in the process. They have been augmented by a legion of temporary employees and contractors, also serving in harm’s way.

But State Department management – and the broader U.S. government leadership – has at times struggled with how to effectively manage risk. Much of this is because of the highly politicized environment the department found itself in after the September 2012 Benghazi attack in Libya. To be sure, Benghazi exposed shortcomings, particularly in how the State Department’s security professionals plugged into policy discussions. But it also spurred much-needed changes to how the department trains its personnel and evaluates risks overseas. Yet, as Republicans used the attacks to launch escalating political attacks, the U.S. government seemed to retreat into a bunker mentality.

In weekly meetings, security officials at State, force planners at the Pentagon, and staff at the White House pored over nearly every deployment of personnel, subjecting them to incredible scrutiny and often delaying important deployments by weeks or months. In some places, like Yemen, the U.S. government was never able to get the civilian personnel in place to make a real contribution. Civilian experts who did make it in often found themselves holed up in the embassy, unable to regularly visit host-nation counterparts and do the work they were sent there to do.

Of course, prudent security planning is essential. But when the government becomes hamstrung by overly cautious security considerations, its personnel are not able to get to where they need to be to carry out important missions. And as policymakers opt to deploy well-armed – and well-protected – special operations forces rather than the civilians that U.S. partners need, American counterterrorism assistance becomes militarized in the process.

This is not to disparage the highly capable, understaffed Diplomatic Security professionals, who are carrying out the mission handed to them. Rather, the U.S. government needs to reevaluate, at the senior policymaker level, the risk framework that guides overseas deployments. This means further expanding on the work undertaken in the aftermath of 2012 to evaluate policies based on the risk, ability to mitigate risk, and potential benefit to counterterrorism, and then delegating to State greater authority to approve such deployments without subjecting them to an onerous interagency debate.

Further, the State department needs to strengthen Diplomatic Security access to intelligence and invest in their capabilities, including by expanding the number of special agents. U.S. diplomatic and development personnel need to be able to properly carry out their work when they arrive in country, but too often military personnel and safeguards are seen as the answer, including by senior civilian leadership. In fact, Diplomatic Security’s track record since 2012 has been excellent – operating in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan without major incident.  This is because those locations have been well-resourced in a way that the United States should model in other priority locations.

  1. Engage in savvy diplomacy and holistic interagency policymaking.

Even a cursory look at the terrorist hot spots of the past two decades reveals that terrorist threats tend to emanate from complex environments. Underlying conditions typically include national or local government authorities struggling to provide basic services or to exert control over their territory, as well as deeper fragility issues, and terrorist groups exploit existing tribal, ethnic, or religious conflicts. Addressing terrorist threats in places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, or Somalia requires not just establishing effective counterterrorism programming but engaging in savvy diplomacy to navigate both the political forces within each country as well as the outside forces trying to shape internal dynamics. And it requires an integrated foreign policymaking process that harnesses capabilities from across the U.S. government to address both the terrorist threat and the underlying issues.

Yet, too often during the past two decades, counterterrorism has been treated as a standalone issue, with policy made in a separate set of meetings, and with key officials, especially those with development or deep regional expertise, absent from the table. To be sure, there are times when counterterrorism policymaking involves sensitive issues and limited participants – the bin Laden raid, for example.

But in most cases, addressing a terrorist threat requires thinking holistically about the underlying problems and the tools available to neutralize the immediate threat, fortify partners against future threats, and develop longer-term programming to address the drivers of violent extremism. It also requires seasoned diplomats who can navigate inside the country and externally.

The Obama administration’s approach to the counter-ISIS campaign – at least after the group swept across northern Iraq in its shocking initial assaults – provides a good example of what integrated policymaking and savvy diplomacy can look like in action. Counterterrorism and regional policy officials at the National Security Council jointly chaired policymaking meetings focused on bringing a range of resources to bear in the campaign and navigating tricky geopolitical issues regarding Iran, the Kurds, Turkey, Syria, and Russia. A dedicated special presidential envoy traveled the globe building an unprecedented coalition to support a range of civilian and military efforts. Top-notch diplomatic teams in the region successfully navigated Iranian anxiety over U.S. operations, Turkish concerns over U.S. work with the Kurds, and potential Syrian pushback on U.S. operations in northeastern Syria.

We saw what happened when this careful approach was abandoned in the Trump administration. Tensions spiked with Iran, Trump assented to a Turkish military offensive that betrayed our Kurdish partners, U.S. forces had near misses with Russian forces, and the Syrian regime began to extend its murderous reach into Eastern Syria. The U.S. military also made advances against ISIS in the past four years, but without the right mix of civilian expertise and savvy diplomacy, those gains may well prove unsustainable.

Further, while this piece primarily focuses on approaches to jihadist terrorism, smart diplomacy will be just as important as the United States responds to a rising wave of right-wing terrorism, often enabled by countries like Russia. Overall, integrated policymaking and savvy diplomacy, both in response to specific terrorist groups and as part of forging a renewed approach to multilateral counterterrorism, will only be more important going forward, as the administration draws down the “forever wars” and refocuses on great power competition. With likely less focus on counterterrorism at the National Security Council than in the Obama administration, an empowered State Department will need to proactively lead. It will need to develop policies and programs to aid countries facing terrorist threats, sustain steady multinational efforts to address terrorism, and work directly with the Defense Department to ensure military operations complement diplomatic strategies.

  1. Embrace the fragility agenda and deploy resources smartly.

If there is a major reason that counterterrorism assistance has been overmilitarized since 2001, it’s because authorities and funding, both requested by the executive branch and granted by Congress, have made it that way. DOD has secured several authorities allowing it to train and equip foreign militaries facing terrorist threats, and U.S. military personnel engage in a daily stream of security cooperation activities that build partner capacity. Yet the State Department has received fewer dedicated resources, and the resources it does receive skew heavily toward support for foreign law enforcement, rather than the holistic set of institution-building, stabilization, and countering violent extremism programs that would move beyond securitized approaches and toward a strategy based on the rule of law and the drivers of extremism.

The State Department’s primary dedicated tool, the $180 million Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) program, funds specialized training for foreign law enforcement. State has developed regional counterterrorism programs, funded by a range of accounts, most notably in the Sahel and East Africa. However, these programs tend to sprinkle relatively small amounts of money across many countries. The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, for example, receives about $40 million of annual State Department funding, but it supports 12 countries across a region that is about as large as the continental United States.

For all other counterterrorism programming, and particularly for non-law enforcement funding, the State Department must sift through various accounts, controlled by a range of bureaus, to cobble together funding. In 2014, the Obama administration tried to create a large pool of dedicated and flexible counterterrorism resources through its Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, but Congress zeroed out the State Department request that year and only reinstated it in subsequent years, at lower levels than were initially requested. The Trump administration slashed the program further still.

Securing robust civilian counterterrorism funding will be a heavy lift. But there is a new opportunity: embracing the growing and bipartisan focus on state fragility. The 2019 Global Fragility Act lays out a broad vision for how State and USAID should improve the stability of fragile states and treat the root causes of violence, including by extremists. The law authorizes $1.15 billion over five years to support prevention and stabilization in priority countries and to address quickly emerging conflicts. The Trump administration was half-hearted in its implementation of the Global Fragility Act and failed to meet some of the key provisions, most notably the requirement to select at least five initial priority countries.

The Biden administration should work to fully execute the act, and it should consider further increases in funding as the revamped U.S. approach to fragility demonstrates its worth. Of course, there will be many different countries worthy of inclusion in the initial priority country set for various foreign policy reasons, but at least some should be states facing significant terrorist threats. These states are likely to present unique challenges, both on the ground and in terms of how the United States is able to respond, and it will be important to develop best practices for operating in such places.

Resources must also be deployed more effectively, particularly for countering and preventing violent extremism. In recent years, the U.S. government has developed more sophisticated thinking around the links between state fragility and violent extremism, but it still doesn’t have enough reliable indicators and metrics for when fragility will actually cause violent extremism nor what interventions are effective and scalable. Blinken’s State Department should prioritize further research on metrics and approaches to building data-driven programming.

  1. Pursue a fully funded, interdisciplinary approach to counter-messaging.

In the years after 9/11, U.S. policymakers regularly grappled with terrorist propaganda and attempts to radicalize. But the advent of social media in the years afterwards and the rise of ISIS in 2014 presented a challenge unlike U.S. policymakers had faced before. Social media-driven propaganda was central to the ISIS strategy in a way it hadn’t been for al-Qaeda. The group produced slick films depicting heroic scenes from the front line and then used social media to directly distribute the content to disillusioned young people in the region and in the West. The U.S. was caught flat-footed. State’s counter-messaging center sought to challenge terrorist narratives, but it often did so in a clunky or ham-fisted fashion, for example awkwardly trolling terrorist groups from State Department-branded social media accounts.

In 2015, the U.S. government brought in a small team of experts in social media, messaging, marketing, and data science to design a better approach to counter messaging (full disclosure: I served as the government lead for this group). The Global Engagement Center (GEC) that emerged took a different tack, rejecting direct messaging in favor of identifying, cultivating, and amplifying legitimate local voices that could counter terrorist messaging. Yet the GEC has struggled since its creation, beset by challenges in staffing up with appropriate outside experts and often mired in the State bureaucracy that is the opposite of the agile and nimble approach that counter-messaging requires. Leaders at State and in Congress also have expanded the GEC’s mandate to include countering disinformation promulgated by Russia and others. So the GEC has struggled to balance multiple overwhelming missions, and it has faced severe resourcing challenges.

Further, the massive outpouring of support that the Obama administration enjoyed for countering-messaging efforts largely dissipated during the Trump era. Throughout 2015-2016, for instance, the Obama administration developed a series of convenings in which leading civil society, advertising, filmmaking, and technology experts came together to develop better approaches to counter-messaging. Whether due to shifting priorities between the two administrations or a lack of interest from outside parties in working with the Trump administration, the broad coalition of support largely evaporated.

Things now have changed since 2015. ISIS has been degraded, its chief propagandist has been killed, and fewer extremists have been motivated to go to Iraq and Syria to fight or to conduct attacks back home. But ISIS demonstrated just how easy it is to radicalize and motivate to violence certain populations of disgruntled young men and women.

Online radicalization will continue, whether through ISIS and al-Qaeda, their successor groups, or the growing set of transnational rightwing militant groups. The Biden administration should undertake a comprehensive review of counterterrorism messaging as it currently stands, evaluating both the GEC and U.S. partners’ counter-messaging efforts as well as the status of the full range of current terrorist propaganda.. The administration should ensure that the GEC is adequately resourced (for all of its missions), able to draw on unconventional hiring authorities to bring in outside experts, and that its leadership has the leeway they need to conduct their mission with agility.

There are, of course, many other things that the State Department can do to promote civilian approaches to counterterrorism. For example, its foreign terrorist designations, work on sanctions, efforts to prevent the flows of foreign fighters and repatriate them, coordination with homeland security entities, and other functions are all critical. But addressing the bigger changes described above would be first steps toward putting diplomacy and aid at the center of U.S. counterterrorism policy. After nearly two decades of militarized approaches to counterterrorism, the United States may finally have the political will, leadership, and resources to fulfill that vision.

IMAGE: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken Visits the Diplomatic Security Service Command Center at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., in February 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha via Flickr]

 

About the Author(s)

Luke Hartig

Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative and Fellow, International Security Program at New America. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).