The targeted killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul last July felt like the end of . . . something. It should have at least; Zawahiri was al-Qaeda’s number two at the time of the 9/11 attacks, subordinate only to Osama bin Laden. And while some may argue about the relevance of Zawahiri within al-Qaeda—then and now—one has to work hard to quibble with the fact that, as the current leader of al-Qaeda and the deputy during the 9/11 attacks, his killing represented the culmination of over twenty years of counterterrorism and intelligence efforts. President Joe Biden stated as much. During his press conference in the wake of the strike, he linked Zawahiri’s killing to the 9/11 attacks and characterized it as the too-long-delayed full redemption that was only partially realized by the killing of Bin Laden in 2011. It seemed prime time for a bookend moment that, as the counterpart to the initial attacks nearly twenty-one years before, would mark the passing of an era.
And yet, the president instead used the occasion of Zawahiri’s killing to double down on the “over the horizon” counterterrorism strategy that he announced almost exactly a year before in his comments regarding the Afghanistan troop withdrawal. To ameliorate fears regarding the possibility of Afghanistan becoming another haven for terrorists, the administration proposed a counterterrorism approach that emphasized intelligence-informed over-the-horizon strikes from outside of terrorist safe havens, requiring no boots on the ground. The administration has executed this plan, plus some. In the months preceding and following Zawahiri’s killing, the United States struck terrorists, insurgents, and rogue militias in Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. In Iraq and Syria, these strikes often targeted Iranian-backed militias that had attacked deployed US forces. Raids by special operations forces in Syria killed multiple ISIS leaders and their eventual successors. And in Somalia, the Donald Trump administration’s withdrawal of US forces did not end counterterrorism operations, and the Biden team’s redeployment of forces into Somalia appears to have accelerated them. Just this month, the United States announced that airstrikes killed a senior al-Shahaab leader.
In word and action, the current strategic policy of the United States regarding counterterrorism seems the full realization of the over-the-horizon approach. Going forward, there appears no impetus to change this model; the president intimated that this approach would continue, ad infinitum, in his comments following Zawahiri’s killing. Technology—drones, digital intelligence collection, globe-spanning, near-instantaneous communications—enabled the execution of these operations, representing a generational leap in counterterrorism execution. This new reality might explain the number of ambivalent responses defense intellectuals and commentators provided following Zawahiri’s killing. The death of yet another al-Qaeda leader effectively drew a lot of shrugged shoulders.
In several ways, this new counterterrorism strategy resembles the Israel Defense Force’s “mowing the grass” operational approach to counterterrorism campaigns in the Palestinian territories and southern Lebanon. Facing an intransigent terrorism threat, Israeli forces regularly execute strikes and raids intended to decapitate leadership and destroy critical capabilities. Some strategists in the United States have advocated for such an approach for US counterterrorism efforts, and it would appear that, in the over-the-horizon strategy, they found their match.
The chief question that should animate this discussion, however, seems always left out: To what end? The obvious answer remains to protect the United States and its allies and partners from terrorist attacks. The sublimation that takes place, however, is the assumption that this can only be done through drones and airstrikes. More importantly, the assumption seems so set in stone that no other solutions exist for the current reality. Better to simply keep killing terrorists and accept the fact that, from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa, this approach now defines a significant portion of our foreign policy.
This strategic shoulder-shrug that assumes there’s little more we can really do, need not dominate our counterterrorism thinking. It is time for a counterterrorism strategy that truly examines the nature of the terrorist threat and determines how best to manage the instability that terrorism creates rather than simply perpetuating an eternal game of global Whac-A-Mole. Yes, a role for American military power will always exist. We should better demarcate the role for its use, however, while also looking for ways to empower those frontlines states most likely to be targeted by terrorist attacks. By anchoring in our allies and partners, the United States can build capacity and resilience while freeing resources to orient toward other challenges. We must recognize, and enhance, the counterterrorism capabilities of our allies and partners, while lessening the forward-deployed footprint of the US military and looking for opportunities to integrate successful US interagency counterterrorism efforts.
With allies and partners in the lead of counterterrorism efforts, the United States can shift to a supporting role while maintaining flexibility to operate in times of crisis, thereby adapting our policy approach for a wide swath of the globe. The foundation of this new approach entails a movement away from a US-led counterterrorism effort defined by drone- and airstrikes that prioritizes continued violence in the absence of a discernible strategic end state. At the strategic level, this means moving toward a partner-led effort, where the United States supports frontline partners with intelligence sharing, acquisition, and—in extreme cases tied to direct threats to the United States, our citizens, or our interests—military force. Over-the-horizon counterterrorism is just a set of tactics. A partners-forward approach would be a strategy.
A Strategy Bridge to Nowhere
As first described in 2013, Israel’s “mowing the grass” approach sought to align its use of military force with the reality of the post-Intifada security environment and Israel’s strikingly poor performance against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006. Resigning themselves to violent, nonstate actors on their border for an indeterminate period, Israeli defense strategists abandoned the idea of a decisive victory against terrorism. Instead, they argued for a regular application of military force against the nonstate actor leadership and their more advanced capabilities—particularly rockets and command-and-control nodes. By assuming away a decisive political settlement, Israel agreed to a permanent state of quasi war, a simmering brew of near violence at times punctuated with blockades, airstrikes, and targeted raids by ground forces.
Early advocates of Israel’s counterterrorism approach lauded the nation for its inherent realism: Hamas and Hezbollah would never accede to the existence of Israel, so better to occasionally decapitate and defang the military branch of each organization. Assuming away any future settlements and accepting a new reality of regular, sporadic violence, Israeli strategists focused on using military force to protect their nation from attack, hoping that options to better resolve this instability would present themselves in the future. As the decade wore on, though, observers began to question the efficacy of the strategy. By the early 2020s, no marked change in Israeli-Palestinian relations (and some argued Israeli escalation) meant that the Israel Defense Forces continued this regular campaign of strikes and raids, with no end in sight. Some argued that the “mowing the grass” approach ushered in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that reinforced Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s anti-Israeli rhetoric, continued to destabilize Israel’s neighbors, and enabled further access for Iran in the Levant.
These critiques did little to impact the US counterterrorism discourse. In Afghanistan, both Trump administration and its predecessor under Barack Obama emphasized drones and airstrikes as a means to continue to pressure terrorist groups in the country as they sought a scaled-down presence of boots on the ground. In Iraq and Syria, the eventual retaking of Mosul and the sharp decrease in the size of ISIS-held territory only partially slowed the continued blitz of drones, airstrikes, and raids. In the Horn of Africa, the prospect of the expansion of al-Shabaab led to continued drone and airstrikes. Charged with executing these missions, the special operations and intelligence communities became proficient at “servicing” targets, even in the face of increased civilian casualties.
As noted earlier, the Biden administration maintained the same approach; what it has not done is assess its effectiveness. Several recent reports have shown a lack of correlation between continued strikes and relative stability in terrorist safe havens. Operationally, terrorist groups have adjusted their practices in an attempt to avoid detection and enable the rapid replacement of slain leaders. Also, the US approach has yet to deny safe geographic haven to terrorist groups. Recently, DoD’s under secretary of defense for policy noted that ISIS-Khorasan could execute expeditionary operations from Afghanistan within six to twelve months and al-Qaeda within eighteen to twenty-four. Operations in Syria degraded ISIS significantly but have yet to set the conditions for their eventual termination, nor have they helped stabilize the political-military situation in that country. Further, although some have argued that “mowing the grass” in Somalia provides our only option, this approach has so far yielded little to make one think that Somalia is on a pathway to better security and governance.
What is the desired strategic end state for each of the ongoing campaigns? Clearly a safer United States is at the top of that list, but have we proven the correlation between a continued campaign of “mowing the grass” and increased security? While American national security should never defer to purely coin-counting, it is fair to ask, in a period of changing priorities and limited resources: How effective is our current approach, how do we measure it, and could we find further efficiencies? Our current approach still requires the regular forward deployment of critical capabilities (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, tankers, protection assets) and formations (special operations forces, intelligence personnel, cyber teams) that could be reoriented toward threats elsewhere. Understanding the priorities, and the critical decisions required to meet them, is an important first step.
Anchoring in Allies and Partners
The 2022 National Defense Strategy calls out explicitly the benefits of the United States’ alliance and partnership network in meeting the multiple challenges in the contemporary security environment. In the same vein, our alliance and partnership network provides further opportunities, some tapped and some currently untapped, in our counterterrorism approach. Presently, US counterterrorism strategists look to our allies and partners primarily for access, basing, and overflight. Our current approach still prioritizes the application of US military power against terrorist threats, requiring proximity and protection. Going forward, we should look to emphasize and expand our combined counterterrorism capabilities with our allies and partners, while we deemphasize and demarcate the role of unilateral American military force.
This approach should make sense to our allies and partners. The most likely target for future terrorist attacks will be those states closest to terrorist safe havens, both in the Middle East and in southern Europe. Building a robust counterterrorism capability among them allows the United States to support those frontline states facing the prospect of attack. Further military-to-military engagement goes a long way toward building partner capacity, generating resilience within our partners’ security establishments, and providing access to infrastructure in the event of crises, be it against terrorist groups or regional threat actors.
Several current challenges present themselves to this approach. Issues with overclassification create a huge barrier to fast and accurate intelligence sharing. Intelligence professionals and planners must create a culture of counterterrorism intelligence sharing in their organizations, looking first to set conditions for sharing while protecting crucial intelligence-collecting capabilities and access. At the same time, the Department of Defense must speed the acquisition of key capabilities through foreign military sales and financing, global train-and-equip initiatives, and intelligence institution capability building. For those allies and partners slated to play critical counterterrorism roles, these key capabilities should be prioritized above other, nonessential military items. Finally, we should have a clear view of those we deal with. Many authoritarian-leaning governments may view capability growth within their counterterrorism forces as a tool to be used for maintaining regimes and suppressing dissent. The United States must make clear that such actions will end any ongoing training, support, and sustainment activities currently funded by the United States and close the door to future sales, capability transfer, and partnerships.
This approach acknowledges that some cases will require the application of military force, either through support (targeting, transportation, sustainment) or direct action (drones, airstrikes, targeted raids). In these instances, the target should either represent a direct threat to the United States or US citizens, be of a nature that precludes partner activity (either due to sensitivity or capability), or be of such a critical relation to US national security that national decision makers dictate a leading role for US military force. Counterterrorism planners must ensure that the application of American military power aligns with regional goals outlined by the Departments of State and Defense and the intelligence community. Planners should view the use of force with a discerning eye toward future intra- and interregional impacts. Force should be proportional to the intended target or outcome, foregoing target overkill. Operations should emphasize temporary deployments of small teams with a light footprint, relying on “warm” bases maintained by mixed US and partner teams over an enduring presence. Warm bases would require little to make them “hot”—power generation, protection, secure data links, temporary barracks—and can reenter warm status quickly after mission completion. This approach deemphasizes the current tendency toward permanent, forward-deployed basing needed to support the counterterrorism strike complex that, unintentionally, presents targets for future attack.
Some may critique this approach as little-changed from what the US military has done in the past, or even what US forces are executing now. Both are true, to an extent. The US military and intelligence community trained Afghan counterterrorism forces throughout the course of the war, right up until 2021. By most accounts, these forces proved very effective in their counterterrorism role (although when the Afghan government used them outside of that role, they suffered from attrition and low morale). In Iraq, counterterrorism forces provided the foundation to rebuild the Iraqi Army after its collapse against ISIS in 2014, and helped lead the offensive to retake Mosul. In Somalia, the Danab Brigade has bucked the trend of combat ineffectiveness in the Somali armed forces and proven itself capable of both combined and unilateral operations. While good examples of what training and resourcing can do at the tactical and operational levels, each of these formations still relied, or continue to rely, on a robust US presence, and often serve in secondary roles with US military force in the lead. Going forward, the United States should look towards these models as an initial blueprint for building partner capacity, then determine how best to enable their further development, resourcing, and training in a manner that allows them to take the lead in the counterterrorism fight and, ultimately, lessen the US role.
Aligning Against Other Challenges
Some make the argument that the current over-the-horizon approach to counterterrorism serves as an apt economy-of-force mission for the United States as it shifts to prioritization of the Indo-Pacific. They are right, but only to a degree. No longer in Afghanistan and with smaller footprints in Iraq and Syria, the Department of Defense has lessened the capabilities and formations in these regions. This drawdown has not fallen equally across the force, however. Although the current counterterrorism approach limits forward-deployed boots on the ground, it still relies on support from critical capabilities and formations deployed in the Middle East and Africa, particularly intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, tankers, air and missile defense systems, and special operations forces. With limited capacity and redundancy, these capabilities and formations expend readiness at an alarming rate, reducing overall US capabilities in the event of an unexpected crisis elsewhere. At the same time, continued near-constant intelligence and special operations focus on counterterrorism targets, while important, comes at the expense of large segments of these formations gaining in-depth knowledge and building relationships in priority regions, a key element undergirding each of these groups.
An approach that focuses on the role of allies and partners and the strengthening of their counterterrorism capabilities, over time, frees these critical capabilities and formations for redeployment and reorientation to priority missions. In the process, it identifies interoperability shortfalls with our allies and partners to address with future training, development, and, potentially, acquisition. This serves to further integrate the United States with its allies and partners at the operational level and provides greater flexibility for the United States in times of crisis, either from counterterrorism or regional aggressors. The United States and its partners can work together to stymie terrorist attacks while strengthening the international security environment.
At the same time, a smaller role for American military power should create space to better integrate the interagency in our counterterrorism approach. While several successive administrations have made this claim, the preponderance of military power, and its reach, led to the Department of Defense’s (and to an extent, the intelligence community’s) domination of the counterterrorism discourse. The concrete removal of military capabilities from the region, and clear guidance on demarcating the role of military force, set the conditions for counterterrorism planners to think differently on how to use the full range of national power to lessen the risk of a terrorist attack against the United States and US citizens. Since 9/11, the interagency has made clear gains in terms of stopping terrorist financing, combating online radicalization, utilizing international law enforcement, and hardening US embassies. With the military and intelligence communities in a supporting role, the interagency should look to scale up these efforts while investigating untapped resources, expertise, and approaches. Ultimately, the United States should explore creating an interagency task force, at the strategic level, to monitor terrorist developments, share information with allies and partners, and, when needed, support the targeting of terrorist groups and actors through military and nonmilitary means.
This, too, might seem at first blush to be little different from what has been tried in the past—the counterterrorism mission for years was littered with interagency task forces and countless interagency coordination mechanisms. And yet despite this, we still too often ended with the same outcome: military solutions to counterterrorism problems. That fact does not negate the fundamental importance of an interagency approach to counterterrorism; rather, it is an argument for greater emphasis on such an approach specifically at the strategic level. This level, where policymaking and planning take place, is where over-the-horizon approach emerged from—an approach that relies on the indefinite application of hard power with military capabilities and resources. A true strategy, then, one that leverages all instruments of national power and is tied to the accomplishment of US strategic objectives, must deliberately involve the participation of strategic-level stakeholders who wield nonmilitary instruments of power.
Some will argue that this proposed approach misunderstands the nature of the terrorist threat and is consequently too utopian. Maybe. It does recognize the continued threat from terrorist organizations, however, and does acknowledge that the United States, and its technology and capabilities, will play a role in the counterterrorism fight for years to come. This approach looks to right size US counterterrorism to the geographic reach of these groups, though, recognizing that those most likely to feel the brunt of future terrorist attacks are those frontline states in the proximity of terrorist safe havens. By augmenting their counterterrorism capabilities, we not only help them to protect themselves, but we also strengthen the strategic and operational ties that bind us together while guaranteeing partnership and access in times of future crisis. More importantly, this approach seeks to change the course of a current counterterrorism strategy that, in reality, is no strategy at all. Given the ability to constantly target and kill terrorists at a near-global scale, we did just that, not asking if there was another way. Now faced with rising challenges in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, it seems time to question a self-perpetuating strategic approach that provides little hope of resolution.
Colonel Andy Forney is an Army strategist that most recently served within the Strategy and Force Development Branch in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. His previous assignments included Special Operations Joint Task Force–Afghanistan, Army Futures Command, and the Department of History at the United States Military Academy. He holds a PhD in history from Texas Christian University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Airman 1st Class James Thompson, US Air Force