A counterterrorism strategy that could work for America
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The United States of America desperately needed a reinvigorated counterterrorism (CT) strategy and it just got one with the president’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism released in October. While not entirely new from previous strategies in all areas, it represents a multi-dimensional and gritty framework for how the U.S. government’s national security apparatus will work to counter terrorism at a time of profoundly complex threats.

With this Strategy, the president has delivered a clear message, in serious terms, that we remain a nation at war against terrorism, that our government will “spare no effort to preserve the safety and security of the United States,” and that counterterrorism is a top priority for his administration.

This priority is driven by the ability of terrorist groups to, among many things, incite destabilizing regional conflicts and continue to threaten the West, including by using the Internet and social media to inspire individuals abroad to conduct smaller-scale, unsophisticated attacks. In one such example, in October 2017, a U.S.-based person who had been inspired by the Islamic State drove a truck onto a bicycle path in New York City, killing eight people.

There are three striking features about the president’s Strategy. 

First, the Strategy sets a resolute tone and overall approach — evidence it was crafted by professionals to be executed by professionals.

The career government employees detailed to the NSC staff, and their U.S. intelligence community and military colleagues throughout the interagency, played a key and direct role in developing and writing this Strategy. I commend the executive office for setting the vision and enabling the working professionals to shape the strategic elements that will protect our nation. This is the right way–clear from politics–to demonstrate to the American people that effective counterterrorism will only work by utilizing all elements of national power, and as the president states, “with the full force of America’s strengths.” 

As long as the president sticks to the plan, the CT experts and operators primarily across the executive branch will be empowered, and our country and national interests will indeed be better protected.

Second, the Strategy places a strong emphasis on collaboration and partnerships with foreign governments. This sentiment is something the country has not seen from Washington in the last two years and, frankly, represents the backbone of the Strategy. The president’s statement recognizing “America First does not mean America alone” cannot be understated.

This Strategy mandates the government to not only engage with those foreign governments who represent institutional CT partners, but also with “our less resourced, non-traditional, or novel partners who may make unique contributions.”  In this context, a level of success is pinned on sharing information with these countries in an effort to identify terrorists and enable action against them in their home countries; no less, by the United States while “taking appropriate steps to protect privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.” This particular condition should help reassure current and potential foreign partners and will generate even greater focus and motivation for the country's CT patriots who work tirelessly to protect us every day.

Third, the Strategy provides an unambiguous directive for the government to work with the private sector as an active partner to share information, support awareness and preparedness, and plan for effective remediation. 

The administration in this regard acknowledges correctly that the "critical infrastructure of the country–much of which is privately owned–provides the essential goods and services that drive American prosperity." It also recognizes that past terrorist attacks have often targeted the private sector, and as such, welcomes industry partnerships in sharing best practices in stopping and recovering from attacks. 

Information sharing and transparency, when it directly advantages public safety, is critical in the counterterrorism space. The administration's promise to ensure that key private sector partners are informed of threats to their facilities should be highlighted as an important policy commitment on two fronts: (1) the U.S. government will do everything it can to protect U.S. interests and citizens from terrorist attacks; and (2) the U.S. government will include the U.S. private sector in proactive dialogue associated with CT policy decisions, enabling industry to prepare appropriately to keep their people, assets and business interests safe.

Finally, policy strategies and frameworks on paper do not alone stop terrorists, but execution of this roadmap, with follow-on, targeted objectives can. It is then vital that the administration formulate more detailed, actionable plans to meet those objectives. Again, our career public servants in the national security community must play a leading role along the way.

While the National Strategy for Counterterrorism sets an encouraging pathway, success will certainly be measured by the president’s leadership, the ability and empowerment of the professionals to plan and execute, and strong engagement with the legislative and judicial branches to ensure we bring to bear every resource and value that supports our national power.

Cameron Burks is a Visiting Fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.  He is currently the Deputy Chief Security Officer at Chevron Corporation and formerly a U.S. Department of State Special Agent with the Diplomatic Security Service.  As a career member of the Foreign Service, Cameron served overseas as the Regional Security Officer at various U.S. Embassies and in senior State Department policy positions in Washington, D.C.