Counterterrorism policy and strategy must move up the ‘innovation stack’

Counterterrorism policy and strategy must move up the ‘innovation stack’
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE’s seventh foreign trip of his presidency began with meetings with NATO allies and will wrap up after his July 16 tete-a-tete with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. According to U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison, counterterrorism was not on the top of the agenda for the principals.  

That’s a strategic error.

In recent weeks, authorities in Germany and France foiled a terrorist plot involving the deadly poison ricin, and an Iranian diplomat was arrested for a suspected bomb plot. Closer to home, the FBI in Cleveland arrested a man for planning a terrorist attack on the city’s Fourth of July parade. Terrorism experts such as Bruce Hoffman have estimated that even though ISIS’ grip on territory in Syria and Iraq has waned, its faithful cadre stands at around 25,000 across 12 countries.


Couple that with Hoffman’s estimate that al Qaeda’s adherents remain at 30,000 across 24 countries and it’s a reality check of the complexity of terrorist threats and challenges facing the United States and its allies.

But it’s not only the evolving nature of the terrorist threat that should focus policymakers’ attention in the United States and Europe; it is also that NATO still does not have a counterterrorism grand strategy.

My experience conducting oversight of U.S. defense policy in the Middle East, on behalf of the leadership of the House Armed Services Committee during the “ISIS era,” confirmed two simple yet important insights about U.S. counterterrorism (CT) policy: The post-9/11 era has been a critical period of innovation in our policy, but such innovation largely has been confined to the tactical and operational levels.

From so-called “drone strikes” to new military doctrine and approaches, to new security assistance models, to the military uncovering unique standoff technology and operational designs, we have fostered a perception among policymakers that our military systems and approaches are sufficiently addressing the terrorism phenomenon.  

But even as we increased our ability to kill terrorists through standoff capabilities (exponentially increased during the Obama administration), the jihadist threat has continued to evolve and expand.

Our complacency and lack of rigor in strategic thinking and policy innovation is a consequence of U.S. CT policy failing to move up the “innovation stack.”

The “innovation stack” is a framework normally applied to organizations seeking a comprehensive approach to innovation. It begins with individual innovation, moves to single-team innovation and then broader innovation activities, and on to operational innovation.  

U.S. CT policy has moved through these phases and associated activities at the tactical and operational levels within the framework, but the top of the stack — the policy and strategy level — remains an innovation desert.  

Why? It’s because of a flawed premise and false perception that U.S. policy and strategy are sufficiently effective in addressing the jihadist threat, an approach that has fostered geopolitical instability and deadly consequences, as we witnessed through the rise of ISIS.

ISIS, in part, grew out of this environment of operational exuberance and strategic malpractice.  The U.S. government has assumed that killing “bad guys” via drone strikes was sufficient and that ignoring the broader political context — geopolitical, as well as internal politics in various Middle Eastern countries — was a risk worth taking within the disillusionment and political malaise following the war in Iraq.

And today, in a so-called “post-ISIS” moment, we are at risk of succumbing to that same type of thinking. In particular, Sunni grievances in Iraq and Syria (but also across the greater Middle East) remain unaddressed. It’s a breeding ground for ISIS 2.0.

At this moment in the long war, an inflection point in which there is a growing narrative and belief that ISIS is on the run, we must refocus CT policy towards the top of the innovation stack. If we do otherwise, we will be introducing new risk that, tragically,  could lead to another terrorist attack on our homeland.

Alex Gallo is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a former staff member with the House Armed Services Committee and a former deputy director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.