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New defense strategy requires paradigm shift in US counterterrorism

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In late 1999, the Clinton administration issued “A National Security Strategy for a New Century.” Included in this document was a prescient statement that has become the dominant U.S. counterterrorism policy and approach today: “As long as terrorists continue to target American citizens, we reserve the right to act in self-defense by striking at their bases and those who sponsor, assist, or actively support them.”

Since that time — and particularly after 9/11 — the United States has not looked back, allocating vast resources to counterterrorism. That is, until the recent National Defense Strategy was published last Friday.

{mosads}In a speech at Johns Hopkins’ Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Secretary Mattis unveiled a strategy that shifts what has been the dominant national security paradigm in the post-9/11 era, asserting: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”


As this strategy shifts, the national security paradigm towards inter-state rivalry, a complementary counterterrorism paradigm shift also must occur — away from a model that incentivizes increasing the number and scope of counterterrorism operations and activities — and towards a model that rigorously measures efficacy. The Department of Defense and the broader interagency cannot achieve such a shift, or the effectiveness that would allow for a rebalance in resource allocation given this paradigm shift, without an academically rigorous and systematic approach to measuring and evaluating its counterterrorism efforts.

As a first priority, therefore, the government must continue to fund longitudinal data collection on terrorism. Over the past 12 years, the Department of Homeland Security along with the National Institute of Justice and the Department of State have funded the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) to collect and analyze the most widely-used and comprehensive suite of terrorism databases available in the world — and disseminate such datasets as a public good.

START’s datasets, curated by scholars at universities across the nation, describe terrorist plots and attacks, organizational behavior, radicalization, leadership, cyber capabilities, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, illicit transit and criminal activities. These objective data are essential for enhancing the U.S. government’s resource allocation decisions, threat, risk and vulnerability assessments, training and capacity-building programs, and modeling and simulation efforts.

The executive and legislative branches utilize these datasets as the most reliable sources of unclassified terrorism data, allowing information sharing with our partners and allies engaged with us in the counterterrorism fight globally, and our law enforcement community locally. Finally, they have helped to galvanize the scientific study of terrorism in the academic realm, harnessing the power of American universities to inform counterterrorism policy and practice and to train the next generation of counterterrorism professionals. But they are at grave risk because the U.S. government currently does not have a plan to fund the suite of datasets beyond 2018; funding for five of them already has lapsed.

Barring immediate and sustained funding, the remaining datasets will lapse in just a few months, with only one dataset extending through next year. If funding lapses for too long, the datasets become difficult or impossible to resuscitate.

For example, the Department of State’s funding for START’s flagship database, the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), ends in May 2018 and absent sufficient budget from Congress, funding beyond May is in doubt. This list of use-cases for the GTD within the DoD and broader counterterrorism community is too long to summarize, but for example, it is an important data source for the State Department-led interagency process of designating “foreign terrorist organizations.” This process unleashes the U.S. government’s resources against such groups. There are no comparable publicly available, quality-controlled alternatives to these data.

In addition to maintaining data on terrorism itself, we must understand the relevant environmental context in which specific terrorism and counterterrorism behaviors unfold. By mapping, and when necessary, collecting systematic data globally about regime types, legal structures and law enforcement posture, public opinion and culture, and infrastructure and preparedness, we will have the background for comparing and contrasting the effectiveness of counterterrorism efforts in similar and differing contexts, providing insight for future decision-making as threats emerge in new locations.

Finally, we must design an agenda that utilizes these terrorism and contextual data to evaluate the counterterrorism strategies, policies, programs and tactics used to mitigate the threat of terrorism. This requires the development and refinement of metrics across the spectrum of our counterterrorism efforts, and the creation of a living repository of knowledge. This knowledge base will grow over time as researchers and professionals from across disciplines access, analyze and enhance these datasets, and drive our collective understanding of counterterrorism effectiveness.

As the United States shifts its national security focus back to inter-state competition, we will assume risk on the terrorism front. We should not allocate precious resources to mitigate those risks while “flying blind.”  

The U.S. government should continue to fund these unique datasets for our national security community, and we must build a long-term, systematic, rigorous research agenda in partnership with the government to optimize our counterterrorism efforts. Through hard-won experience and an investment in the scientific study of terrorism, we have learned a great deal since 9/11. We must preserve and honor those lessons, and commit ourselves to the scientific study and pursuit of effective counterterrorism going forward.

In the final analysis, too much blood and treasure has been expended, and remains at stake, for us to get this wrong.

William Braniff is executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and a professor of the practice at the University of Maryland. He previously served in the U.S. Army, the National Nuclear Security Agency, and at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. 

Alex Gallo is the National Security Practitioner in Residence at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and a former deputy director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Tags Counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism organizations Counter-terrorism Government Politics Prevention Terrorism United States Department of Homeland Security

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