We cannot forget, or go soft — terrorists remain bent on US destruction

We cannot forget, or go soft — terrorists remain bent on US destruction
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In the coming months, the U.S. is likely to face unprecedented threats to our national interests from terrorists who are as dedicated to destroying our way of life as they are to reaping the rewards of martyrdom. 

Whether from a reconstituted Islamic State content to forego its physical caliphate in the short term while it spreads its poison far afield, a resurgent al Qaeda poised to drive a wedge between competing factions in Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, the Taliban, emboldened by the likelihood of a drawdown of U.S. forces and anxious to return to enslaving the Afghan populace, or the dozens of Iranian-backed indigenous militia, proxies or surrogate forces, the U.S likely will face as many — or more — lethal challenges as it has ever before. 

Only a few years ago, even those mildly interested in national security witnessed endless mainstream media debates about the criticality of the “war of ideas” and countering the messages of violent extremists bent upon our destruction. Millions of words and tens of millions of dollars (at least) were dedicated to counter terrorist narratives with competing messaging, strategic communications, psychological warfare, or psy-ops — all designed to dissuade the vulnerable from joining terrorists’ causes or lure the thoughtful away from their ranks. Some experts even advocated a return to robust covert action, a favorite tool of U.S. presidents fighting the Cold War, by marrying Madison Avenue-style persuasion with active measures contrived to beat — or at least compete with — jihadi internet recruitment efforts and propaganda. 

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But what happened to those conversations? More importantly, what happened to U.S. efforts to dissuade young Muslims and others who want to destroy everything that we hold dear? 

Have we, in fact, given up on even attempting to convince others that killing Americans will not solve their problems? Or, better yet, that many of those dedicated to our destruction likely are being manipulated by unscrupulous power-seekers in the name of religion or politics, and they would be better off directing their energies elsewhere? 

Can anybody identify a current, even moderately effective, national strategic communications effort directed toward any of our most serious national security threats? 

I doubt it. In fact, based on a number of conversations with those intimately involved in what should be our counter-messaging efforts, we have little to show in successful communication programs directed at our most dangerous enemies. The problem evidently is — and has been — at least twofold. First, even within each of our own government organizations, we struggle to align competing policies, offices and priorities, not to mention coordinate and integrate those activities to ensure consistency across the interagency. Second, few Americans understand enough about our foreign target audiences to imagine and successfully “sell” information that would resonate (even assuming we can get ourselves organized).

In fact, there is a conspicuous lack of the creativity and know-how that underpinned our historic success in promulgating American values and culture. And in a climate in which even a (former) director of CIA can say with all conviction that we “do not steal secrets” or lie, and then not be fired, it’s no surprise that professional propagandists and psychological warriors are a dying breed. 

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How important is it that we still lack this basic capacity? To the extent we hope not to fight our way out of every current and looming conflict, it’s urgent.  

After 18 years of fighting, whatever the president decides will be the U.S. role in-country, Afghanistan almost assuredly will return to civil conflict and oppressive Taliban rule. The idea that we might be largely reliant on the Taliban to cooperate in weakening the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations there strikes me as sheer lunacy; in any event, no one has even pretended the Taliban will not do everything possible to wipe away any essence of the U.S. as soon as they can. 

But does it matter? Even the ignorant will remember that it was from Afghanistan that “some people did something” that brought the largest terrorist incident and nearly 3,000 deaths to the doorstep of all Americans. Recall, too, that Yemen was — and in many ways, still is — the home of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most lethal branch of Osama bin Laden’s organization. Moreover, no one believes that the chaos and humanitarian crisis in Yemen will be solved soon, or that insurgent threats rising in Syria and Iraq will not threaten U.S interests.  

Finally, we should not forget the state actors that harangue their populations daily about the “evil empire” — us. At a minimum, there simply is no reason we should assume that their threats to destroy our way of life should not be taken seriously.

As national politics soon take center stage, we need to demand of our leaders and candidates serious strategies and coordinated activities to confront those who are bent on our destruction.  The CIA, Department of Defense, State Department and National Security Council must deliver sustained and effective efforts to weaken and confront those who spread lies and advocate violence against us.  

Yes, changing the mind of your enemy is hard — no less so than deceiving, manipulating or discouraging him. But we cannot afford to stop trying. The alternative is much, much harder.  

Mary Beth Long is former assistant secretary for international security affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense and chair of NATO’s High Level Group, as well as a former CIA case officer. She is co-founder of Global Alliance Advisors LLC. Follow her on Twitter @LongDefense.