Counterterrorism — at home and abroad — will be renewed under Biden
Now that we are fewer than 50 days away from the start of the Biden administration, it is worth considering how U.S. counterterrorism policy priorities will shift. We should anticipate the Biden foreign policy team — led by Secretary of State-designee Antony Blinken, U.S. Ambassador-designee to the United Nations Linda Thomas Greenfield and incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan — will reinvigorate U.S. multilateral counterterrorism efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere.
Internationally, U.S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan will take a more nuanced approach, given that ISIS remains a threat to stability in the Near East and the al Qaeda core and ISIS branch known as Khorasan remain active in Southwest Asia. Domestically, the Biden team is sure to take stern action against radical right-wing actors largely ignored by the Trump administration.
The United States is far less likely to skirt important human rights considerations when applying counterterrorism pressure against terrorist groups. Biden’s foreign policy team, for example, is more likely than the Trump team to hold serious conversations with the Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments about violations of human rights that have been predicated on fabricated or exaggerated terrorist threats.
While Biden’s security team is unlikely to have the appetite to drastically increase troop presence in Afghanistan or Iraq, if their stability continues to devolve, observers should expect some level of redeployment, a significant increase in bilateral and multilateral capacity-building efforts to shore up counterpart security, and an expansion of programmatic efforts to counter violent extremism. The Trump administration’s decisions to draw down forces from Iraq and Syria resulted in resignations from key national security advisers who understood that declaring U.S. efforts victorious and complete would be a mistake, such as after the Second Gulf War when the U.S. prematurely patted itself on the back for defeating terrorism.
In 2020, since the United States started withdrawing forces from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, ISIS brazenly launched an alarming number of attacks. The Trump peace agreement with the Taliban will create an atmosphere, because of U.S. troop withdrawal, for al Qaeda to regain sanctuary and finally regroup after two decades of being on its heels. Believing that the Taliban will fulfill its promises and work in good faith with the Afghan government and break its relationship with al Qaeda is naive. In October, the Taliban demonstrated its continued resolve to fight when it killed more than 40 Afghan police officials in Helmand Province.
While the U.S. overseas mission to thwart the resurgence of al Qaeda and ISIS is a critical national security objective, a more important counterterrorism challenge is a growing domestic terrorism threat. In contrast to President Trump, President-elect Biden is likely to pursue a range of options to counter domestic and transnational aspects of right-wing terror.
There is a growing body of evidence for such a shift. In 2020, the Center for Strategic and International Studies documented that far-right actors have been responsible for most of the plots and attacks in the United States. As the Soufan Center documented in a 2019 report, right-wing domestic terror has become entwined within a larger movement internationally — perhaps best exemplified by U.S. persons traveling to places such as Ukraine to fight for neo-Nazi groups such as the Azov Battalion. This year, the United Nations documented that over the past five years, there has been more than a 320 percent increase in worldwide violence attributable to far-right extremists. The 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer prompted Biden to run for president. Following Heyer’s death, Trump refused to condemn white supremacy— a characteristic that endured throughout his tenure.
As I’ve written, Biden is more likely to use his authority to sanction overseas-based far-right groups. Second, and more importantly, the Biden administration may be more willing to pursue a domestic terrorism law, something I’ve argued is crucial for charging people such as Robert Bowers, the Tree of Life Synagogue assailant, and Christopher Hassan, a former Coast Guard officer, with terrorism. The Bowers and Hassan cases exposed a loophole in U.S. law that should be closed, and Biden will find a wide array of Congress members who are willing to work with him to remedy this deficiency.
For example, Rep. Adam Schiff’s (D-Calif.) bill to criminalize certain violent acts of terrorism is promising because it includes oversight civil liberty and privacy provisions that could stem government overreach — a common concern related to domestic terrorism laws given excesses of the past, such as the 1960s-era COINTEL program in which the FBI tracked political enemies.
As Biden considers domestic terrorism challenges and the need to balance civil liberties with security considerations, a parallel challenge exists overseas. In China, the government has placed Uighurs, an ethnic minority, in detention because it perceives they are terrorists. The Trump administration sanctioned Chinese officials involved in this human rights travesty, but much more needs to be done. Trump’s disdain for multilateralism and regional cooperation has limited his ability to mitigate the atrocities afflicted upon the Uighurs since unilateral sanctions have limited impact. Biden’s foreign policy team philosophically will be more inclined to create coalitions that expand economic and travel restrictions against Chinese officials engaged in human right violations.
There is also the fact that the United Nations and the United States (pursuant to E.O. 13224) continue to sanction the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a mistake that the Biden team will need to consider unwinding, since these sanctions helped create the basis for the widespread crackdown against Uighurs.
Biden inherits a challenging national security environment, and efforts to counter far-right, ISIS and al Qaeda threats remain paramount. But human right considerations must be fundamental to the Biden team’s application of counterterrorism power. Mistakes of the past, such as drone targeting that has resulted in too many civilian casualties, must be avoided.
The Obama national security team recognized this late in President Obama’s second term when it ordered a report on civilian deaths associated with U.S. drones. The Trump national security team canceled the report last year, setting back efforts to improve transparency in the conduct of counterterrorism. Transparency, accountability, oversight, and regional and multilateral cooperation to mitigate terror and extremism must be the principles that guide the Biden team’s fight against bad actors. If these principles get short shrift, mistakes of the past will be repeated and human rights will continue to be eroded.
Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, director of its Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism, and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Blazakis.