Counterterrorism and the Engaged Citizen (by David Brannan)

Sunday, November 12th, 2017

It is time to recognize that terrorists are not constrained by our organizational mandates, lack of imagination or fixation with past tactics. They will continue to change targets and tactics which exploits our open society. Politicians continue to tell us how they will defeat terrorism and make us safe but a commitment to engaged citizenship and the fundamental American freedoms in the face of the threat is the bedrock of countering terrorism.

In the late 1990’s the discussion about the threat of terrorism centered primarily on what was then called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Today most practitioners refer to that category of threat as Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) weapons. The 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo adherents suggested to many analysts that although terrorists had focused on conventional weapons in the past, a barrier had been broken and terrorist organizations would inevitably move toward CBRN.

In July of 1998 Falkenrath, Newman and Thayer published, America’s Achilles Heel, which impacted the public debate and the Clinton Administration’s understanding of the terror threat. That national focus on CBRN, in turn, led to the formation of the unwieldy named, U.S. Congressional Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, better known as the Gilmore Commission. While the Commission noted a need to posture the US for a range of terrorist threats, the government remained focused on WMD/CBRN.

And then 9-11 happened. The preparations and nearly total focus on a CBRN threat was unhelpful defending against men with box-cutters, imagination and a willingness to die as they turned airplanes into missiles. The US response was massive, including a reorganization of government and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, but the counterterrorism focus then turned primarily toward defending against spectacular attacks. We arranged ourselves to respond to the last attack.

The year 2014, or what David Killkullen has called The Blood Year, again forced us to rethink our focus and account for the rise and formation of an actual Caliphate. The formation of the Islamic State was something many analysts assumed was beyond a terrorist group’s ability to actually pull off. But again, they were wrong and extreme brutality, a social media campaign and commitment to the point of death allowed terrorists to once again act outside of our ability to effectively respond or defend.

Now a new threat environment is emerging that suggests terrorists will agilely pivot, yet again, to a soft spot in our defenses—open society. The CBRN threat remains a danger. We should not relinquish our gains to defend against large-scale spectacular events and there remain many unstable states and regions beyond Iraq and Syria, which might be seized upon to provide terrorist havens. Outlawing rental trucks, knives or guns will not adequately respond to this dynamic and amorphous threat. We must organize our government, and society, to heed the Gilmore Commission recommendation to prepare for the range of threats while refusing to give up the essence of what makes America truly great—a brave, capable and fierce devotion to the fabric of society that makes the US unique.

The sentiment, “Thank you for your service” has emerged as civilians note the sacrifice and commitment military personnel have made and are continuing to make in defense of the country. But bravery is not required of our service personnel alone. Engaged citizenship requires our resolute commitment to our constitutionally protected freedoms in the face of adversity. Our greatest counter-terrorism capability is not our military, intelligence community, police or target hardening—all of which are important—but our most effective defense is to remain American in the face of the terrorist threat.

Despite politicians telling us they will protect us, or somehow wipe out terrorism, citizens have to remain engaged. While the government never wants to admit real risk in the homeland, for the foreseeable future, there will continue to be terrorist attacks against Americans abroad and here at home. Our power position and the fall of the Soviet Union gave some a utopian belief of invincibility but make no mistake, the world is not a safe place and some civilians will die. We will continue to imperfectly respond and then rearrange our government structures to meet the new threats. Yet the greatest threat to our American way of life is not the terrorists, but rather, our reaction to their attacks. Those reactions will define us. If we restrict free speech, if we operate outside our legal system, if we target classes of people rather than actual suspects, then we will have given the terrorists a lasting victory.