The end of an administration and the beginning of a new one, like the turn of a year, is a good time to review one’s own analytic record. Doing so is a way of keeping oneself honest and humble, and thus better positioned to give candid (and, if my career is a guide, ignored) advice to the incoming leaders in the new administration. So below is an inventory of my some of my analytic mistakes during the Obama administration, focusing on those that seem most relevant to counterterrorism as we go forward. As the Obama administration entered office, I saw the terrorism threat to the U.S. homeland as greater than it turned out to be. Under Obama, jihadists killed 94 Americans on U.S. soil, of which 63 came from two attacks alone: 49 died in the 2016 Orlando shooting, and the 2105 San Bernardino shooters killed another 14. These 94 deaths are horrible, but the number is far smaller than the number of deaths from terrorism in the decade before 9/11: fewer deaths and better law enforcement disruption. It’s appropriate to remain vigilant, but the decline is good news, and we need to recognize this and have policy reflect this success rather than assume the worst.
Part of the reason for this low number is the impressive success of U.S. counterterrorism efforts abroad, which is always easy to overestimate given the persistence of plots. Drawing a direct line between a drone strike in Pakistan or a U.S.-aided arrest in Europe and the jihadists’ failure to strike the U.S. homeland is difficult and, in fact, too narrow a way to think about counterterrorism. But the U.S. counterterrorism machine has ground up terrorist networks around the world. It’s not that no terrorists remain, but those that do remain find it harder to train and plot, making it more difficult for them to do sophisticated attacks that require skill and coordination.
Yet U.S. efforts abroad have limits. One policy I’ve long advocated—training allied forces—must be understood as a limited solution, rather than a cure-all. In theory, training allies seems a Goldilocks answer to many policy questions: it is relatively low-cost (especially when compared with deploying U.S. troops), it minimizes direct risk to U.S. forces, and it helps reduce terrorism in the long-term when newly capable allies are better able to police their own territory. Yet in the Middle East, in particular, these efforts have often failed. Despite spending almost $300 million a year in total on training programs, in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, U.S.-trained forces have often crumbled in the face in the adversary. Regime corruption, divided societies, politicized militaries, and other problems plague the region, and U.S. training can only move the needle slightly. I’ll take limited progress over no progress, but training programs must be paired with other policy programs.
Just as U.S. efforts to destroy and disrupt terrorist cells has gone well, U.S. attempts to undermine the jihadist narrative have failed, at times disastrously. I’ve long advocated fighting the war of ideas (and its other guises, such as public diplomacy or countering violent extremism). After years of suggesting different ways to do this better, I’m pessimistic now that this can be done well at all. First, it’s not a question of out-communicating the terrorists—we do that. Even a successful group like the Islamic State only recruits a fraction of a fraction of Muslims. So the United States can win the hearts, or at least the minds, of 99.9 percent of Muslims, and the Islamic State can still get enough supporters to survive: one tenth of one percent of 1.6 billion is a lot. Second, social media such as Twitter, the jihadists’ communication form of choice, are most effective when they are interactive: you respond to a response to your tweet, and the dialogue, and associated quirks and humor, further attract readers. Government, however, needs an official line—you can’t have a GS-12 in the State Department tweeting independently, as that can be taken for official government policy. (It’s confusing enough when the President is doing it.) So tweets need to go up and down the bureaucratic chain, making it hard to truly interact. Terrorist groups, however, can be more open-ended, and the Islamic State has done this well.
I also thought that the American people could increase their resilience in the face of terrorist attacks. To his credit, Obama tried, repeatedly stressing that the threat is not existential and that the terrorists themselves are pathetic losers, not evil genius super villains. He failed. He has left office with Americans thinking the terrorism threat is at near-record levels despite the relatively low level of violence. The horrific violence of the Islamic State, combined with the ubiquity of media coverage, means that jihadist violence is always in the news. And opportunistic politicians will play on this coverage. Republicans did this well under Obama, taking small attacks like the Boston marathon bombing and the 2012 killings in Libya, and portraying them as if Al Qaeda was on the rise. If, as would be likely for any president, there is a terrorist attack on Trump’s watch, his critics will claim or at least imply, probably unfairly, that it is his fault.
For this reason, I’ve had to reappraise my thinking on Lone Wolves. I’ve long argued, and still believe, that Lone Wolves reflect a terrorist group’s weakness, not its strength. In particular, Lone Wolf attacks are often strategically ineffective though they can be bloody. Although Lone Wolves are hard to stop, organized groups employing trained fighters are more deadly and dangerous in the long-term. In addition, Lone Wolves’ violence is often not calibrated with that of the group as a whole, alienating audiences the group thinks to attract. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, for example, discredited far-right causes when they bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City: McVeigh contended he was striking a blow against tyranny, but 19 dead children and three dead pregnant women spoke louder about the reality of what he did than his empty boasts. Recent Lone Wolf attacks, however, have fed into the narrative that Islamic State terrorists are ascendant and striking everywhere. As such, they have tilted the political debate in the United States and Europe, empowering right-wing, anti-immigrant movements and parties—a true strategic effect.
Ironically, Trump is better positioned than Obama to rectify some of these problems for the very reasons that he is unlikely to do so. He has credibility in right-wing circles, and if he said the threat is limited, it would be more believable to many than when Obama said the same thing, even if he used the same evidence. Yet Trump rose to power by claiming Americans are not safe and that immigrants pose a threat. It would be too much to expect him to bow to reality as this point.