Townsend on terror
Since the 9/11 attacks, counter-terrorism has defined the US security context, sometimes at the expense of civil liberties. Yet the growth of terrorism seems unabated, with the rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On Thursday, Fran Townsend, former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser to President George W. Bush, shared her thoughts on Iran, ISIS and US strategy in the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The event was moderated by Nina Easton, Senior Associate at CSIS, Editor and Columnist at Fortune, and Chair of Most Powerful Women International.
ISIS vs. Al Qaeda
Just when the US started making significant dents in Al Qaeda’s operations, ISIS flooded the world with a series of alternative terror tactics. Townsend thought ISIS a far more dangerous enemy than Al Qaeda. The caliphate was a notional idea for Al Qaeda, but it is a real territorial idea for ISIS.
ISIS is attacking the “near enemy,” local populations and governments in the Middle East to take control of their lands, whereas Al Qaeda tried to mobilize its forces against the “far enemy,” the West. Al Qaeda fought a war of attrition in which it wanted to bleed out the West militarily and economically. ISIS is fighting a war of acceleration, in which its influence is quickly spreading across the Middle East. The group has already established itself in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and in parts of Saudi Arabia. Further expansion in Pakistan—which has nuclear weapons—can have devastating consequences.
Townsend also noted ISIS’s ability to attract women who are not only being convinced to marry a “martyr” to elevate their status but also to join the men as fighters.
Counterterrorism Efforts Against ISIS
Townsend explained that in order to deny ISIS its battle space, the US must carry out a two-pronged solution on the cyber and military fronts. In cyberspace, the US government must withhold speeches and videos that further ISIS’s agenda. Townsend specifically referred to the beheading videos, which she thought should not be protected by the First Amendment. She also said yberspace must be filled with a counternarrative, government funded but not controlled.
For the military effort, Townsend urged the US to send advisers and trainers to help Arab allies with intelligence and logistics. Originally there were complaints that the US was fighting the War on Terror alone with other countries providing funding and intelligence support, but lacking military commitment. Now, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are showing unprecedented military commitment, but they cannot be successful without American support.
Failure of Phase IV Operations
Townsend attributed the breeding grounds for violent extremism to the failure of Phase IV operations. These operations are designed to follow military efforts and help build civilian institutions. After the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, it was clear the Libyan government had trouble getting back on its feet, but the US failed to provide much-needed security assistance, training and support as well as institution-building for political parties. Syria has also faced a similar situation. The lack of civilian institutional structure in these countries has precipitated the largest refugee crisis since World War II, which in turn has become the recruiting pool for Al Qaeda and ISIS for coming generations. According to Townsend, our children will fight the next wave of terror against children “who have watched their parents slaughtered, mothers abused sexually and otherwise.”
Regarding the pending Iran nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries, Townsend is pessimistic that it is possible to cut a good deal. She believes the negotiations started with the premise that the US would deny Iran nuclear weapons capabilities, but the Administration has slowly backed itself into discussing how large Iran’s nuclear capabilities will be.
Townsend emphasized that the Obama administration needs to do a better job of explaining the difference between an agreement and a treaty to Congress, which has the right to review the deal and veto it. She also called on the Administration to support the democratic movement in Iran as it has in Egypt. She has already engaged in a bipartisan effort to communicate with the National Council of Resistance in Iran, which believes in democratic principles, freedom of press and religion, and advancing women’s rights.