Academics and Practitioners Give Open Advice to President Trump on ‘Eradicating’ Terrorism

By: Antonia Ward, Reporter

Photo Credit: Georgetown University Center for Security Studies (CSS)

January 26th-27th witnessed a convergence of academics and practitioners from across the world descend upon Georgetown University to offer policy lessons and advice to the new administration of President Donald Trump on the pressing issue of terrorism and counterterrorism in a seminal conference co-hosted by Georgetown University and the University of St Andrews-Scotland, “What the New Administration Needs to Know About Terrorism and Counterterrorism.” Comprising four panels across two days and two keynote speeches, the conference engendered lively and thorough discussion driven by a number of seasoned experts. Academics from farther afield such as Jytte Klausen and Audrey Kurth Cronin sat alongside prominent scholars from both Georgetown and St. Andrews, two universities that have enjoyed close partnership since Professor Bruce Hoffman co-founded the Handa Centre at St. Andrews (CSTPV) with the late Professor Paul Wilkinson in 1994. Additionally, the conference welcomed pivotal practitioners including Gary Ermutlu of the UN and career US Intelligence Community public servants Paula Doyle and Paul Pillar.

The conference began with a light breakfast followed by a brief introduction by Bruce Hoffman. The first panel, ‘What Next? Global Trends and Threats,’ was moderated by Professor Richard English, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast. Hoffman’s assessment focused upon the resilience of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the danger of foreign fighters, and the prospect of al Qaeda absorbing ISIS and the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threat, thoughts that were similarly echoed by CSTPV Director Tim Wilson. Hanin Ghaddar, editor of the Lebanon’s NOW news website, warned of the threat Iranian-backed Hezbollah poses to the United States and the group’s growing power and consolidation within Iraq and Syria. Sir David Veness, a former UN official and CSTPV professor, warned of the major gap between identifying threats and collective response, highlighting the issues of Russia and Aleppo, Lebanon and Turkey; Veness also discussed the social media threat, extremist recruitment, and the difficulty of combatting lone wolf terrorism.

Following a lunch break, the keynote speech from The Honorable Michael Vickers, former Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, kicked off the afternoon. In his speech, Mr. Vickers identified four failed strategies that the new administration should take valuable lessons from: containment; regional catalysts for regime change; strategic myopia; and placing hope in unreliable international partners. Mr. Vickers focused upon the importance of building strong and lasting alliances, conducting aggressive and sustained counterterrorism campaigns, and utilizing covert action. In response to a question asking if drones create more terrorism than they remove and their fodder for terrorist propaganda, Mr. Vickers firmly advocated for their use citing them as “the most precise instrument in the history of warfare.”

The last panel of the day, ‘What Next? Regional Trends and Threats,’ was chaired by Colonel David Maxwell, Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program. Terrorism scholar Daveed Gartenstein-Ross focused on the importance of understanding the organizational structures and histories of Al Qaeda and ISIS for any effective counterterrorism strategy. Dr. Christine Fair, professor at Georgetown University, highlighted the increasing threat emanating from Pakistan and the links between their intelligence agency ISI and ISIS. The last two panelists, Professors Jytte Klausen and Diego Muro of the University of St Andrews-Scotland focused on the threats posed by terrorists within Europe specifically, discussing the complex networks at work in Europe and the supply and demand nature of terrorism recruiting, an understanding of which are crucial to an effective counter-radicalization strategy on the continent.

Friday morning began with a panel on ‘Global Counterterrorism and Regional Structures.’ Gary Ermutlu of the UN discussed terrorism as a living system, thus making it predictable; according to Ermutlu, rather than simply targeting leadership, counterterrorism strategies ought to focus on critical training, logistics, weapons and IED programs, and counter-messaging. Mary Habeck of Johns Hopkins University and Audrey Kurth Cronin of American University further discussed Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and ISIS, discussing the nature of the entity itself and tracing its roots back to the Iraqi government under Maliki. Fernando Reinares, professor at Georgetown University, focused on the EU, arguing that second and third generations of Muslim populations were the largest threat, subsequently making terrorism the EU’S number one threat; according to Reinares, effective conglomeration of databases was one of the most effective weapons against this threat.

The keynote speech from Richard English, formerly Director of St Andrew’s Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), focused upon five foundations of success for the new administration in countering terrorism: distinguishing between ‘terrorisms’ and ‘terrorism’; setting realistic goals; coordinated domestic and international responses; maintaining a credible message; and appropriately measuring the size of the threat and response. In particular, English emphasized President Trump’s goal of eradicating terrorism as mentioned in his inaugural speech, and highlighted that completely eradicating a centuries old phenomenon would be virtually impossible.

The final panel of the Conference was concerned with ‘Intelligence Challenges.’ Georgetown professor Elizabeth Arsenault made an impassioned speech regarding morality and firmly argued against the reopening of CIA black sites or using torture in interrogations. She also expressed concern about the relationship between the President and the Intelligence Community, warning of the dangers of politicization and the erosion of public faith. Professor Mark Currie focused upon the importance of learning from historical experiences and identifying to root source of grievances that fuel terrorism, emphasizing coordination and cooperation with partners as potential counterterrorism strategy. Paula Doyle spoke of the importance of resources, stressing that an increased threat from cyber-attacks should also take precedence in an age of digital counterterrorism. Paul Pillar’s discussion centered around honesty with the public about what counterterrorism can do and the inherent tension between security measures and the values of liberal democracy.

There were several clear themes and suggestions for the new administration. Most panels emphasized a need to be aware of the global picture and the presence of multiple terrorist threats. The panelists stressed a need to understand the context of terrorist incidents and the value of striving for proportional responses to such incidents. Moreover, the importance of learning from other countries’ and regions’ experiences, particularly the EU, was a clear trend of the discussions. On a different note, a focus on the increased technological threat both in terms of cyber-attacks and the power of new media for recruitment and propaganda also permeated the conference. According to Professor Arsenault, “The recent conference helped to create new knowledge at the intersection of counterterrorism theory and practice,” a sentiment echoed by Richard English who remarked, “It focused on an utterly contemporary event but with an eye to historical depth and background; and it involved high-grade scholarship, but with an eye to policy seriousness.”

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