Innovative counterterrorism measures including counter-messaging and capacity-building within strong international partnerships are critical to confront “a terrorist threat landscape that is more dynamic, complex, and fast-moving than ever before,” a top State Department official told Congress.
ISIS and al-Qaeda “have proven to be resilient and determined, responding to increased counterterrorism pressure by adapting their tactics and techniques,” Acting Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism Christopher Landberg told the House Oversight and Reform National Security Subcommittee this morning during a hearing on the worldwide threat from foreign terrorist organizations.
“ISIS’s global presence continues to grow despite the liberation of territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria,” Landberg said in prepared remarks. “ISIS is leveraging its branches and networks across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa to advance its agenda. ISIS’s affiliates are increasing the volume and lethality of their attacks, particularly in West and Central Africa, causing more fatalities by ISIS affiliates in Africa in 2020 than in any previous year.”
Al-Qaeda’s branches, particularly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabaab, continue “to pose a serious threat” with operatives “quite capable of inflicting damage on our allies and on our global interests.”
“AQ’s networks continue to exploit local grievances in under-governed spaces, conflict zones, and security gaps in the Middle East and Africa to acquire resources and conduct terrorist attacks,” he added. “This remains the case despite the significant losses of leadership and degraded capacity to execute large-scale attacks that AQ has suffered.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism Milancy Harris told lawmakers that “while we have significantly degraded the terrorist threat with the last 20 years of sustained pressure, we still face a potent challenge.”
“The terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland from externally directed attacks is at the lowest since 9/11, but we still face a number of terrorist groups committed to targeting U.S. interests and personnel abroad,” she said. “These groups seek to take advantage of instability and ungoverned spaces and have a new and evolving set of tools readily available. Today’s terrorist groups are proficient with new technologies, agile in the information environment, creative in circumventing traditional financial systems, and remain ideologically influential enough to motivate new generations of people to join them or conduct independent attacks on their behalf.”
Harris said the most effective counterterrorism approach is usually “a mix of kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities and working with our partners and allies,” including “using our education and capacity-building programs to help develop increased counterterrorism capacity in critical regions, and ensuring our security cooperation efforts integrate with other complementary U.S. government programs.”
Since U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Harris said DoD is working to “process the lessons learned” and “set the conditions for a new counterterrorism mission” that seeks to leverage intelligence, diplomacy, and military capabilities while monitoring terrorism developments in the country.
“Any approach will not be static; we will continue to iterate and adjust based on the terrorist threat and what will keep America safe,” she said.
Landberg said his department’s focus includes “bolstering the professionalism and capability of partner nations’ law enforcement to identify, deter, prevent, disrupt, apprehend, investigate, prosecute, and convict terrorists and their supporters, including through support for key regional and multilateral institutions and global initiatives.”
Activities include working with partner nations on the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters and their families, working with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS with a particular focus “beyond Iraq and Syria to include ISIS threats in Africa and elsewhere” as well as “reminding our partners that [al-Qaeda] remains capable and dangerous,” and exploring new partnership opportunities with other nations to detect and stop terrorist cross-border movements. In terms of international sanctions, the State Department “will continue to assess how we can use these tools to restrict terrorist organizations and leaders.”
“Amid this diverse and dynamic threat landscape, the path forward to countering terrorism around the world must be one marked by continued diplomacy, dialogue, and diligence,” Landberg stressed. “Despite the complexities and challenges of countering terrorism around the world, we must remain vigilant and proactive in protecting the United States and our allies and promoting U.S. national security interests.”
Landberg told lawmakers that sharp counter-messaging — seen as “long-term resistance” to terrorists’ online presence — is critical as terrorism propaganda and recruitment materials continue to propagate in cyberspace.
Pressed by some lawmakers about the Taliban’s current relationship with longtime allies al-Qaeda, the State Department official said he could discuss that in closed session. “We’ve been very clear with the Taliban on numerous occasions” about U.S. counterterrorism expectations, Landberg said.
“They are aware of our clear message that they cannot allow al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a safe haven and I think they’re wary of allowing al-Qaeda to do that,” he said.
Harris said being able to ascertain a clear picture of what’s happening in Afghanistan through diplomatic and intelligence channels in lieu of boots on the ground is “better than it was three months ago” and is expected to improve.