Who Is Up to the Challenge to Fight Terrorism?

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

Last month I wrote that we could not afford to elect a president that either needed on-the-job training or had proven ineffective in foreign affairs. This national security problem rules out every leading contender on the left of the presidential slate and a significant minority of those on the right. The overall strategic issue was laid out as a challenge to the next president. There are a host of specific issues that the person taking the oath will face and leading that array is the Middle East. The first of these is terrorism and Islamic extremism. (The Islamic State group, Syria and Iraq is a related, but separate, challenge.)

The first realization is that a new terrorism emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s, primarily one of Islamic extremism focused on apocalyptic designs to bring about a new Islamic era. These groups, both Sunni and Shiite, are willing to use any means, especially the use of weapons of mass destruction. The groups are divided into core leaders and organizations, franchises, lone wolves and aspirational individuals who seek maximum destruction. There are about 44 transnational foreign terrorist organizations that seek the destruction of the United States, the American people and Western civilization in general. The next president will need to personally come to terms with and explain to the electorate the fact that the war on terrorism, however one wishes to characterize this in language, is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

The predictable result of killing bin Laden was the assumption by many that the war was over, when it was simply the end of the beginning. A 2005-2009 study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism concluded that nations which are “nearly democracies” are three times as likely to experience terrorist attacks as autocratic ones, with full democracies coming in second. This will be the “new normal” unless terrorism is treated with the seriousness it deserves as a strategic, not a tactical, threat. This is not a war against terrorists; terrorism is a tactic to achieve a political end, not an end in itself. This is a war against Islamic extremism, representing a fundamentalist, large minority of Muslims worldwide.

The rise of the Islamic State group proves that Islamic extremists were following their stated goal: They knew that a campaign of terror to achieve conquest would never work. Ultimately they required territory through old-fashioned invasion. This is what the Taliban achieved in Afghanistan prior to their ouster by the United States, and this is what the Islamic State group is attempting in Iraq and Syria.

The West is not engaged in counterterrorism in this part of the world, but rather counter-invasion. Ultimately the West will be required to use ground troops to remove them, a cost we would not have had to incur had the proper actions, that were advised, taken place in 2013. The next president will need to launch this counter-invasion, preferable with allies, and decimate the Islamic State group once and for all.

Between 1969 and 2009, 5,600 people lost their lives in terrorist attacks directed against the United States. This issue is definitively one where liberals (Wilsonian liberals) and realists can find common ground. The debate over law enforcement vs. counterterrorism vs. war should long be over. It is a war where all national resources need to be used. The rise of Wahhabism, Salafism and extreme Shiism poses the greatest long-term ideological threat to the United States and its Western allies, especially as it transcends geography, race and group. The ability of the movement to mutate and multiply will continue to spawn terrorist and insurgent movements until and unless a strategic formula is found to defeat them. The long-term strategic threat to the United States by the toxic nexus of transnational terrorism, rogue states and weapons of mass destruction is primarily driven by Sunni extremism (with the notable exception of Shiite terrorism, state sponsored by Iran).

Liberals understand that unless the root causes of despotism, cronyism, corruption and abuse are ended, the Middle East and other parts of the world will always be breeding grounds for extremism. The appeal by the next president to universal values, natural law and human rights should resonate with liberals in a stirring and passionate way. Realists understand that the strategic military and economic needs of the United States and our allies are dependent on long-term stability in the regions from which terrorism emanates. A long-term solution that is not simply based on “books and bombs” will be more efficient and save more American lives and tax dollars than relying on drones and proxies designed to prop up autocratic or semi-autocratic regimes that enjoy little domestic support. Both liberals and realists can agree that American credibility and integrity are on the line and neither wish to see a further metastization of the terrorist threat on the streets of Milwaukee, or Seattle. A foreign policy that does not attempt to gain victory at a strategic level, well beyond the tactics of counterterrorism, is doomed to failure. The strategy must be one that uses the full power of the U.S. military, intelligence services, covert operations and the soft power of democracy building, economic aid and a massive effort to counter the hate-driven propaganda.

The debate over whether enemy combatants should be a designation should also end, as these terrorists are neither criminals nor prisoners of war and must be dealt with using military tribunals. The United States should push the United Nations to adopt this policy as part of international law, codifying international norms that clearly state terrorists and pirates do not receive the treatments of prisoners of war or criminals. Further, the United States should have a declared policy for all nations that a link to providing any aspect of weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist group will be treated as an act of war.

In the end, any future president must treat this as a real war – not a conflict or a law enforcement exercise.