Time to Take Terrorism Seriously

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

Another attack in London; Europe descends into continuous chaos caused by Islamic terrorism. The media wrings their hands with declarations of deplorability, as the mayor of London assures his citizens that London is “one of the safest global cities in the world.” Counterterrorism experts obsess over whether the terrorists were “lone wolves” or “known wolves,” part of a cell, part of a terror franchise, had links to this or that website, traveled to (fill-in-the-blank country in the Middle East or South Asia) and whether they were “homegrown” or imported.

One would think that after 45 years (assuming we use the Black September attack in Munich as a beginning point), that the West would, unlike the mayor of London, take terrorism seriously. This seriousness has nothing to do with what the counterterrorism experts obsess over. They are too invested in the building that is on fire now and not about the entire city structure, let alone the strategic, historic or future implications.

This is no condemnation of their efforts; it is merely an understanding that our preoccupation with counterterror tactics, legal interrogation frameworks, radicalization monitoring and even grief counseling do not address the fundamental problem. Like so much that has been missing in western and American foreign policy, it is an underlying lack of understanding of geopolitics and grand strategy.

Terrorism, like any movement, requires oxygen: ammunition, training, inspiration, technique and experience. Where does terrorism get this from? There are two answers, and these two answers have been the same since that Munich attack: rogue states and failed states. From the late 1970s, the list has been semi-permanent: Iran, Syria, Libya (from rogue to failed state) are the old guard. The withered members were the North Koreans (down to attacking its own), Iraq (regime changed by the U.S.) and the Soviets. The newest additions are primarily failed or failing states: Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. According to the Global Terrorism Index, four terrorist groups were responsible for 74 percent of all deaths in 2015: the Islamic State group, al-Qaida, Boko Haram and the Taliban. All of these are proponents of an extremist Sunni ideology and emanate out of failed or failing states. Further, terrorist groups receive haven, logistics, training and supplies from rogue states. South Asia, Africa and the Middle East account for 84 percent of terrorist attacks and 95 percent of terrorism deaths.

Where has counterterrorism gone wrong? It has failed to see terrorism in the light of state actors and geopolitics. It neglects the key aspect of international relations: The world is governed by national entities that control the real levers of power or whose absence creates an artificial vacuum. Hezbollah would be of little concern without Iranian support, and the Islamic State group could not have gained power without the twin failing states of Iraq and Syria. None of these cases would have risen without the absence of western, especially American, primacy. The hard truth also creates clarity: Address the nation-state problem, and you deal an existential blow to the majority of terrorist movements.

A beginning blueprint would address six nations.

First, the Pakistani government has relied too long on American desperation. The Pakistanis believe we have nowhere to go, so they play the long game: Give the Americans enough not to get them angry, mollify the Islamic extremists and prepare for war with India. Estimates of the number of terrorist training camps vary, and often media reports argue that these are primarily focused on Kashmir. This is exactly the kind of ignorant admonishment from those who are laser-focused on tactics instead of strategy. There is a terror network that has existed for decades – it is not run by a single group and does not have a single purpose. It provides a tangled web of training locations, logistics support, safe havens, false documents, arms and intelligence. An Islamic Kashmiri terrorist can be found on a battlefield in Afghanistan one day and Syria the next. The West must issue ultimatums to Pakistan or take action to remove these threats. Pakistan is a failing state who has used the possibility of its own failure as a club against successive American presidents to avoid “too much” American pressure.

Second is Iran. Iran is in a state of war with the United States and is the number-one state sponsor of terrorism in the world. The delinking of terrorism and the murder of American servicemen with Iranian support from the failed Iran deal was exactly the kind of irrational thinking that produces a continuous cycle of American failure. Iran should start losing assets it holds dear until they dry up their support for terror groups. Deal with Iran the nation, and you will see the greatest change in international terrorism and the civil war in Syria.

Two failed states cry out for American leadership. The chaos and misery in Syria and Libya, created by the vacuum of Obama-era policies, have allowed the Islamic State group and other groups to blossom. Just as the issue with Iran is one of forcing the actions of a strong state to change course, Syria and Libya are examples of the opposite: Until a strong state is reasserted, one that is not based on tyranny and corruption, terror groups will utilize it for their ends.

Next is Afghanistan. The debate raging in the American media is whether to surge an additional 5,000 American troops, and there is a discussion of a fight between the political and military side of the equation. If Afghanistan’s stability is the only way to remove the Taliban as an effective force and prevent the rise of groups like the Islamic State group, then the surge should be whatever troop level will lock the situation down. Perhaps this troop level is the original request made by General McChrystal, which some suggest was as high as 80,000. If that is the working number, then both NATO and the United States should be willing to commit that amount, or we should accept the outcome and not risk an additional soldier. Any other decision is a D.C. parlor game designed to buy time and provide political cover.

Finally, one would hope that after having to restore order to Iraq that there is the understanding that unless that order is maintained with a clear and robust American presence, it will all have been for nothing. The arguments about getting into Iraq are finished; the task at hand is to prevent the ascendancy of Iran geopolitically and Islamic extremism internally.

Five thousand years of international relations can’t be wished away. The world is governed by benevolent and malevolent forces represented by nations, or it is ungoverned, allowing an anarchic evil to take hold. This is the fuel of terrorism whose symptoms are seen in London, Paris, Baghdad and Orlando. One can focus on combating the symptoms or attacking the real problem. In the end, if you seriously want to deal with terrorism, you deal with those factors that allow them to operate.