ISIS and other terrorist groups are evolving in ways that will force the US and Europe to adapt new counterterrorism strategies, according to US lawmakers, analysts and European security officials.
A report issued Thursday by the European security agency Europol projects that as ISIS comes under increasing pressure in the Mideast, it will stage terrorist attacks on the continent in the “near future,” using techniques and tactics honed in Syria and Iraq, such as car bombs and kidnappings.
That grim forecast came as US lawmakers examined ISIS’ dangerous adaptability Thursday and discussed how US counterterrorism approaches should change in response. Technology and social media have allowed ISIS to continue recruiting, training and executing sophisticated external attacks, even as it has lost more than 55% of its Mideast territory since 2014.
“ISIS and al Qaeda have proved to be resilient in the face of extreme pressures,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “reinventing themselves and taking advantage of conflicts around the globe to root into local populations.”
Witnesses, who described the fight against jihadist groups as generational, suggested ways the US can adapt.
Daniel Benjamin, former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, said the US should reconsider its use of social media “messaging” to counter violent extremism and adopt — or push its Mideast allies to adopt — a more hands-on approach.
Young people “especially aren’t going to be listening to the kinds of messaging we’re putting out,” he said. “We need to move away from counter-messaging and toward more direct intervention in communities: teachers, health care providers, religious leaders who can intervene when they see individuals are in danger of radicalization.”
He also recommended building up partnerships with developing countries, emphasizing the rule of law and spending more money on development and diplomacy.
“That has been woefully underfunded,” he said.
Juan Zarate, the former deputy national security adviser on terrorism to President George W. Bush, said it will be imperative to have a “Marshall Plan-like structure to deal with inevitable vacuums that terrorists would fill” once ISIS is defeated in places like Mosul, Iraq.
Like Benjamin, Zarate pushed for more effective partnerships in Europe and the Middle East, and a less virtual, more engaged approach to fighting extremism.
Somehow, people came to believe that fight against jihadis could be won remotely, that “you can push a magic button and make them go away, Zarate said. “The laws of physics apply to counterterrorism. We have to physically disrupt the ability of groups to plot and organize.”
And he said that words matter in this fight: “how we define the enemy; how we talk about our allies.”
Benjamin, along with several Democrats, agreed. Anti-Muslim rhetoric during the presidential campaign not only undermines the US ability to cooperate with allies, they said, but plays into the hands of jihadi recruiters who look for alienated and angry young Muslims.
Proposals floated by President-elect Donald Trump during the campaign, such as “threats to cut off all Muslim immigration, restore waterboarding and other forms of torture, create a national registry of Muslims and kill the families of terrorists have all contributed to a profound unsettling of American Muslim communities,” Benjamin said. “This will undermine our security in far-reaching ways, I fear,” if Trump continues to pursue them as president.
The strongly integrated Muslim-American community has close ties to law enforcement, one reason there have been few attacks on US soil, said Benjamin, who added that the treatment of Muslim-Americans will be key to protecting against future attacks.
“Thinking somehow that directly attacking the religion of over 1.6 billion people will make them more willing to help us is just fallacy,” said the ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. “We need to recognize that there is a global effort to fight extremists. What we say, what we do, has a major impact on that.”