A Counterterrorism Strategy for U.S. President Donald Trump

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in front of Parliament in the United Kingdom on March 22, and the truck attack in Stockholm on April 7, for example, terrorism and methods and strategies regarding how to stop it are back in the news. This article has two parts. First is an exploration of U.S. counterterrorism (CT) strategy before and after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Second is the recommended CT strategy for U.S. President Donald Trump. 

President Trump needs a CT strategy that does three things at once. First, the strategy should take into account the successes, failures, and effectiveness of the CT strategy and policies implemented by prior administrations in the past 16 years. Second, President Trump’s CT strategy should be based on ground realities rather than vague intuitions and over-simplistic notions that appeal to his electoral base. Finally, the adopted strategy should keep as a framework the simple idea that the United States can’t do it all; prioritization is a must.

How we got here is important. U.S. foreign policy as it pertained to terrorism prior to the modern post-9/11 period focused on state actors that had both the resources and cunning to finance terrorism. Terrorism is defined here as intentional violence perpetrated against civilians in pursuit of political objectives.

Terrorism Before 9/11

State-sponsored terrorism peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, but is now on the decline. Measured by the “number of states engaging in terrorism sponsorship,” and the level and effectiveness of support, state-sponsored terrorism is at its lowest phase according to research by Stephen Collins, an expert on terrorism from Kennesaw State University.

Post 9/11, U.S. CT policy has been focused on non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Total instances of terrorism peaked in 2006, with 25 percent of all terrorist attacks in the world since 9/11 occurring in Iraq. Methods of attack have changed, too. The deadliest skyjacking happened in 2001 in the United States where more 2,500 people died. The peak of skyjackings, however, was in 1968 when 22 planes were high jacked in a single year. In this viral age where information can diffuse quicker than ever, the barrier to learn how to create bombs and share information with others is demonstrably lower than at any other time in history.  

During the Cold War, the biggest terrorism threat was state-sponsored terrorism, either by Soviet-led revolutionaries or American-supported contras, for example. Islamic terrorist groups such as Hezbollah were funded by Iran, too. At the end of the Cold War, as U.S. President George H. W. Bush handed off the baton, Bush’s defense secretary Dick Cheney remarked: “The threats have become remote, so remote they are difficult to discern.” Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell lamented the lack of monsters left to fight: “I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains.”

In subsequent years, this peace dividend would give way to the messy world of networked and globalized non-state actors with far reach and scope.

Suicide Terrorism

As state-sponsored terrorism plateaued, suicide terrorism by non-state groups rose. According to Robert Pape and James Feldman, there have been almost 6,000 acts of suicide terrorism since 1982. The same database shows that there was a 12-year high in 2015, with the rise of Boko Haram and the Islamic State (or, ISIS). Analysis by Pape and Feldman show that, at least through 2009, the majority of suicide attacks occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In 2015, 55 percent of terrorist attacks took place in five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, and Pakistan, according to the U.S. State Department.  Where terrorism occurs isn’t random; this will be important to remember for the Trump administration and his security and counterterrorism teams.

9/11 & George W. Bush’s Counterterrorism Strategy

Prior to April 2001, the U.S. government didn’t keep track of global terrorist attacks; after 9/11 the U.S. considered counterterrorism one of its highest priorities and George W. Bush initiated the Global War on Terror (GWOT). U.S. foreign policy and CT strategy more specifically has sought to “disrupt, dismantle, and destroy” assorted terrorist groups, mostly Islamic, with contested results based on different end goals, and time stamp.

U.S. President George W. Bush’s CT strategy was fourfold. First, the president went to war. In October 2001, the United States and allies invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government ruling Afghanistan at the time and find al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who had found a sanctuary among the Afghani Taliban. This was followed by an invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2013. Major combat lasted 23 days, and the Iraqi leader Sadaam Hussein was captured by the end of the year. The first pillar of Bush’ counterterrorism strategy was two wars.

Second, the president issued “Executive Order 13224,” which implemented targeted sanctions on individuals, companies, or states known to have laundered money or other physical support to terrorist groups.

Third, the president began a targeted killing campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, outside of areas considered “active,” though this was only a minor part of his strategy. President Bush used drones 50 times outside the theatres of Afghanistan and Iraq. According to New America, 48 of these drone strikes were in Pakistan;  one drone strike was issued in Yemen, in 2002.

Finally, the administration enacted or reformed multiple domestic and foreign intelligence and surveillance programs, including the Patriot Act reforms made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Many of these intelligence measures, such as NSA’s PRISM were only revealed through leaks by former CIA and NSA contractor, Edward Snowden during President Obama’s administration.  

This brings us to the two terms of President Barack Obama.

President Obama’s CT Strategy

The core of  President Obama’s CT strategy was low-risk, meaning “small footprint,” kinetic-action built around drone attacks and Special Forces raids. This came to be known as “counterterrorism plus.” Vali Nasr writes in The Dispensable Nation: “Drones quickly became the central pillar of America’s successful counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then Yemen.”

At the end of the first year of Obama’s first term, he had signed off on more drone strikes than Bush had in eight years. By the end of his final year of his second term, President Obama had ordered 355 strikes in Pakistan, 167 drone strikes in Yemen,  21 drone strikes in Somalia and two in the Philippines. In total, President Obama issued 542 drone strikes, which killed an estimated 3,707 people, including 324 civilians, according to an analysis by Micah Zenko, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Finally, President Obama’s State Department created the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program. CVE, which was implemented in 2011,“ provides resources to communities to build and sustain local prevention efforts in the hope that this would address the root causes of violent extremism,” summarizes Nadim Houry.

How successful has U.S. CT strategy been during the last two administrations?

Even though Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, claims that the “U.S. is safer,” he readily admits that the world has more terrorists now. “This is a much larger number than we have seen previously,” the director admitted in an interview for NBC News.

If the goal was to “dismantle, disrupt, and destroy,” al-Qaeda and associated forces, American strategy has had ups and downs but in the end, there are more Islamic terrorist groups extant today, in more countries than ever before, including Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and others. In Afghanistan, militant groups are active in 20 out of 34 provinces with the presence of Taliban in 15 provinces and that of Al Qaeda in five provinces, according to Catherine Putz. In 2015, there were 11,774 terrorist attacks, resulting in 28,3000 deaths, according to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism. This is a decline from 2014, the first since 2012. Attacks occurred in over 100 countries. More than half of all attacks occurred in five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Philippines, according to the Global Terrorism Database.

ISIL has 43 affiliates and has conducted or celebrated attacks in more than 29 countries, including two in the United States. ISIS claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen stormed an Orlando, Florida nightclub, Pulse, and killed 50 people and injured 53. 

Regarding targeted sanctions implemented through the purview of Section 311 on the Patriot Act, Tom Keatinge, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute writes that “restrictive regulations have simply pushed large pools of funds outside formal channels—encouraging criminals and terrorists to finance their activities in the shadows.” Much of this work is done in the shadows, and with a global financial system incentivized to be loose with regulations, it is more difficult to get a full-scaled analysis of this pillar of CT.

Initiatives under the umbrella-term countering violent extremism (CVE), such as the Strong Cities Network, are hard to grade since much of what they do, if successful, include non-events, actions thwarted due to CVE. How do you prove causality to something that doesn’t happen? Moreover, quantifying successful CVE can also be difficult since public information regarding some of the more sensitive programs that contributed to stopping attacks before they happen aren’t readily available. Civil rights group routinely criticize some CVE efforts as undermining civil liberties.  Robert McKenzie, of the Brookings Institution, writes: “CVE efforts in the United States have struggled. There have been three recent CVE pilot programs in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, and each one has received widespread criticism from Muslim communities—the very communities that were intended as key partners.”

There are no easy solutions to terrorism and counterterrorism. Counterterrorism must be constitutive of a larger more long-term grand strategy, defined by Hal Brands, from John Hopkins, as “intellectual architecture that lends structure to foreign policy.”

A CT Strategy Proposal for President Trump

Donald Trump should have a holistic, three-pillar strategy. The first pillar can be considered a more traditional military counterterrorism (CT) plank. Second, President Trump bragged about an administration that would “drain the swamp,” that is, according to this understanding, purge the corrupt capital and give power back to the people. Tackling corruption around the world should be a focus of CT strategy. Finally, the third pillar should focus on domestic concerns and strategy built on nonmilitary means.  

“Offshore” Balancing

The Trump adminsitration should pursue an “offshore balancing” or “small footprint” strategy. Proponents of this strategy surmise that “relying on military alliances and offshore air, naval, and rapidly deployable ground forces” are preferable to “heavy onshore combat power,” to quote Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman.

Comprehensive literature exists that collates evidence showing that a majority of terrorist attacks against U.S. soldiers or civilian military officials happen due to “perceived or actual occupation.” All foreign policy options are less than optimal; this understanding is the foundation of the “offshore” approach.   

If Trump wants to protect U.S. citizens abroad from terrorism, pulling forces back from the battlefront and reducing U.S. bases around the world could achieve this. A “light-footprint” approach “holds that the United States can reduce terrorism using limited military force to fight terrorist groups capable of major attacks. But it must not go too far, because outsiders cannot fix the deep-seated political problems within the Muslim world that cause terrorism,” per a recent Foreign Affairs article. This would rely on Special Forces and drone strikes, similar to President Obama’s terrorism strategy during his first five years in office.

A “small footprint,” approach won’t “defeat the ideology of radical Islamic terrorism,” a stated goal of the new president. It would, however, limit the number of U.S. casualties and continue the process of retrenchment, started under President Obama. In 2014, Obama acknowledged that we need to plan for the long term, and incorporate the use of soft power in our strategy: “U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” argued the president in 2014 at West Point.

Anti-Corruption Measures

Sarah Chayes in her under the radar release, Thieves of States, makes a convincing argument that anti-corruption measures should come first, as opposed to security or any other textbook idea, when addressing terrorism. Sarah has spent nearly a decade in Kandahar, Afghanistan and dedicated herself to listening to really get a grasp of local Afghani grievances. Ultimately, many Afghanis charge the governments of the West, and mostly the United States, along with their own central government in Kabul, as being abjectly corrupt.

“Hearts and minds” are being lost  which is pushing people to support warlords and the Taliban over the police and parochial government officials. And not for religious or cultural reasons, but purely a less of two evils approach, at least according to what locals have told Chayes  over the years. If corruption is not tackled, as part of U.S. counterterrorism, terrorism will remain a menacing problem internationally.

Transparency International understands that one reason for the rise in Iraq of ISIS was the corruption of the Iraqi Army.

Former Marine Corps General Jason Brezler warned about corruption too. He told NPR last Fall that “The police in many cases was a destabilizing force—and driving more folks into the arms of the Taliban.”  National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times in 2013: “Defense concepts must consider social, economic and historical factors that constitute the human dimension of war.”

Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an Afghan NGO, suggests similar urgency when addressing corruption. They recommend the National Unity Government (NUG) to “consider corruption as a threat to national security and should treat the fight against corruption a top priority as dealing with insecurity.”

To tackle this problem, the United States would need a full-functioning State Department.  In an analysis of President Trump’s first budget proposal, 28 percent is proposed to be cut from the State Department, the leading diplomatic federal agency dealing with international affairs.

This author calls for the State Department, along with the Treasury and Justice Departments, to create a task force that analyzes the state of corruption around the globe, and seriously factors this into any CT strategy. Before shuffling money into development projects and government, there needs to an accounting of just how effective they are in delivering their goods and services in a way that helps eliminate corruption and “pay-to-play” schemes.

Domestic Terrorism

Domestic terrorism is a concern but it is not existential. If a dirty bomb is dropped on Manhattan by a terrorist using a drone, the reality on the ground, of course, immediately becomes more complicated. Even then, the only national security threat that is possibly existential is climate change.  

Less than ten Americans have been killed by terrorism annually since 2001, per former Obama administration officials Jon Finer and Robert Malley. Domestic concerns should focus on supporting law enforcement agencies, local, state, and federal, which according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), were ill-equipped when 9/11 occurred. While better prepared now, these agencies still need a more organized process—including sharing best practices and intelligence. It has been reported that Boston police were unaware that the Tsarnaev brothers were briefed by the FBI, months before they used an incendiary bomb at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, killing 6 and injuring 280 others.  

Finally, a reformed version of President Obama’s CVE is necessary. A review and revision would be necessary to match the strategy with the ever-evolving threat matrix.  

Chris Meserole, foreign policy fellow at Brookings Institution, makes a strong case that CVE is still important and necessary if it is built on three simple rules: “Do no harm,” “go local,” and “learn.” He also notes that this will only work if “Trump refrains from deliberately inflaming sectarian tensions even further.”

William McCants, of the Brookings Institution, has suggested that the United States should design a program “similar to the United Kingdom’s ‘Channel’ program—aimed at identifying such individuals and steering them toward individually-tailored intervention programs that offer a chance to back away from violent extremism before they ruin their lives.” This would be a great addition to the CVE program.


Terrorism is a serious challenge to the world’s nation-states in an ever-increasing globalized world. Terrorism creates fissures. President Trump could help tackle the roots that produce terrorism by implementing this three-pronged strategy. Terrorism won’t be erased from the world but by combining smart measures, internationally and domestically, terrorism can become a shrinking problem allowing time and space for more long-term development plans based on what builds up societies.    

ImageU.S. Army Sgt. Robert Streeter scans a nearby hilltop during a search of the Qual-e Jala village, Parwan province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 21, 2011. Streeter is assigned to the 34th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Redhorse.

Patrick Foran is a PhD student at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL), and the host of Foran Policy: Book Reviews & Miscellany podcast. Foran has interned and worked for, concurrently, a state representative’s U.S. congressional campaign, and earned his B.A. in political science from UMSL. His area of concentration is U.S. foreign policy, climate security, conflict resolution, and international political economy (IPE).

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