Last week, the White House announced that President Trump would visit Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip
Lisa Monaco: Hopefully this visit signals that the administration is willing to form global partnerships to fight terrorism
Editor’s Note: Lisa Monaco served as White House Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser from 2013-2017. She is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at New York University Law School’s Center on Law & Security and a CNN Senior National Security Analyst. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
The White House has billed the President’s first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia as a “historic gathering” to “combat extremism, terrorism and violence” and “build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity and stability to the Middle East.”
Of course, a global coalition to combat ISIS already exists; it was built by the Obama administration. And far from a historic gathering, this trip follows President Obama’s four trips to the Kingdom (more than any other President) and two prior summits of Gulf leaders – one convened by Obama at Camp David and one by King Salman in Saudi Arabia – to combat ISIS and enhance support for our Gulf partners.
But history lessons aside, if this trip signals that partnerships and not isolationism will drive this administration’s counterterrorism strategy, as it did in the last, then that should be welcome news. The terrorism fight is one area where we need a “globalist” approach.
To start with, ISIS is not the only terrorist group the United States should be focused on. Al Qaeda’s franchises in Yemen and Syria remain intent on attacking the US homeland and must be the subject of relentless pressure. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen has been the most persistent in plotting to blow up American airliners and al Qaeda in Syria is currently the largest affiliate of the group that attacked America on 9/11. It seeks to exploit the civil war in Syria to create a new haven for its members.
And ISIS, despite its losses in Iraq and Syria, still remains a threat. Yes, ISIS has been rolled back from the majority of the territory it once held, and its caliphate is shrinking. But, as the saying goes, like a balloon squeezed in one place, it will bulge in another. ISIS wants to demonstrate its relevance, and we need to recognize that it poses a hybrid threat that won’t be vanquished with bombs alone.
ISIS is simultaneously an insurgent army, a terror group that has directed attacks with trained foreign fighters and a social media phenomenon the likes of which the world has not confronted before. The Trump administration needs a strategy for dealing with all aspects of this problem.
Chief among these threats is the ability of ISIS to train and deploy foreign fighters to carry out brutal attacks on the soil of some of our allies across Europe. ISIS-directed attacks across Europe have revealed serious gaps in European ability to identify and stop terrorists in their midst. So, in addition to President Trump’s welcome turnabout in support of NATO, the administration should also prioritize building nonmilitary capabilities with our European allies and other partners.
The National Counterterrorism Center estimates that more than 40,000 foreign fighters have traveled to join ISIS and other groups. Many of these are European and Western passport holders. To really understand the magnitude of this problem – and whether some could be an e-ticket away from the United States – we need to dramatically improve information sharing with and among our European partners. That’s why in the wake of attacks in Paris and Brussels the Obama administration dispatched “Foreign Fighter Surge Teams” to European capitals.
These intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement professionals worked with counterparts to identify foreign fighters and build the type of screening and analytic capabilities the US has leaned on so heavily since 9/11 to uncover and thwart plots. Will the Trump administration continue this effort and provide the State Department and other agencies the necessary resources to do so?
Closer to home, the real test will be in how the new administration deals with the exploitation of social media to recruit and radicalize young people to violence. So far, rather than countering the ISIS narrative, the Trump administration’s policies have played into ISIS recruiting tactics. The recent travel ban, for example, lent credence to the ISIS claim that the United States is at war with Islam and wants to promote a clash of civilizations.
To be sure, federal efforts to combat ISIS messaging have long experienced fits and starts, but the Obama administration ultimately learned that the federal government is not the best messenger, and overhauled its approach to focus on building a network of credible voices – from government and nongovernmental organizations – to counter the ISIS message across the Arab world and here at home. Today, the bureau in the State Department responsible for these global efforts lacks a Senate-confirmed leader.
On a more promising note, recently Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly made an appeal to communities in the US to be part of the solution in diverting young people from violent paths. Importantly, he did not confine his comments to Muslim communities, noting that the homegrown terrorism threat extends to all types of extremism – including that of white supremacists – and therefore all communities need to help.
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It will take that kind of broad-based appeal to build trust in communities of all stripes and sizes and to address what truly threatens us on the homeland security front.
How the administration works with foreign partners, engages with the technology industry to stop abuse of its platforms and enlists communities of all faiths – these will be the tests of its counterterrorism policy. One trip does not a policy make, but it’s a start.