June 29, 2018

IntelBrief: Recalibrating Recalculating the Fight Against Terrorism 

a B-2 Spirit, assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman Air Force Base, taxis on the flightline at Andersen Air Force Base (AFB), Guam (Staff Sgt. Joshua Smoot/U.S. Air Force via AP).
  • An article in the July/August edition of The Atlantic examines one very expensive air strike against Islamic State fighters in Libya.
  • The U.S. has struggled with effective and appropriate responses to terrorism, often relying on its military once a situation has reached a breaking point.
  • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria required a strong military response but keeping the group weak now requires a more nuanced strategy.
  • An overly-militarized response to systemic terrorism tends to actually favor terrorists over the long run.


The fight against the so-called Islamic State has shifted. In the kinetic battle to degrade the territory of the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition have succeeded in their aims. The fight has now shifted, however, to a kind the U.S. has historically fought poorly: a battle to foster and enable resilient communities in broken societies.

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, William Langewiesche writes about a January 17, 2017 raid by two B-2 stealth bombers against a group of perhaps 100 Islamic State fighters in a remote area of Libya. Each B-2 bomber, designed for nuclear war, cost $2.1 billion dollars—so expensive that the Pentagon only procured 21 before ending the program. With the January 17 raid over an Islamic State desert camp in Libya, the U.S. was spending more than $4.2 billion dollars in stealth technology—not including the bombs, fuel, refueling logistics, or the aircrew training and maintenance—on a group of fighters sleeping in a desert with no air defense. By comparison, in fiscal year 2016/2107, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (State/PRM) allocated a total of just over $28 million dollars for humanitarian funding for Libya.

The raid was a tactical success, in that it reportedly killed all of the fighters, yet it revealed a long-running issue with the overall U.S. counterterrorism strategy. The emphasis on a military approach is understandable only when viewed in the worst-case scenario, in which a local terrorist group grows beyond the capability of local governments and police agencies to counter it, and shifts into an insurgency with a military capability that requires a corresponding military approach. In fact, it is usually the lack of effective local governance and police presence that gives rise to the terrorist group in the first place. The cost of stepping in at the earliest stages with micro-targeted aid and assistance is much lower. That approach can be more effective than the military response that becomes inevitable without it.

The fight against theIslamic State in Iraq and Syria, and in other places, including Libya, is ending only in the massive military sense of the word. The fight to prevent the next fight is ongoing and requires both a strategy and resources. The need in Syria and Iraq is staggering, with little appetite by the West in general and the U.S. specifically to engage in what they see as failed nation building—an understandable position given the abject failures of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Projects to build and sustain resilient societies organized with individual communities, not at the country level, in order to eliminate some of the push/pull factors of terrorism, are more manageable for the global community to support.


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