The Counterterrorism Approach to the Islamic State

May 14, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Despite a few trial and error approaches, the president seems to favor the counterterrorism (CT) program his administration has constructed as the model for direct action against terrorist entities.  Which is to say that among other approaches, such as mirroring President Bush’s surge in Afghanistan, which did not work as well for Obama as it did for Bush, the model of air strikes supplemented with Special Operations and training indigenous forces has been employed in several regions.  While this tactic has had limited success in Yemen and Somalia and is being touted as a formidable model by the president, it is not a one size fits all program.  This is the realization in Iraq and Syria currently.

Several administrations and militaries around the world have first turned to aerial bombing campaigns as a means of achieving a particular military objective in the way that threatens friendly forces least.  As the American bombing campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group enters its ninth month, a few have raised concerns that again, while marginally successful, it is beginning to show its limits.

President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy was most robustly employed in Yemen over the last few years.  This campaign sought to leverage the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and lethal strike capabilities of drones to take out high value targets of al-Qaeda’s most threatening affiliate to the homeland along with Special Operators that trained Yemeni soldiers and conducted raids from time to time.  Additionally, the U.S. shared information with the Yemeni government regarding operations and the Yemeni government was complicit in direct actions taken.

This strategy recently came under scrutiny by one of the chief implementers of its policy.  Navy Captain Robert Newson, who recently led strategy and concept development for the Naval Special Warfare Command as well as being commander of Special Operations Command (Forward) in Yemen, was critical of the counterterrorism approach in Yemen.  While Captain Newson did not have much operational knowledge of specific drone strikes in Yemen since they were largely carried out by the CIA, in general terms, his criticisms of the Yemen model, which can be applied elsewhere are threefold; first, “[t]his ‘CT concept’ – the solution that some people champion where the main or whole effort is drone strikes and special operations raids – is a fantasy. It may be cheaper and safer, but without broader efforts it is like mowing the grass in the jungle. You cannot hold the jungle back with a weed whacker, you need to partner with the locals to get after their own problems. So I am an advocate of small, tailored advise and assist efforts. And really what I am talking about is combat advisors on the front lines with our partners,” he stated in an interview with West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

Second, he worried that if Special Operations Forces are just trainers, then they will lack greater intelligence of what is really happening in zones in which they are training indigenous forces.  “[I]f we are seen as simply trainers then we are kept farther away from the fight. And the further away we are, the less insight we have regarding the motivation and problems of our partners. So I think we need to somehow break out of that trainer mold and really talk about campaigns, a series of coordinated activities towards a single purpose.”  There have been calls from lawmakers to have trainers in Iraq accompany units on the battlefield.  So far, the administration has balked at these concerns. 

Third, Newson worried that the U.S. could price itself out of what he called “small wars.”  By using the most advanced technology, such as the F-35 and other highly nuanced battlefield gadgets to fight a significantly less-equipped insurgency, the costs will eventually outweigh the battle. “I think the answer is to trade-in a few high-end weapons systems for a whole bunch of smaller systems that are tailored to small wars. It is not a question of high-end or lower-end but of the right tool for the right job – having a balanced took kit and using it efficiently.”

With that said, the Obama administration has also tried to differentiate its military and counterterrorism actions in “areas of hostilities” and “outside areas of hostilities,” due mostly to the blow back associated with civilian casualties.  While civilian casualties, also described as collateral damage, are a realistic byproduct of war, the U.S. was conducting counterterror strikes as part of the “targeted killing” campaign in several regions beyond Afghanistan, the only real region where a “hot” conflict was taking place.  The administration’s drone policy changed in May of 2013 with the release of the Presidential Policy Guidelines (PPG), a set of criteria the administration implemented to govern its counterterrorism strikes outside of war zones, namely against members of al-Qaeda outside Afghanistan, and Pakistan as a recent report indicated the administration exempted parts of Pakistan from its policy.  The key piece of the PPG was that force outside the areas of hostility would only be used “against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.”  Therein lies one of the issues concerning the PPG – it was not governed by law, but rather by policy directives.  Moreover, there are already determined international laws of war of which to abide making the PPG unnecessary and in some cases counterintuitive.

As such, when the administration announced that it would be expanding its military campaign in Iraq (and eventually Syria), the rules of engagement changed “beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense,” a DOD release stated in September referring to the Islamic State group under a different acronym.  Previously, the U.S. was acting in self-defense of its personnel under the president’s constitutional Article II powers and under humanitarian mission to protect the Yazidi religious minority group from facing genocide.  During those self-defense operations, air strikes could not hit “specific members [of IS] even if the military had intelligence regarding their whereabouts.”

Since then, the U.S. has served to augment Iraqi Security Forces on the ground with close air support and targeted various IS staging areas, missile depots, artillery and convoys using a mix of drones, bombers, attack and fighter aircraft –  a much more robust effort than that outlined in the PPG.  By all accounts, the region of Iraq and Syria are considered a “hot” conflict or war zone under U.S. policy standards as exemplified by the type of aircraft used (typically only drones have been used in counterterror operations in regions such as Yemen and Somalia likely given their advanced ISR payloads) and the fact that the administration asserted that the PPG will not be invoked in Syria.

The current offensive against IS is a much more involved air campaign vis-à-vis kinetic operations associated with war, and several train and equip missions for various groups of forces.  The Defense Department defines counterterrorism as “Activities and operations taken to neutralize terrorists and their organizations and networks in order to render them incapable of using violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies to achieve their goals.”  Clearly the operations against IS fall into this category, though, IS has been categorized as more than a terror group – it is an army and insurgency.  Given the threat IS poses to the region based on its size, former military officials in its leadership, territory it controls, and online presence capable of recruiting members to maintain its ranks, more robust military actions are needed than the covert CT approach to other regions.

Iraq and Syria are war zones, but the U.S. has an interesting way of defining war.  As the Pentagon maintained in September, “The United States is at war with the terror group ISIL, ‘in the same way we’re at war and continue to be at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates.'”  This continues the debate regarding the War on Terror, the Long War, the Forever War, or whatever one wants to call it.  While the United States asserts it is still at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates, its tactics for carrying out that war in regions such as Yemen have come under scrutiny forcing more measured approaches.  Clearly there is not a one-size-fits all model and the U.S. leadership must learn from mistakes and evolve much like the enemy has.  President Obama has sought to approach military action, at times, in a manner that appears less hawkish than his predecessor.  As seen with CT efforts in Yemen, they are only marginally successful – case in point, the fact that the Islamic State group has lost significant territory in Iraq and Syria but maintains significant military capabilities.