President Joe Biden released his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance last month. Counter-terrorism has been replaced by the threat posed by traditional state actors, such as China and Russia, as well as a looming climate crisis as the main challenge facing the United States today. A review of past practices and a refocusing of priorities, as opposed to big commitments, seem to characterise the new president’s counter-terrorism strategy.
President Biden’s relatively short Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (only 24 pages, compared to Donald Trump’s 68 pages) outlines the main national security priorities of the new US presidency. A document of this nature does not allow for bold, new ideas – that is not its purpose, – however, it does convey important messages on the direction the new president aims to steer the country. There are many expectations of Biden in terms of reversing some of the most controversial policies of the previous administration, from immigration laws to the abandonment of the Paris Agreement, as well as addressing major global threats the US is facing, such as the Covid-19 pandemic or Iran’s race to acquiring nuclear capabilities. Coupled with political tensions following the riots on the US Capitol in January, as well as the disruptive four years of his predecessor and its effects on traditional US alliances, these challenges put an enormous pressure on the incoming president. At the same time, they also provide an opportune moment to reset the course of US foreign policy.
The newly published document does not reveal big surprises to those who have been following Biden’s words during his campaign for the presidency last year. A shift away from focusing on terrorism and tuning down counter-terrorism efforts have also long been in the making. As early as during his role as Vice President, Biden made it clear that he does not consider terrorism an existential threat to the US (as opposed to an unintended nuclear conflict for instance). “Terrorism can cause real problems. It can undermine confidence. It can kill relatively large numbers of people. But terrorism is not an existential threat.” he said before the presidential elections in 2016. This sentiment is further reflected in the strategy, where the challenges posed by a worsening climate crisis have taken over as an “existential risk” to the US. The importance of tackling climate change, transitioning to an equitable, clean and resilient energy future are underpinning themes across the new president’s national security priorities, while counter-terrorism takes a back seat.
Much of his programme released during the campaign also echoes this sentiment and seem to focus on reviewing criticised counter-terrorism policies at home, rather than engaging in large-scale, extensive and costly operations abroad. In August 2020, the Biden campaign published a Plan for Partnership with the Arab American community. On the one hand, this document focuses on re-setting the relationship with Arab Americans in the context of race and discrimination, and on the other, it also outlines important implications for Biden’s future counter-terrorism strategy.
First, according to the Plan, the Biden administration commits to ending the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) Program. Launched under the Obama presidency as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme, then later rebranded under Trump as TVTP, the prevention programme has been criticised by civil rights advocates as discriminatory and unfairly targeting of Muslim communities. Recognising the failure of this initiative, Biden also committed to conducting a thorough review of past efforts before launching any new prevention programs.
Second, Biden pledged to undertake a review of watch list and no-fly list processes, in order to “ensure that they do not have an adverse impact on individuals or groups based on national origin, race, religion or ethnicity, and improve the process to remove names, when justified, from these lists.” Watch lists have also long been criticised for disproportionately targeting certain ethnic and religious minorities, as well as for making it extremely hard to challenge once someone’s name has been included on such a list.
Third, the Plan for Partnership foreshadows the priority shift of the future Biden administration. As it will be discussed later in this article, the focus on countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism is shifting with Biden’s presidency from Islamism to right-wing violent extremism. The document highlights the growing threat from “violence from white supremacists and incitement to violence by far-right extremists,” a threat that originates from within as opposed to the “foreign threat” counterterrorism efforts aimed to address over the past two decades. In his campaign plan, Biden commits to allocating additional resources to confront “white nationalist terrorism.”
A similar plan was published on the relationship with the Muslim American community. Similar to the Plan for Partnership with Arab Americans, the Agenda for Muslim-American Communities is also mainly focused on racial and social issues. However, there is one section that is worth pointing out. Under the heading Reduce incarceration and make our communities safer, Biden commits to prioritising “redemption and rehabilitation” for those incarcerated, amongst whom Muslim Americans are disproportionately represented. While not specifically terrorism focused, it is especially timely, given that the average prison sentence for terrorism-related offences in the US is thirteen years (based on 2018 data); and according to a 2020 report from the Office of the Inspector General, the sentences are getting shorter. Between 2001 and 2020, the US Federal Bureau of Prisons have released over 600 terrorist inmates. The shortening of sentences, together with the decreasing age of convicts, highlights the need to focus efforts on the rehabilitation and reintegration of former terrorist convicts.
The end of the Global War on Terrorism?
In some aspects, as was expected, it seems that the Biden administration will follow in the footsteps of former president Barack Obama. Indeed, various elements of his fight against terrorism are carried over from the Obama era, from closing down the detention centre in Guantánamo to ending the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a proponent of Obama’s “counterterrorism plus” strategy, which emphasises the use of small groups of US special forces to fight terrorist networks in foreign countries, as also highlighted in the Strategy. However, Biden goes a step further in scaling down the American counter-terrorism footprint abroad. After just two months into his presidency, Biden has already made some significant steps in this direction. Earlier last month, the new administration quietly imposed bureaucratic burdens on counter-terrorism drone strikes outside of conventional warzones, tying those to White House approval.
As of January, US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are down to a historic low of 2,500 in each country, with Biden weighting the possibilities to reduce troop levels to zero by the beginning of May. The administration is also pushing for the revival of multilateral peace talks ahead of the withdrawal date. The new president has also indicated that he is looking into repealing and replacing a war authorization law, known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The A.U.M.F. was initially drawn up to legalise war against the perpetrators of the attacks on 9/11, but over the course of the past decades, its interpretation has been extended far beyond its original intent.
A shift to the domestic scene
While scaling down abroad, it would be impossible to disregard recent developments on the domestic terrorism scene. The past four years of President Trump’s populist narrative and failure to condemn attacks perpetrated by violent extremists fuelled by far-right and white supremacist ideologies ended with the January attack against the US Capitol, where the Congress was in session to confirm Biden’s presidential win. The shift away from Islamist terrorism to focus on political extremism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism is indeed clearly visible in Biden’s national security strategy. To compare with his predecessors, Obama’s last national security strategy focused on the threat posed by al-Qaeda and ISIS, understandably given that it was issued at the height of the Islamic State’s territorial gains in 2015. President Trump also frequently referred to “jihadist terrorists” in his strategic document of 2017. Unlike his predecessors, Biden moves away from Islamist terrorism and points to domestic violent extremism as the main challenge.
As Biden’s strategy highlights, violent right-wing extremist groups are gaining traction within the US (and other Western democracies). The attack on the US Capitol illustrates that the far right is a heterogeneous group, ranging from white supremacists to right-wing militias and anti-government movements, with anti-Semitic, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and other racist ideologies. According to the Homeland Threat Assessment, published by the Department of Homeland Security in October 2020, domestic violent extremists, more specifically racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists (notably white supremacists), present “the most persistent and lethal threat” to the country.
Since his inauguration, Biden has taken a few steps in response to the US Capitol storming in January. The participation of retired, but also active military personnel underlined the need to address the problem of extremism within the armed forces. As a response, newly appointed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a one-day “stand down” for the military to address extremism in its ranks. Though this day of reflection is merely a symbolic move, it is important in that it acknowledges what seems to be a growing problem in the US military.
A major obstacle Biden is facing in his fight against domestic terrorism is the lack of clarity on who exactly qualifies as a domestic terrorist and what legal framework is available to deal with them. In January 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers of Congress introduced the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (DTPA) to “help prevent, respond, and investigate acts of domestic terrorism.” If adopted, the DTPA would authorise the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to monitor, investigate, and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism. It would also require the three agencies to provide Congress with a joint biannual report on domestic terrorism, with a specific focus on white supremacists, and to allocate resources to focus on the most significant threats. The bill would also create “an interagency task force to analyze and combat White supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of the uniformed services and Federal law enforcement agencies.”
Are we “done” with Islamist terrorism?
To address the threat of domestic terrorism and racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism has become increasingly pressing. However, as also mentioned earlier, it is an extremely wide range of different ideologies that fuel these movements. They are often influenced by foreign groups and ideologies spreading on the internet. What has also become clear from the riots in the US capital is the scope of misinformation and disinformation circulating online that can be exploited and used for inflicting violence by a range of actors. Whether used by radical extremists on either side of the spectrum to sow unrest, anti-government groups to oppose the government’s response to the pandemic, or external actors to meddle in democratic elections, misinformation and disinformation can cause serious disruptions and create divisions within and between nations, as also underlined by Biden’s strategy.
It would be a mistake to forget about Islamist terrorism. Even though al-Qaeda no longer dominates the news and the Islamic State has lost its territory in the Middle East, to set Islamist terrorism aside as an unimportant security threat would be premature. The volatile security situation in several countries of the Middle East, such as Syria or Libya, as well as the war in Yemen has made it possible for regional affiliates of both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to thrive. The same applies to conflict-ridden countries in Africa, where al-Shabaab continues to gain ground in Somalia, and local terrorist groups are threatening regional security from Mali to Burkina Faso and Niger.
Though the Islamic State no longer holds territory, at the height of its existence it attracted thousands of foreign terrorist fighters. According to estimates, the number of fighters currently held in refugee camps is in the thousands. As long as Western states, including the US, remain reluctant to repatriate (and prosecute) their foreign terrorist fighters, they will remain in camps with questionable security, where the threat of spreading their radical ideologies, being released prematurely or escaping and joining other conflicts and carrying out acts of violence remains high. Foreign terrorist fighters thus continue to pose a security threat for the foreseeable future.
Much like his predecessors, Biden has repeatedly promised to end the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is also reflected in his strategy. However, withdrawing from Afghanistan after two decades of US military presence carries its risks. Withdrawing without a strategy for peace that involves both the Afghan government as well as the Taliban, and leaving a vacuum behind could create another Iraq by becoming a safe haven and breeding ground for terrorist groups once more. While the vast presidential powers in place, as well as Biden’s earlier mentioned “counterterrorism plus” strategy would allow for targeted involvement, as President Obama put it in 2013, “any U.S. military action in foreign lands risks creating more enemies” and a war fought “through drones or Special Forces,” could also “prove self-defeating, and alter [the US] in troubling ways.”
It is not entirely surprising that two decades after the Global War on Terrorism was launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, policy fatigue has set in and new priorities have taken over. Violent extremism and terrorism have evolved over the course of the past twenty years and the threat posed by foreign groups harboured in safe havens on the other side of the world might no longer be one of the most important security concerns for the US. Domestic terrorists, motivated by a range of different ideologies, fuelled by grievances caused by economic insecurity and political instability, should rightly be at the centre of attention in terms of US counter-terrorism efforts.
However, new challenges should not eliminate the lessons learned from the past twenty years, and Islamist terrorism cannot be forgotten. Shifting priorities to respond to new threats is essential, but if “old problems” are neglected, it can also leave the US vulnerable. After all, terrorist groups can lose territories, but their ideologies and followers remain.
The US needs to maintain an adequate, balanced counter-terrorism strategy that incorporates both hard and soft policies to tackle various aspects of terrorism. Based on his campaign promises, it seems like Biden has recognised this. Yet, the success of soft policies will take more time than a presidential term to assess. What Biden’s presidency can provide is an opportunity to step back and review what the US has done thus far in the fight against global terrorism.