The 2018 U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism: A Synoptic Overview

By Dan E. Stigall, US Department of Justice, Chris Miller, Special Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Lauren Donnatucci, Director for Counterterrorism in the National Security Council Directorate of Counterterrorism.



Abstract


This article briefly reviews a few aspects of the 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism (NSCT) that are worthy of examination. These include its wider scope, which encompasses domestic terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism; its focus on prevention efforts with a consideration of future threats; and the efficacy of its approach to pursuing and dismantling terrorist groups, most notably the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).


Keywords: terrorism, counterterrorism, strategy, ISIS, nonkinetic, extremism, domestic terrorism, Iran, national strategy.


Introduction


On October 4, 2018, President Trump approved the U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism (2018 NSCT).(1) The United States has had several such strategies in the past, including the Bushera National Strategy for Combatting Terrorism (2003)(2) and the Obama-era National Strategy for Counterterrorism (2011).(3) There have also been a number of ancillary or supporting plans, such as the 2014 Strategy to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, (4) and the 2016 Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, (5) etc. The 2018 NSCT, however, represents the first fully developed, national-level U.S. counterterrorism strategy since 2011.(6) This is meaningful for several reasons, the most obvious being that it is the strategy guiding U.S. counterterrorism efforts under the current administration. In addition, it serves as a sort of marker by which to gauge stakeholder responses to shifting and evolving national security threats. The approaching anniversary of its release, therefore, provides an opportunity to evaluate the new strategic approach and efficacy of the 2018 NSCT. This article will briefly review a few aspects of the 2018 NSCT that are worthy of examination as its anniversary draws near. These include its wider scope, which encompasses domestic terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism; its focus on prevention efforts with a consideration of future threats; and the efficacy of its approach to pursuing and dismantling terrorist groups, most notably the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).


1. COUNTERTERRORISM STRATEGY

At the outset, it is worth considering what we mean by the term “counterterrorism strategy.” In his seminal treatise on the topic, Lawrence Freedman notes “[t]here is no agreed-upon definition of strategy that describes the field and limits its boundaries.”(7) Modern strategists understand the concept as evaluating ends, ways, and means to achieve objectives and bring about a desired end state.(8) Joseph Nye, Jr. posits “[a] strategy relates means to ends, and that requires clarity about goals (preferred outcomes), resources, and tactics for their use."(9) U.S. Department of Defense doctrine, in turn, defines strategy as “[a] prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives.”(10) Strategies, simply stated, are directional documents that serve as guides to decision-making— something that is critically important in complex endeavors (such as counterterrorism) that depend on the synchronized efforts of a bewildering array of diverse, competing bureaucratic entities.


As with the term “strategy,” there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism.(11) There are, however, a number of similar definitions in the domestic law of nations and a range of behavior that is generally understood to constitute terrorist activity. Pursuant to such definitions, terrorism can be bifurcated into international and domestic terrorism. On that score, section 2331 of Title 18 of the United States Code defines “international terrorism” as activities that: (1) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (2) are designed to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping; and (3) occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States or transcend national boundaries through the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.(12)


United States law defines domestic terrorism, in turn, as activities that (1) involve acts dangerous to human life, which are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (2) appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (3) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.(13)


Beyond those statutory definitions, Department of Defense doctrine broadly defines terrorism, both international and domestic, as “[t]he unlawful use of violence or threat of violence, often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs, to instill fear and coerce governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are usually political.”(14) Counterterrorism, in turn, is defined by the Department of Defense as “[a]ctivities 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.”(15)


A national counterterrorism strategy, therefore, can be generally understood as a coherent plan to use the instruments of national power to neutralize terrorists, their organizations, and their networks in order to render them incapable of using violence to instill fear and to coerce a specific government or society to react in accordance with their goals. It is with this context in mind that we review the 2018 NSCT.


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Suggested Citation:

Stigall, Dan E. and Miller, Chris and Donnatucci, Lauren, The 2018 U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism: A Synoptic Overview (October 7, 2019). Dan Stigall et al., The 2018 U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism: A Synoptic Overview, Am. U. Nat'l Sec. L. Brief (Oct. 7, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3466967 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3466967

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