Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, the American government has been pursuing a proactive approach to counterterrorism. Besides gathering intelligence and preventing terror attacks on American soil, various agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, work to identify, study, and eliminate terrorist threats outside the country. Due to the external forces, such as geopolitical limitations, and the different objectives pursued by agencies in and outside the U.S., counterterrorism forces use a variety of strategies, tactics, and tools to achieve their goal of eliminating the terrorist threat to the U.S. This essay will analyze the differences in strategies, tactics, and tools used by U.S. agencies in counterterrorism operations within the U.S. and in other areas of the globe.
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The differences that mark internal and external counterterrorism efforts are important as they highlight the necessity of both; the U.S. actions overseas complement counterterrorism efforts in a way that makes them more effective in responding to the global terrorist threat.
Counterterrorism within the U.S.
The United States’ contemporary counterterrorism strategy was established soon after the 9/11 terror attacks, which prompted for changes to the existing approach (Falk & Morgenstein, 2009). The National Strategy to Win the War against Islamist Terror, released in 2016, outlines the key strategies used by agencies to pursue counterterrorism efforts within the U.S. First, one of the key strategic priorities is to prevent and interrupt terror attacks, thus protecting communities (McCaul, 2016). This is achieved with the help of two separate mechanisms. First, the prevention of attacks requires the use of intelligence and surveillance to identify the threat and respond to it.
The second key tactic is to increase the resilience of communities to terror attacks by establishing sufficient response and support systems. The primary tools used to protect communities include intelligence obtained from a variety of resources, technologies helping in the analysis and interpretation of information, as well as human resources, such as law enforcement, firefighters, and first responders.
The second strategy used by counterterrorism agencies within the U.S. is to stop recruitment and radicalization of American citizens. According to McCaul (2016), it is not uncommon for foreign terrorist organizations to recruit Americans; radicalization of American citizens can help the group to enter the U.S. and perform a devastating attack. With the recent rise of lone-wolf terrorism, it has become more difficult to track and interrupt radicalization and recruitment at home.
The main tactics that are used to prevent radicalization are increased citizen engagement, development of intervention schemes, and counter-messaging (McCaul, 2016). Furthermore, it is also important to prevent radicalization in prisons, as it presents a new and yet unaddressed threat (McCaul, 2016). The tools used by agencies to prevent recruitment of Americans include intelligence gathering, reporting schemes, public policy, and the media.
For instance, the media can be used to spread awareness and promote counter-messages, whereas reporting proved to be useful in identifying potential terrorists and preventing further radicalization (McCaul, 2016). A combination of all the above can help to prevent terrorist organizations from recruiting U.S. nationals, thus making it more difficult to plan and carry the attack on American citizens.
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Finally, another key strategy for interrupting planned terror attacks is to prevent terrorists from entering the U.S. (Falk & Morgenstein, 2009). Undoubtedly, it was much easier for terrorists to enter the country before the 9/11 attack. Following the devastating incident, the U.S. government began improving border control and entry procedures to reduce the threat of terror attacks in the future. Today, the tactics used to ensure higher border security include identifying and tracking potential and known terrorists on a global level, enhancing the screening of visitors coming into the U.S., and securing the border (McCaul, 2016). Thus, tools that help to achieve security include visa and immigration schemes, surveillance and intelligence, profiling, and border security forces.
Counterterrorism outside the U.S.
One of the key novelties brought by the Global War on Terror is that the focus of counterterrorism efforts expanded to include not only the internal procedures for prevention and investigation but also international strategies for destroying terror networks (Falk & Morgenstein, 2009). The three main strategies used by the U.S. agencies in external counterterrorism operations are preventing terrorists from obtaining resources, destroying terror networks and preventing the formation of new ones, and engaging terrorists in military action to drain their resources and shift their attention (McCaul, 2016).
Preventing terrorists from obtaining resources is a significant strategy that is comprised of two main tactical tasks. First of all, it is essential to identify and disrupt existing financing channels to drain the financial resources of terror networks.
To do that, agencies use tools such as mandatory reporting of suspicious entities, collection and analysis of intelligence, and international cooperation. Secondly, denying terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction is also crucial to prevent them from harming civilian populations (McCaul, 2016). Similarly, agencies and governments cooperate on a global level to collect and share intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Human intelligence obtained by agents in covert missions helps agencies to learn more about terrorists’ plans and to interrupt the acquisition of weapons.
The second strategy used aims to destroy terror networks and infrastructure, preventing the formation of new ones (McCaul, 2016). International terror networks usually have a stable hierarchal structure and a distinct infrastructure with set supply channels and mechanisms for obtaining financing and other resources. Moreover, certain organizations, such as Al Qaeda, show evidence of resilience to external factors and attacks (Gunaratna & Oreg, 2010).
Al Qaeda’s response to the global action following 9/11 was to spread its ideology and infrastructure to different local spots, thus diffusing the power while at the same time increasing the threat (Gunaratna & Oreg, 2010). One of the key tactics used to destroy Al Qaeda, as well as other transnational organizations, is to eliminate the key figures responsible for its ideology and hierarchy. For instance, the killing of Osama Bin Laden allowed the U.S. to significantly weaken Al Qaeda’s network, which eventually led to the deterioration of the organization. The tools that are used by counterterrorism agencies to disrupt terror networks include intelligence, military operations, and covert operations.
Lastly, one of the key strategies that are currently employed in international counterterrorism efforts is what McCaul (2016) calls “take the fight to the enemy so that our homeland does not become the primary battleground” (p. 19). The tactics here are to establish a military presence overseas, support local government in responding to the terrorist threat, and work with local people to build resilience to the insurgency (Aronson, 2011).
In many ways, terrorist organizations are political entities. They either pursue some political agenda or stem from a group opposing the government. For instance, ISIS is widely considered to be a political power due to its growing territorial presence and autonomy. Thus, these terrorist organizations conflict with the local government. Using all available sources, such as the military, international coalitions, and policy change, as well as humanitarian aid, allows the U.S. to support the existing political regime and battle terrorist groups, thus taking the fight away from the U.S. and its citizens (Aronson, 2011).
Conclusion: The Need for the U.S. Presence Overseas
The actions of agencies in and outside the U.S. pursue different objectives, utilizing various strategies, tactics, and tools to achieve a common goal. Whereas counterterrorism operations inside the country help to protect citizens and prevent terror attacks by developing resistance and response mechanisms, efforts in other lands allow targeting specific threats and preventing the formation of new terror chains and networks. This helps to increase the overall effectiveness of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
For instance, preventing the inflow of cash into terrorist networks allows weakening their infrastructure and preventing large-scale attacks, thus lowering the threat for the civilian population. Moreover, by supporting the struggle of local governments with terrorist groups, agencies can help to divert the attention of terrorist leaders to local fights, which drain their financial and weapon resources.
Finally, as the vast majority of terrorist group leaders live outside the U.S., counterterrorism operations in foreign countries allow targeting the structure and hierarchy of selected groups, impairing their organization and leadership. Overall, the analysis of the role of local and foreign operations on the success of counterterrorism efforts allows gaining an insight into the importance of the U.S. presence overseas, which serves to complement internal counterterrorism operations, making the country’s response to terrorism more effective.
Aronson, S. L. (2011). United States aid to Kenya: A study on regional security and counterterrorism assistance before and after 9/11. African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies 5(1/2), 119-126.
Falk, O., & Morgenstern, H. (Eds.). (2009). Suicide terror: Understanding and confronting the threat. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Gunaratna, R., & Oreg, A. (2010). Al Qaeda’s organizational structure and its evolution. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33(12), 1043-1078.
McCaul, M. (2016). A national strategy to win the war against Islamist terror. Web.
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