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The Interminable Crusade: A New Framework for US Counterterrorism Strategy

  • Published
  • By Major Nicholas Mercurio, USAF


Of the multitude of threats facing the United States perhaps none is more viscerally frightening than the threat posed by what the US National Defense Strategy describes as “terrorist groups with long reach [who] continue to murder the innocent and threaten peace more broadly.”1, 2 In US Department of Defense Joint Doctrine, terrorist groups are described as “transnational political movements that use unlawful violence to advance their objectives” and are referred to as violent extremist organizations (VEO).3 Since the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the US strategy to combat VEOs has experienced several formulations, and what began as the global war on terror has transitioned recently to a more focused effort to defeat “radical Islamist terrorist groups.”4 To effectively manage the dynamic threat posed by VEOs, the United States should employ a strategy utilizing the metarhetorical alignment of the instruments of power focused on moving beyond the image of Western crusade against ways of life in Muslim countries informed by more fundamental interpretations of Islam. Instead, the new image should present an alternative narrative—one of apolitical, supranational humanitarian assistance—that erodes the long-term viability of these extremist organizations. The analysis will begin with a description of the VEO threat within a geopolitical context, focusing first on arriving at a comprehensive definition of terrorism that will inform the strategy advocated by the author. Following this discussion, the elements of the strategy will be related corresponding to the appropriate instrument of national power.

In offering a definition of terrorism, Martha Crenshaw asserts that terrorist violence, “communicates a political message . . . [wherein] the victims or objects of terrorist attack have little intrinsic value to the terrorist group but represent a larger human audience whose reaction the terrorists seek.”5 Said another way, terrorism is abstract; the attack itself is not the objective and the victims, except in instances of political assassination, are not the targets. Terrorism results when grievances emerge within an identifiable subgroup of a larger population and members of that subgroup, or those sympathetic to their plight, are denied opportunities for political participation.6 It is important, however, not to equate social division and political marginalization with poverty. Where poverty becomes a factor is that it provides fertile human terrain for radicalization and creates conditions offering safe haven for VEOs within failing states.7 Perhaps surprisingly, the ideology that prescribes terrorist violence is “essentially the result of elite disaffection . . . many terrorists today are young, well-educated, and middle class.”8 Therefore, while it may be difficult to conceptualize given terrorism’s often barbaric results, terror campaigns are the consequence of rational political choice made within the context of consistent values, beliefs, and images of the environment.9 It becomes crucial, then, to consider the factors that inform this distorted image of the environment and lead socioeconomically secure individuals to become terrorists.

Within the current geopolitical landscape, the primary contributing factors to this distorted image are ethnonational in origin and involve access to power as well as economic, social, and cultural inequality.10 Globalization amplifies the inertial effects of inequality, as unfamiliar ideas confront human beings’ fundamental attachment to traditions and cultural identity, enhancing the risk for terrorism.11 In the case of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), root causes can be traced to the failures of Arab nationalism that led to an emphasis of religious identity, which, when coalesced with pervasive feelings of insecurity and impotence from encounters with modern globalization among young men educated in the West, fomented antimodern backlash within the context of a “cosmic struggle between good and evil.”12 For al-Qaeda, and later its more nihilistic competitor ISIS, this notion of cosmic struggle prompted their respective leaders to elevate political Islam from its previous disparate local focus to an international discourse referred to as global Islam.13 The central organizing model of reality that informs global Islam is the narrative that “the people of Islam have suffered from aggression, iniquity, and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders Alliance and their collaborators.”14 This narrative is systematically applied across multiple forms of discourse including recruitment, anti-Western information campaigns, and acts of terrorism.

A failure to adequately understand and address the discursive aspects of the current VEO threat has hampered US policy. Given its inherently abstract and communicative nature, terrorism must be viewed as a tactic—a sophisticated rhetorical act implemented through a campaign—and not an ideology. This stance would correct the definitional drift that has hampered US foreign policy and national security strategy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, characterized by a conflation of terrorism with radical Islamism and subsequent creation of a “false analogy” to secular ideologies like communism and fascism that produced the specious term “Islamofascism.”15 Although intellectually convenient, this superficial image of VEOs maintained by the US foreign policy executive—one that combines anti-Western sentiment, Arab nationalism, and jihadist groups under the banner of Islamic radicalism16 and subsequently filtered through the lens of predetermined historical correlation—ultimately “commits American policy-makers to the cardinal sin of war-fighting: not understanding the enemy as it understands itself.”17 Also, in framing the US-led counter-VEO activities as a response to an ideology and not a tactic—terrorism—American policy makers have inadvertently reinforced the crusader image and fed the idea of cosmic struggle, now focused more sharply than ever against an American tormentor.18

(US Army photo by SSG William Howard)

Figure 1. Countering VEOs. A Green Beret demonstrates how to immediately fix a firing malfunction on an assault rifle to partner force soldiers of the Maghaweir al-Thowra (MaT) at al-Tanf Garrison, Syria, 3 March 2020. Coalition Forces and the MaT remain united in a long-term effort to defeat ISIS and counter violent extremist organizations in southern Syria.

Dispelling the image of an American-led, Israel-allied crusade should be the primary aim of US counter-VEO strategy moving forward. This strategy will require a significant and concerted US diplomatic effort ultimately focused on ensuring the metarhetorical alignment—consistency between what is communicated by activities, force posture, policies, messages, images, and inactions—of the whole-of-government and international coalition response. Publicly, the United States must minimize its profile and work through secure back channels with key regional partners in VEO-prone areas such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan to implement policies that return a law enforcement focus to counterterrorism activities.19 Every effort must be made to normalize counterterrorism cooperation by leveraging emphasis-framing effects in a simple, clear, and often repeated narrative to encourage participation. The perception that local officials are solving domestic legal problems must be continually reinforced to undercut images of American ideological interference. Additionally, both domestically and abroad, the United States must shepherd political rhetoric away from populist demagoguery punctuated by out-group derogation and scapegoating of the subaltern “other” to combat the effects of ethnic marginalization and socioeconomic inequality.20

Addressing the contributions of marginalization and inequality, as well as resource scarcity, to VEOs’ continued viability will be the focus of the information/institutional and economic instruments of power. As was discussed earlier, grievances overlaid across highly salient ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic cleavages may lead to collective mobilization.21 Additionally, resource scarcity amplifies latent inequality issues, as “asymmetric political structures are accentuated in times of environmental crisis.”22 The resulting resource competition, when combined with collective identity, may increase the likelihood for violent collective action.23 US efforts to ameliorate these preconditions for terrorism should, like the recommended diplomatic activities, minimize American involvement. This should be accomplished on two fronts: a dramatic increase to US and partner-nation foreign aid budgets coinciding with easing of the economic sanctions against rogue states that have been shown to be counterproductive in curbing the spread of terrorism.24 It should not be inferred that terrorist financing will not be a focus of the economic instrument of power; however, to be effective, Washington must eschew unilateral tools of the past like the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.25 Future multilateral actions will have the added benefits of a common definition of terrorism and normalized law enforcement cooperation resulting from the aforementioned diplomatic efforts. Although executed through a liberal institutionalist vehicle involving numerous intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, the objective of this apolitical, humanitarian assistance strategy is purely constructivist: to create and promote an image of global community that reinforces and proliferates the perception of VEOs as aberrant ideological constructions and forces them to the fringe of populations where they are more easily accessible to the military instrument of power.

To support the funding increase required by agencies like the US Department of State, US Department of Agriculture, and US Agency for International Development to accomplish what was broadly discussed in the preceding passage, the military instrument must be correspondingly curtailed. Military efforts must focus on reducing the US forward-deployed presence, with the weight of effort supporting military alliances through nonpublic foreign internal defense missions and intelligence gathering. Counterinsurgency operations, when absolutely necessary, must be partner nation–led and focus on clear, hold, and build tactics to produce the necessary stability for intervention through the other instruments of power.26 Ultimately, though perhaps crude and simplistic, in pursuing this metarhetorical realignment to degrade the crusader image that pervades much of the Muslim world, the most effective mission the military can perform is to eliminate civilian casualties.

While not an existential threat to the United States, VEOs were responsible for the boldest and most destructive kinetic attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, and these organizations’ rhetoric indicates more attempts will be forthcoming.27 The military response that ensued was justifiable given the circumstances, but over time, it has proven more cathartic than productive. A persistent US forward-deployed military presence has reinforced the image of crusader that VEOs have weaponized in pursuit of their objectives. To be successful, the United States must shift from its military focus to one that resources and promotes international law enforcement cooperation, coupled with an increase to apolitical foreign aid, to dispel the crusader image and force VEOs to the fringe of a more stable global community.

Maj Nicholas J. Mercurio, USAF

Major Mercurio (BS, US Air Force Academy; MA, George Mason University; MMOAS, Air Command and Staff College) is currently assigned as an ACSC student, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.



1. I wish to thank Dr. James Hutto for his thoughtful comments and suggestions. All errors found herein are my own.

2. James N. Mattis, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge” (United States Department of Defense, January 2018), 1.

3. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Joint Publication 3-26, Counterterrorism,” October 24, 2014. I-4.

4. Donald J. Trump, “National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America,” October 2018.

5. Martha Crenshaw, “The Causes of Terrorism,” Comparative Politics 13, no. 4 (July 1981): 379.

6. Ibid., 383.

7. Derek S. Reveron and Kathleen Mahoney-Norris, Human Security in a Borderless World (Philadelphia, PA: Westview Press, 2011), 74.

8. Crenshaw, “The Causes of Terrorism,” 384.

9. Ibid., 385.

10. Lars-Erik Cederman, “Blood for Soil: The Fatal Temptation of Ethnic Politics,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 2 (April 2019): 62.

11. Reveron and Mahoney-Norris, Human Security in a Borderless World, 60.

12. Mary Kaldor, “Nationalism and Globalisation,” Nations and Nationalism 10, no. 1–2 (January 1, 2004): 169.

13. Ibid., 172.

14. Ibid., 173.

15. Michael J. Boyle, “The War on Terror in American Grand Strategy,” International Affairs 84, no. 2 (2008): 193-196.

16. President Donald J. Trump, “National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America” (Executive Office of the President, October 2018).

17. Boyle, “The War on Terror in American Grand Strategy,” 198.

18. Kaldor, “Nationalism and Globalisation,” 173.

19. Boyle, “The War on Terror in American Grand Strategy,” 199.

20. Cederman, “Blood for Soil: The Fatal Temptation of Ethnic Politics,” 68.

21. Ole Magnus Theisen, Helge Holtermann, and Halvard Buhaug, “Climate Wars? Assessing the Claim That Drought Breeds Conflict,” International Security 36, no. 3 (Winter 2011 2012): 87.

22. Ibid., 87

23. Val Percival and Thomas Homer-Dixon, “Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: The Case of South Africa,” Journal of Peace Research 35, no. 3 (1998): 280.

24. Seung-Whan Choi and Shali Luo, “Economic Sanctions, Poverty, and International Terrorism: An Empirical Analysis,” International Interactions 39, no. 2 (2013): 218.

25. Anne Clunan, “The Fight Against Terrorist Financing,” Political Science Quaterly 121, no. 4 (Winter, 2006/2007): 586.

26. “Commandant’s Speaker Series” (lecture, Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, AL, 2019).

27. Benjamin S. Lambeth, “Operation Enduring Freedom, 2001,” in A History of Air Warfare, ed. John A. Olsen (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc, 2010), 256.

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