Washington D.C. —This week, U.S. Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security, held a hearing to examine the worldwide threat posed by al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and other foreign terrorist organizations. The hearing also examined the Biden Administration’s whole-of-government approach, in coordination with international allies and partners, to counter the evolving foreign terrorist threat.
“As terrorist threats to the United States continue to evolve, so too must our counterterrorism approach. Around the world, terrorist organizations have sought to exploit local conflicts and insurgencies to advance their own violent and twisted ideological objectives,” Chairman Lynch said in his opening statement. “Denying safe haven to these organizations and delegitimizing their ideology will require a whole-of-government approach that lessens our reliance on massive long-term military presence, and instead looks to ‘over-the-horizon’ partnerships and quick-strike capabilities.”?
The Subcommittee heard testimony from Christopher Landberg, Acting Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State; and Milancy Harris, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).
The hearing was immediately followed by a classified briefing from representatives of the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the National Counterterrorism Center.
Members and witnesses discussed how the Biden Administration is expanding existing counterterrorism partnerships and using “over-the-horizon” capabilities to ensure terrorist threats cannot endanger the United States or its interests from Afghanistan.
- In response to a question from Rep. Trahan, Mr. Landberg testified that the Biden Administration is seeking to leverage the experience of the 84-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, to counter the threat of ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan. He further testified that the Coalition’s efforts will include operations to counter ISIS messaging, stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters into Afghanistan, and reduce terrorist groups’ access to financial resources.
- Ms. Harris further described how the United States already uses tailored “over-the-horizon” capabilities to counter terrorist threats in Africa. This approach includes working “by, with, and through” local security forces and taking an “approach that focuses on episodic engagement [and] building partner capacity” to conduct counterterrorism operations.
- Ms. Harris testified that since the United States ended its military mission in Afghanistan, DOD has continued to improve its intelligence collection capabilities against terrorist threats and noted that “We have a sense of what is going on in the country. I think it's better than it was three months ago, and I think if I come back and see you in three months, we'll have a more nuanced understanding then.”
- In response to Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney’s concerns about recent counterterrorism strikes that resulted in civilian casualties, Ms. Harris testified that “[A]t the center of our, our very ethos, are accountability and transparency. We abhor the loss of innocent life. We take all possible measures to prevent them, and when we have incidents, it is our duty to learn from those and seek to be better.”
Witnesses from the Department of Defense and Department of State described how terrorist threats facing the United States have expanded beyond Afghanistan and become more diffuse and complex, especially as affiliates of foreign terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS have spread across the Middle East and Africa.
- Mr. Landberg testified that “The United States is confronting a terrorist threat landscape that is dynamic, complex and fast moving,” and noted that “despite significant losses in leadership and territorial control” ISIS and al Qaeda “are leveraging their branches and networks across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa to advance their agenda.” He added that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabaab in particular, “are quite capable of inflicting damage on our allies and our global interests.”
- Ms. Harris explained that “Today’s terrorist groups are proficient with new technologies, agile in the information environment, creative in circumventing traditional financial systems, and remain ideologically influential enough to motivate new generations of people to join them or conduct independent attacks on their behalf.”
Ms. Harris and Mr. Landberg emphasized the need for a whole-of-government counterterrorism approach that relies less upon the use of military power and instead emphasizes the importance of intelligence sharing, diplomatic engagement, and international partnerships.
- Mr. Landberg testified that the Biden Administration is “taking a whole-of-government approach to dealing with these threats” and noted that “while we have had great success over the last 20 years in securing the homeland … the threats continue to multiply.” He added that “the path forward to countering terrorism around the world must be one marked by continued diplomacy, dialogue, and diligence.”
- Mr. Landberg further noted that the United States’ counterterrorism approach is evolving from being “military heavy” over the last 20 years to a “more balanced approach as we also start to deal with a broader range of threats that goes way beyond counterterrorism, to cyber threats to strategic nation state competition.”
- Ms. Harris testified that while DOD maintains kinetic counterterrorism capabilities, “the most effective counterterrorism approach is a mix of kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities,” which includes “collaborating with allies and partners on partnered operations, using our education and capacity building programs to help develop increased counterterrorism capacity in critical regions, and ensuring our security cooperation efforts integrate with other, complementary U.S. Government programs.”