ThreatCon Day 3: Fighting Terror Beyond the Grid Square

Photo: The Cipher Brief

On the final day of the Cipher Brief Threat Conference in Sea Island, Ga., three CIA veterans of the post-9/11 terrorism fight discussed the current ebb in the fortunes of ISIS and al-Qaida with Cipher Brief Executive Editor Kimberly Dozier — and warned they’d likely come back.

Alex Bolling, Former CIA Chief of Station

“They are dipping below the surface to fight another day. There have been great strides and progress in the fight against the caliphate, particularly when they set up battle lines…It gives us a particular target, as difficult as that may be to go after.

“The challenge, though, that we need to look at is the metastasization, if you will, and the spread of the ideology that we are seeing. Post 9/11, we certainly focused on Afghanistan, and some of the debates in 2002 were about where is the next front going to be. A lot of that was derived from what we can see above the surface, not what we couldn’t see below the surface. So you’ve seen lots of areas that are now full-fledged fronts on the counterterrorism fight. The Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Peninsula where there is a degree of instability and a lack of centralized government. That has been a place where ISIS or the militant Islamist extremist ideology has been able to take root.

“One of the challenges we’ve had, particularly with Afghanistan, is denying terrorists safe havens. That safe haven is now spreading out further across the globe. Another challenge is the use of social media not only for radicalization but that next step of combining radical ideology with the means of social media, be it adopting digital personas, to radicalize people. That’s going to be very vexing for law enforcement and intelligence to thwart that.”

Rollie Flynn, Former Associate Deputy Director, National Counterterrorism Center 

“In terms of exploiting the social media aspect, we’ve seen particularly in areas where there is a large diaspora, for instance, with the French-speaking diaspora in France with French speakers from North Africa and around the world, the recruiters adopting false personas via social media and basically borrowing a CIA case officer’s playbook in terms of looking for vulnerabilities in how they are tailoring their approaches.”

Frank Archibald, Former Director, CIA National Clandestine Service

“It’s clear to me that the U.S. and its allies around the world can win the fight in any grid square, whether that’s in the deserts of North Africa, the mountains of the Hindu Kush, or the back streets of Jakarta or some European capital.

“But we have not put the effort into stability operations that we need to. That breaks down in two ways. I am a huge admirer of those folks who do that really hard work in the State Department, USAID, the NGO community and all various folks who support the system. But as a matter of national strategy, we have stepped away from that type of work really since 2000. We have not done large-scale strategic level efforts to answer two critical questions: governance and the discussion about the soul of Islam.

“Governance to me means a couple of things. It means that people and their village chief are safe at night and are not going to be murdered by terrorists. It means you have to deliver a justice system that is fair. That can vary by culture – it could be sharia law if that’s culturally appropriate for that country, or it could be Western jurisprudence practiced in the U.S. But people have to believe they will get a square deal when the go to court. We take that too much for granted in America.

“You also have to give people some sense of an economy that their children will do better than they will and give them hope for that. It’s our responsibility to help give them that. If you blow something up and you break it, you bought it. So it’s us, it’s the people we fight with and it’s the people we fight for who have to step up and do that piece.

“Number two is a question about the soul of Islam. That’s something in which the U.S. may have a lot of interest but not so much leverage. There are a couple of questions for my Muslim friends: Is it modernity? Is it the past? Is it Shia-Sunni? What’s the role of women? There are a lot of questions that the folks who practice the Islamic faith are going to have to answer for themselves and that’s 1.7 billion people.

“This is the second piece – a discussion about what is the future of the face of Islam? Are they going to fully reject Wahabist, Takfiri, Salafist views, which lead to terrorism and corrupt and poison their youth, or are they going to find themselves on a different path of peace?”

Comparing terrorism to a public health model


“If you look at the kinetic strikes as a surgical procedure, the civilian operations as a stability, chemo type of thing, we want to get to positive good health as opposed to going in around the world in eventual crisis mode or reactive mode. We need to really focus on what is our next level of operation that we can sustain, that won’t be a burden on the nation financially, that will also prevent these global trends and that will also give us the opportunity to collect information intelligence and that will give us an unfair advantage. That’s where we want to be. And also use that as an opportunity to recalibrate or defend against militant Islam. We have this historical place where Islam is, we can influence it positively and want to ensure that it is not a detriment to our way of life.”


“The public health model is a good model for looking at terrorism….A public health model that looks at prevention as opposed to treatment. In other words, the war of ideas as opposed to actually engaging militarily to take down terrorists. It’s the same prevention that you would use for disease, for drug abuse, for gangs, for violence, and for crime. It’s good governance, healthy communities, community services, educational programs, job programs that basically build a healthy community. That, in essence, is one of the best ways to combat terrorism. It’s not easy to do.”

Archibald, knocking down the notion that perhaps more U.S. resources should go to fighting drunk driving, rather than the far rarer incidents of terrorism:

“It’s a terrible thing when someone gets drunk and there is a loss of life. But it’s not an intentional act of assault. It’s not like armies of drunk drivers are chasing us down. You can’t just take the numbers and treat it as a public health issue because if you are looking at public health issues, you’d be looking at cancer, drunk driving and weapons that are shipped into the U.S. 33,000 people die annually from gun violence in this country – that’s far more people who are killed by terrorism, but terrorism is a very different case.

“What our collective experience tells us is if you give terrorists a chance to regenerate and recoup and if you give them a sanctuary that we have fought so hard to take away from them – whether it’s physical or in cyber space – these people are fully committed and their views are not to quit and go home. So we have to fully defeat them, and that is both kinetic and social.”

Bolling, on future attacks:

“We’ve seen a lot of the metrics that the terrorists are going to use. We’ve seen the use of bombs, we’ve seen the use of social media, we’ve seen the use of radicalization, but we haven’t seen them in a coordinated fashion. What really concerns me is if we see all these elements aggregated together. If it’s one attack, we can bear, if it’s a small attack we can bear, but if it’s three attacks simultaneously on the same day, that will challenge us more significantly than it ever has.”


“I think it’s going to be homegrown. It could be Islamic, but I think it will be homegrown. It’s going to be these hit and runs as opposed to a big attack. Hit and runs, the truck attacks, that sort of thing, car bombs, perhaps cyber. But again, not a massive attack. I don’t see that coming.”


“I think breadth of the challenge is important to understand for counterterrorism officials. The challenge that they face everyday [ranges] from the person who has a basket full of knives in the back of a pickup truck all the way to some cyber actor who wants to start preying on our power grid. That’s not beyond their capabilities. And the continual effort from a variety of groups to go to the high-end with aviation plots.

“Also, I think their interest in the chemical and biological pieces. If there is anything that really scares me, it’s the bio piece because there is leakage from the scientific community into radical forces. When I was CIA station chief in Pakistan, we were concerned about this greatly. Pakistan’s made some reasonable efforts to make sure their scientific community remained loyal. But you see people like Aafia Siddiqui who is a brilliant scientist go over to the dark side, and it wont take but a few more of those to gain some critical mass and begin to develop rudimentary weapons of a chemical or biological nature, which would be a whole different level. That’s my big fear.”


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