The Cipher Brief sat down with Matthew Olsen, Former Head of the National Counterterrorism Center to discuss the progress that the U.S. has made over the last 15 years in the War on Terror. According to Olsen, “While we’ve been successful in preventing large-scale attacks,” the U.S. must continue to be vigilant against smaller scale attacks “with the understanding that it is impossible to prevent every attack all the time.”
The Cipher Brief: How has the U.S. strategy in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) evolved over the last 15 years?
Matthew Olsen: Since 9/11, the U.S. strategy has evolved to meet the types of threats that we face and the changing threat landscape. If you go back to 9/11, or even ten years ago, the focus of our strategy was on core al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This was a group that brought us 9/11, and we were laser focused on degrading and defeating that group.
But since that time, the threat has changed dramatically. While core AQ has remained a threat, the overall terrorism threat has evolved – it has become more diverse, geographically expansive, and it has adapted to our defenses. As a result, our strategy has had to evolve as well. In particular, this means that, even as we’ve continued to bring direct pressure on al Qaeda groups, we’ve also looked to build partnerships with countries across the Middle East and North Africa and have changed our focus away from simply going after the core leadership of al Qaeda in Pakistan.
TCB: What is your assessment of our current counterterrorism efforts? What else can be done moving forward?
MO: We’ve been successful in preventing another catastrophic, 9/11-type of attack on the United States. That is a major achievement that reflects an extraordinary investment of people and money in counterterrorism over the past 15 years.
At the same time, as the threat has adapted to our defenses, we’ve seen smaller scale attacks in the U.S. We’ve seen individuals who are simply inspired by ISIS, for example, able to carry out attacks. This is a threat that is extremely difficult to stop, especially when carried out by self-directed individuals or lone wolves. But this is the challenge we now face.
So while we’ve been successful in preventing large-scale attacks, we need to continue to be vigilant in preventing those attacks that are less sophisticated, with the understanding that it is impossible to prevent every attack all the time.
TCB: It’s been more 15 years since 9/11. What timeline should the United States be prepared for in this fight?
MO: We need to take a long view of this struggle. Al Qaeda has been on the scene since before 9/11, and even as al Qaeda’s influence has diminished, other groups, like ISIS, have risen to prominence.
We should expect that the threat from these types of terrorist groups will continue for many more years. Even if we have success in degrading one group, the lesson of the past couple of decades is that other groups sharing similar ideologies are likely to rise up in their place. So we need to be prepared for a fight that will go beyond the next decade.
TCB: Looking towards future counterterrorism efforts, what are some key indicators that we should be watching?
MO: One of the key indicators that we need to watch going forward is civil and social unrest. One of the lessons we’ve learned over the past 15 years is that in areas where there is a lack of governance, a lack of security, or deep social and economic problems, terrorism is able to take root and grow.
Failed, troubled, or challenged states, such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, are the areas where groups like ISIS and al Qaeda have been able to flourish. We should be very mindful of the parts of the Middle East and North Africa that are facing these types of governance challenges. A long-term project for the U.S. is to work with these countries to build up their ability to govern effectively, secure their borders, and to provide opportunities for their citizens.
TCB: How have terrorist groups’ tactics evolved over that same time span in response to U.S./coalition actions?
MO: A prime example of a group that has adapted to our counterterrorism efforts is ISIS. ISIS has sought to carry out attacks that are smaller in scale and that don’t require significant command and control planning from its central leadership. They have used propaganda and social media to radicalize and mobilize followers to action – essentially crowdsourcing terrorism – rather than rely on deploying operatives from their strongholds in Syria and Iraq. They rely on encrypted communication channels to avoid surveillance.
In all of these ways, ISIS has learned to adapt its tactics to evade our defenses. That’s why we’ve seen a spate of successful small-scale attacks in Europe and the U.S. over the past couple of years.
TCB: How have post-9/11 legal reforms changed – for better or for worse – the way that the intelligence community operates?
MO: One of the real areas in which we’ve made progress is in ensuring that the intelligence community has the legal authorities it needs to be effective in combatting terrorism. Since 9/11, there’s been significant overhaul of the structure of the intelligence community, including the creation of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the establishment of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). These were major changes in the intelligence community that have led to better integration of intelligence agencies and sharing of information, and these reforms have dramatically enhanced our counterterrorism efforts.
Further, changes in the legal regime have made it clear that intelligence and law enforcement should work hand in hand in countering terrorism. In this regard, the establishment of the Department of Justice’s National Security Division and its role in bringing together law enforcement, intelligence, and all the tools of national power has been a significant step in the right direction since 9/11.