A panel discussion regarding the roots of terrorism and violent extremism, the U.S. government’s current counterterrorism efforts domestically and abroad and future considerations for U.S. policymakers took place Wednesday afternoon at the Ford School of Public Policy. 

Led by moderator Javed Ali, a former employee of the National Security Council who now serves as the Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan, the panel included Peter Bergen, vice president of Global Studies and Fellows at New America; Barbara McQuade, former U.S. Attorney and current U-M Law professor; and Christopher Costa, executive director of the International Spy Museum.

Bergen began by providing historical background on active terrorist organizations, labeling the Islamic State group a symptom of political instability, unemployment and population growth. He said he expects new organizations to emerge from the remnants of IS and may be a threat in the next few years.

Costa agreed, saying he worries about IS and al-Qaida persisting despite successful counterterrorism campaigns, and also expressed his fears about Hezbollah. He expects threats to emerge from the current turmoil in Syria and Iraq.

“What we currently have playing out in Syria and Iraq is a metaphor for what we’re going to be dealing with in the next few years,” Costa said. “When you consider Syria, what do you have in place right now? What you have is Hezbollah operating in that space, proxies, you have a genocidal regime in Syria, you have Russians in that playground, acting, taking advantage of some of the chaos on the ground in Syria, you have ISIS remnants still operating.”

Regarding the rapid development of social media and new technology like the Internet of Things, McQuade noted terrorism is constantly evolving. She also touched on the threat of homegrown, right-wing violent extremism, which according to McQuade, has made up 71 percent of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.

McQuade said though the U.S. Department of Justice resuscitated the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee — a group that last met the day before 9/11— toward the end of the Obama administration, more attention needs to be paid to the issue. 

“I think this is a threat that is so understated and overlooked,” McQuade said. “We focus on the big attacks, the dramatic attacks, like 9/11, but we tend not to pay as much attention to these other groups.”

In addition, both Bergen and McQuade noted climate change contributes to terrorism by displacing populations and generating economic instability. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates an average of 24 million have been displaced by catastrophic weather every year since 2008. 

Ali remained on the topic of future counterterrorism efforts, asking the panelists if they think the United States will need new authorities, capabilities or resources to combat terrorism moving forward.

McQuade suggested new legislation must be drafted to respond to developing technologies. Mentioning the 2015 San Bernardino attack, after which Apple, Inc. refused to help the FBI access a suspect’s cell phone, McQuade said though prosecutors need powerful investigative tools for domestic terrorist groups, lawmakers must also protect individuals’ privacy.

“There remains a question: How do you effectively prosecute these groups without violating their civil liberties?” he said.

Costa disagreed with McQuade, arguing the intelligence community is very effective and well-organized in its approach to counterterrorism. He acknowledged the Trump administration did not pay enough attention to counterterrorism last year, but is still generally confident in current counterterrorism strategies and is cautious of directing funding away from counterterrorism.

“The counterterrorism enterprise has been very effective, pre-9/11, through 9/11, post-9/11,” he said. “We can reapportion some of resources, but I would recommend doing so very carefully because I’m very, very confident that we have an enterprise that’s very much focused on keeping the nation safe, day in and day out.”

Bergen also praised current counterterrorism efforts. Claiming no foreign terrorist organization has waged a successful attack on the United States since 9/11, he praised the work of counterterrorism task forces, the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Authority.

Next, Ali directed the conversation toward questions from the audience. The first audience question asked the panelists to propose ways to remedy the anti-Western sentiments that foster terrorism abroad. In response, Bergen said there is no clear answer for the question, but claimed the Obama administration exacerbated the problem in Syria whereas the Trump administration was smart to keep a U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

McQuade said the United States should try its best to moderate its reputation abroad. She argued Trump’s comments about Islam can be turned into propaganda for terrorist organizations.

“One of the propaganda tools that gets used by all these terrorist groups is that the United States is an occupying force and oppressor,” McQuade said. “The other thing that feeds the narrative is when President Trump and others contribute to that false narrative that America is at war with Islam (and) Muslims are the problem.”

Next, the panelists discussed an audience question regarding the intersection of counterterrorism and civil liberties. McQuade said the 2013 NSA leaks revealed the government’s secret collection of private data, and suggested other undercover initiatives may exist. She urged citizens to consider the potential dangers of the government collecting personal information.

“What other programs are going on out there?” McQuade said. “We may trust the government now, but we don’t know for what nefarious purpose all this data might be used in the future.”

Costa and McQuade presented different perspectives on another question from the audience regarding the short-term use of Special Operations Forces for counterterrorism. Costa believes though members of the Special Operations Forces have lost their lives in counterterrorism initiatives abroad, the use of small, specialized attacks is key to addressing terrorism.

“That is exactly what CT pressure requires — small footprints of special operators,” Costa said. “That is a high price to pay, but that is exactly what we have to do to continue the pressure and work with foreign partners.”

McQuade agreed Special Operations Forces and targeted strikes have been effective in tackling IS, but added it’s also important to change minds and counter propaganda.

Public Policy junior Hannah Davenport said she attended the talk because of her interest in learning from the panelists’ years of experience. She found their comments on new technology particularly relevant.

“I liked hearing how they talked about the artificial intelligence and how that plays a role in foreign entities and nation-states and then in our own counterintelligence,” Davenport said.

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