For many, the fall of Kabul to the Taliban forces last August spelled the twilight of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Great-power competition against near-peer adversaries, such as China and Russia, has now largely replaced terrorism as the primary focus of the U.S. military and the Intelligence Community.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine added another impetus to focus on near-peer threats — although the performance of the Russian military should force a serious debate on whether Moscow should be considered a conventional near-peer threat.
In the long-term, the U.S. military and Intelligence Community are correct to focus on the threat of a waxing China and the persistent threat of a waning Russia. How the U.S. deals with these challenges will shape the geostrategic future of the world.
However, terrorism remains a persistent threat that demands accurate, timely, and proactive action. The U.S. should continue to dedicate resources and attention to preventing future attacks on its homeland and on American interests abroad. To achieve that, current and future administrations should maintain and build strong intelligence relationships and invest in special operations forces.
The truth shall make you free: The intelligence aspect
The 9/11 attacks might have been an intelligence failure, but in the years since, the Intelligence Community has been pivotal in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, including al-Shabaab and the various offshoots of the so-called Islamic State.
Human, electronic, signals, and other forms of intelligence collection have prevented attacks both in the U.S. and overseas, saving countless lives. Current and future administrations should seek to maintain a strong intelligence-gathering capability by investing in the Intelligence Community. In many regards, the various intelligence agencies are truly the first line of defense as they can identify terrorist plots in their infancy through their overseas intelligence collection and act against them through covert action operations or by feeding intelligence to local law enforcement and militaries.
However, investing in capabilities alone will not bring success. The U.S. should maintain existing and build new intelligence-sharing relationships with foreign nations. Since 9/11, such relationships have saved innocent lives. Foreign intelligence services are often better placed and suited to target and collect from specific audiences because of their particular cultural and linguistic capabilities. Often, that access is priceless.
To be sure, in the process, the U.S. Intelligence Community can end up — and has ended up — with strange bedfellows, but in the war against terrorism, no options should be left unexplored.
Related: What is Signals Intelligence?
Tried and tested: Special operations forces
In addition to the intelligence aspect, current and future administrations should invest in special operations forces. Commandos offer a low-risk, high-reward option to combat terrorism.
In many ways, the Global War on Terrorism has been a special operations fight. Army Green Berets and paramilitary intelligence officers were the first in Afghanistan and led the way in toppling the Taliban, while the Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) special mission units — namely the Army’s Delta Forces and the Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Development Group, formerly known as SEAL Team 6 — devastated al-Qaeda in Iraq through a relentless campaign of raids.
The pivot to great-power competition and the threat posed by conventional near-peer adversaries should not curtail investment in the U.S. special operations community. Special operators are inherently flexible and can operate against state and non-state threats with equal effectiveness. Indeed, for the past two decades, the U.S. military relied on its special operations community to lead the fight against terrorism.
Today, at any given time, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has almost 5,000 special operators deployed to more than 60 countries. These deployments can range from routine training with allied or partner militaries to kinetic strikes against terrorist organizations. More importantly, such deployments offer access, and boots on the ground can make a difference in the fight against terrorism. Further, the partnerships built or strengthened through these deployments can help the U.S. gain an upper hand in the various regions against its near-peer adversaries, especially China.
Beijing’s rise and the persistent threat that comes from Moscow are the most important challenges facing U.S. national security today. Terrorism, however, is a close second. A well-funded Intelligence Community with strong foreign relationships and a well-supported and maintained special operations capability will go a long way in dealing with current and future terrorist threats.