Misunderstanding the Terror Threat

By jumping into wars wherever some group calls itself “Islamic State,” the U.S. government misunderstands the threat and feeds the danger of endless warfare, explains ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A couple of unfortunate ways of thinking about terrorism continue to plague discourse about the subject and create a political environment that encourages destructive policy responses. One is to conceive terrorism not as what it really is — a tactic — but instead as an identifiable group of bad actors: “the terrorists.”

These bad guys are thought of as, if not having a permanently fixed number, then at least having identifiable limits that separate them from everyone else. Wipe out the bad guys, goes the thinking, and you’ve wiped out the terrorism problem.

President Barack Obama and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. (This White House photo by Pete Souza was taken when McDonough was deputy national security adviser.)

President Barack Obama and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. (This White House photo by Pete Souza was taken when McDonough was deputy national security adviser.)

The other common habit of thinking is to identify international terrorism with whatever named group has most captured our attention and elicited our fears. This used to be Al Qaeda; now Al Qaeda has been eclipsed to a large degree by the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. Once we become familiar with a scary name, invocation of the name anywhere triggers an impulse on our part to use force to wipe out more bad guys. This pattern of thought tends to confuse a name with an organization, and it reifies more of an octopus-like transnational organization than really exists.

We are seeing some of the impact on policy of such thinking in the American political sphere with an expansion of U.S. military operations, or planning for such expanded operations, against self-declared ISIS elements in Afghanistan and Libya. This is in addition to continuing U.S. military operations directed against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Where does such expansion stop? As long as the erroneous patterns of thinking prevail, there is no stopping point. If it’s Afghanistan and Libya today, then tomorrow it’s Cote d’Ivoire or Somalia or someplace else. If the impulse is to go after ISIS wherever we hear that name invoked, then there are no limits to the expansion of military operations.

And what does such expansion accomplish? A few more bad guys get whacked, but this does not constitute stopping some feared expansion of ISIS. The organizational connections, such as they are, do not work that way. Most of the energy and anger that drive violent radicals who invoke the ISIS name in far-flung places revolve around contests for power in those places.

The name is invoked because it currently is the most prominent brand name in the radical Sunni world, invocation makes it appear the local elements are acting on behalf of some larger cause, and this sort of linkage might help bring some sort of external assistance to their fight.

Meanwhile, the expansion of U.S. military operations inevitably involves an increased drain on U.S. resources and attention. The expansion can be counterproductive in causing more of the collateral damage that stimulates more anti-U.S. anger that feeds anti-U.S. violence. The expansion also can upset efforts to bring some stability to conflict-ridden places where radicals have exploited the chaos.

This is probably the case in Libya, where international mediation efforts are just starting to make some delicate progress in reconciling two competing factions that each have claimed to be the government.

ISIS unquestionably is a loathsome group, and those who would affiliate with it or adopt its name are not desirable types either. But as President Obama has correctly observed, ISIS does not pose any existential threat to the United States. Far from it.

And neither is such a threat posed by those who adopt the name or move toward affiliation. Self-identified ISIS types in Afghanistan, for example, are basically hardliners who have split from main strands of the Taliban, and like the Taliban are focused on how power is to be distributed within Afghanistan.

But this and any other U.S. administration operates in a political environment in which not going after ISIS anywhere it appears to pop up is seen as a political liability. This risks endless warfare that expands without limit. And that would be a big mistake.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “Misunderstanding the Terror Threat

  1. Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
    March 23, 2016 at 12:03

    Phyllis Bennis: Understanding ISIS

  2. March 23, 2016 at 11:16

    “….the U.S. government misunderstands the threat and feeds the danger of endless warfare”

    From a professor of “security studies” and 28 year CIA ex-analyst in good standing. You have to be joking.

    Far from “misundertanding the threat” – “endless warfare” is the precise AIM of the US government; achieved through CIA guided covert operations that systematically and as a matter of carefully game-tested policy CREATE the threats to further that policy.

    The article is an insult to the intelligence of your readers’. As for Paul R Pillar, he is clearly still on the CIA/US Nat-Sec State payroll.

  3. Christene
    March 23, 2016 at 07:29

    Unless and until the U.S., and every other country that proclaims its resolve to fight violent, radical Islamism, confronts head on the true source of its rise, it will continue to sweep across this world like some Old Testament biblical plague. That source is Saudi Arabia.
    Since the 1970’s, Saudi Arabia has spent BILLIONS of dollars erecting madrassas and mosques across Europe, the U.S., and Asia like McDonald’s franchises for the sole purpose of spreading their unique, homegrown, state sponsored, toxic, virulent, hate-filled, seventh century version of Islam; Wahhabism. Do you want to pinpoint those espousing the poisonous rhetoric of the wholesale slaughter of “infidels”, the justification for killing “apostates” (anyone who dares to differ with them), the subjugation of women, relegating them to the status of nothing more than chattel, the sanctioning of “honor” killings of women who dare step out of line, female genital mutilation, the lopping off of heads for any “infraction” of their warped version of sharia law, and the establishment of a worldwide caliphate? Then look no further than the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism IS Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia IS Wahhabism. ISIL, Al Qaeda, Boko Harem, Al Nusra would not exist in their current forms if not for Saudi Arabia. A two year old could connect the dots. 
    There are millions upon millions of devout Muslims who love their faith and only wish to live it out in peace who are fighting a desperate battle against this scourge within their faith communities. I would encourage everyone to watch By the Numbers by the Clarion Project with Sunni Muslim Raheel Raza. It is time for people of good will across religious, cultural, racial, and political divides to join our hearts and hands and to fight this scourge that threatens us all. 

    Saudi Arabia needs to relegated to pariah state status and treated as such. I don’t care how much d@mn oil they have.

  4. Winston
    March 23, 2016 at 00:12

    Check out:

    Former French FM: War against Syria Planned 2 Years before Arab Spring

    “On January 11th Trévidic was interviewed again by France Inter where he was asked if the French jihadists fighting the Syrian government could present a danger to French national security, Trévidic declared that:
    “There are many young jihadists who have gone to the Turkish border in order to enter Syria to fight Bachar’s regime, but the only difference is that there France is not the enemy. Therefore we don’t look on that in the same way. To see young men who are at the moment fighting Bachar Al-Assad, they will be perhaps dangerous in the future but for the moment they are fighting Bachar Al-Assad and France is on their side. They will not attack us. Here (in Mali) the problem is that we are not on the same side” Trévidic went on to warn that if the Assad regime does not fall, Assad could attempt to bomb Paris! Terrorists are ok as long as they serve our political interests. Assad and not Al Qaeda could bomb Paris.Reality is turned upside down!”


    “Bad Terrorists” versus NATO’s “Good Terrorists”


    In Syria, If You Can’t Find Moderates, Dress Up Some Extremists

    “Secret cables and reports by the U.S., Saudi and Israeli intelligence agencies indicate that the moment Assad rejected the Qatari pipeline, military and intelligence planners quickly arrived at the consensus that fomenting a Sunni uprising in Syria to overthrow the uncooperative Bashar Assad was a feasible path to achieving the shared objective of completing the Qatar/Turkey gas link. In 2009, according to WikiLeaks, soon after Bashar Assad rejected the Qatar pipeline, the CIA began funding opposition groups in Syria. It is important to note that this was well before the Arab Spring-engendered uprising against Assad.”

    Why the Arabs don’t want us in Syria
    They don’t hate ‘our freedoms.’ They hate that we’ve betrayed our ideals in their own countries — for oil.


    WikiLeaks: US Sought Syria Regime Change For Israel’s Sake


    Does Google basically work for the White House? Internet giant revealed to have offered to help overthrow Assad as Obama reveals broadband for Cuba

  5. Cal
    March 22, 2016 at 13:10

    The US CIA estimated after 911 that ALQ had a ‘terrorist’ force of only 200 members…fact …goggle the CIA report.

    Now count the terrorist groups in 2016 since we started the WWOT.

    There are only two things one can possibly conclude about the US war on ‘terriers’……1) Everyone involved is so bat shit stupid they cant grasp they themselves and US policy created the terrorism….or…2) All those involved created it deliberately to impose their own ideology and agendas.

    I would split it 50-50….it was deliberately created by the various usual suspects and then the stupids trotted right along behind them.

  6. Joe Tedesky
    March 21, 2016 at 15:20

    Once Turkey has it’s civil war, and Erdogan is gone, then that will be the end of ISIS. Although, Lebanon is a place to watch, and it will no doubt have a terrorist organization by another name to run rampant through out it’s land. Terrorism is to big of a business to now just let it go. Mean while there are bridges to be build, roads to be paved, schools and hospitals to improve, and social programs to run, but no money for those things. Fighting terrorism is where the money is, and it will stay.

    • Airbrush2020
      March 22, 2016 at 01:28

      The issue with ISIS is OIL. If Radical Islam takes over the Middle East, they will nationalize the oil fields. BP, EXXON (and others) would really frown on that. Toppling Bashir Al Assad is a political gambit that benefits Israel, Turkey, and would make Saudi Arabia happy. So, oil & mineral wealth is where the fight is, along with regional power struggles.

  7. Tom Welsh
    March 21, 2016 at 12:09

    “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”.
    -Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (“The Gulag Archipelago”)

    • Airbrush2020
      March 22, 2016 at 01:17

      Great quote!

    • Cal
      March 22, 2016 at 13:20

      ” But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”.

      Maybe it does. But that’s where ‘choice’ comes in. Some people deliberately ‘choose’ evil acts as their way to power.
      Other people ‘commit evil acts in fighting evil.’
      My Jesuit professor once told me that contrary to teachings not all people are born ‘good’. Imagine my shock. But he was right.

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