Denial of Territory to Terrorist Groups in US Counterterrorism Strategy
The Briefing: Perspectives on National Security and Law, The Hoover Institution (Stanford University), Hoover Task Force on National Security and Law (January 25, 2013)
5 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2014
Date Written: January 25, 2013
This short (1500 words) policy briefing paper describes the strategic evolution of US counterterrorism policies to incorporate "denial of territory" strategies alongside existing strategies, particularly long-term, increasingly continuous surveillance by drones, and armed drone attacks, pursued as a counter-raiding strategy against terrorist groups. It argues that US counterterrorism requires not only a counter-raiding strategy via drone strikes, but also the ability to deny territory to terrorist groups.
Denial of territory means two distinct strategies, however. One is to deny safe havens to terrorist groups; safe houses, compounds, training camps and bases -- the tiny slices of territory that are usually understood by safe havens. Ending the ability of terrorist groups to retreat to safe havens is a core strategic task in both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency -- by working through or with states where these safe havens are established to end them, or striking directly through drones, special operators, or other means. The territory involved in safe havens in this sense is tiny; simply the physical space where the camp or compound is located.
The other meaning of denial of territory to terrorist groups, however, refers to denying them "governance geography" or "governance territory." This briefing paper describes the evolution of jihadi militants, radical Islamist fighters into two broad categories, internal and external. "Internal" militants are insurgents, fueling insurgency and civil war against a government. The Islamist insurgents aim to seize, if not the whole state, then large geographical zones and their populations, whole areas of political geography in both territory and people, and to impose Islamist governance on them -- "governance geography" or "governance territory." "External" militants, by contrast, refers to extraterritorial, transnational terrorist groups aimed at targets beyond the state's borders, US, Western, South Asian, or other targets. Sometimes the internal insurgents and the external transnational terrorists are two wings of the same broad organization or movement; in other instances they are separate, but the insurgents, in places where they gain political governance and control over a territory, are open to hosting transnational terrorist groups.
Through much of 2013, at least, the focus of reporting and discussion of US counterterrorism policy was largely on drone strikes. The near exclusive focus on the strategy of armed drone counter raids tended to ignore the rising importance of the accompanying strategies of territorial denial, and particularly the US government's correct assessment -- in Africa and elsewhere -- that it was crucial to ensure that whole regions did not fall to Islamist radical militants, both for the sake of the population governed in typically brutal, even horrific, fashion, but also in order to deny safe haven to terrorist groups in jihadist "governance territories." This (correctly perceived) strategic imperative has driven US security policy in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and other places, but (as of January 2013) has not been widely understood in press, policy, or academic circles. How can the US succeed in denying "governance territory" to terrorist groups aligned with internal insurgencies, without entering into more counterinsurgency ground wars?
(As of July 2014, policy debate in the US over the need to deny governance territory to radical Islamist insurgents as part of transnational counter terrorism is squarely on the table -- reflecting the rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, seizing wide swathes of territory and declaring The Islamic State. Whether ISIS turns out to be a short- or long-lived situation in Iraq, viewed against the background of the Iraq war, ISIS is both part of the phenomenon described above, but also significantly different. This short briefing from early 2013 precedes 2014 Iraq events, but it has been posted in order to give some background to the US policy and strategic debate. The strategic point of denial of "governance territory" is simple, from the US government's security perspective: the United States should be wary of repeating today conditions of Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban hosting Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and giving it a protected space in which to plan transnational attacks.)
Keywords: terrorism, counterterrorism, insurgency, Islamist, jihadis, drones, armed drones, geography, safe havens, Yemen, transnational terrorism, ISIS, Iraq
JEL Classification: K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation