They Who Must Not Be Named

The administration's reasons for not releasing who's on the list of America's enemies in the war on terror are getting ridiculous.

Who's the enemy, year after year?
War after war, who's the enemy?
What's the weapon, battle after battle?
What's the news, defeat after defeat?
What's the picture, decade after decade?

--Allen Ginsberg, Iron Horse, 1972

The annual ritual of the worldwide threat briefings of Intelligence Community (IC) officials before the congressional intelligence committees has begun. Policymakers, analysts, and the media watch these rare public assessments of the severity and trend lines of national security threats very closely. Last year, we learned from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that, "On the issue of terrorism, the threat from core al Qaeda and the potential for a massive coordinated attack on the United States is diminished, but the global jihadist movement is a more diversified, decentralized, and persistent threat." This week we were told that al Qaeda is "more diverse," "more complicated and complex," and characterized by "dispersion and decentralization."

What the American people will not be told -- understandably, as it is a matter of policy and not intelligence -- is who exactly the United States remains at war with, more than 12 years after Sept. 11, 2001. Obama administration officials characterize the scope of the enemy variously as "core al Qaeda," "al Qaeda," "al Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents," or "those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans." But this elasticity makes it impossible for policymakers and the public to assess progress in the war against terrorism or to determine if those strategies already in place are succeeding, much less anticipate an end to the conflict. The time for the Obama administration to explicitly name which organizations the United States are at war with has long passed.

It is impossible to gauge the true threat based upon any information released by the U.S. government. The White House has sent a war powers resolution consolidated report to Congress every six months since 2012, which names some countries where the U.S. military conducts "direct action" against "al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces." But because there is no additional specificity provided -- such as whether this also captures those groups targeted under Title 50 "covert" lethal operations conducted by the CIA -- it is incomplete even though this information might be in the classified annex attached to each report.

Worse, you can't get a clear read on America's enemies even from the two main terrorist designation lists: the Treasury Department's Specially Designated Global Terrorists or State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. The criteria for being included on the FTO list are that the group be foreign, engage or be capable of terrorism, and that its terrorism "threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States." Presently, there are 57 FTOs -- from Aum Shinrikyo, to the Real Irish Republican Army, to al-Shabab -- most of which have historically posed little direct threat to the United States or its citizens. By my estimate, maybe 10 of these FTOs have committed recent acts of terrorism against U.S. nationals, predominantly against U.S. servicemembers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you add up the estimated "strength" numbers for these 10 FTOs -- as provided by the State Department -- they consist of perhaps 10,000 active members, a number that has collectively grown in the past half-decade. In Iraq alone, recent estimates of al Qaeda-linked militants "range between 3,000 and 7,000 fighters," according to a senior U.S. defense official.

Are these more than 10,000 individuals actually America's enemies? As White House counterterrorism czar Lisa Monaco declared in November, U.S. counterterrorism goals are to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, its affiliates, and adherents." Her predecessor John Brennan had offered a more expansive mission in 2012: "We're not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and eliminated from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas." If this eliminationist objective remains the strategic guidance for U.S. government agencies, then they have a long way to go. Moreover, as President Obama stated in his major counterterrorism address in May, "not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States."

This leads to the question of which thugs are worth caring about, and why the Obama administration will not reveal which collection of thugs is most concerning. Moreover, it is not clear that members of Congress know this either. At a remarkable hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, was asked by Sen. Carl Levin: "Is there an existing list of groups that are affiliated with al-Qaeda?" Sheehan troublingly replied: "I'm not sure there is a list per se." (Sheehan later added that he believed the war against terror would last "at least 10 to 20 years" against these anonymous groups.) While Levin was later provided the information he requested, a Pentagon spokesperson told journalist Cora Currier that releasing such a list would cause "serious damage to national security.... Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces' can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States." The spokesperson added: "We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks."

Thus, we're told, the reason Americans cannot know who they are at war with is not the result of operational or secrecy concerns, but rather spurred by the fear that these suspected terrorists might brag. (As if these listed enemies cannot find other information and disinformation to fuel their public relations efforts.) Moreover, many of these organizations are openly affiliated with al Qaeda or have openly declared war against the United States -- which leads one to ask why the United States is unable or unwilling to declare war against them.

Naming and narrowing those groups that are the focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts matters more than ever, because it is far too easy for politicians to conflate the phenomenon of terror attacks with U.S. national interests. The vast majority of terrorism has nothing to do with America. In 2012, the last year in which there is available data, of the 11,098 people who died from a terrorist attack, just 10 were private U.S. citizens. Though the 2013 data is still being compiled, it is likely that global terror fatalities will have increased, while the number of U.S. citizen deaths will have decreased. And let's recall: The number of terror attacks on the United States was 258 percent higher in the decades before 9/11 than in the decade that followed. Finally, the vast majority of terrorism is clustered on miniscule portions of the Earth, and fueled by conflicts where U.S. interests are often indirectly involved, if at all. Although terrorism occurred in 85 countries in 2012, 55 percent of all attacks, 62 percent of all fatalities, and 65 percent of all injuries occurred in just three countries: Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The next three countries (by attacks): India, Nigeria, and Thailand.

Refusing to identify which organizations are the focus of U.S. counterterrorism strategies makes it impossible to differentiate what terrorism should matter to Americans, and how then the public can hold officials accountable for whether these strategies work. Over time the descriptions used by the U.S. government to characterize al Qaeda and the threat of global jihadist affiliates has become more and more diffuse, which makes it harder and harder to know who the real enemy really is. Last May, Obama warned: "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us." Why he does not therefore direct the Pentagon to declassify the list of who is part of this struggle is puzzling. Like other areas regarding countering terrorism where the president has promised greater transparency, he has fallen far short of the very principles he declared to be his own.


Micah Zenko

Cloudy With a Chance of Conflict

We asked 1,200 U.S. government officials and experts what they were most worried about in 2014. Here's what they said.

After 12 years of war, 6,711 troops killed, and costs to taxpayers projected to be at least $4 trillion, Americans' message to the White House and Capitol Hill is loud and clear: less involvement abroad (for now). In a December poll conducted by Pew Research and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), 52 percent of Americans said the United States "should mind its own business internationally," the highest percentage since that question was first asked in 1964. This hesitancy is prevalent throughout America -- even as its friends want Uncle Sam's bombs and missiles to lead from the front. In a September Ipsos Global @dvisor poll administered in 15 countries (all U.S. allies or partners), 28 percent of all respondents supported U.S.-led military action in Syria; among Americans alone, support was lower at 27 percent. Nevertheless, there is limited public appetite for deeper U.S. military engagement in the world's problems.

Given the limited tolerance among Americans for brokering regional or global disputes -- and diminishing appropriated resources -- how can U.S. officials focus their time and attention on the most urgent and important sources of conflict or instability? Unfortunately, despite all the early warning analysis done throughout the U.S. government, there is no systematic process to forecast potentially threatening developments that could require direct U.S. diplomatic or military involvement. Nor is there a routine system for bringing such information to the attention of senior officials in a timely manner.

To help U.S. officials and policymakers focus on the most important conflict prevention demands, the CFR's Center for Preventive Action produced its sixth annual Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS), which evaluates ongoing and potential conflicts based on their likelihood of occurring in the coming year and their impact on U.S. interests. (See here for all previous year's surveys, and here to evaluate the accuracy of the 2013 PPS.)

A word on PPS methodology. First, we harnessed social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc.) to solicit a few hundred suggestions of contingencies from anyone with Internet access, which helped us to bypass the media filter. Second, with input from our CFR colleagues, we distilled the crowd-sourced results down to 30 contingencies deemed most plausible to erupt or escalate in 2014. Third, those 30 contingencies were sent to a broad selection of 1,200 government officials, foreign policy experts, and academics, who rated their likelihood of occurrence in 2014 and potential impact on U.S. interests. Here are the results:

Tier One: Situations that should be the most worrisome for U.S. policymakers:

  • Intensification of the Syrian civil war including possible limited military intervention
  • A highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure
  • Renewed threat of military strikes against Iran as a result of a breakdown in nuclear negotiations and/or clear evidence of intent to develop a nuclear weapons capability
  • A mass casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally
  • A severe North Korean crisis caused by a military provocation, internal political instability, or threatening nuclear weapons/ICBM-related activities
  • Growing violence and instability in Afghanistan resulting from the drawdown of coalition forces and/or contested national elections
  • Increasing internal violence and political instability in Pakistan
  • Strengthening of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula resulting from continued political instability in Yemen and/or backlash from U.S. counterterrorism operations
  • Civil war in Iraq due to rising Sunni-Shia sectarian violence
  • Growing political instability and civil violence in Jordan triggered by spillover from the Syrian civil war

Tier Two: Situations either less likely to occur, or are in countries of limited strategic importance to the United States:

  • Further deterioration of the political situation in Egypt resulting in significantly increased violence, especially in the Sinai Peninsula
  • Increased sectarian violence and political instability in Lebanon due to spillover from the Syrian civil war
  • Continuing conflict in Somalia and intensification of al-Shabab's terrorist attacks on neighboring countries
  • Continuing political instability and growing militancy in Libya
  • Escalation of drug-related violence in Mexico
  • A severe Indo-Pakistani military confrontation triggered by a major terrorist attack or heightened violence in Kashmir
  • An armed confrontation in the East China Sea between China and Japan stemming from tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands
  • An armed confrontation in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants to disputed maritime areas
  • Increasing sectarian violence and heightened political instability in Nigeria
  • Escalating violence and risk of mass atrocities in the Central African Republic as a result of the ongoing insurgency

Tier Three: Situations the least likely to occur or would have a minimal impact on U.S. interests, if at all:

  • A Sino-Indian clash resulting from escalation of a territorial dispute and/or a military incident
  • Destabilization of Mali by militant groups with spillover effects on neighboring areas
  • Growing popular unrest and political instability in Sudan
  • Military conflict between Sudan and South Sudan triggered by border and/or resource disputes
  • Resumption of conflict in the Kurdish-dominated regions of Turkey and the Middle East
  • Intensification of violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with regional spillover
  • Increased sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar's Rakhine State
  • Protracted internal violence in Bangladesh surrounding the general elections
  • Deepening political crisis in Venezuela leading to civil violence and potential regional instability
  • An outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh

Finally, experts were asked to provide their own outliers for U.S. officials to keep their eye one. Among the commonly cited:

  • Growing political instability in China
  • Competing territorial claims in the Arctic
  • Rising political instability in Russia
  • Possible Russian intervention in Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states
  • Growing political instability in Saudi Arabia
  • Political unrest following the death of Fidel Castro in Cuba
  • Renewed political instability in Bahrain
  • Third Palestinian intifada or heightened conflict between Israel and Hezbollah
  • Renewed political instability in Tunisia
  • Chinese military intervention against Taiwan
  • Rising political instability in Kyrgyzstan