The State of U.S. Counterterrorism: Defeating ISIS and the Global War on Terror with Amb. Nathan Sales, former Coordinator for Counterterrorism

Nathan Sales - Atlantic Council

This week, A’ndre and Ryan speak with Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, former State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism (2017-2021) and former Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Ambassador Sales also served as Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights acting). Ambassador Sales opens the episode by providing a general overview of the state of U.S. Counterterrorism efforts, which is especially insightful given he left office just this past January.  Ambassador Sales then spends the majority of the episode discussing the fight against ISIS, outlining how the U.S. and Coalition forces have been successful in recent years against the terror group.  Digging deep into how ISIS managed to become so formidable, filling a power vacuum in Iraq and Syria in the early 2010s, Ambassador Sales details the power structure and leadership of ISIS, and how they operated on the ground, before going into how U.S. military strategies were adapted and why they worked to significantly reduce the ground held by ISIS in recent years.

On U.S. counterterrorism: 

“US counterterrorism policy is focused on three major threats, three historic threats, and then one emerging threat. And the sort of long-term threats that the establishment has been focused on for two decades now since 9/11, are Al Qaeda, ISIS, and then Iran backed terrorists.” 

On the changing nature of counterterrorism: 

“The terrorist groups that we face are evolving and adapting.”

“Instead of being foot soldiers that are part of an organization and susceptible to administrative control, what we’re seeing are instead, an increasing number of terrorists who are self-directed. They are radicalized to violence because they have consumed propaganda, whether it’s ISIS propaganda, or Al Qaeda propaganda. “ 

“I think we’re quite right for policymakers to focus on what the next wave of terrorism look like looks like. And I think it’s increasingly going to look less like the Al Qaeda boss in caves in Tora Bora issuing instructions to followers around the world to do this, and more like what we see in places like Christ Church, where an individual is radicalized, in this case by white supremacist ideology, and goes on to commit a horrific series of attacks of his own initiative.” 

On a response to ISIS radicalization: 

“We don’t really know whether there’s a sort of universal explanation for why people were motivated by ISIS ideology. There’s a whole bunch of different reasons instead. And so that points up a really important policy response of trying to negate the effects of ISIS ideology to try to inoculate vulnerable populations, so that they are able to better resist the siren song of radicalizing ideology.” 

On the background of ISIS: 

“The key mistake that the United States made that allowed ISIS to emerge from Syria and Iraq, was the US decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq, shortly before 2015, when Iraqi state institutions were not strong enough to keep the peace.” 

“The lessons that we have to draw from the rise of ISIS is that there is no substitute for American engagement. That’s diplomatic engagement, but also discreet military engagement…the American public is not going to tolerate large scale boots on the ground military commitments of the sort that we saw in Iraq in 2003.” 

“The lesson that we need to take is that if America withdraws, there is no other country that has the capabilities, that has the reach that America does, to keep the peace and to keep terrorist groups under control. And so an American withdrawal is not going to produce stability, it’s more likely to produce instability, which tends to snowball, resulting in the need for an even greater international engagement at some point in the future, which is what happened with the defeat ISIS coalition.” 

On sustainable commitments: 

“Whether it’s in Iraq or Afghanistan, or someplace else, where policymakers are contemplating deploying or maintaining US forces, we owe it to our troops to clearly define what their mission is. In so doing, we also specify what their mission is not. And it seems to me that in [Afghanistan], your American policy has sort of vacillated over the past two decades from having really maximalist ambitions of what we hope to accomplish in Afghanistan, to rather less maximalist visions, simply keeping the peace, maintaining stability, ensuring that women and girls have opportunities to get an education and so on.” 

“We policymakers owe it to the troops. We also owe it to their bosses, which is to say voters to clearly identify what their objectives are and put together a plan for how the deployments that they are proposing are going to advance those goals.” 

On countering ISIS: 

“The Defeat ISIS Coalition is the most successful international counterterrorism platform ever devised.” 

“The coalition was extremely effective, because we were able to devolve more authority to commanders in the field. Another thing that made it extremely effective, was that we worked with and through local partners.” 

“What we accomplished with the Coalition is a new kind of warfare. It allows the United States to achieve enormous effects by working by with and through local partners. And it doesn’t require us to incur the substantial costs of what we saw in Afghanistan and then Iraq that are associated with an enormous U.S.-boots-on-the-ground presence. The fight against ISIS was really a proof of concept of what future US military engagements can look like wedding unique U.S. capabilities with the grit and determination of local forces to achieve good outcomes.” 

On why ISIS was successful: 

“What made them so effective? I think part of it was that the forces they were fighting against, were not as effective as they should have been. And what I mean by that is to harken back to something I said a little while ago. Iraq’s security forces were not at the point that you needed to be to defend Iraq’s major population centers, to protect its borders and really put down this terrorist threat.” 

“Part of the reason why ISIS was so effective at acquiring territory in Iraq was because at that point, it wasn’t really a fair fight. The Iraqi security forces were not then in a state that they want it to be or that they wanted them to be. And in Syria, very similar.” 

“In both Syria and Iraq, part of the story of ISIS’s is the rise to territorial control was a failure of governments in the region to deploy the force needed to keep this threat under control and to keep it from metastasizing and growing.” 

On the effectiveness of killing Al Qaeda and Al Baghdadi: 

“You can sort of look at how ISIS reacts to the death of its leader or look at how Al Qaeda reacts to the death of Bin Ladin to know that you’ve really touched a nerve. If you remove the leader, you do a number of things. The first thing you do is you demoralize the rest of the organization. If you know that Baghdadi is gone, what does that mean for the organization if they can get to him?” 

On an ISIS resurgence: 

“When I think about terrorist threats in Iraq, what I’m most concerned about today is not so much ISIS, but Iran.” 

“[Regarding militia groups] So that’s the concern that I really worry about in Iraq these days, that these groups will continue to wield influence and inflict violence on innocent Iraqi civilians will destabilize the government, and will make Iraq less sovereign and more dependent on its neighbor.” 

“Syria is…[not]…experiencing a major ISIS resurgence. But I’m more concerned that the conditions in Syria would allow for such to happen over the near term than in Iraq. The Assad regime has brutalized its way into regaining control over much of the country, but there’s still large swathes of territory that are essentially up for grabs.” 

“The conditions in the Badia Desert, give me some concern that ISIS could resurge there, if given the opportunity.” 

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