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News | June 26, 2023

Counterterrorism Jenga

By Kim Cragin Lawfare

When the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan in August 2021, lawmakers and experts alike expressed concern that this would hinder the United States’ ability to counter al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other foreign terrorist adversaries. But the Biden administration rejected the idea that the military could protect the U.S. homeland only from permanent, forward-deployed, bases in the Middle East and elsewhere. Instead, President Biden stated, and the National Security Strategy reiterated, that the United States has “developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”

This ambition—over-the-horizon counterterrorism—is not unreasonable. It has been tried in the past with varying degrees of success. President Reagan approved the U.S. military’s first over-the-horizon strikes against terrorist-linked facilities in Libya with Operation El Dorado Canyon. President Clinton applied a similar logic against al-Qaeda with cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan as part of Operation Infinite Reach. Yet even as the government goes all-in on this approach, it is removing many of the building blocks that make over-the-horizon counterterrorism feasible without compensating elsewhere for these changes. I refer to this as “counterterrorism Jenga.” The U.S. government has prioritized strategic competition with China and Russia. As a result, it is removing the “blocks” of U.S. counterterrorism, built over the past two decades. While some re-prioritization makes sense, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have not disappeared. Policymakers need to be more deliberate about which blocks are being removed. The United States arguably can afford for the Jenga tower to become wobbly—but it shouldn’t be allowed to collapse.  

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Dr. Kim Cragin is the Director of the Center for Strategic Research (CSR) and Distinguished Research Fellow for Special Operations and Counterterrorism at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. The views expressed are the authors' own and do not reflect those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.