The Briefing

Denial of Territory to Terrorist Groups in US Counterterrorism Strategy

Friday, January 25, 2013

Over the last four years, nearly all the attention of commentators—supportive and critical alike—regarding US counterterrorism operations abroad has been focused on drone strikes. While drone warfare issues are important, it is a mistake for the public debate over US counterterrorism operations abroad to be so narrowly confined to targeted killing without considering the broader objective of denying terrorists territory.

Increasingly, the US government’s counterterrorism strategy has embraced the view that although targeted killing of identified terrorist leaders is highly successful and essential, long-term strategy must also ensure that terrorist groups neither gain control of territory nor maintain territorial safe havens in which to regroup, train, rebuild, and finally launch attacks abroad.  Counterterrorism thus has a territorial element separate from targeted killing.

Territorial denial takes two distinct forms.  One form targets terrorists who establish safe haven in some ungoverned or lightly governed part of a weak state, or who are allowed such by a sympathetic state.  The terrorist group is able to inhabit territory as a matter of “physical” geography—it gets a place to hide—but it does not politically govern the territory or its population. The other form of territorial denial focuses on terrorists attempting to establish governing control of the areas they inhabit.

The United States might address a territorial terrorist threat by acting directly, through its own forces, to eliminate the safe haven by striking not just at the group’s leadership but at its training camps, bases, supply routes, etc.  Alternatively and more likely, the United States might address the threat through military and intelligence support to the legitimate government of the territory.  While drone strikes and targeted killing of individuals figure importantly in denying terrorists safe haven, so too must support for the local government because denial of physical territory requires a government both willing and logistically able to assert sovereignty over the zone.  In current US strategy, whether in Yemen or in the Horn of Africa, this involves providing military and intelligence advisers, logistical support, and intelligence resources designed to bolster the legitimate government in its conflict with the terrorist insurgents.  Targeted killing of individuals and denial of physical geography in which to take haven are complementary elements of US strategy.

In its territorial denial role, however, the United States might act as a partner in something amounting to a conventional counterinsurgency war—carried out by local government partners on the ground with American air, intelligence, and logistical support.  The United States might also go further and serve, in effect, as the air arm of the local government in what might rise to the level of a civil war against a terrorist group that seeks to defend its safe havens against the territory’s legitimate government, but which also has transnational terrorist aims against the United States.

This is what the US government appears to be doing in Yemen, but without being willing openly to own up to what amounts to becoming co-belligerent with the Yemeni government in a conventional civil war against a common enemy of both the US and Yemeni governments, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Drones are used in Yemen not only, or even mostly, for the targeting of individual high value leadership.  More often drones are used in so-called “signature strikes,” which, instead of targeting identified individuals, target groups of conventional fighters that present characteristics indicating they are members of “hostile forces.”

If treated within the framework of targeted killing, air attacks on groups on the basis of behavioral “membership” signatures appear to be a relaxation of the standards of individualized “targeted killing.” In the view of the critics, the US government couldn’t figure out who was a target and who wasn’t, so it just blew them all up as a group.  However, drone strikes against groups of fighters are more accurately understood as a type of conventional air targeting in a conventional civil war, in which it is lawful to target those who appear to be operating as “hostile forces.”

The Obama administration has not so far been willing to admit that this is what is really going on, preferring instead to treat signature strikes as part of targeted killing programs, presumably because of the perceived political risks of attempting to explain the distinction. Whatever political difficulties making the distinction poses for the administration, however, over the longer term the deliberate conflation of two distinct situations of targeting risks political and legal delegitimation of the crucial paradigm of individualized targeted killing through drones.  Signature strikes, whether direct US military operations or conducted by a local government with US support, are not a form of targeted killing; they are part of territorial denial.

The form of territorial denial concerned with political control of territory—beyond the mere physical presence of terrorists—aims to deny terrorists “governance” or “political” geography. Afghanistan under the Taliban illustrated the risks of allowing a radical terrorist group to incorporate itself into, or operate parallel to, the political structures of an entire sovereign state. Whatever else happens in Afghanistan, the US national security establishment understands that it cannot allow Afghanistan again to become a political territory in the hands of a terrorist group that has both governing control (of the territory’s population, institutions, resources, and legitimacy, however narrow) and ambitions to commit acts of terrorism abroad.

But Afghanistan is not the only place where this is a concern. Mali, for example, presents some of the same issues of political control of territory.  The Islamist forces battling the government seek not merely physical space to locate themselves, but governance over the territory.  Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has ambitions internally in Mali as well as externally.  It is therefore unsurprising that the United States is backing efforts by France and other countries to deny the group both its aims. And in this case, concerns of the United States and other countries about terrorism overlap with concerns about human rights in the brutal, indeed horrific, governance of zones AQIM already controls, as well as with traditional international concerns for reestablishing the recognized sovereign government of Mali.

The US government certainly does not want to engage in more ground wars.  But though its strategy recognizes the value of targeting particular individuals in order to weaken, disrupt, and destroy terrorist groups, it also acknowledges that strategically it is just as crucial to deny territory to terrorist groups.  US strategy seeks a way to do this (without undertaking more ground counterinsurgency wars) that addresses the two distinct modes of territorial denial—physical safe havens and governance control of a whole political geography.  The United States is moving strategically, it appears, toward providing allied governments with military and intelligence advice and support designed to deny terrorists both physical territory and political territory.

In some cases, as in Yemen, it is willing to act as the government’s air arm in a civil war.  In other cases, US support might go to non-state armed groups, whether as alternatives or supplements to the national government.  Those groups might start out as human intelligence networks.  But as situations evolve (in Afghanistan, for example) they might become something much closer to “proxy forces,” supplied and supported by the US government as a mechanism of denial of political territory to terrorist groups.  There is much to recommend this strategy as a whole; it goes without saying, of course, that it also raises a host of legal, moral, and political legitimacy questions distinct from those raised by drone warfare alone.