Will McCants is a former senior advisor on violent extremism to the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism. He is currently an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University.
9/11 was a watershed period in the United States and the world. How has America been impacted with respect to its defense and national security as a result?
Yeah, I think the 9/11 attacks sort of turned the defense industry on its head. I remember when the Bush administration first came in their major priority was China and what to do about the rise of China and terrorism was really on the back burner. After 9/11 everything changed. The United States changed the way it thought about the region. The United States changed the way it pursued these clandestine groups that had been causing problems in different parts of the world but never really attracted U.S. attention.
All of a sudden these various groups got swept up together in a larger war on terror; and since 9/11 over the past decade, we’ve spent billions of dollars in pursuit of a very difficult goal, which is eradicating these small groups that seek to create overreactions on the part of governments.
It seems to some degree that the United States can overreact militarily or act prematurely without full knowledge of their enemies and allies, when combating terrorist organizations. How have the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan impacted how the United States conducts its global operations against terrorists?
Well, I think both of those situations were born of an overreaction. The history of terrorism shows these small acts of violence are designed to provoke just these sorts of large overreactions, because I think the thinking on the part of the terrorist groups is that if you can provoke a government to overreact, that’s going to cause people to choose sides. And eventually it’s going to bleed the resources of the government involved. And I think that’s what you saw happening in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq. Initially the U.S. went about pursuing Al Qaeda and Afghanistan in the right way, which was committing small numbers of Special Forces and CIA operatives working with the locals to overthrow the Taliban in pursue of Al Qaeda.
But, In the years after we got drawn into a nation building exercise that greatly drained our resources and the returns of which have been debatable. Iraq also; the ties to terrorism were even more thin, but nevertheless we committed a large number of ground forces. And there again we were forced to expend a lot of blood and treasure in pursuit of Al Qaeda, and we managed to tamp down the terrorist violence in the country. But since we left, it has also been coming back as well. So, the United States has to get smarter about pursuing these kinds of enemies, and the current economic crisis I think is forcing us to become smarter.
Is terrorism still a major threat to our country?
Terrorism is definitely still a threat because democracies are especially prone to overreaction. So any time there’s a terrorist attack in a country like the United States, even if the government is thinking more level headedly about the response, popular outrage pushes a government to overreact. For example, after the 2009 to bring down the U.S. airplane over Detroit, the Bush administration was initially… excuse me, the Obama administration was initially pretty level headed in how they responded but the public outcry over the ensuing the weeks really ratcheted up the pressure on the administration to do more. And as a consequence, the current drone war in Yemen was born out of that pressure, to make sure that Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which had attempted this attack in Detroit, to make sure they weren’t able to do it again.
How has the United States gone about dealing with terrorism? How has that changed since 9/11?
I think initially we were more willing to commit large ground forces in countries we deemed to be safe havens for terrorists. Because of the economic downturn, because America is war weary, we are turning much more now to unconventional means, committing Special Forces, using the CIA, using unmanned drones to try and dismantle terrorist organizations in hard to reach places.
How does the rise of cyber threats affect the United States global campaign against terrorist organizations?
With regards to terrorism, we haven’t seen many instances of nongovernmental groups with the ability to use the internet or cyber infrastructure to attack the United States or its allies in a way that killed people. They can use it to raise money, they can use it to plan operations and connect with people; but, it’s not really being used as a weapon yet. So far, only states are able to muster the kind of technological knowhow in order to mount a real serious attack on another country.
How is United States using cyber products, espionage, etc. to supplement anti-terror operations?
The United States has gotten very good at monitoring terrorists who use the internet. We’ve also, at least according to press reporting, have gotten more sophisticated in going after terrorist websites. But I think the best use of the internet for the United States, in terms of our national security, the best use of the internet is in monitoring these groups; there is much more to be gained by monitoring their behavior, who they’re connecting with online, as opposed to just removing terrorist websites.
Do you have any insight into the cyber attack against Iran’s nuclear program, the so-called “Stuxnet Virus,” and who might have carried it out?
All I know about the attack on Iran, the cyber attack on Iran, is what I’ve read in the press. And according to the press it was a joint operation between the United States and the Israelis, designed to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The virus that was written seems to have gotten a little bit out of control, and moved beyond it’s original target, which gives you a sense of the danger of lodging this kind of attack, you don’t know what the second and third order of affects are going to be.
These are times of great economic uncertainty and unrest. How have budget constraints affected national security and military operations? What types are programs are vulnerable to a loss in funding due to budget cuts?
Right now the big worry is that the Republicans and the Democrats are not going to be able to make a deal and that there will be heavy cuts as a consequence. Regardless of whether or not a deal happens, there are going to be big cuts; and I think the defense community is already starting to feel the effect of those cuts. I know for myself working as an analyst, if you compare today with five years ago, it’s much more difficult today to get studies funded. Studies of the U.S. military, studies of our adversaries- this is really the lifeblood of policy making and defense thinking, and it’s going to be one of the first areas to be cut in this constrained budget environment.
As an analyst, if policy makers were to ask you what we should be doing in terms of threat assessment for the United States, and what you believe to be the most serious threat to our national security, what would you say?
Terrorism is going to continue to be an enduring threat, and not only does the United States have to keep an eye on groups like Al Qaeda, which are changing rapidly; but they also have to keep an eye on emerging groups. For example in Europe, you’re seeing growing violence among the political right on the continent-all of these require some amount of study, and in this constrained budget environment there’s less money available for it.
Do changes in places like Egypt and Libya represent a threat, or is it an opportunity for the United States and its allies?
The Middle East has become much more complicated because of the revolutions of the past two years and become a real policy challenge for the United States and its allies. The entire mix of who are enemies are, who are friends are, has really been thrown up in the air and I think everyone is scrambling to figure out what the new map of the region is going to look like politically, economically, strategically.
Has the West’s lack of understanding and knowledge of the historical and cultural legacies in places such as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan hindered military and diplomatic efforts in these regions?
I think it’s true that the less we know about a country, the more we’re going to fumble if we try to invade that country or seek to influence its politics. I think it’s also the case that the United States has to be more modest in its expectations of what can be achieved through force. We see that we can do a great job overthrowing an army, but dealing with a very messy aftermath of that conquest can be really difficult; and I think the past 10 years have shown us that we’re not very good at nation building, and no one is really good at nation building. So I think it’s important to have a background in the culture of the country that you’re seeking to influence. But even more you have to have some modesty about what you can achieve there as an outsider.
How does the United States craft a policy concerning Iranian-Israeli tensions with respect to Israel’s statements about an invasion of or preemptive strike against Iran?
The United States is walking a real tightrope in regards to the conflict between Israel and Iran. On the one hand Iran is seeking a weapon so it won’t be subject to invasion, just this sort of invasion from the outside. On the other hand Israel is determined they won’t get that weapon, and the United States has said the same. But how you do that in a way that maintains stability in the region at a time when it is undergoing such incredible turmoil is very difficult for policy makers in the United States.
Is it possible for the United States and its allies to determine if Iran actually has a nuclear capability and are developing weapons?
I don’t know the extent to which the United States is able to verify that Iran is getting close to acquiring a nuclear weapon. It certainly seems from press reporting that they continue down that path, but I don’t know that the United States is ever going to have perfect knowledge of when they come close to achieving it. And it may be the case that Iran never declares itself a nuclear power. You can get some of the benefits of being a nuclear power without actually declaring yourself one. If you go all the way up to the line but don’t step over it, in other words you have some sort of nuclear weapons capability, but you don’t demonstrate it. This may be what we’re heading for in the region and perhaps the United States and Israel will learn to live with it, but time will tell.
What sort of policy options would you suggest for the United States regarding Iran?
I think the United States is already on the right path towards Iran. We have introduced very tough sanctions, we have the Europeans on board, the sanctions seem to be having an effect on the Iranians. They’re willing to engage in more and more talks with the United States. So I think we’re pursuing the right path. The president has said he will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, but he’s also been open to other means of pressuring Iran to give up its search for nuclear weapons.
Share with us thoughts on what you do, as analyst, and why it’s important to be engaging in threat assessment.
The process of threat assessment is more of an art than a science. Often times you’re dealing with potential enemies whose thinking is obscure, whose inner thoughts are unavailable to you and you have to read the tea leaves in trying to define what their actions might be. The stuff I focus on are Jihadi terrorist organizations, based primarily in the Middle East. They like to post a lot of their musings online, they post videos, they post statements. So, I spend a lot of my time reading them and trying to get hints and suggestions as to where they might be headed next and I’ve been surprised over the years how fruitful that kind of exercise can be, you can really tell a lot about these sorts of organizations by reading the kind of literature that they put out online.
What are the major issues facing the United States government in the Middle East in this period of great unrest and change?
I think one of the major questions facing the U.S. government is how Islamists political actors in the Middle East will behave once they attain power. Really the only actor we have familiarity with is Iran, which has been hostile at times to the United States. Now we see the rise of other Islamic political actors like the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, for example in Egypt where they now control virtually the entire government and the United States is waiting to see how that new regime is going to behave. Are they going to play nice with Israel? Are they going to help secure U.S. interests in the region? Time will tell.
With respect to the leaders in Iran, do we have an understanding of them and do they have an understanding of us? Or is there misunderstanding that devolves into a mistrust for each side?
I think the less we talk to Iran, the more our distrust grows because our absence of knowledge and interaction with actual individuals in the government. When you’re faced off against a hostile power like Iran, it can be very difficult to break through because you don’t know the personalities behind the government, with all of their own personal foibles and idiosyncrasies. And it’s very difficult as an analyst to sit back and read a press report about Iran, particularly produced in Iran, which is very heavily controlled by the state. So this is one of those exercises where you’re reading tea leaves trying to find the intent of a government based on sources of information that are incredibly biased, it’s very difficult for analysts in the west to parse what the Iranian leadership is doing.
If you were placed in the situation to share your assessments with our government leaders on any number of topics what would you say to them?
I would focus particularly on the Middle East and the political transformation that’s occurring right now. For decades, Islamist political parties have tried to participate in the political process and they have been shut out by governments usually aligned with the United States. Because of the Arab uprisings that’s changing and this is going to have a major impact on the region. Not only are moderate Islamists getting involved in politics in the region, but also very conservative Muslims are getting involved who have stood against parliamentary politics in the past but are now participating in the political process.
In what direction do you believe President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt is taking his country? Can you make an assessment of what the Egyptian government is doing and how that will impact the U.S. relationship?
I’ve been particularly impressed by the way the Muslim Brotherhood has navigated the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt and has been able to take power in that country and push the military if not all the way to they side, at least bring them on their side. And I think the new president Morsi is consolidating his power, it is unclear, right now, as to how he’s going to govern exactly because he’s still trying to get his house in order. But I think for sure you can expect the laws governing the country, particularly social behavior, it’s going to become much more conservative because it’s a conservative religious party that now runs the country. The big question facing U.S. policy makers is how they’re going to behave towards the United States and US interests in the region.
As we have discussed, it seems Israel, Iran and Egypt seem to be the big three players in the Middle East right now. With respect to those three, how does each of their positions influence United States policy and operations in the Middle East?
So Israel, Egypt, and Iran; I think a great deal hangs on whether Israel decides to launch a war, or not, against Iran, because that’s really going to turn up the political heat on other governments around Israel. Egypt, which may adopt a more moderate approach towards Israel is going to be pushed to more of an extreme because there’s going to be an outcry against an Israeli strike, on Israel. So I think a lot depends on how things go down between Israel and Iran, and also how the Syrian revolution plays out. It could lead to further instability in the region; Morsi has already called for President Assad in Syria to step down. There’s no telling what kind of military or economic assistance he may be offering behind the scenes. Iran is also getting more involved in Syria. We could be moving towards a much broader regional conflict over the next few years.