On September 12, 2019, Lieutenant General Michael Nagata, USA, Ret. came to The Institute of World Politics to discuss the United States’ efforts in counterterrorism.
LTG (R) Nagata retired from the US Army in 2019 after 38 years of Active Duty, 34 of which were spent in US Special Operations. His final position was Director of Strategy for the National Counterterrorism Center from 2016 to 2019.
LTG Nagata started his lecture posing a simple question, “Are we [the U.S.] winning against terrorism?” He believes this question cannot be answered without first defining what “winning” means in the realm of counterterrorism. He discussed three possible definitions.
The first definition LTG Nagata gave defines “winning” as never having another 9/11. Under this definition, he believes that the U.S. has won. The U.S. has successfully been able to identify and stop terrorist attempts. However, the issue with this definition is that for the U.S. to continue to “win” on this front, there can be no end; the U.S. would have to endlessly continue to stop such attempts.
The second definition that LTG Nagata proposed defines “winning” as the U.S. developing better capabilities to counter terrorist attacks. He agreed that the U.S. has also won using this definition saying, “Some of the things we are able to do now are almost magical by comparison to what we were capable of 18 years ago.” However, while the U.S. has made many advancements in countering terrorist activity, there are more terrorists than there were 18 years ago.
The last definition, which LTG Nagata favored the most, defines “winning” in the context of the U.S. and its allies becoming more skilled and capable at identifying vulnerable groups and preventing them from becoming terrorists. Under this definition, LTG Nagata believes that the U.S. is losing.
LTG (R) Nagata provided strategies for how the U.S. could “win” on this front. He suggested a “Non-Kinetic Counterterrorism” strategy. This strategy would refrain from using physical force and instead use non-violent methods to combat terrorism.
The first part of his strategy would include terrorist prevention: using legal measures to identify vulnerable groups and persuade them against terrorism.
The second part entails the U.S. becoming more effective in combating extremist use of the internet. Terrorists use the internet to radicalize people by strategically offering them deals. The truth of the matter is that the U.S. and its allies are not offering them anything better. Nagata argued that in order to combat terrorism on this level, the U.S. must come up with a better offer for these individuals. The next part of the strategy restricts terrorists from traveling. The liberalization of travel makes it easier for terrorists to travel and harder for TSA agents and similar agencies to identify and stop terrorists from traveling abroad.
Denying terrorists resources is another part of the strategy. Restricting money and technology capabilities would immensely restrict terrorists’ capabilities. The last part of the strategy that LTG Nagata outlined was that the U.S. must recognize that “there are very real reasons why people take the path to violent extremism.” In his opinion, “at least some of what we’re seeing in the growth of terrorism is a reflection of an ongoing change and in large measure deterioration of the traditional relationship between populations everywhere and their governments.” While he says that some of these changes are beneficial, they also have unintended consequences that create breeding grounds for terrorism.
In one question asked by an audience member, LTG (R) Nagata explained the importance of combating terrorism in the U.S. and how it could provide valuable information on combating terrorism elsewhere. “If we can figure out how to do it here,” he spoke, “we would learn enormous lessons about how to do it elsewhere.”