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Chris Costa discusses the lessons learned from 2017’s national security threats

On January 14, 2020, Chris Costa, former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism on the National Security Council (NSC) and current Executive Director of the Spy Museum, came to speak at IWP. Mr. Costa discussed his experience on the NSC in 2017, the global threats that arose during this time, and how the strategies implemented in 2017 can be applied to the threats of today.

Mr. Costa began the lecture by describing his personal background that led to his lengthy career in counterterrorism and intelligence. As a Cold War veteran and intelligence officer, Mr. Costa believed that those aspects of his career gave him significant advantages in the post 9/11 world due to a higher need for intelligence officers and those who had spent time overseas.

Mr. Costa described to the audience the main challenges that he and the new National Security Council inherited on Inauguration Day. The first of those was a “post-Bin Laden World,” which caused a “disrupted landscape” that gave way to the rise of the Islamic State. This “gray zone,” as Mr. Costa termed it, created a great power struggle that was going to prove difficult for the new administration to tackle. Ultimately, he strongly promoted continuity: the ability to continue the counterterrorism strategies that had been used since 9/11.

The four main problems inherited by Mr. Costa and the Trump administration included: a decision to pursue a raid against Al-Qaeda, the pervasive threat to commercial aviation, the campaign against ISIS accelerating, and hostage crises in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. These issues required Mr. Costa to speak to all realms of the national security sector in the Executive branch.

In order to tackle these issues, Mr. Costa and his team of counterterrorism intelligence officers focused on defending the United States homeland, promoting American interests abroad, and dismantling terrorist organizations. Functionally, the counterterrorism team was responsible for countering radicalization, stopping the flow of foreign fighters to the Middle East, mitigating the threat of cyber-terrorism, and hostage-taking.

Mr. Costa then went on to describe reflections from his experience and the lessons he learned from inside the White House. Firstly, he noted, “by, with, and through works,” stressing the effectiveness of cooperating with foreign partners, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Mr. Costa went on to stress that the Counter-Terrorism Security Group (CTS) enterprise does indeed work. He argued that it should not be adjusted or minimized going forward. The next lesson was that counterterrorism pressure is effective, specifically the usage of direct action. Mr. Costa specifically cited the land dismantlement of the physical Islamic State Caliphate as an example of successful direct action. Finally, Mr. Costa admitted that he and his team did not do enough work on domestic counter-radicalization and stressed the importance of this for the current administration and National Security Council.

The strategy proposed by Mr. Costa in his lecture highlighted the counterterrorism efforts that should start, stop, and be continued. With regard to what should “start,” Mr. Costa circled back to his original argument surrounding the “gray zone” and how counterterrorism should be recognized as an essential part of those broader conflicts, especially in the Middle East. Continuing, Mr. Costa argued that it was unproductive to keep debating about any withdrawal of troops in Syria and ultimately warned against it. He then emphasized that American relationships with foreign partners needed to increase in development in order to execute any counterterrorism practices.

After stressing these initiatives, Mr. Costa presented what he perceives as the four biggest threats in terms of counterterrorism: A rebrand of the Islamic State, a resurrection of Al-Qaeda, an expansion of Hezbollah, and lone wolf attackers. In the interest of time, Mr. Costa did not elaborate on his reasoning for these concerns.

Mr. Costa then circled back to the strategy of direct action. He called the policy that was implemented “a very practical policy practice that was deliberately opaque.” Costa described their direct action measures as a collaborative inter-agency process that ended in solutions with political resolution to longstanding conflicts. He emphasized that this strategy reduced an overreliance on militarization. He then addressed some of the other terrorist threats that took place during his tenure, including a hostage crisis in Afghanistan, the Las Vegas shooting, and domestic lone-wolf Islamic State sympathizers.

The threats and National Security Council strategy of 2017 became the precedent for the formal counterterrorism strategy in 2018, once Mr. Costa had already left his post at the White House. While not a part of its authorship, Mr. Costa endorsed the strategy, satisfied that it not only encompassed but also addressed the concerns he voiced a year earlier.

Mr. Costa concluded his lecture by expressing his concerns for the withdrawal of troops in Iraq, the thousands of displaced peoples in the Middle East, and the release of terrorist convicts in the coming years. His concluding thoughts re-emphasized his call for the continuance of a direct action strategy and the importance of allocating resources towards counterterrorism efforts.

Certificate Program in Counterterrorism M.A. in Statecraft and National Security Affairs