A new approach to new terror: Three Horizons of combating extremism

In a matter of decades, our idea of terrorism has shifted considerably. We no longer associate extremism with loosely organized groups of Kalashnikov-toting Pashtun tribesmen, but rather with the industrial IED factories and drones of ISIS. This phenomenon reflects the emergence of a “radical Darwinism,” whereby modern terrorist groups are adapting to changes in technology similar to how bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics.


These rapid advancements are not just a cause for concern amongst those most susceptible to terrorist attacks. Radicals unable to embrace large-scale societal changes are also at risk, and with good reason. The guerilla tactics of the Afghan Mujahideen in the 70s are simply no match for the complex online financing and international recruitment operations used by ISIS today.  While new groups are constantly improving their combat and outreach strategies, older groups that haven’t adapted as readily are quick to fade into obscurity.  The result is a world where terrorist groups are stronger, more sophisticated, and more threatening than ever before. This necessitates a new, critical outlook at how extremism ought to be fought and preempted around the world.  Thus, I propose a tiered approach to asymmetrical warfare based on the speech General John Allen (USMC, ret.) gave on “The New 100 Years War” at New York University in Spring 2017.


The Near Horizon


Since the beginning of the War on Terror, the United States and its coalition partners have both directly and indirectly engaged with extremist groups across the globe.  The near horizon approach, however, calls for increasingly indirect rather than direct engagement with these groups and the governments they live under. This approach might initially seem counterintuitive; relative to most other nations, the US is far better equipped to wage war against its enemies. However, just because the US is capable of direct intervention does not mean that it is the best option for it to pursue.


The visible presence of a foreign military in a country, occupying or not, undermines the populace’s confidence in their local government’s authority. This provides extremist propagandists with a convenient scapegoat for the victims of insurgencies, which in turn may act as a radicalization vector. The most effective weapon against such insurgent tactics does not lie in a battle tank, but rather in the judgment of the average citizen. Gauging locals' confidence in their governments is often a more telling indicator of resistance against extremism than the killing of insurgent leaders, as was previously thought. In fact, terrorist groups like ISIS have demonstrated a Hydra-like capability of remaining functional even after the death of a higher-level commander. Thus, the most direct path to victory comes from a dual-pronged where attempts at increasing the local populace’s faith in their government's ability to combat extremists are used in conjunction with covert, targeted destruction of key enemy personnel and resources.


The past 14 years have demonstrated the possible advantages of this approach. The US’s occupation of Iraq and subsequent heavy-handed attempts at reorganizing its government polarized an already fractionated society and served as a catalyst for a new decade of sectarian violence. This was also fueled by the large amounts of collateral damage that occurred during the period. Then, the drastic troop reductions during the Obama administration coupled with a woefully under-trained Iraqi Army and police force provided a vacuum for ISIS to entrench itself in northern Iraq. As a result, public faith in government and the condition of political and military establishments were not strong enough for post-occupation Iraq to maintain proper sovereignty.


In order to avoid repeating the same mistakes, these lessons must be learned and incorporated into military strategy. The ability to conduct air strikes with extreme precision is arguably the United States’ greatest asset in the War on Terror. However, the resulting destruction of infrastructure and civilian deaths both undermine the US’s moral mandate and serve as instant propaganda for the extremists. As such, air strikes and similar uses of conventional heavy weaponry should be used sparingly and only after serious consideration of alternatives. At the same time, use of Special Forces and other elite US soldiers as advisors and trainers for local militaries should be increased. While this does not completely remove troops from harm’s way, it results in a far smaller American footprint than a conventional garrison of US soldiers on the ground. It would be a tremendous boon to civilian morale to see domestic militaries winning victories against extremists as opposed to Western military intervention. In addition, materiel support in the form of weaponry and munitions, vehicles, and military equipment should be issued on a results-based policy rather than unconditionally. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, with checkered anti-extremist records, would be subject to intense review prior to any sales or transactions. Overall, the objective of the Near horizon is to find the perfect balance between too much and too little military force projection while increasing the self-sufficiency of regional governments and militaries.




In contrast to the Near horizon, the Far horizon consists of careful, concerted multinational diplomacy to contain and combat the spread of extremism. In his speech, General Allen likened it to a “New Marshall Plan,” referring to the United States’ efforts to fund rebuilding efforts in Europe as a bulwark against communism. While the threat the Soviet bloc posed to the US in the mid-20th century is significantly different compared to the threat of religious extremism, the strategies used to combat it can nonetheless provide us with great insight.


Such a plan would stipulate that coalition members financially invest in the rebuilding of critical infrastructure in war-torn countries. In addition, economic resolutions should be created in order to spur the formation of healthy, multivalent trade based on commercial goods and commodities instead of just arms and oil. Similarly, the old notion of “democracy building” needs to be replaced by “democracy incubating” policies that reward governments based on self-determination and fair representation while ensuring self-sufficiency and sovereignty.


Fundamentally, Western governments must reconcile themselves with the fact that the encouragement of a neutral or non-aligned democracy is better for national security than an erstwhile autocratic ally. It is not good practice to advocate a “laissez-faire” approach to Middle Eastern geopolitics and simultaneously engage with some of the world’s most repressive and unpopular regimes. A key example of this is President Trump’s treatment of Qatar. A long history of strategic alliance and the presence of a large US Air Force base there notwithstanding, President Trump chose to skewer the Qatari government as a “sponsor of terrorism,” while simultaneously selling $110 billion dollars of military equipment to Saudi Arabia. It should be noted that Saudi Arabia is the home of the hardline Wahhabi sect of Islam, and that the Saudi government has been waging an extremely destructive war against Houthis in Yemen using American munitions. What is the result? Indiscriminate use of weapons by the Saudi military has further alienated the Yemeni people and legitimized the narrative of Al Qaeda affiliates in the region.


A more recent example of this is President Trump’s decision to cease providing supplies and arms to branches of the Free Syrian Army. As it stands, Bashar al-Assad’s government has consolidated its territory on the Syrian heartland with the help of Russian airstrikes and tactical support. The logic on President Trump’s part is that providing arms into an increasingly grim rebellion is no longer an investment, but a liability. This is sensible in the short term, and widely supported considering how prior rebel groups supported with US arms turned out. As a result, the current administration is content with letting the rebellion against Assad’s government fizzle. However, historical precedent from Saddam Hussein and First Gulf War shows that autocratic governments will not yield to a slap on the wrist. Not only does the cessation of support for the rebellion prevent the creation of a government based on self-determination and democratic principles, it will result in disenfranchised generations growing up in a devastated country and further entrench societal instability.


The United States’ engagements with Qatar and Syria demonstrate its tendency to overlook the long-term repercussions of its actions abroad. Whereas current strategic thought is limited to the scale of weeks and months, diplomats and generals need to consider the repercussions of modern warfare on a generational scale. The sale of weaponry and munitions has long been a staple of mutual-defense alliances, but the recipients of these sales must be carefully vetted. A Far Horizon approach would consider the ramifications of short-term tactics on a much longer scale.




What makes someone strap on a suicide vest or pick up a rifle? A pathological predisposition to violence could certainly account for some cases, but not all. The likes of Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon might say religion is the motivating factor – I do not believe this to be the case. Although most modern terrorist leaders (such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) have nominally ascribed to Salafi and Wahhabi ideologies, terrorism is the product of a much deeper set of deeper social and environmental factors. Essentially, these factors drive normal individuals to horrific violence, with the religious aspect acting as a delivery mechanism or catalyst. The Deep Horizon of extremism aims to identify these factors in an effort to preempt further radicalization.


There is a noticeable correlation between social instability and tendency to engage in extremist violence. There are exceptions, but the average ISIS foot soldier comes from a relatively unstable background punctuated by violence. Based on documents recovered from ISIS strongholds, the average age of fighters fluctuated from early to late twenties, varying by origin. The average age of fighters from Iraq and Syria is 27-28, reflecting a generation that grew up in the context of physical and economic devastation following the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf Wars. Some 30-40% of ISIS commanders belonged to the pre-occupation Iraqi Army and Police and were ousted during the American De-Baathification policy. Many of these individuals, such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were imprisoned in the American military prisons at Abu Ghraib and Taji during the second Iraq War. The remainder grew up in a devastated economy, reeling from international sanctions such as UN Resolution 661. For many young men denied the opportunity to pursue honest work or education, ISIS and Al Qaeda’s terrorist ideologies represented a way out. In light of this, the motivations of older ex-Baathists and younger socially and economically disenfranchised Iraqis who comprise ISIS and Al Qaeda can be explained.


Yet, this analysis still fails in the context of a country like Syria, which had markedly less social instability relative to Iraq. Although it was also a Baathist government run by the Assad family, it did not undergo protracted conventional military engagements such as the Iran-Iraq war and was not subject to economic sanctions prior to 2003. In addition, while Iraq’s economy is heavily reliant on petroleum exports, Syria’s pre-war economy was a relatively robust mix of petroleum, agriculture, and trade, and therefore somewhat less subject to instabilities in global petroleum trade. In fact, Syria managed to maintain a higher GDP increase rate during the Great Recession than most Western countries. So, what induced the rapid and catastrophic transformation of the country from relative stability to the worst humanitarian crisis of last two generations?


Many look toward the issue of environment’s degradation to help explain that of the state. Prewar Syrian agriculture accounted for roughly 21% of the GDP and employed slightly less than a fifth of the population. However, a drought from 2006-2011 devastated the agriculture sector and heavily added to the staggeringly high Syrian youth unemployment rate7, as well as an urban migration. According to NASA, the drought was the most severe in 900 years and was directly and indirectly linked to climate change. The resulting increase in the price of staple foods and influx of unemployed Syrians refugees towards urban centers were an explosive combination that contributed to the onset of the Syrian Civil War. The ominous aspect of this situation is that Middle Eastern countries are experiencing unprecedented increases in the occurrence of heat waves and anomalously high temperatures. Chronic regional conflict and continued temperature increase has the potential for becoming a “one-two punch” and devastating agriculture beyond the Euphrates basin. The example of Syria shows that a negative impact on agriculture and concomitant exodus of people can disrupt countries that are currently relatively stable.


Environmental factors and social instability can have a detrimental impact on food prices and job availability. Destabilized regions affected by one or the other generate angry young people, who in turn provide a potential source of recruits for regional extremist factions. A current example of a destabilized area is the significant Rohingya minority in exile from Myanmar. If the humanitarian crisis there is not resolved, disenfranchised young Rohingya men and women could become easy targets for extremist propagandists. A Deep Horizon approach to warfare would establish this causality and attempt to fix the problem from its deepest roots, be it in the form of food aid or economic opportunity.


Facing the Horizons


There is no single solution to the problem of extremism and terrorism. These difficulties lie in how amorphous the threat is- there is no definitive flag or uniform, no distinguishing characteristic to identify. As such, the international community must dig deep and address the overarching themes of socioeconomic instability that drive people to violence in the first place. Problems such as urban population shifts and rising temperatures must be predicted and addressed. Diplomats and heads of state must put national security concerns ahead of political brownie points, and foster international cooperation as a long-term economic and security benefit to the global community. Generals and commanders of military forces must identify and destroy the enemy with unprecedented nuance- adapting to new tactics and environments and striving to avoid the infrastructure damage and civilian devastation that precipitates future conflict. Large-scale military adventurism by coalition military powers should be replaced with precision air strikes, materiel support, training, and highly select applications Special Forces operators.


These broad strategic changes are easier said than done. Shortsighted planning and policy-making will do nothing to prevent new varieties of extremism from continuing to crop up around the world. Unless the underlying causalities are investigated and changes are implemented, the threat of extremism will continue to loom on the horizon.






Allen, J. R., (USMC Ret.). (2017, April 5). The New 100 Years War? Causes of Regional Instability and the Rise of the Islamic State. Lecture presented at Irving H. Jurow Lecture Series in New York University, New York City.

Collelo, T. & Library Of Congress. Federal Research Division. (1988) Syria: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress: For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O. [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Country Intelligence: Syria. (2012). Syria Country Monitor, 1-22.

Crocker, R. (2015). Fighting ISIS, Then and Now. In NYE J., SCOWCROFT B., Cartwright J., Cohen J., Feaver P., Flournoy M., et al. (Authors) & BURNS N. & PRICE J. (Eds.), Blind Spot: America's Response to Radicalism in the Middle East (pp. 71-75). Aspen Institute.

Dobbins, J., Solomon, R., Chase, M., Henry, R., Larrabee, F., Lempert, R., . . . Shatz, H. (2015). Counterterrorism. In Choices for America in a Turbulent World: Strategic Rethink (pp. 49-56). RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

Li, R. K. (2016). Explaining the different outcomes of the 2011 uprisings: A historical-comparative study of Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. Conference Papers -- American Sociological Association, 1-11.

Mathbout, S., Lopez-Bustins, J. A., Martin-Vide, J., Bech, J., & Rodrigo, F. S. (2017). Spatial and temporal analysis of drought variability at several time scales in Syria during 1961–2012. Atmospheric Research, doi:10.1016/j.atmosres.2017.09.016

Salazar, P. (2016). A Caliphate of Culture? ISIS's Rhetorical Power. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 49(3), 343-354. doi:10.5325/philrhet.49.3.0343

Selby, J., Dahi, O. S., Fröhlich, C., & Hulme, M. (2017). Climate change and the Syrian civil war revisited. Political Geography, 60232-244. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2017.05.007

Shaikh, M. (2015). Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Online: An Anecdotal Case Study Related to Engaging ISIS Members and Sympathizers (from North America, Western Europe, and Australia) on Twitter. Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal,98(4), 478-487. doi:10.5325/soundings.98.4.0478

Verwimp, P. (2016). Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq and the Socio-Economic Environment They Faced at Home: A Comparison of European Countries. Perspectives On Terrorism, 10(6), 68-81. Wendle, J. (2016). Syria's Climate Refugees. Scientific American, 314(3), 50-55.