Managing Director, Morgan Stanley; Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism, National Security Council
Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, Council on Foreign Relations; Professor, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
Faculty Chair of National Security Law Program and Liviu Librescu Professor of Law, Columbia University; Adjunct Senior Fellow for Law and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Staff Writer, New Yorker
SORKIN: Well, good morning and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations College and University Educators Workshop and to our plenary session with the exciting name “Counterterrorism: Efforts to Safeguard the United States.”
And let me just quickly introduce our really exceptional speakers. From the distance, Matthew Waxman, Jen Easterly, Bruce Hoffman. I’m not going to use up the time going through their resumes since you have them I think printed out, except to say that all three have been at the center of the discussion we’re engaging in today, both as scholars and practitioners, so I think that they’re going to be a great—a great resource.
So let’s start with just a really basic definition. Bruce, what is terrorism? (Laughter.) And who counts as a terrorist?
HOFFMAN: Right. Well, you’ve started with probably, especially for educators, one of the most difficult questions, because as anyone who teaches the subject knows that defining terrorism is a fraught and highly contested endeavor.
SORKIN: And we’re going to do it. (Laughter.)
HOFFMAN: We’re going to do it. I would—and parenthetically, I’ll say thirty-five years ago in one of the first big studies of this, when a scholar asked a hundred specialists on terrorism how they defined terrorism, he got 104 answers, right? (Laughter.) So it’s like a bad New York joke,
I would say, though, fundamentally, terrorism is violence or the threat of violence designed to achieve fundamental political change through intimidation and coercion. It’s generally directed against societies and populations. It can be targeted against governments. I would say—and this is one of the most-disputed aspects—that in its most normative and accepted sense we understand terrorism to be something perpetrated by non-state actors.
Where it’s changed is that in the past one would have said it had to be an identifiable, existing terrorist organization. But the lone wolf phenomena I think has now meant that some ideological affinity to a broader movement can count as terrorism.
SORKIN: Can you give us an example of somebody who is on the edge who does or doesn’t count as a—somebody who doesn’t count as a terrorist, somebody who does count as a terrorist?
HOFFMAN: Sure. That’s probably easier than who is a terrorist.
Stephen Paddock, the shooter at the Mandalay Beach (sic; Bay) Resort in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. Firstly, we don’t know the motive. And even in the U.S. Code, in defining terrorism, the intent or the motive is absolutely central. So we have no idea why he killed those people. It certainly terrorized individuals, but inducing fear and anxiety is not the same as undertaking violence with some political purpose or some intimidatory purpose to a racial, ethnic, or religious group. So he would not be a terrorist.
The individual a few weeks later, for instance, who plowed into pedestrians on the Westway, a pedestrian area in Lower Manhattan, would be at terrorist because he put his violence in a political context. He was undertaking it on behalf of an ideology. He claimed affinity with a movement. So that’s where that line—
SORKIN: That almost suggests that you can retrospectively classify somebody as a terrorist if you have this mystery shooter and later find, like, a manifesto or something like that.
HOFFMAN: Well, and that’s one of the problems, is I think the detailed investigation that attends—and the evidentiary level to rise to a terrorist crime, let’s say as opposed to a hate crime, where I think they’re both almost identical in many senses—terrorism is the ultimate hate crime—but some of the differences is determining not so much the target or the victim, but the motivation and the intention.
SORKIN: So you would put those as synonymous, hate crime and terrorist, or?
HOFFMAN: Well, it’s about intimidation and coercion. It often is a political motive because it’s about subjugation. Again—and Matt can talk about this, and Jen as well, in much more detail. In the law, though, there is—there is a different definition.
SORKIN: So let’s stick with that just briefly on that question. Do either of you—would each of you agree with that definition? Do you see complications with it? Do you want to qualify it?
WAXMAN: So, I mean, I think it’s—as Bruce said, and he’s really the expert on this, you know, it’s always been a very difficult concept to define precisely, and there are edge cases that are—that are complicated. I think it depends—I think the definition—and for it to be useful, the definition depends a lot on what it is that you’re trying to do. You know, if you’re talking, for example, about defining terrorism or terrorist threats for the purposes of using military force abroad at certain entities or organizations, you might want one definition. If you’re talking about what you want as part of the U.S. Code for federal criminal law for defining certain types of offenses, you might define it differently. So I usually think that rather than trying to come up with one sweeping definition that applies across the board, it’s useful to think about what is—what is it that we’re trying to do to combat certain types of threats.
SORKIN: Jen, would you agree with that?
EASTERLY: Yeah, I mean, I agree with that. Look, I come—I come from a practitioner perspective. So, you know, you can talk about domestic terrorism, you can talk about foreign terrorism. My time spent in government, in the military and in the intelligence community, was all focused on foreign terrorist organizations. So as we looked at the focus post-9/11, we think about al-Qaida, and you can talk about the AUMF and authorized use of military force, which had second- and third-order impacts on our authorities to go after certain groups. You know, Matt might want to weigh in on that. But with respect to scoping, I think, this discussion for educators in terms of what are the tools, what are the policies, what are the strategies that we want to think about with respect to countering terrorist group(s) who may want to do harm to America, I think it’s a good way to sort of just scope it a little bit to those groups post-9/11 that we focused on.
SORKIN: Let me just hone in on that a little bit. It’s sort of an—sort of basic question, but what’s the difference between—how do you draw the line between foreign terrorism and domestic terrorism? When—is that that it’s to a group that’s based overseas, an ideology that has its origins overseas? It seems like the line could get really fuzzy between where domestic people with foreign-inspired beliefs and a domestic terrorist organization.
EASTERLY: Yeah. I mean, Bruce can weigh in from a definitional perspective. When we were looking at my portfolio, which was entirely focused on foreign terrorist organizations, it was groups like you know, priority focus on al-Qaida, on ISIS, on Hezbollah to some extent. There’s, obviously, state-sponsored terrorism. When you think about domestic terrorism, which was not specifically in my portfolio at the National Security Council, you think about some of the white nationalism issues. And you know, we could have a discussion about what is the right strategy to deal with domestic terrorism as we’ve seen more of these events over the past couple years, and I think that’s useful to talk through, but I don’t know if Bruce has any thoughts on sort of the differentiation.
HOFFMAN: Well, I mean, it’s actually a great question, and I think you basically answered it. The only thing I would add is that it’s so much easier to figure out who foreign terrorists are because there’s a foreign terrorist organizations list and there’s U.S. legislation that places groups—more controversially in the past week the Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran—on that list. But nonetheless, there is a list of foreign terrorist organizations that triggers all kinds of legislative, legal, and in turn military responses.
There’s no such list in the United States domestically. I think it would be enormously difficult to come up with one. But we’re left, then, trying to discern between terrorism and hate crimes. First Amendment issues often get involved in this, and the line between extremism and violence, and that’s what I think tips it into terrorism. It’s perfectly fine to be radical or extreme; it’s when you cross the line with violence, at least under U.S. law. I mean, you may abhor those types of things. But when it becomes terrorism, I meant by saying perfectly fine not to condone it, but that that’s not terrorism.
SORKIN: Legally fine.
HOFFMAN: Having extreme views is not terrorism. Using violence or threatening to use violence in pursuit of those views, then it does become terrorism.
SORKIN: All right. So now we have a rough definition of terrorism. Jen, we know what terrorists are. How do we stop them? (Laughter.)
EASTERLY: All right. Stay tuned, right? (Laughter.)
So counterterrorism, you know, it is a very difficult business to be in, but it’s really—it’s not rocket science. At the end of the day there is a toolkit that we have used, you know, through decades to be able to counter terrorists. And I’m going to scope it to foreign terrorists, but it’s extensible to the kind of things that we wouldn’t want to think about if you had a full strategy of a war on domestic terrorists, for example.
But if you just look at the evolution of strategy documents—and as educators, much of this is publicly available—but you can pull the thread from the National Strategy for Counterterrorism that was developed when Matt and I were working in the Bush administration to the post-bin Laden 2011 strategy that was produced by the Obama administration, which was very, very focused, somewhat interestingly—and Bruce may have thoughts on this—on al-Qaida, sort of very center to that group in particular. And then if you look at the Trump administration’s strategy, there is really a thread that’s pulled through, and the kinds of things that we want to do and the kind of tools that we want to focus on, which I think is a good-news story because counterterrorism and the field that I’m in now, cybersecurity, really should be, you know, nonpartisan activities generally. I mean, there’s some tweaking on the margins.
So if you look at a focus on all the things that we need to do to build the infrastructure to protect the homeland, to protect our borders, the watchlists that have been put in place, the measures for aviation security, that was one big bucket of things. There was a huge focus within the Obama administration, and if you read the latest Trump strategy it actually talks about the importance of partnerships and enabling our partners across the globe to focus on what’s going on within their nations to give them the tools—
SORKIN: Give us an example of, like, a partnership like that.
EASTERLY: So, for example, when we were building the counter-ISIS strategy in 2014, the first iteration of that strategy was very, very focused on Iraq and Syria, and a lot of it was about our strong partnership with the Iraqi army and building their capacity back up, because really at the end of the day we think that’s kind of the core reason why ISIS was able to take over Mosul, and most of that and a huge territory in Iraq was because of the weakness of the Iraqi security forces. So it was about rebuilding their capability and capacity. And on the Syria side it was about forging a partnership with the Syrian defense forces—the Kurds, essentially, the Syrian Kurds. So partnering with them, giving them tools so that they can really help solve the problem and we’re not there for extensive lengths of time. So the partnership piece was hugely important.
The ability to effectively take lethal action, that is a—you know, that has to be a core element of it. And if you go back to some of the documents that came out of the Obama administration, a very interesting one from an educational perspective to study is—came out of a 2013 speech that President Obama made at the National Defense University which was about a framework put in place to deal with how do you take lethal action outside of warzones, so outside of areas of active hostility, to minimize civilian casualties, which I think was a very, very important document that was put in because as you saw a ramp-up of lethal action after 9/11 you really needed a structure to make sure that you were being as careful and cautious as possible not to inflame civilian populations when you were using some of these very powerful tools. So that was a piece of it.
The fourth piece was disrupting terrorist enablers, which is going after sources of money, going after manpower—because there was a huge foreign fighter issue associated with ISIS—and then going after ideology. It’s an interesting discussion, to kind of pivot off of Bruce’s point, about inspired terrorism. We spent a lot of time actually working with some of the tech community post the attacks in San Bernardino in December of 2015 to figure out how to prevent many of the big platforms, the social media platforms, from being used for recruitment and radicalization and mobilization to violence. I think that’s an important part of the conversation.
And that goes into sort of the fifth pillar, which is broadly called countering violent extremism, which are things that we can put in place largely domestically to help make sure that the most vulnerable and susceptible people in our society are not coopted by terrorist groups. And that’s extensible, also, to the domestic side.
So those types of tools, you can read the strategy that President Obama put together. You can read the strategy that President Trump put together. There’s actually a very common thread that’s pulled through.
And I guess the last thing that I would say is you have this toolbox. You need to be able to use this whole-of-government approach. But at the end of the day, it has to be a priority that comes from the most senior leadership in government, and it’s got to be, you know, from the White House. And I think you could argue those—many of these tools were in place pre-9/11, but there wasn’t necessarily that core prioritized focused on terrorism in a way that there has been over the past eighteen years.
SORKIN: So that’s a great—a great outline, a great survey of that. Matt, I wonder if you can complicate those answers a little bit. (Laughter.) Just to put it in the most provocative way, how should we not fight terrorism? What are the—you know, thinking about the legal and moral restraints, and ones having to do with American history and values, what should we not do?
WAXMAN: Sure. Well, you know, I think we’ve already, through a period—through a process of legal reform, had some national debates about certain tools that we’ve taken off the table. And I’m thinking here of enhanced interrogation, the most aggressive—
SORKIN: Torture, yeah.
WAXMAN: —the most aggressive forms and what often went by the term warrantless surveillance programs that were initiated by the Bush administration. And on the latter, my own personal biggest concern was not so much the practices that were used, but the fact that they were initiated and used outside of congressional and judicial oversight at first, and they’ve since then been mostly continued but placed under a clearer legislative framework.
But to sort of—to take a step back, let me note that, you know, a couple or a few of the basic legal building blocks of our post-9/11 counterterrorism strategy were put in place very, very, very quickly after the 9/11 attacks and have been continued since then. And I’d say that, you know, the first kind of most fundamental one was a—not just a policy, but a legal decision to treat the conflict with al-Qaida and its affiliates and offshoots as a war or an armed conflict, and not just war in a metaphorical sense but in a legal sense. And you know—and a couple of things happened within just hours and then days of the 9/11 attacks.
First of all, the Bush administration decided to take the position that we as a nation are engaged in a—in a war, and as I said not just in a rhetorical or metaphorical sense but in a—in a legal sense, a war against al-Qaida. And—
SORKIN: Was that the right call?
WAXMAN: I actually think that it was, but I think the—I think we were slow to work out many of the implications of that and figure out how are we going to put limits on them. And I think there was insufficient coordination/consultation with our allies about that decision. But you know, within three days of the 9/11 attacks Congress drafted an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a(n) AUMF. It’s basically just sixty words of operative text that says that the president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against groups, nations, states that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and that supported them or harbored them. And that statute, which was then signed into law a week after 9/11, puts sort of a legislative stamp in this idea that we’re engaged in a war against al-Qaida and—
SORKIN: And affiliated.
WAXMAN: And affiliated groups, which now includes ISIS. And that’s an approach that, while very controversial—and by the way, you know, just to note, I think the sort of the primary alternative to that would be to treat terrorist groups as criminals and use law enforcement as the primary tool. But this idea that we’re engaged in a war against al-Qaida is a decision, a legal move that has at this point been blessed by multiple presidential administrations across parties, multiple Congresses across political majorities, and by the courts. So all three branches of government have bought into this idea.
SORKIN: Now, just to—just to back up, you were saying there were two alternatives: you know, the AUMF, which there’s been a lot of debate about; and treating them as criminal groups. Isn’t a third alternative an updated AUMF or a more specific one—
WAXMAN: Yes. And—
SORKIN: —since the original one’s been stretched?
WAXMAN: And that’s certainly where I would come out, is I think the—I think the flaw—and this is an example of what I meant when I said I don’t think we’re wrong to treat this as a war and an ongoing one, but I think too many of the sort of—too many pieces of the legal framework were put in place in the very immediate aftermath of 9/11 and have not been adequately updated since then. So we are still operating under that same September 2001 AUMF and using it, though, to go after groups that really didn’t exist on 9/11. And that doesn’t take into account the, you know, now almost two decades of experience, in some cases errors but in some cases great successes.
SORKIN: You know, let me just quickly ask each of you, what do you think—you know, you talked about the errors. What do you think the—what do you most regret? What’s the biggest error we’ve had in the last—since 9/11 in fighting terrorism? Jen, do you want to start?
EASTERLY: Well, I think Matt touched on it. It was the enhanced interrogation.
SORKIN: Torture, yeah.
EASTERLY: Yes, as President Obama himself called it. But I think we have done right by that issue. And so—but clearly—and you know, we talk about this; Matt should jump in—you know, you were there on the White House on 9/11. I joined the team about six months after, and we were both working for the national security adviser and the deputy national security adviser, Condi Rice and Steve Hadley. And you can look retrospectively at some of the decisions that were made. You can talk about Guantanamo Bay, enhanced interrogation techniques, some of the surveillance stuff, all of which I think we look back and we say, you know, those were not good decisions. One could look at the Iraq War and say that was one of the most catastrophic decisions made, and you know, in some ways you could argue it birthed ISIS. You know, I spent a long time working on Iraq. I spent time deployed to Iraq. But back then, when you think about all of the things that we were seeing, all of the intelligence we were getting, you know, those were—it was a really tough time to be making decisions in the lens of, you know, a horrible attack on our nation that killed almost three thousand people. And so you have to sort of put yourself back into the mindset that everybody was trying to do the right thing to protect the country and sometimes bad decisions get made.
SORKIN: Bruce, do you want to add to that?
HOFFMAN: Well, I mean, basically Jen and Matt I think said it all and touched on the main issues. The only point I would add is that we often forget that terrorism is a strategy of provocation, and it’s designed certainly to provoke or elicit fear and anxiety amongst a population but also to provoke governments into doing things that the terrorists hope will play into their narrative and strengthen their claims to being victims or defenders of a—of a particular cause or population. And I think in retrospect it’s easy to say that you have to avoid that, stepping into that trap of provocation and understanding that’s what terrorists are trying to do, but that’s often where we’ve gone awry.
SORKIN: You know, I’m really interested in something Jen said about, you know, being in this situation and having these choices where you might make mistakes. Everybody here is—you know, you’re all educators. I wonder if you guys could talk about, you know, if a student came to one of our educators and was like I want to be somebody who fights terrorism, what would you recommend, you know, that our educators recommend to those students in terms of being ready for that moment, both in terms of, you know, language or country studies, but also to be prepared to make those hard choices that reach back to our basic values?
EASTERLY: I’d say go study under Bruce Hoffman—(laughter)—first and foremost. Bruce should weigh in.
HOFFMAN: Well, I would say come study in the Security Studies Program. (Laughs.) But I mean, that’s a very good question because what we’ve tried to do at Georgetown, I mean, is exactly this kind of approach, is give people the fundamental knowledge about terrorism and counterterrorism—terrorism as a strategy and then government formulation of policy. But I think when a—and regional studies and language, of course, cyber, the technology side. But I think one of the things that—
SORKIN: Any particular region or language that would be great?
HOFFMAN: I mean, these days American English, too, I mean, as white power and white nationalism have become such a salient issue. I mean, it used to be that our enemies were abroad, and unfortunately—they’ve been here before. We often forget that Oklahoma City attack in 1995 was the most serious terrorist incident on U.S. soil since, you know, before 9/11.
But I think one of the keys that we’ve done and which is enormously important is the ethical dimension. And we have a lot of former intelligence officers, actually some current intelligence officers who are adjuncts, that teach this to students and discuss it and try to basically, you know, get them thinking about ethical choices that they would have to make or under orders have to implement, but also advice they would give, and these second- and third-order consequences that we’ve just been talking about that sometimes in the efforts to protect and defend the United States you may do something that—without thinking of the long-term repercussions and perhaps that there may not be a good solution to what seems a very effective policy resolution in the immediate term.
SORKIN: Matt, do you want to—
WAXMAN: Yeah, I would just add, I liked Bruce’s emphasis on ethical dilemmas. And I think what’s often involved there and what I think is critical to teaching in this area is to try to really push students to think about the hard choices, hard choices that are often made with imperfect information, with very limited time, and under tremendous political/diplomatic/operational pressures.
So, you know, to give a couple of examples, you know, sometimes these are decisions that need to be made, well, with almost split-second and imperfect information. Jen mentioned, you know, I was—I started at the—at the White House in the National Security Council staff about six weeks before 9/11. And I came there, by the way, thinking like the Bush administration generally we were going to be doing great-power politics, right? This was an administration that came into office thinking this was about Russia, this was about China, this was—you know, Condi Rice had written in Foreign Affairs about how this was not going to be a nation-building foreign policy. We were concerned about relations among states, not what was going on within states. And all of that was overturned on 9/11.
And on 9/11 there were certain decisions that had to be taken in that minute. You know, one that’s documented publicly is, you know, there was an incoming unidentified aircraft and a decision needed to be made, do we take it out? And we did not, and it’s a—it avoided a very tragic error. But that was a decision that needed to be taken in the seconds without adequate information, a very tough policy and ethical decision.
Another one that was referred to earlier was Guantanamo. The decision to detain and move detainees to Guantanamo is a very easy policy decision to criticize, but it was one that was made—in then-Secretary Rumsfeld’s words, it was chosen as the least worst option. You know, the question to put to students is not would you, you know, in the abstract build Guantanamo; it’s we’re—we are moving our forces into Afghanistan, we are picking up or having transferred into our custody a lot of terrorism suspects who are believed to be very dangerous and have valuable intelligence, and we need to do something with them. We need to do something with them. We need to hold them somewhere under some legal status. And that’s not an easy question to answer.
HOFFMAN: You know, could I just—we’re there again now with the foreign fighters who went off to fight with ISIS, with the wives, with the children, where there’s not enough evidence that you can present in open court to convict someone. So what do you do with them? And this is, you know, something that Europe is grappling with, the United States and Canada as well.
SORKIN: Well, you know, this is I guess the fourth question, you know, which is what about justice for terrorism in some ways? The U.S. took Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantanamo mastermind, into custody fifteen years ago, and the military commissions have failed to, you know, put on a trial that can bring some sense of closure to the 9/11 families. In terms of where—I guess this gets back to your earlier question about criminal or—do you—do you regret that there was a decision in the Obama administration to not just put him on trial in the Second (sic; Southern) District, where he murdered people?
WAXMAN: So I can—I can take pieces of that. I served in the Bush administration, and it’s sometimes forgotten that, you know, the Bush administration did use criminal prosecution as one of its tools. I think that’s a—that’s an issue that got lost when, you know, there was criticism of the Obama administration for an effort to try to bring at least some of the Guantanamo detainees into the United States for criminal prosecution. And all of a sudden, I mean, a sort of a big bumper sticker talking point in opposition to that is—was, you know, it would be—it would be crazy to bring terrorists into the United States. Well, the Bush administration did that, you know, the shoe bomber being, you know, an example. You know, we did that prior to 9/11 with the first attempted World Trade Center bombing. This is—this is something that we’ve done.
Bruce is right, though, that you know, that’s an option for some of the terrorism suspects and detainees that we—that we held—that we still hold. I think the military commissions process is broken and irredeemable.
That was—but—and here’s where I—here’s what I think is the hard dilemma. Should we have prosecuted more detainees in federal criminal court than we have? I think the answer is yes. And I think we are better able to do that now than we were in—on 9/11 because we handle captures and intelligence gathering in a way that facilitates a later decision to prosecute better now than we did eighteen years ago.
The hard dilemma, though, which Bruce mentioned earlier, is, OK, what do you do if you’re president of the United States with a group of detainees who are believed to be extremely dangerous, believed to have valuable intelligence, believed to be very likely to return to terrorism if released, but for whom you don’t have proof beyond reasonable doubt or evidence that can be used consistent with federal rules of criminal procedure? Is your decision as president, therefore, I release them? That’s a—that’s a hard question.
SORKIN: Always hard. Hard, and—
WAXMAN: Often it’s—often the question is presented, you know, should we detain them at Guantanamo or should we prosecute them and lock them away as convicts. There’s a—a lot of the detainees fall into a third category, which is you wouldn’t be able to prosecute them. So do you just release them?
SORKIN: Prosecute them successfully.
WAXMAN: Successfully, yes. Thank you.
SORKIN: Yeah, of course. So I want to move to the educators really soon. We’re running out of time. We have so much to talk about.
Jen, I wonder if just, though, for—in a super quick way, because I’d love you to talk about something you’ve worked on that’s so interesting and sets up some of these dilemmas, which is about the hostage policy, and how you worked on that, and how that changed.
EASTERLY: Sure. And it sort of dovetails with one of the points that I think Matt was making about justice for terrorists, because of course we’re looking at a group called The Beatles now who were involved in the torture and detention of American and actually many nation, and brutally beheaded and executed several of our citizens. And there’s a whole issue about what we’re going to do with them, a lot of argument being made to bring them and try them in a federal court. And of course, the Obama administration tried very mightily to transfer as many of the detainees as Guantanamo Bay as possible, with the effort—with the intent to try to close that down. That didn’t happen, and this administration is of course looking at potentially bringing more terrorists there, which I think is not a good idea.
But back to your specific point, I do think it’s an interesting case study for students because it’s one that’s made very public. And some of these documents, particularly in counterterrorism, are classified, and so obviously hard to draw a lot of lessons from that.
So the hostage—and I’m sure everybody in this room sort of remembers in the summer of 2014 we were close to taking action in Iraq after ISIS took down—took over Mosul, and there were several hostages that were being held by ISIS in Syria. And so, actually, in July of 2014 we had marshalled a very complex and dangerous rescue operation, and I remembered being part of the team that helped to frame the policy for this. And despite all the work that went into that and all the intelligence that was gathered to support it, it had failed, and that was in July of 2014. If you remember, in August of 2014 that’s where we saw the brutal executions and beheadings of Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff, Alan Henning, David Haines, then Peter Kassig, Kayla Mueller.
And the families were, in my view, justifiably outraged that the government had not done enough placing a priority to bring their loved ones home, had not treated them with dignity and respect, had given them different stories when they visited different agencies—Justice, State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And as a result of that, President Obama asked us to completely relook at the hostage policy that was in place, that had been classified so nobody had seen it, and to revamp it. And so my team and I, working with Lisa Monaco, our homeland security adviser, ran that process because at the end of the day, you know, to get to good decisions you need a rigorous, well-informed process. And if you look at how that process ran, it was about eight to nine months working across all of the interagency and then working, importantly, with the families—people like Diane and John Foley, who had so much incredible grace to work with a government who they were so angry about.
SORKIN: And I guess the basic question was some of these families wanted to be able to pay ransom and that was against the law.
EASTERLY: So that was one issue that was certainly part of what caused the tension between the government and the families, and you can go back and kind of look at some of this. When we looked at the hostage policy, that was actually—the no concessions piece was one—was the only piece that was not on the table. That said, the families worked hand in hand with us to build this new policy, which we—which we implemented in 2015 with many new structures, to include a hostage recovery fusion center, a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, a hostage response group at the White House to put a priority on this. And despite the fact that we didn’t directly address the ransom issue, there was in fact a letter that came from Attorney General Lynch that said we have never prosecuted families for paying ransom. It obviously didn’t completely take it off the table because you can’t do that from a legal perspective, but it leaned in a little bit.
Having said all that—and people do—this is an interesting issue for students who want to talk about this issue, and there’s been studies done on this, and you might have some thoughts—but I’d recommend a very good book by Joel Simon that was published by I think Columbia Reports that’s called We Want to Negotiate. And it actually is a very good recent history of how ransoms work, what countries pay ransoms. And again, it was not on the table. You could argue that paying ransoms is a bad thing because it funds terrorists and because it might incentivize. There are a lot of arguments about the data. But you’re right, that was one big issue.
Having said that, what—I think the important thing for educators as a case study is all this was made public. We made a real effort to make sure that everything we did was transparent. So you can go and look at Presidential Policy Directive 30, which is the new U.S. hostage policy. You can look at Executive Order 13698, which is the EO that laid out the new structures. And then there’s an entire White House report that talks about how this whole thing came together. So I think it’s a great policy process case study.
SORKIN: Case study, yeah. I want to—I want to really bring everybody in, so let’s start with questions. And when you have a question, just stand up and say your affiliation and your name and your question. Right here.
Q: Thank you very much for your comments. My name is Karam Dana, University of Washington Bothell.
I want to address that question of definition of terrorism, in particular that terrorism, whether intentional or not, the definition is racialized. I mean, the example that was used, more or less, by Bruce in relation to that Las Vegas shooter, let’s hypothetically say that person’s name was Mohammed for a second. How would the public reaction, you know, start kind of addressing that particular issue? Whether intentional or not, it seems to me that the policy in some ways has targeted Muslims, obviously, given how certain things are being defined. I happen to be a Muslim American Palestinian, so I kind of fit that trifecta of those definitions in some ways. And you know, I feel in some ways not only that the—that the policy itself targets people like myself, but in addition to that there’s more societal pressures that are actually discriminatory in nature. And it kind of has pressures—societal pressure that influences how policy is drafted.
I’d love to hear some of your comments and thinking about ways by which some of that racialization is pushed back upon by policymakers. I mean, all of you are influential in various ways. Are you really thinking of, you know, when we devise these policies, how do we make sure that it is not racialized?
SORKIN: Bruce, do you want to speak to that?
HOFFMAN: Well, I can’t speak to how the policies, whether they’re racialized or not, because it’s less my focus. But that—I mean, that definition, you know, extends back to the 1960s, before there was really any, you know, distinction amongst whether terrorists were ethnonationalist separatists or left-wing terrorists or right-wing or whatever. So I don’t think the definition is the problem.
I think the point that you’re raising is that in its application and in its often political usages—and that’s one of the—yeah, I mean, that’s hitting the nail on the head. That’s the problem with defining terrorism, is that one way or the other it’s viewed as an enormously pejorative term, and it becomes a very politically loaded term depending how it’s used.
However, that said, you know, as an academic but who’s occasionally crossed into the policy world, I was a commissioner on a congressionally appointed commission to look at the FBI’s response to counterterrorism and counter-radicalization in the wake of the Intelligence Reform Act in 2004 and I worked for fifteen months in the Hoover Building. And this was in 2014-2015, the rise of ISIS. And I have to—from my perspective, I never saw any distinction made between who the perpetrator, their identity, their ethnicity, their religion. If it was a crime and if it rose to the level of terrorism, it was prosecuted the same way.
Now, you’re right, in that particular framework there was an overwhelming focus, rightly so, on Salafi—what I would call Salafi jihadi terrorism from al-Qaida or from ISIS. But you can see the shift now that recent FBI statistics shows that more of the domestic terrorists’ arrests have been non-Muslim and non-ISIS and -al-Qaida related and more domestic radicals, so that law enforcement responds to the—at least in my experience—the threat as it rises and applies the definition of terrorism almost to the letter.
But I take your point that it is, of course, and always will be politically loaded and used for political purposes. And that’s what we have to push back against.
Q: I had a—(off mic)—
SORKIN: Oh, and your name and your affiliation.
Q: (Comes on mic.) My name is Muqtedar Khan, formerly of Brookings and Georgetown, and now at the University of Delaware.
I asked in public as to why the New Zealand shooter was not on any list. He behaved like a—
HOFFMAN: Pardon me, the what shooter?
Q: The guy who did the shooting in Christchurch, why he was not on any list. He behaved like a pretty good jihadi. He went to Turkey. He went to all the places that jihadis go to. He went to all the websites, et cetera. If he was a Muslim, he would have been on so many lists. The police visited his house—visited his house for one-and-a-half hours and did not even find anything problematic. If this Las Vegas shooter had a copy of the Quran at home he would have been labeled as an Islamic terrorist. So my question to you is that given the fact that white men run most terrorist—counterterrorism institutions from the top, from the president, who thinks that there are good people on both sides, all the way down to the CIA director telling me this is a new phenomenon—I had to remind him about Oklahoma—but the fact that they are going to underplay the threat of white terrorism itself will be an incentive and an enabler. I think the people who are going to fight white terrorism in the U.S. will for a long time be the enablers of that. For example, Dylann Roof was never charged as a terrorist, so his killings don’t show up on that database, so the threat is not seen as a serious threat because it is undercounted.
SORKIN: Let me pull that together. Jen, how do you keep the toolbox that you’ve talked about from being used in a disparate way that affects communities, that has a discriminatory effect?
EASTERLY: Well, I’d take it in a slightly different direction. I mean, we declared, as Matt said, a war on terror, which is really a war on foreign terrorist organizations. I think, given what we’ve seen over the past couple years, even going back to the shooting in Charleston, we should think about what a war on domestic terrorism would look like. There was a good op-ed done by my former boss Lisa Monaco and Ken Wainstein, who was the CT advisor in the Bush—towards the end of the Bush administration, about what would we need to do—what would that look like.
Well, first of all, again, it goes back to leadership. Post-Bush—or post-9/11 in the Bush administration, it was carried through the Obama administration, had an assistant to the president for counterterrorism and homeland security. That person was the center of gravity for all counterterrorism policy and strategy, ensuring there was a prioritized focus. That person in this administration has been, I think, pushed down several layers below, so there is not that priority focus. I think that one thing that you would want to do to have—to be able to answer that question.
I think it’s we have reduced resources on the domestic terrorism mission. I think that’s something that needs to be looked at.
I think there is a huge technology component to this. We worked closely with the tech platforms for a focus on foreign terrorist organizations. That was making sure their platforms were not coopted by ISIS and al-Qaida for inspired terrorism. If you look at the Christchurch shooter, a lot of this has existed, as you said, online. So are these companies looking to do something to be able to help remove this type of content? Because it clearly is inspiring and radicalizing this particular type of terrorism.
And the last, Justice had a—I believe a domestic terrorism taskforce that I think needs to be further resourced.
So I would think of it as what are the policy tools? What are the resources you need to put in place to now make a priority focus on domestic terrorism in the way that we did in foreign terrorism?
SORKIN: And right over here.
Q: Hello? Hi. Emily Blout from University of Virginia.
Elephant in the room, well at least for me: IRGC, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, was designated a terrorist organization, put on the terrorist list. First time in history we have designated a militia, an army, a part of a state as a terrorist organization. What does this mean? What is the significance? My understanding, this is not a one-off thing; it was actually a whole-of-government effort. They actually did the interagency this time and so it was certainly thought out. What does this mean? What are the implications? Does it point to the utility of this terrorist list? I mean, is there implications for that?
WAXMAN: Sure, I’d be happy to take it, or at least parts of that—of that question that I can answer, and Bruce and Jen may want to jump in as well.
Let me say my general view is, you know, I’ve seen a lot of commentary about the designation of the IRGC as an FTO, a foreign terrorist organization, a lot of commentary either celebrating this as a sort of game-changing, aggressive move against Iran, or decrying it as recklessly dangerous. And I think both of those views are wrong.
I think the primary value of it is it has some legal effect, but it’s mostly of symbolic value. The legal effect, the main sort of legal implication of this official designation by the secretary of state of a—of an organization as an FTO, a foreign terrorist organization, is it triggers other statutory authorities or restrictions; most importantly, that it criminalizes providing material support, any sort of—any sort of—any sort of dealings, essentially, with it as an organization. That would normally have much more effect, but for the fact that there were already very extensive sanctions in place by the Treasury Department, by other arms of the U.S. government already directed at the—at the IRGC.
I think what it now does is it will make—one effect of this is once an organization is designated a foreign terrorist organization, it becomes very politically difficult to unlist it. And if a—if a—if there’s an administration change that wants to go back to a diplomatic negotiation with Iran, this could be a sticking point because this’ll be difficult to undo. But in terms of sort of practical significance—immediate practical significance—I don’t—I don’t think the move is as sort of boldly ambitious or as, like I said, as sort of wildly dangerous as it’s been talked about, I think, by two sides of a debate.
SORKIN: It does wreak havoc with your definition of terrorism, which explicitly excluded state actors.
HOFFMAN: It does. But this is—again, goes back to how messy it is to define terrorism, because of course state-sponsored terrorism is nothing new. I mean, this is, I think, a big step that it’s actually now linking a state actor—
SORKIN: A state, yeah.
HOFFMAN: I mean, which is changing the definition.
But that’s the problem, too: the definition of terrorism has also changed dramatically since the word was first used at the end of the eighteenth century.
SORKIN: Well, (since ?) the end of the eighteenth century. That sounds like a whole other separate interesting discussion. (Laughter.) But I—
HOFFMAN: A chapter of my book. (Laughter.)
SORKIN: But there’s so little time that I want to make sure we get—we get everybody in. Right there. Yeah.
Q: Hello. My name is Nyla Ali Khan. I’m from Oklahoma, Rose State College.
So my question is on the discourse of human rights violations. The discourse of human rights violations is highly politicized. It’s not universal at all. So every time human rights violations are committed by an ally of the United States, we turn a blind eye. And when they are committed by countries that are not our allies, we are very quick to condemn them. And there are several governments around the world that have been deploying their militaries as well as paramilitary forces to undermine the dignities of their own citizens, and because we have partnerships with them or alliances with them we turn a blind eye to those egregious human rights violations.
SORKIN: I think they’re—
Q: So how can that be addressed?
And also, do we need to reconsider our interventionist foreign policy that a lot of the time undermines indigenous political institutions? I feel like we don’t talk enough about fostering dialogue, about bringing various stakeholders to the table to solve conflicts, and instead we rely on interventionist foreign policy.
SORKIN: So I guess that’s a great question. What do you do from a counterterrorism perspective about, you know, alliances that might make the U.S. a target, for example?
EASTERLY: Well, I’m interested in sort of specifics, and maybe we could chat afterwards. I would say to your last point, though, on, you know, the fostering dialogue piece, as I mentioned, a core part of our strategy, both in the Obama administration and I think we’re seeing signs of it even in this administration if you look at some of the negotiations that are going on with the Taliban for example, we are actually trying to foster dialogue, to work with partners to empower those forces on the ground to end conflicts.
I think one of the lessons that we learned coming out of the Iraq War is we don’t want huge presence of troops around the world. It incites, you know, negative feelings. It incites sort of internecine violence in that country. You have issues around the civilian casualties piece. I mean, there’s a whole host of things that I think we have realized post-9/11 with some of the interventions that we’ve made. So you’re seeing a reduction in force presence, a focus on much—a focus on exactly what you’re saying, on sort of fostering dialogue to end some of these conflicts.
You know, we could sort of talk about our approach to human rights in one administration to the other. I would say that at least as we looked at it from a strategy perspective in the Obama administration, we put a huge focus on human rights. And it’s one of the reasons why we developed that presidential policy guidance to make sure that we were as much as possible minimizing any collateral damage from lethal action that we had to take. And by the way, when that—actions were being taken it had to be taken with the knowledge and agreement of that country, so that was also part of an ongoing dialogue. So, you know, we could—we could talk afterwards as well.
SORKIN: Now, I feel regret that we haven’t gotten to cyber issues. There’s so much—so much expertise about that here. Any questions in that area that we could grab?
Q: Hi. I’m Keith Ludwick. I’m from American Military University.
And that was the question I wanted to ask. I was—(laughter)—I’ve been doing—
SORKIN: Hand up the whole time! (Laughter.)
Q: It’s kind of a two-part question. A lot of the things that I’ve been kind of reading up on about cyberterrorism is we don’t even know if it’s really happening, right? There are some scholars that are arguing that it still hasn’t happened. We don’t know. Which kind of falls back into the old definitional debate. If you have a terrorist that holds a bank hostage for ideological reasons, there is no threat of violence there, really. How does that fit into the picture? And what is the future of terrorism based on this cyber component?
SORKIN: Who wants—Matt, do you want to try?
WAXMAN: I’ll start. A lot of what I know about this subject I’ve learned from Jen, actually.
I’d say first of all, you know, with regard to sort of really big, one might say catastrophic cyberattacks, I’m skeptical that, for example, financial institutions are vulnerable to non-state groups. I think the bigger threats or the capability lies with states and a handful of them that are very powerful and who fortunately don’t generally have the interest, the incentive to go after them. So I worry less about the—sort of the threat of cyberterrorism.
My bigger worry with regard to cyberspace and terrorism is the communication and especially online recruitment that goes on. This is something that both Bruce and Jen referred to earlier, where I think—I think it’s in that realm that we have a lot more work to do. In other words, it’s not that cyberspace is the—is kind of the vector of the—of the threat that goes boom or in a figurative sense goes boom; it’s that it facilitates the coordination and recruitment of terrorist threats.
SORKIN: We only have one minute left. This time has really flown. I wonder if you could each just recommend a great book for further reading on this, one that our educators might also recommend to their students.
EASTERLY: I’ll start, and I recommend this to a lot of folks that I talk to. Probably two, separate from all of Bruce’s books, which I highly recommend. One is The Looming Tower by Larry Wright, which I think is an excellent view of history pre- and post-9/11. And the second, I think anybody who’s interested in this issue has to read the 9/11 Commission Report.
SORKIN: Oh, that’s a great—that’s a great recommendation.
EASTERLY: It’s extremely well-written. And if there’s one thing that I talk to students about it’s this idea of the power of imagination, because at the end of the day 9/11—and I very much agree with this—was a failure of imagination. And I think anybody who wants to be part of this ecosystem needs to understand the history and why, in fact, there was a real failure of imagination, and what we can do to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
SORKIN: OK. You’ve each got like fifteen seconds here.
WAXMAN: Jen stole my ideas. On my—if I were building a library, I’d put Looming Tower and the 9/11 Commission Report, and I would read—and I would read commentary by Dan Byman, a friend of—a friend of ours who’s an excellent writer on this.
SORKIN: Oh, wait. I should also just say that I’ve just been told that I have the time wrong and we actually have fifteen more minutes.
WAXMAN: Oh. (Laughter.)
SORKIN: Which is great.
HOFFMAN: Can I give my book recommendation, though? (Laughter.)
WAXMAN: And I was going to say, and Bruce’s—you know, Bruce has written sort of, like, the definitive work over many editions, so it’s constantly being updated.
SORKIN: So now you can tell very slowly what your book recommendation’s going to be—(laughter)—
HOFFMAN: No, I—mine is—
SORKIN: —and then we can go back to our educators.
HOFFMAN: Well, apart from my own book—actually, I think the best book I’ve read on terrorism in years is completely different from anything we’ve talked about, and I would highly recommend it for all the reasons we’ve discussed. It’s very provocative, it’s a great story, and it takes us in a different dimension. It’s Patrick Radden King’s—
SORKIN: Ah, I—seconding that.
HOFFMAN: Patrick Radden Keene?
SORKIN: Radden Keefe.
HOFFMAN: Keefe, yeah.
SORKIN: Patrick Radden Keefe.
HOFFMAN: Say Nothing. That is a phenomenal book.
HOFFMAN: It’s about Northern Ireland. It’s one of the best histories of Northern Ireland, but gets into these questions of morality, of government responses, of why people become terrorists, of how they justify and legitimize the violence they commit, and then how they pull back from it. So it’s a phenomenal book.
SORKIN: I just read this book and I could not put it down. And I think also for Americans it really problematizes sort of our definition, because a lot of Americans don’t—at a certain period especially didn’t think of the IRA as terrorists when Britain certainly did.
WAXMAN: Can I—can I just say, because this also goes back to some of the earlier questions about the way in which terrorism is defined or used, especially with regard to Islam. Is I—and since we’re educators here, I think it’s extremely useful if anybody is teaching on—a course on terrorism or teaching the dilemmas that arise in counterterrorism, you know, it’s important to remember that pre-9/11 a lot of even American counterterrorism was dealing with IRA, was dealing with anarchist threats, and so on. And so I think it’s very important to weave that kind of material in.
SORKIN: Now, we could talk about Patrick’s wonderful book forever, but I really do want to go back to all of you, and we have lots of time for questions now. How about in the blue jacket there? Yeah.
Q: Thanks. Mike Poznansky from the University of Pittsburgh.
I had a question about, on the counterterrorism side, the kind of balance between efficacy and ethics. And do you think there are any tools that are efficacious, but unethical? And so a lot of the debates about counterterrorism tools like drone strikes and enhanced interrogation and mass surveillance, the best arguments are not just they’re unethical in certain contexts but oftentimes counterproductive. But do you think any of these tools or tools I haven’t mentioned fall into the bin of being good in terms of counterterrorism but maybe unethical or illegal?
SORKIN: That’s a fantastic question. Who wants to—who wants to start?
EASTERLY: Yeah. I mean, we talked about enhanced interrogation. We talked about mass surveillance. There have been evolutions of both of those programs.
I would go back to there is a lot of debate on drone strikes. And frankly, you know, in terms of a tool to deal with terrorist groups with precision, we felt within the administration that that was an effective tool. And we wanted to be sure, to your point, that we had a framework in place and a policy in place to be able to use that very powerful tool in an ethical manner, which is why—and you can go back because when this presidential policy guidance was rolled out it was in May of 2013, another interesting case study for educators, it was accompanied by a fact sheet. It was a highly classified document, so that’s not out there. But there was a fact sheet which laid out all of the things that would go into a decision to take an action—a lethal action against a terrorist group to make sure that, in fact, it was an ethical decision, that you were minimizing—near certainty of no civilian casualty, near certainty that you had the target. You were bringing in the views of the country in which that would occur.
And I think the Obama administration—and I think recently this administration may have rescinded this executive order—but if you go back and look at an executive order—I don’t have the number at the top of my head, but it was in 2016—that was essentially a transparency report about these actions that laid out the number of strikes that were taken and the number, as best as we could discern, and then also brought in information from many of the nongovernmental groups and human rights groups that look at these numbers of terrorist and civilian casualties. And so I think the transparency is hugely important, and I think that’s a critical dimension of making sure that your very powerful tools are, in fact, ethically sound.
SORKIN: Just define what you mean by transparency. Do you mean just our democratic mechanisms having a chance to, like, do their work on the choice?
EASTERLY: No, I mean, look, government must be accountable. A democracy must be accountable to its people, to the electorate. And I think one of the things that the administration that I worked in tried to be as transparent in possible in putting out information—we didn’t always get it right. (Laughs.) I don’t think, you know, in politics you ever always get it right. But we leaned forward, and I think that report about lethal action is one example of where we really were trying to provide more information to the American people—to the world, really—about actions that we were taking to try and keep us safe.
SORKIN: Matt, yeah.
WAXMAN: I was just going to say, you know, when you look at these various tools, you know—detention, interrogation, lethal strikes—it’s important, I think, to analyze each of them for legality, for policy effectiveness, and for ethics or morality. And I actually think oftentimes it’s that third that is the hardest. I can often come up with, for me, clearer answers on the first two than the third.
I’d also just say that, you know, in general I think one of the real challenges for the—for the government is that we demand of our intelligence community and our national security agencies—we demand not just that they be good at counterterrorism, but that they be perfect. The only politically acceptable number of terrorist attacks is zero. And so we demand that they be very, very aggressive. But counterterrorism, and especially domestic intelligence, requires trust in government. And often those two things are in tension, that we want our intelligence community, we want our security agencies to be very aggressive, but we want them—we want also to cultivate good trusting relationships between immigrant or minority communities and them or the private sector and them. It’s very hard to balance those things.
SORKIN: Right there.
Q: OK. Hello. My name is David Wellman from DePaul University.
And I’m interested in what you think about how much room for improvement we have for increasing our religious literacy in terms of how we—foreign policy with regards to terrorism. I’m thinking right now about the ostensible disconnect between the nature of our alliance with Saudi Arabia and its role in propagating a particular interpretation of Salafist Islam which serves as a foundational motivation for many of these groups which we’re fighting against.
SORKIN: That’s a great question. Just thinking about it as that literacy question of how we learn about who the actors are.
HOFFMAN: Well, that was always—of the three editions of Inside Terrorism, the chapter on terrorism motivated by a religious imperative was always the largest and in many respects the most controversial because it took on Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, white supremacist, I mean, Christian-inspired terrorism.
I mean, I think the main problem these days is that ISIS has been so extreme that the Salafi jihadi interpretation that al-Qaida advocates is being regarded as sort of a moderate extremism, is becoming more acceptable. And that to me is one of the most alarming developments that one sees. And again, this is one of the problems; it’s the ideology that underpins all these groups. They may have their own differences because of personal rivalries over leadership, but at the same time it’s this extremist ideology that they embrace. And al-Qaida now is very—has become much more effective in propagating a view that they’re a more palatable, less extreme, more acceptable variant than ISIS. And this, I think, will be enormous—an enormous challenge in the future.
Q: Thank you. I’m Meredith Loken from the University of Massachusetts.
And I have a cybersecurity question for all of you. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the privacy and security tradeoffs of these new laws in Australia and now in parts of Europe, where they’re trying to force companies like WhatsApp and Telegram to let the government into sort of the encrypted data. We’ve talked a lot about tools. We’ve talked a lot about ethics. So I wondered if you could just speak a little bit to that as a—as a counterterrorism tool versus sort of as an invasion of people’s basic rights to privacy.
SORKIN: Who wants to start on that one?
EASTERLY: I’d say Matt should start. (Laughter.)
WAXMAN: Yeah, so let me tell you, you know, there are a couple of challenges that are—we’re seeing different countries now try to address when it comes to technology and—especially technology and terrorism.
One has to do with encrypted communications, that it’s increasingly cheap and easy for people/companies/entities to communicate in—through encrypted means that are very difficult for government agencies to crack. And for the vast bulk of the time, this is a good thing because we believe in privacy and we want to protect not just personal privacy, but trade secrets and things like that. It poses a problem for counterterrorism agencies, though, in that, you know, one of the ways that we can disrupt terrorist cells or terrorist plots is to listen in on communications.
SORKIN: With a warrant.
SORKIN: With a warrant. (Laughter.)
WAXMAN: Well, that’s where I’m going with this, is you know, I think, you know, one question is, OK, so under what conditions do we want the government to be able to listen? And that—you know, ten years ago that was kind of the big question. I think that question, at least in let’s say democracies, has mostly been answered with you need some sort of warrant and usually a judicial warrant. The problem—the technological problem now is, OK, you get a warrant, but the government still can’t listen in. And is there a way to—is there a solution that adequately protects privacy, protects encryption, which is not just a privacy concern but also a security concern, while also giving the government the kind of access it needs in certain exceptional circumstances? And that’s a real dilemma for which I’m going to punt and say I don’t—I just don’t have a good answer to how to balance those two things. But there are—I mean, there are risks in—on both sides.
And the other challenge that we referred to earlier is what, if any, government regulation is appropriate for, let’s say, social media, online platforms, to regulate what kinds of, let’s say, videos they carry, or what are the responsibilities for taking down videos or other content that may be important to inciting terrorism or other violent extremism? Again, this is—this is a big dilemma, and it’s one that’s especially pronounced here in the United States because we have among democracies one of the strongest protections or set of protections when it comes to free expression.
SORKIN: Now we really do only have one minute left. (Laughter.) So if somebody has almost a yes-or-no-type question or—right over there. Yeah. But we really only have like—yeah.
Q: Hi. Good morning. Maria Zaitseva, Yeshiva University.
It is a yes or no. Should we believe our president, who tells us that ISIS has been defeated in Syria and Iraq? (Laughter.)
SORKIN: Can I get a show—a show of hands, yes or no, on that one? (Laughs.)
EASTERLY: So that’s not, sadly, a yes-or-no question.
Q: Or is it more complex?
EASTERLY: It is a very complex question. So I think there is much to sort of applaud in terms of what this government, really carrying through the policies and the strategies and the partnerships that we have developed over the past several years, to defeat the sort of physical caliphate that is in Iraq and Syria. Although, having said that, we believe, at least, you know, what is out there publicly is that many of these ISIS fighters have sort of melted back into the populace into things like sleeper cells. So there is believed to be a significant portion of ISIS adherents which are left in Iraq and Syria; they’re just not out there in a way that’s very visible or fighting with the forces on the ground. So I think that is sort of one point to keep in mind, even though it is a good thing that the so-called physical caliphate has collapsed.
What I am concerned about is even if you focus in Iraq and Syria ISIS has a—has a hold in countries around the world. So even as you focus in the—in the recent victory, you need to think about ISIS’s presence in Afghanistan, in Libya, in Nigeria, in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia, in the Caucasus, in other places around the world. That’s one big component. And the other is what Bruce referred to earlier as this idea of inspired terrorism, that ISIS still has a platform using technology, using social media to reach out to those who might be vulnerable to their ideology and to inspire them to violence.
So that’s the way that I think about it.
SORKIN: And that’s a great—a great place to end, thinking about how big this picture actually is. And thank you so much. I think there’s a break now, and thank you so much to our panelists. (Applause.)