The Plan to Combat Terrorism

Homeland Security


The threat ISIS poses in the Middle East and fears of homegrown terrorist attacks in the U.S. will keep national security and terrorism issues at the forefront for 2016. The public wants to know their government is working to keep them safe from terrorism but doesn’t support extreme and reckless proposals. The Republican nominee Donald Trump advocates policies contrary to American values by threatening indiscriminate bombing and bans on Muslim immigrants.1 Yet the public fears current policies might not be enough to address the terrorist threat.

Policymakers should embrace a tough and smart approach to defeating ISIS. They must show their strategy will eliminate the threat of terrorism without going too far and putting the United States on a long-term war footing. They should be clear about their four-part strategy to stop terrorists at home and abroad, right now and in the future.

Areas in which the United States conducts operations

1. Prevent the Immediate Threat

The ability of ISIS and other terrorist groups to influence potential recruits within the United States could prove devastating. To address this threat in the near-term, the United States must protect our communities, prevent terrorists from entering our country, and keep guns out of terrorist hands.

Protect Communities

Our local agencies need to be fully prepared, trained, coordinated, and funded to protect Americans against ISIS and other terrorist threats on the homeland. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is on the frontlines at the federal level, protecting Americans from these threats, and will require increased funding as the threat continues. The Department must work hand-in-hand with local law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the National Counterterrorism Center to ensure all levels of first responders and agents have the information and training necessary to prevent and respond to a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Congress will need to continue providing increased funding to these agencies to make sure the U.S. is not vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Governors Association should establish a joint task force on counterterrorism that works with the federal government to address gaps in security. This would allow local leaders and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to share best practices in strengthening communities, identify and address shortfalls in funding and training, enhance training of local law enforcement, and further develop federal-city relationships.

These measures taken together will enable our local agencies to avert an attack while preparing for the worst. This short-term plan will lessen the immediate threat that ISIS and other terrorists pose to Americans on the homeland.

Stop Terrorists from Entering the U.S.

Until recently, the Visa Waiver Program allowed citizens of 38 participating countries to enter the United States without a visa.2 The heinous terrorist attacks in Paris revealed how foreign terrorists might exploit the Visa Waiver Program to enter the United States undetected. The Administration worked with Congress to fix this vulnerability, changing the program to require that any citizen of a participating country who is also a citizen of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, or Yemen must now apply for a visa before traveling to the United States.3 Those who have been to any of these countries in the last five years are also now required to apply for a visa. These applicants will undergo an interview, fingerprinting, and screening by the U.S. State Department to determine if they should be allowed to enter the United States. In addition, there are now tighter information-sharing requirements between the U.S. and the 38 participating countries. Changing this program was essential, adding another layer in travel regulations to prevent potential terrorists from reaching our shores.

Early media reports suggested that Syrian refugees were involved in the Paris attacks, and although this was not confirmed, it sparked a debate in the United States to ban the entry of refugees. The U.S. has an incredibly robust vetting system in place for processing refugee applications compared to Europe. For the United States, applicants go through the most thorough and stringent vetting, with an 18 to 24 month screening process before arriving to the country. Syrian refugees in particular go through a heightened level of screening.4 Several agencies are involved in reviewing each applicant, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.S. State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center.5 Interviews are conducted, biometric data is compiled, and background information is cross-checked against terrorist databases. A year after they arrive to the U.S. – if they are approved by U.S. agencies through this vetting process – refugees are required to apply for a green card, beginning another round of security vetting.6 A foreign terrorist is unlikely to try to use this stringent process to enter the United States.

One of the San Bernardino terrorists arrived to the United States through a K-1 visa, or the “fiancée visa.” The screening process for these visas typically takes about six to nine months, and involves an extensive background check and security investigation.7 Despite this vetting, she was still able to enter the country and carry out the attack. The Administration has ordered a review of the K-1 visa program at the U.S. Homeland Security and State Departments to address gaps in this program. In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has begun a pilot program to review K-1 visa applicants’ social media accounts as part of the vetting process.8

Going forward, more can be done to ensure terrorists are unable to enter the United States. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security should send agents to countries at high-risk of terrorist activity to provide advanced screening of visa applicants. Increased information-sharing between intelligence agencies will give countries a better grasp of the foreign terrorist fighter problem, their movements, and how to stop them from entering the United States. To address potential security gaps in the visa application process, Congress can task the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the programs, including the fiancée visa, and provide an assessment to identify ways for Congress to address any shortcomings.

Keep Guns Out of Terrorist Hands

Lawmakers must protect Americans against would-be terrorists who are already in the United States. The GAO uncovered that between February 2004 and December 2014, people on the FBI’s terror watch list underwent 2,233 background checks when trying to purchase firearms or explosives. But because there’s no law preventing them from buying a gun, 91% – 2,043 of these cases – were able to purchase a gun.9 Those who U.S. experts deem too dangerous to fly should be prevented from having weapons. This is not a partisan issue. Congress should enact common-sense legislation to prevent terrorists from buying guns by closing up the cracks in our gun laws through which they slip to prevent terrorist attacks against Americans.10

The United States should also expand background checks to all stranger-to-stranger gun purchases in order to close loopholes that allow the purchase of weapons anonymously online and at gun shows. Terrorists know they can purchase weapons in cash at gun shows or online from total strangers, without showing any identification, leaving no record of the purchase, and never passing a background check.

Al Qaeda has called on recruits to exploit this weakness in our gun laws, telling them “You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center…what are you waiting for?”11

Expanding background checks is a sensible measure that would add another layer of protection for Americans from potential terrorists without infringing on the rights of responsible gun-owners to buy guns.

2. Destroy ISIS Abroad

In the near-term, there are several ways the U.S. can ramp up its efforts to destroy ISIS, secure our national interests, and move toward regional stability. The U.S. should intensify coalition efforts by increasing airstrikes, enforcing a no-fly zone if the Syrian peace process collapses, and adding U.S. special operations forces on the ground to assist local ground forces. These local forces must be increased to take the fight against ISIS on the ground. Congress must also do its part and pass an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS.

The United States and coalition members have been attacking ISIS targets since 2014. Jointly, over 15,000 airstrikes have been conducted in Iraq and Syria. Over 30,000 ISIS targets have been damaged or destroyed, including oil infrastructure, combat positions, and tanks. The U.S. has spent more than $9.3 billion since operations against ISIS began in August 2014 and there are currently about 5,000 U.S. military service members on the ground, primarily serving as advisers to regional forces.12 In recent months, the U.S. and our coalition partners have accelerated this campaign:

  • ISIS lost control of Ramadi to Iraqi forces in December.
  • ISIS has lost 45% of the territory it once controlled in Iraq.13
  • Hundreds of millions of dollars held in cash by ISIS has been destroyed by coalition airstrikes.14

Enhance Coalition Efforts

Going forward, the U.S., along with our coalition partners, must continue increasing the pressure on ISIS, through more airstrikes, continued training of local forces to take back territory from ISIS, and better information-sharing.

If no ceasefire is agreed to in Syria, the United States should consider working with coalition partners to enforce a no-fly zone over northern Syria along the border with Turkey. This would create a safe zone on the ground for civilians to access the humanitarian care that has been blocked thus far in the conflict because of airstrikes. Local forces must complement the no-fly zone by ensuring ISIS and government forces don’t block civilian access to humanitarian assistance on the ground.

A no-fly zone would also have the benefit of slowing the flow of refugees into Europe and providing the U.S. leverage over Russia in developing a political resolution in Syria. Turkey has long called for a no-fly zone in order to create a safe zone along its border and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently signaled that it would be helpful.15 Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly expressed her support for enforcing a no-fly zone to create a humanitarian corridor.16 There is also bipartisan support in Congress for a safe zone for civilians with the potential aid of a no-fly zone. Last April, Senators Richard Durbin, Tim Kaine, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain stated their support for “humanitarian safe zones with the necessary enforcement mechanisms, including the potential use of air assets” in a letter to President Obama.17 Should the cessation of hostilities and peace process collapse, the United States and coalition forces must be prepared to take this approach.

There are currently about 5,000 American forces in Iraq, most of whom are serving as military advisers to train Iraqi troops in the fight against ISIS; the vast majority do not fight ISIS directly.18 A smaller portion of U.S. forces, about 200, are special operations forces in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Syria, who are mounting direct capture and kill operations against ISIS.19 This is a smart and effective way to safely insert a small U.S. military presence to better prepare local forces to take on ISIS in combat. The United States should increase the use of these forces to advance precision attacks and make local groups more effective in combating ISIS.

ISIS will not be defeated by airstrikes alone. U.S. regional allies and local groups must supply the ground troops to defeat ISIS in the Middle East. The United States should not become involved in another ground war in the region. This would put our military servicemen and women in harm’s way and tie the U.S. to the war and its aftermath for years to come. President Obama has said this would play right into ISIS’s endgame, stating it would help their recruitment for years and further extend the war.20 Regional ground forces, complemented with U.S. and coalition airstrikes, will eliminate ISIS in the region.

Areas ISIS exerts control or influence in Iraq and Syria

Authorize the Use of Military Force

Finally, Congress should pass a new AUMF, one that specifically addresses ISIS. They represent a significant threat to U.S. national security and the security of our allies. The Administration has said defeating ISIS will be a long-term effort and it is important that Congress uphold its constitutional responsibility to authorize U.S. action. Unlike prior AUMFs, this one should have limits. It should be specifically tailored to take on ISIS, limited to the battlefield, include reporting requirements to Congress, and have an expiration date with a possibility of renewal. The United States cannot become embroiled in a permanent war. Congress should also include a broader set of policy objectives for ensuring long-term regional stability.

3. Prevent Radicalization in the U.S.

Short-term plans to defeat ISIS and related terrorist groups at home and abroad must complement a long-term effort to address terrorist threats against the United States. ISIS and other terrorist groups will pose a threat for the foreseeable future. Long-term policies must include efforts to counter extremist propaganda online and establish a local partnerships strategy.

Defeat Terrorists Online

Defeating ISIS and other terrorist groups will require more than military force. ISIS’s successful use of the internet, and social media especially, to recruit individuals from around the world is a serious threat. The United Nations estimates about 30,000 foreign terrorist fighters from 100 countries are connected to ISIS, al Qaeda, and related terrorist groups.21

The U.S. must develop a national strategy to defeat terrorists in cyberspace and increase our efforts to counter terrorist narratives online. U.S. agencies and the technology industry can work together to create a strategy to effectively prevent ISIS and other terrorist groups from using online platforms to communicate with potential recruits and spread propaganda. This strategy must also include U.S. efforts to counter this propaganda and their false narratives.

Government action is only part of the solution. Technology companies have stepped up their efforts against ISIS in recent months. Since mid-2015, Twitter has suspended 125,000 accounts related to ISIS,22 and Facebook has also committed to taking down terrorist accounts.23 U.S. national security officials have been meeting with the industry on ways to counter violent extremism online. This continued cooperation will be necessary to effectively stop terrorist messaging, discredit ISIS and terrorist propaganda, and prevent recruits from being influenced by these narratives.

Local Partnerships

Local communities need to build their resilience against threats from ISIS and like-minded terrorist groups. It’s essential that communities, civil society groups, religious leaders, and local law enforcement work together to help prevent radicalization at home. True partnerships between these groups, rather than a top-down government- led initiative, can address at-risk individuals and develop better community relationships. This would support Muslim-Americans across the country to participate in efforts preventing recruitment through youth programs, job training, community engagement opportunities, and mentoring initiatives. These kinds of community-based programs that address terrorist recruitment head-on need funding and federal government support. The U.S. government should expand the pilot program focusing on these partnerships, Building Community Resilience, to more cities to confront terrorist recruitment around the country.24

These long-term proposals will allow the U.S. to build a more coordinated and organized policy path to address terrorist threats. Disrupting ISIS narratives in the online space and safeguarding our communities will prevent homegrown terrorism and reduce terrorist recruitment.

4. Deny Fertile Ground for Terrorists

The last part of our counterterrorism plan includes a long-term strategy to permanently defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups abroad. This will include addressing what happens after ISIS, by supporting a political transition in Syria, providing U.S. governance and security assistance in the region, and countering extremist propaganda.

Russia’s decision last fall to boost its support of the Syrian government has altered the state of play in Syria. The Assad regime is in a stronger position now against opposition forces than it was before Russia’s arrival. Should UN peace talks progress, a political transition away from Assad’s rule will be necessary to ensure legitimacy of the central government.

Once ISIS is defeated, international powers will have to reckon with the aftermath in Iraq and Syria. Going forward, Iraq’s central government must prevent sectarian divides by enforcing inclusive policies that don’t alienate its Sunni and Kurdish population. Iraqi security forces must continue training to better defend Iraq from internal and external forces.

Despite the eventual defeat of ISIS, terrorist groups inspired by ISIS and al Qaeda will likely endure in fragmented groups. It will be essential to support our allies in the region so that a future power vacuum does not allow for any terrorist group to gain territory or influence. Continued U.S. security assistance and training will be a vital tool to promoting U.S. national security interests and defending our allies. The U.S. should also provide increased assistance and training to strengthen governance structures in the region so countries are able to hold their leaders accountable, provide for their own security, and resolve disputes without falling to violence. In countries throughout the region, governments that have attempted to suppress or disempower their opposition have seen that opposition resort to increased violence and radicalization. Over the long-term, the U.S. should re-invigorate democracy assistance programs so that in the Middle East, countries will choose to resolve their disputes at the ballot box instead of on the battlefield. As the U.S. learned all too well in the Iraq War, without a political solution, there will be no military solution, so in order to restore stability in the Middle East, resolving the underlying political conflicts will be necessary.

Cutting off terrorist messaging will remain an essential part of this long-term effort in combatting extremism in the Middle East. The Department of Defense’s U.S. Cyber Command recently began an intensified effort against ISIS members and their use of social media platforms to recruit and influence potential followers.25 The U.S. State Department has also made efforts this year to change its approach to countering ISIS messaging with the new Global Engagement Center. This includes working with regional partners and using data-tested messaging strategies to counter terrorist narratives, focusing on their attacks on innocent civilians and offering an alternative and positive narrative to vulnerable groups. These efforts should be expanded upon to wipe out terrorist efforts to recruit followers.


Developing—and implementing—a strategy to defeat ISIS and prevent homegrown terrorism will save American lives and provide regional stability in the Middle East. These short and long-term proposals will set the U.S. on a path to effectively defeat ISIS and related terrorists at home and abroad. Policymakers should capitalize on this tough and smart strategy to combat terrorism and reassure the public on national security and terrorism issues.

End Notes