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Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (’98): Why we’re still losing the war on terrorism

National Championship debater is now a leading counter terrorism expert and author

By Kerry M. King ('85) Wake Forest Magazine
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Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (’98) is a leading expert on counter terrorism and the author of 11 books and monographs, including “Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terrorism” (2011) and “My Year Inside Radical Islam” (2007). He is director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is often featured in national publications and is a frequent contributor to popular and academic websites. He won the National Debate Championship with Brian Prestes (’97) in 1997. He is married to Amy Powell (’01).
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross on the Boston Marathon bombings.

Did you grow up saying “I’d like to be a counter terrorism expert”?

No! Growing up I had no idea that I would end up doing what I do now. Nor did I have an idea that I’d end up in this field when I left college, though I did leave Wake Forest having studied, developed an interest in, and thought fairly deeply about several things that would be relevant to my later work: international affairs, religion and foreign languages.

The story of how I ended up in this field is frankly unusual, and was the subject of my first book. I converted to the Islamic faith while in college, following a period of severe physical illness that forced me to reassess my priorities, including asking some of those big religious questions that near-death experiences can sometimes prompt. I practiced a moderate version of the faith while at Wake Forest.

After college I worked for an Islamic charity whose head U.S. office was located in my hometown of Ashland, Ore. It turned out to be a major Wahhabi organization that propagated a hardline version of the faith, and that ended up being named a specially designated global terrorist entity by the treasury department. While there, I grappled with the extreme version of the faith in which I was immersed, ultimately rejecting it. (I have been a practicing Christian for about 13 years: one result of that experience is that struggling with extreme religious ideas forced me to return to theological first principles, and in doing so I ended up with some different ideas about God than those I originally inclined toward.)

So my introduction to these issues was from the other side of the fence, rather than from the “counterterrorism” side. That experience left me with an intense, and rather personal, interest in the jihadist violent non-state actors that were such a strategic priority for the United States for the first decade of the 21st century. But beyond that, in 2001 I was living in New York City at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and from the street outside my apartment I could watch the plumes of smoke rising from the World Trade Center.

The fact that I developed an interest in this field based on some experiences significantly outside the norm gives me, in many ways, an outsider’s perspective on the work I do. I think that’s healthy in many ways, including analytically.

Were there professors at Wake Forest who influenced you?

Absolutely. The person who influenced me most was the late Ross K. Smith (’82), who was my debate coach. He had a unique way of cutting to the heart of an argument, and making you understand it in a different way. His manner of approaching policy issues has had a profound impact on my approach to my professional work, in which I generally try not to say what everybody else is saying (although sometimes the consensus of experts is simply right, and may be worth repeating). The impact that Ross Smith had on my thinking and intellectual development was so profound that I dedicated my second book, “Bin Laden’s Legacy,” to him. I learned a great deal from other professors, too, including Ken Zick, whose course on the First Amendment helped inspire me to attend law school, and Simeon Ilesanmi (religion) and Eric K. Watts (communication).

How did your debate background prepare you for what you’re doing today?

Debate served as great preparation for what I do now. Wake Forest is blessed to still have a tremendous educator heading up its debate program in Jarrod Atchison (’01, MA ’03). He and I overlapped as Wake students, and he’s someone whom I will always visit when I’m back in town. I’ll also occasionally help out Wake Forest’s debate team, analyzing different cases and arguments they might face from my own perch in the policy world; I attended the National Debate Tournament last year and helped to coach one of the teams that attended.

You write in your book, “Bin Laden’s Legacy,” that even though Osama bin Laden is dead, the threat posed by Islamist militants is still very real: “Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, our enemies are correct to see the United States as weaker.” This is a broad question, but why are we losing the war?

The reason that we’re losing is the economics of the war. Something that helped prompt my interest in the book project was a propaganda release by a jihadist group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in November 2010. The previous month, the group had attempted to blow up a couple of planes using explosives disguised as printer cartridges. Both bombs were discovered before their timers were set to explode, but not before they were loaded onto, and flown on, passenger planes. One bomb was discovered in Dubai, and the other was found at Britain’s East Midlands Airport. The package containing the bomb at East Midlands was even screened by security and cleared for a further flight to the United States before it was found.

But the bottom line was that no bombs detonated, nobody was killed, nothing was destroyed. It seems like a failed plot, right? That’s why I found it relevant that AQAP devoted an entire issue of its English-language online magazine Inspire to what most observers would consider a failed plot. Rather than considering the plot a failure, they considered it a significant enough success that they devoted an entire issue of their propaganda magazine to it.

I had been researching al Qaeda’s economic strategy for over a year at that point, and that issue of Inspire made crystal clear the conclusion I had already reached: al Qaeda saw grinding down the American economy, and the economy of the U.S.’s allies, as the path to victory. This was more important to al Qaeda than executing another spectacular attack. And thus, the ink cartridge plot was seen as successful because AQAP believed that by getting the bombs onto two passenger planes, they presented the U.S. with a dilemma. As the late AQAP official Anwar al Awlaki put it, “You either spend billions of dollars to inspect each and every package in the world, or you do nothing and we keep trying again.”

The U.S. has been awfully good at preventing the next major terrorist attack (although sometimes we have gotten lucky, as was the case for the attempted bombing of Times Square). What we have not been good at is keeping our spending under control when trying to stop these attacks. Because of this, my concern is that we might crumble under the weight of our own success.

Is that the greatest threat we face today, even moreso than a nuclear Iran or North Korea?

I think our national debt is the greatest threat we face. (Here is a piece I wrote about a year ago that outlines what I consider to be the five most important strategic trends that will shape our national security in the coming decade.) Obviously, the national debt goes far, far beyond our fight against al Qaeda. But this is an enemy that recognizes our economic weakness, and is seeking to exploit it — and has been pretty effective in that regard.

The use of drones to target terrorists — even Americans overseas — has been much in the news recently. Cause for concern or just an effective weapon against terrorists that we should embrace?

Somewhere in the middle. The first thing I will say is that far too much emphasis has been placed on drones, because the potential problems related to them are not unique to this weapons platform. So much emphasis is placed on the weapons platform of drones that when Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz introduced a bill following Paul’s filibuster, it was designed to “prohibit drone killings of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil if they do not represent an imminent threat.” Adam Serwer of Mother Jones had a particularly good quip in response: “The bill all but disarms the U.S. government, leaving it with few options for lethal force against citizens other than guns, tanks, helicopters, snipers, paramilitary squads, bombs, tasers and blunt force.” Kelsey Atherton, writing in Popular Science, also made the point that targeted killings are about more than just drones. There is certainly cause for concern about the U.S.’s targeted killing program, but drones, which are just one aspect of that program, have been overemphasized.

Let’s run down a list of trouble spots in the world, starting with Afghanistan. You made the case recently on NPR for what the U.S. should learn from the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. What role should the U.S. play in Afghanistan in the future?

In large part, the answer to this question depends on whether the U.S. is able to negotiate a status of forces agreement that provides U.S. troops with immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts. If not, then similar to Iraq following our withdrawal, our role will be minimal.

You’ve written that you consider the war in Iraq a major strategic blunder. Going forward, what should our strategy be?

One reason that Iraq was such a huge blunder is because it was completely unrelated to the major strategic concern we were then confronting: the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates. Even worse is the fact that though the war didn’t advance any of the U.S.’s strategic goals in that conflict, it actively advanced the enemy’s strategic goals. Al Qaeda essentially had two overarching ideas about defeating America. One, as I already mentioned, was bleeding its superpower adversary’s economy; the second was making the battlefield on which the fight against the United States occurred as broad as possible. In this regard, the Iraq war advanced both of al Qaeda’s major goals.

To me, one of the major problems at the outset of the war on terror is that we plunged ahead with the fight against al Qaeda without taking the time to really figure out the adversary. What did al Qaeda perceive as the U.S.’s center of gravity? How might it try to attack that center of gravity? These are vital questions that we didn’t sufficiently address, and I document this in Bin Laden’s Legacy. So, I’ll provide two answers to your question. First, strategically, we need to do a better job mapping how the opponent perceives us and our major weaknesses. Doing that will help us to avoid costly and tragic blunders like Iraq. Second, let’s be extremely hesitant about using military force in a way that isn’t directly related to our strategic goals. This second reason is why I have been a critic of our decision to go to war in Libya; and I think subsequent events have validated my skepticism, although the Libya war has been nowhere near as costly as Iraq.

With John Kerry recently offering increased non-military support for the opposition in Syria, the U.S. seems to be going down that slippery slope again. Are we following the Libyan playbook again?

No. We undertook a bombing campaign in Libya, and we’re not going to bomb Syria.

While we’re on Libya, and I’d throw in Egypt, Iraq and perhaps Syria, we seem to be pretty good at promoting “regime change” but what’s happened to the building democracy part? Are you optimistic about those countries’ futures?

Though I wouldn’t list Egypt among the countries where we promoted regime change, I think you’re correct: it’s far easier to get rid of the old government than to usher in a new regime that is either stable or democratic. I fall on the somewhat pessimistic side about much of the regime change that has occurred from 2003 onward: not that it is a bad thing that the old dictators are gone, but that these countries are going to encounter a great deal of difficulties. Of the countries you named, I think Iraq is in the best shape moving forward, followed by Libya. I consider Syria to be the worst off of the four.

What countries are we going to be talking about next year, or, in other words, what keeps you awake at night?

Only one thing keeps me awake at night: my 2-month-old daughter.