Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 11, 2014

What the President said about evil and counterterrorism

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 11, 2014

Thirteen years ago this morning nineteen young men carried out a horrific attack on the United States.

The 911 Commission wrote it “was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering.”

Our shock might have been less if we had given greater collective attention to a range of precursor events, including the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings,  the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the Bojinka plots of the early 1990s.

If — most of us would say, when — we are attacked again we may suffer as much, but it will not be a shock.

Last evening the President of the United States spoke to us for a bit more than thirteen minutes.  He explained that we will, once again, take action in Iraq — and this time in Syria too — to preempt another attack here at home.

Here are two aspects of the President’s message worth highlighting, especially for those with a particular interest in homeland security.  Each serve to frame the President’s strategic understanding — accurate or not — regarding the threat at hand.  Last night the President said,

… we continue to face a terrorist threat.  We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.  That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.  And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.  At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain.  And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State.”

Please notice the problem originates with evil in the world.  The problem is set-in-motion by small groups (plural) of killers. The problem is amplified by the ability of these small groups to manipulate unjust situations for their evil purposes.

Yesterday I heard John Brennan, the CIA director, call ISIL “evil incarnate.”  The President also said, “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple.  And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

Our current problem-focus is only one of many such groups.  We ought expect that whatever our success in this case, there will be future cases requiring our response.

The President outlined a multilateral, collaborative, and regionally-oriented approach that involves both US leadership and considerable, even preconditional, US restraint.  All of this is worth further analysis.  I will let foreign policy and national security bloggers, reporters and pundits do most of this.

For our purposes the second aspect worth particular attention is when the President said, “Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”

He might have offered the same operational descriptions without applying the label.  The label is important.

To really hear last night’s meaning, we need to study the speech given at West Point on May 28.  In those more extended remarks the President said,

For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism. But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.  I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.

And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al Qaeda leadership.  Instead, it comes from decentralized al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate.  And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi.  It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi.

So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat — one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stir up local resentments.  We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us… Our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.

What we are hearing and beginning to see is the most dramatic execution yet of this “comprehensive and sustained” CT strategy. It has already been unfolding in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere.  I perceive it has important — and to date, not much discussed — domestic corollaries.

Evil persists.  Small groups caught up in evil can do great harm.  Terrorist potential is amplified by authentic injustice, oppression, and grievance.  We ought take care that our response does not gratuitously inflame this potential.  But we are called to act, as best we can, against sources of evil.

If this is true in Raqqa, is it true in Rockford?  If it is true in Mosul, is it true in Memphis?

In another post — or more than one — it is worth thinking together about the accuracy of this worldview. Is it helpful?  Is it skillful?  But this is what I have heard.  What about you?

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Comment by Quin

September 11, 2014 @ 7:17 am

“What we are hearing and beginning to see is the most dramatic execution yet of this “comprehensive and sustained” CT strategy. It has already been unfolding in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere. I perceive it has important — and to date, not much discussed — domestic corollaries.”

It’s interesting to note that by the time of the President’s speech, US forces had already destroyed 212 ISIS targets. http://www.businessinsider.co.id/us-action-against-isis-breakdown-2014-9/#.VBGQO6OwWwM

It’s good we are finally coming to terms that this as a long term, generational issue. I saw yesterday, for the first time, someone refer to our CT efforts overseas as “mowing the grass”, a term used by the Israelis for some time to describe their periodic fights with Hamas.

But I also wished we used this day to reflect on whether we’re handling this as efficiently as we could.


This week I saw Senators point out that for $41 billion in domestic counter-terrorism grants since 9/11 we’ve used all that stuff and training…. twice. Boston, where the training was used, and Senator Coburn politely chastised FEMA’s representative that the high-speed radar on the Boston PD helicopter didn’t find the last Tsnarev brother, it was a homeowner checking on his boat. And the aborted Times Square bombing allegedly would have seen a grant purchases situational awareness system used. How long will the spigot remain on?

And it will be an interesting historical retrospective on whether ISIS would even exist if we had just let Saddam flail away in Iraq. Almost certainly not. And whether our withdrawal from Iraq provided the space for ISIS to reform from the remnants of their previous incarnation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq? Lets hope that turns out to be not as bad a mistake as our de-Baathification progam in Iraq and disbanding of the Iraqi Army.

As much as we look back today, I wish we’d use the attention to look forward.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 11, 2014 @ 8:20 am

Quin: We are hearing similar messages. Perhaps beyond “generational”, I am hearing “perpetually emergent.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 11, 2014 @ 9:37 am


Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 11, 2014 @ 9:56 am

Bill: Your caution related to crusading is very much worthwhile. Some are, clearly, inclined to armor up. But I don’t think the accusation fits what the President says he intends. Depending on what happens, it may still be perceived as crusading and that is as bad. But given prior action — and inaction — and what he has consistently said, I think it is the crusader-wannabes who will be piling on this White House (The Fourth Crusade at Constantinople all-over-again?). What he is trying to gin-up is much more self-policing by the Arab world. Given the corruption of Arab elites and the complications of Persian-Arab/Shia-Sunni conflict, I’m not sure he will succeed any more than Francis succeeded in converting the Sultan. But is it worth trying? I’m inclined to say yes. Is it within the national capacity of the United States? I’m sorry to say, probably not. But I don’t see a much better alternative.

Comment by Donald Quixote

September 11, 2014 @ 10:46 am

It is hard to not be against evil. Like cancer, it does not have many advocates.

One difference may be that people in Rockford and Memphis vote and may look and act more like us.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 11, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

Donald Quixote: And if you look at my actions: there can a disturbing tendency — temptation, might be fairly used — to neglect my finite limitations and to undertake to make myself the center of all life. Because this is inconsistent with reality my ability to positively engage reality suffers. In response, my anxiety grows. In an effort to assuage my anxiety I exert my will-to-power. There is further disturbance and my relationship with reality is further distanced. Estrangement from reality is not a happy place. But reality involves (doesn’t it?) an awareness — even acceptance — of existential vulnerability. Am I willing to pay the toll required to be realistic?

These discussions of evil — if taken seriously — raise a whole host of other issues… not typically the stuff of presidential remarks in 13 minutes or even more. Or of blogs.

Comment by Donald Quixote

September 11, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

Is the use of the word evil not an empowering devise to support the significant change of policy? It is more powerful than us and them. Does using the word evil diminish the argument or office? Too religious or judgmental in nature?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 11, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

Donald Quixote: Very helpful questions. I don’t know if the terminology is being used cynically or not. Perhaps because I would consider such an action evil in itself, I hope not. It is my impression that our leaders are authentically describing what they are encountering. What they are struggling with. There is, almost always, a mirroring effect to such encounters. The good news (paradoxically?) is that I perceive many of our current leaders are aware of these effects. But, to the extent the concept-of-evil is as important as I have discerned, we ought much more carefully examine the part of evil in homeland security. This morning I started reading Leibniz and Niebuhr on evil. I have been thinking of my own encounters. More consideration here fairly soon.

Comment by Donald Quixote

September 11, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

I do not see the terminology or use necessarily as cynical as much as political, emotional and/or functional. What is evil? In the world of homeland security and foreign policy, there are many interesting and conflicting positions and perspectives on this subject.

Evil or not, it is an international and domestic concern – along with many others.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 11, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

Evil largely a Christian concept which prompted my CRUSADER comment. Hoping they don’t get their saddles on backwards.

Comment by Donald Quixote

September 11, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

I would argue that evil is non-denominational in its history and interpretation.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 11, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

Bill: It seems to me that the modern, post-Christian West has retrieved a largely Manichean notion of reality, where Good and Evil are in ongoing conflict. While officially heretical, this was a popular cultural notion even in the First Century, Dante made Satan his stronger co-star, and Puritan preachers — whatever their theology — seemed transfixed by the power of evil. Is this the “Christian” concept to which you are referring?

I ask for several reasons, but of particular relevance to the topic at hand: I perceive the popular notion of evil is almost entirely divorced from the most serious philosophical, psychological, and religious considerations of the issue. Dante is more influential than Aquinas. Harry Potter more influential than Carl Jung. So… when the President or John Brennan or any other public figure speaks of “evil” it is far from clear what they might actually mean.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

September 11, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

I take for granted that what I am about to put forth is maybe a bit too existential but given the subject and the day I think my comments lend themselves to be that.

What is evil? Is it the supernatural counter to “good”? Is it biblical, religious, or some extension of a disruption of universal harmony? Is evil an affront to God? Is evil a manifestation of the human condition? Is it biological or psychological? Is it a construct to explain social anomalies that disrupt the contrived social fabric of behavior? Is it a cultural phenomenon? Is evil immoral or amoral?

The philosophical question of whether morality is absolute, relative, or illusory leads to questions about the nature of evil, and if it falls into one of four prescripted but opposing camps: moral absolutism, amoralism, moral relativism, and moral universalism.

I do not want to delve into them but suffice it to say; evil is complex on many levels.

On a completely different plane, there is matter and anti-matter, light and absence of light (dark) etc. Would it be reasonable to operate that there is EVIL, given this ying and yang or point/counterpoint disposition of this argument? All religions have a description of evil. Most moral codes do too. I wonder though if this is a contrived state. Are their evil animals, bacteria, viruses, and protozoa? Are their evil plants?

Does evil have a motive? I am not being trivial here at all.

And on yet another plane; syntax. What we, the United States calls evil may not be in Russia. What Saudi Arabia sees as evil may not be in the UK. What the UK sees as evil…you get the point. While one would think there is a universal definition of evil, the political, cultural, and sociological interpretation of it shapes many conversations. What is seen as collateral damage by our planners could conceivably be seen as mass murder by others. To further that argument, compare and contrast Israel and Gaza in terms of their deployment of aggression, damage rendered, and the costs of reconstitution.

Is evil subjective?

Do we need to really define “evil” as the root cause of terrorism or is terrorism a continuation of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu? The use of terror and terrorism as a tactic is better defined and engaged in lieu of trying to define terror as an ideology that we are trying to conquer. And what of terrorism? I do not believe terrorism has a legally binding, criminal law definition. It certainly has been defined by others.

If terrorism is going to refer to violent acts intended to create fear and undermine authority than was the activities taken by Iraqi’s and Afghans so much different than the French in World War II and other occupied nations? The question must be asked.

Terrorism universally has a religious, political and/or ideological goal and it may be to deliberately target noncombatants and/or civilians. The point here is nothing happens in a vacuum so why do we collectively believe terrorism is an argument about evil instead of politics?

I lost friends in NY, friends at the Pentagon in Arlington, friends in Afghanistan, and Iraq. It is with me every day. Loss unfortunately comes with the “job” and is the nature of conflict.

Many of you readers also lost friends and loved ones. I think it is overly simplistic, intellectually lazy, and avoidant to chalk up terrorism as just “evil” instead of tactical, operational, and strategic politics being exercised against us. It makes more intellectual and rational sense to at least ponder the latter in lieu of the former. Terrorism is not arbitrary but calculated…is evil as discerning and exact?

I recall attending a terrorist briefing about the FARC some time ago and a peer; Naval Academy Grad, USMC Tanker, and pretty bright guy said if”…the bad guys are here, I’m doing whatever it takes…”. How is that different than someone in another country exercising that same value system?

So here we are some 13 years later using the same euphemisms, methodologies, and propaganda to bring the fight not to an enemy but a tactic. We hope to fight and defeat evil. Our fight has been woefully inadequate and ineffective, in my view.

To want to wage violence against ISIS or ISIL, Al Qaeda, AQAP, or whoever wants to do us harm is reasonable. To not even consider the “why” they came to be or be at all familiar with the historical context of their evolution is at best disingenuous and at worse incompetent.

If we want to better protect ourselves against these activities than it is in our best interest to see terrorism as more than “evil”. To continue with this binary argument is superfluous. And to also operate on the premise that all we do as a nation is righteous, just, and noble is dangerous.

I have always believed in the simple adage; my country right or wrong, but my country. I also see the Nation as being paternal or maternal…flawed, but forgiving, imperfect but accepting, tolerant, but not ignorant of fallibility.

Stop blaming terrorism on evil. That is the easy way out. Tens of millions of people have been killed, tortured, maimed, and sacrificed throughout time in the name of evil. Our countrymen and women, our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers who were lost that day and all the other days deserve our best, most concerted, most thoughtful and a rigorously debated effort to do our best to protect and defend this nation.

To do less would fall prey to weakness. We owe them more than simply saying it was evil.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 11, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

Dan: Your comment deserves more of a response than I will give it here and now.

When references to evil are mindless excuses for not thinking, then — as you suggest — such references cheapen our shared humanity.

I don’t know what President Bush really meant when he talked of “evil-doers”. I am not sure what President Obama meant last night. We should try to call them out. At least that’s what I will endeavor to do beginning next week.

It has also been my experience that it is possible to encounter something — or perhaps the absence of something — that deserves the label of evil. At least for me, this label can helpfully differentiate evil from non-evil. It is a differentiation that if seriously engaged practically helps confront evil.

As I try to justify this claim you have set an appropriately very high bar. Thank you.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 11, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

Thanks Phil, Dan, and Don Q., and others for this post and thread. I don’t think it is accurate to say all religions believe in evil.

But using “evil” has a deep stste purpose that alarms me.

I would be interested in learning on how largely Christian armed forces can win battles and wars in MRNA [middle east and North Africa! Or as in many of the racial wars fought by the USA over its history, or perhaps more accurate to state that the wars were largely conducted on a racial basis, is the only good enemy of the USA a dead one. This is nihilism not religion.

WHY NOT USE THE BOMB WHEN WE HAVE IT THEY DON’T? Please understand that by raising this question I am NOT advocating usage just trying to understand US FP and conduct if International Relations. We are defined by our policies and this current evolution should terrify others and ourselves.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

September 11, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

….and I kindly remind you gentlemen:

{Letter from the commissioners, John Adams & Thomas Jefferson, to John Jay, 28 March 1786}”
? Thomas Jefferson, Letters of Thomas Jefferson

“We took the liberty to make some enquiries concerning the ground of their pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation.

The Ambassador [of Tripoli] answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.

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