As President Trump took office, he inherited a counterterrorism program that was actively engaged in confronting unprecedented terrorist threats in operations across the Middle East and North Africa. Six months into his term, what are the elements of continuity or change in these policies?
As ISIS continues to lose territory, how will the administration consolidate the war on ISIS, confront threats from Al-Qaeda and counter Iran-backed terrorist groups? How will the United States respond to long-term instability, particularly in Syria, to reduce the drivers for radicalization and the further growth of terrorist groups there? Will conditions and risks on the ground force the administration to commit to further military intervention?
Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, joined Jennifer Cafarella (ISW), Matthew Levitt (WINEP), Joshua Geltzer (New America), and the director of the Middle East Institute's (MEI) Countering Terrorism Project, Charles Lister, for a discussion on Trump administration counterterrorism policy. MEI's Vice President for Policy Analysis, Research, and Programs, Paul Salem, moderated the event.
Lead Intelligence Planner, Institute for the Study of War (ISW)
Jennifer Cafarella is the lead intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), where she is responsible for shaping and overseeing the development of ISW’s detailed plans and recommendations for how to achieve U.S. objectives against enemies and adversaries and in conflict zones. Previously, as a Syria analyst at ISW, she researched and wrote on ISIS and various armed opposition groups in Syria, with a particular focus on Al Qaeda. She served as the lead author of the report “America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” which was published in March 2017 as part of the series "U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda."
Fellow, New America Foundation
Joshua Geltzer is a fellow in New America's International Security program. He served from 2015 to 2017 as senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council staff, having served previously as deputy legal advisor to the National Security Council and as counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice. He also served as a law clerk to Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court and, before that, as a law clerk to Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He is the author of U.S. Counter-Terrorism Strategy and al-Qaeda: Signalling and the Terrorist World-View, published by Routledge; and his work has appeared in Parameters, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, The Journal of Constitutional Law, and The Berkeley Journal of International Law.
Fromer-Wexler fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP)
Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler fellow and director of WINEP's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. From 2005 to early 2007, he served as deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. In that capacity, he served both as a senior official within the department's terrorism and financial intelligence branch and as deputy chief of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, one of sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies coordinated under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. During his tenure at Treasury, Levitt played a central role in efforts to protect the U.S. financial system from abuse and to deny terrorists, weapons proliferators, and other rogue actors the ability to finance threats to U.S. national security. From 2008 to 2009, he served as a State Department counterterrorism advisor to the special envoy for Middle East regional security, General James L. Jones. From 2001 to 2005, Levitt served the Institute as founding director of its Terrorism Research Program, which was established in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Previously, he served as a counterterrorism intelligence analyst at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he provided tactical and strategic analytical support for counterterrorism operations, focusing on fundraising and logistical support networks for Middle Eastern terrorist groups.
Charles Lister is a resident fellow at MEI. He was formerly a visiting fellow at the Brookings Center in Qatar and before that, the head of the Middle East and North Africa division at the London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. Lister focuses on terrorism, insurgency, and sub-state security threats across the Middle East. He is also a senior consultant to The Shaikh Group’s Track II Syria Initiative, within which he has helped coordinate a two-year process of engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups. He is the author of The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction (Brookings Institution Press, 2015) and the recently released book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Special Presidential Envoy, Global Coalition to Counter ISIS
Brett McGurk serves as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS at the U.S. Department of State. In this assignment, McGurk leads a global coalition of 68 members and helps coordinate all aspects of U.S. policy related to the ultimate destruction of ISIS. His previous assignment was Deputy Special Presidential Envoy from September 2014 until November 2015. He previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs from August 2013 until his current appointment. In the Obama administration McGurk served as a Senior Advisor in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs with a focus on Iraq and other regional initiatives, as a special advisor to the National Security Staff, and as Senior Advisor to Ambassadors Ryan Crocker, Christopher Hill, and James Jeffrey in Baghdad. During the Bush administration, from 2005 to 2009, McGurk served as Director for Iraq and then as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 McGurk served as a lead negotiator and coordinator during bilateral talks with the Iraqi Government on both a long-term Strategic Framework Agreement and a Security Agreement to govern the temporary presence of U.S. forces and the normalization of bilateral relations between Iraq and the United States. For these and other assignments he received the State Department's Distinguished Honor and Superior Honor Awards. He was also one of the chief architects with President Bush of the strategy known as “the Surge,” which contributed to a significant reduction of violence in Iraq. McGurk had earlier served as a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority and then the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad under Ambassador John Negroponte.
Paul Salem (Moderator)
Vice President for Policy and Research, MEI
Paul Salem is vice president for policy and research at MEI. He focuses on issues of political change, transition, and conflict as well as the regional and international relations of the Middle East. He has a particular emphasis on the countries of the Levant and Egypt. Salem writes regularly in the Arab and Western press and has been published in numerous journals and newspapers. Salem is the author of a number of books and reports including Bitter Legacy: Ideology and Politics in the Arab World (1994), Conflict Resolution in the Arab World (ed., 1997), Broken Orders: The Causes and Consequences of the Arab Uprisings (In Arabic, 2013), “The Recurring Rise and Fall of Political Islam” (CSIS, 2015), “The Middle East in 2015 and Beyond: Trends and Drivers” (MEI 2014). Prior to joining MEI, Salem was the founding director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon between 2006 and 2013. From 1999 to 2006, he was director of the Fares Foundation and in 1989-1999 founded and directed the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Lebanon's leading public policy think tank.