Over-the-Horizon Is Far Below Standard

Why terrorists will welcome Biden’s counterterrorism strategy.

By , a non-resident fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College, and , the director of research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.
An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System drone is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on May 13, 2013 in the Atlantic Ocean.
An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System drone is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on May 13, 2013 in the Atlantic Ocean.
An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System drone is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on May 13, 2013 in the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Navy via Getty Images

“We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence. If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan,” said U.S. President Joe Biden on Aug. 16, commenting on the situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country. “We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”

The person tasked with managing that over-the-horizon campaign, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, leader of U.S. Central Command, is less optimistic. McKenzie has said that he does not believe the U.S. military is currently capable of confronting the terrorism threat that various militant groups in Afghanistan may pose.

History suggests McKenzie is right and that, over time, the U.S. military will grow ever less capable of handling the threat due to a lack of intelligence assets on the ground in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has a mixed record of targeted air attacks, even with troops on the ground, yet the current challenge in Afghanistan exceeds any previous experience due to the complex nature of the deteriorating security environment. Not only is Afghanistan governed by a group hostile to the United States; the country’s immediate neighbors do not offer a particularly welcoming platform from where the United States could realistically expect to conduct an effective counterterrorism campaign.

“We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence. If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan,” said U.S. President Joe Biden on Aug. 16, commenting on the situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country. “We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”

The person tasked with managing that over-the-horizon campaign, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, leader of U.S. Central Command, is less optimistic. McKenzie has said that he does not believe the U.S. military is currently capable of confronting the terrorism threat that various militant groups in Afghanistan may pose.

History suggests McKenzie is right and that, over time, the U.S. military will grow ever less capable of handling the threat due to a lack of intelligence assets on the ground in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has a mixed record of targeted air attacks, even with troops on the ground, yet the current challenge in Afghanistan exceeds any previous experience due to the complex nature of the deteriorating security environment. Not only is Afghanistan governed by a group hostile to the United States; the country’s immediate neighbors do not offer a particularly welcoming platform from where the United States could realistically expect to conduct an effective counterterrorism campaign.

During a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last October, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl testified that the U.S. intelligence community had assessed that both the Islamic State-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, and al Qaeda “have the intent to conduct external operations, including against the United States, but neither currently has the capability to do so. We could see ISIS-K generate that capability in somewhere between six or 12 months.” This underlines a more general perception that the Islamic State would use Afghanistan as a future hub to prepare and execute acts of terrorism in the West, a sentiment that is only aggravated by news that the group is now present in most Afghan provinces. Moreover, the Taliban have so far proved ineffectual as counterinsurgents, as their draconian approach has been counterproductive and helped the Islamic State-Khorasan recruit new members.

In mid-December, McKenzie commented that al Qaeda’s numbers in Afghanistan were up slightly since U.S. forces withdrew in August. McKenzie went on to say: “We’re probably at about 1 or 2 percent of the capabilities we once had to look into Afghanistan.” This means the threat from al Qaeda is metastasizing at the same time as the U.S. capability to combat transnational jihadi groups is reaching a nadir. The Islamic State-Khorasan, for its part, could very well seek to build up its external operations planning network in order to execute attacks outside Afghanistan. As the analyst Asfandyar Mir has suggested, “intra-jihadi competition incentivizes outbidding violence,” a worst-case scenario that could see al Qaeda and the Islamic State-Khorasan grow in strength over the coming months.

The premise of an over-the-horizon strategy is that technological acumen can adequately compensate for on-the-ground involvement. The idea is that remotely controlled airstrikes relying on signals intelligence (SIGINT) can target active operational cells and leadership figures and, in effect, decimate the organization’s top strategists and commanders.

Yet this premise rests on two key analytic flaws. One is the issue of intelligence collection to inform kinetic operations, and the other is how too often leadership decapitation is pursued as a strategy in and of itself rather than a tactic.

The catastrophic drone attack on Aug. 29, 2021, that U.S. forces believed targeted an active operational Khorasan cell but that turned out to be an U.S.-employed aid worker and his family is the most vivid proof of the challenge the U.S. military is confronted with now. While human sources do not prevent such tragedies entirely, they minimize the risk of flawed information if managed correctly. And with the errant strike and resulting civilian casualties garnering significant media attention, the U.S. Defense Department is likely to be more hesitant in ordering similar strikes in the future. The result will be a reticence to strike terrorist networks as they reconstitute, ceding the advantage to violent extremists as they seek to recruit, recuperate, and rearm.

The growing overreliance on SIGINT has been in process over the past two decades and is problematic because it limits intelligence gathering to specific types of communications. Terrorists who have eschewed communicating via cellphone and moved to a courier system will help insulate themselves from electronic eavesdropping. Additionally, relying solely on SIGINT makes it almost impossible to validate information, including distinguishing enemies’ psychological operations from authentic information. While SIGINT might be a useful method to gain access to selectors, it cannot replace the information provided by human sources in terms of information about social networks, routines, appearance, and authenticity.

The second flaw relates to the question of leadership decapitation as an effective counterterrorism strategy. That leadership decapitation hardly works is nothing new, and it may even produce unintended consequences. For two decades, the U.S. military, assisted by partners, has targeted leadership figures in militant Islamist networks in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. While losing a leader or a key network hub may represent a setback for a group, history shows that those individuals over time are replaced. Proving this point, in Afghanistan since 2015, the United States has killed five consecutive Khorasan leaders with little impact on the group.

Jihadis’ internal communication demonstrates that the constant circling of drones does scare them, limits their movement as they concentrate more on operations security, and occasionally eliminates a senior figure. Yet the kind of pressure and impact it entails is manageable for them. The most effective and successful terrorist groups are learning organizations, and as such, they adapt accordingly.

Instead, the strategy runs the very real risk of helping militants to recruit and mobilize, using collateral damage to further their cause and rally the population to their side. And that is likely much more valuable to groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State than losing a senior commander now and then.

That is the scenario we are now looking into in the context of Afghanistan. While al Qaeda and the Islamic State will suffer from occasionally losing senior members of their organizations, they will generally profit from a much safer operational environment, enabling them not only to rebuild and strengthen transnational networks but also to plan operations.

We know from history that terrorists benefit from having a safe haven, and the operational environment in a Taliban-governed Afghanistan will undoubtedly provide groups such as al Qaeda with an unprecedented platform to restore the losses of the past 20 years. It is thus highly likely that the Afghanistan-Pakistan region will reestablish itself as the center of gravity for the global al Qaeda network both in terms of its leadership structure and its global operations.

Over-the-horizon has for years been employed by the United States in Somalia and is now the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan, too. In the Sahel, France is similarly planning to reduce its troop presence in the region as part of its dismantling of Operation Barkhane, aiming instead to mainly contribute with air power through the European Union’s Operation Takuba.

While targeted air support might help achieve tactical victories, over-the-horizon as a counterterrorism strategy is unlikely to yield any strategic victory in combating terrorism in the long term. As a strategy, over-the-horizon is not designed to win the global war against terrorism but to mitigate the terrorist threat in a short-term perspective. And even that will be troublesome in the context of Afghanistan and in the Sahel, just as it has been in Somalia.

If Biden’s objective is to prevent future Afghanistan-orchestrated terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland, he might be successful in delaying any such event. Occasionally, he may even be able to issue a press statement announcing the killing of an al Qaeda or Islamic State leader. But if his ambition is to eradicate those actors posing the terrorist threat, he will undoubtedly fail.

Tore Hamming is a non-resident fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College.

Colin P. Clarke is the director of research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. Twitter: @ColinPClarke

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.

Xi-Biden Meeting May Help End China’s Destructive Isolation

Beijing has become dangerously locked off from the world.

The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.
The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.

Sweden’s Espionage Scandal Raises Hard Questions on Spy Recruitment

Intelligence agencies debate whether foreign-born citizens are more targeted.

President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.
President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

The G-20 Proved It’s Our World Government

At a time of global conflict, world powers showed that cooperation can actually work.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.

Only an Absolute Bureaucracy Can Save Us

The West will only restore its stability when civil servants are again devoted to the public rather than themselves.