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Interview: Terrorism Is 'A New Normal'

U.S. Major General James "Spider" Marks
U.S. Major General James "Spider" Marks
Can states ever win the war against terrorist organizations? RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel discussed the issue with Major General James "Spider" Marks, formerly commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School and an expert in counterterrorism.

RFE/RL: A great deal of any state’s capability to defend itself against terrorist groups lies in its ability to collect intelligence about their activities. But such information-gathering also affects ordinary citizens’ sense of privacy, as we have seen in the public reaction to the leaks by Edward Snowden regarding the National Security Agency’s operations. Are people right to be concerned that they are increasingly losing their privacy, not just to data-mining by companies but also by the government?

James Marks: I would say, fundamentally, because of our growth and our dependence on our enabling digital devices, we have become a nation, we have become a world, we have become a collection of peoples that are instantaneously available to be in touch. And as a result of that, that information, those data bits, are available instantaneously to a whole bunch of folks. So our expectations of security have dropped, whether we acknowledge that they have been dropped, they have been dropped. Every time you pick up a digital device and push "send" or talk into your phone, you consent to monitoring. That is being collected by somebody, somewhere. It doesn't necessarily mean that it is being exploited, or that somebody will really take the time to dig into the details.

What you have is this fundamental struggle of "I want to have" -- I, as an individual citizen of some place on planet Earth -- "I want to have access to information when I want to have it and it should be available to me and I have those expectations. And also as a citizen of the United States, I want to have some degree of privacy. There are rules, there are legal findings that preclude intrusion into my life."

[But] when I am on a digital device, just by its nature, there will be intrusion and if it is intrusion by the government, specifically in an NSA program as we have described that has oversight, I am not here to defend it or attack it, but it is a program that exists and there is a form of intrusion associated with it.

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RFE/RL: Where should governments draw the line between security and privacy?

Job one of the United States government is the security of the United States government, the longevity of the United States government. That is job one; that is what we want our government to do. Sadly, it gets into a whole bunch of other aspects of our lives. So there is a security aspect of the United States government that must be performed. The question will always be asked, "Is this an overreach?" I don't have the answer to that question. But it is a fact of the digital environment that we are a part of that there will be intrusion -- and our citizens are very concerned and they should be concerned. At the same time, they will be doubly concerned if their security is at risk.

RFE/RL: Another aspect of fighting terrorism is to physically fight the groups, to reduce or eliminate their members. We have seen U.S. strategy evolve from a boots-on-the-ground approach in Iraq and Afghanistan to an increasing reliance on intelligence-based drone warfare. But can drone warfare deliver victory?

The answer is no, unless the victory is defined in some way as a very one-on-one type of "one drone, one attack, that's victory." That is a very narrow definition that has more tactics associated with it than strategy. So, I would say emphatically that victory will not be achieved through the use of drones.

But more importantly, even if you take the drones out of the discussion, what does victory ultimately look like anyway? I think where we are today in the world is there is a war of ideas and there is a growing war of ideas that has great appeal to disenfranchised youth. So, there is a huge recruiting base where young men are going to be willing to jump into that pool, be recruited, be part of something that gives them great identity and ultimate martyrdom. Drones are only a weapons system, a capability, if you will, that allows you to achieve a level of stasis.

RFE/RL: Drones are controversial because they can kill not just their targets but also civilians who happen to be in the area. Retired General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of operations in Afghanistan, has said: “What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world.... They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one." If so, is there a danger drones help terrorist organizations recruit new, embittered recruits even as they eliminate existing leaders?

The use of a drone attack might in fact get a target that you want to get, but there will be collateral damage. There will be others that are involved. That on a human level is sufficient to increase recruitment. But I also think there are sufficient motivators for these disenfranchised to be recruited beyond drones. So it too narrowly defines the discussion to say "drones, ergo recruitment, ergo increased violence, and a never-ending cycle."

What I would say is drones are a very effective capability that should be used, should be used very precisely and minimally to achieve some very high payoff results. The collateral-damage piece probably will always be there, but it can be minimized as well.

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RFE/RL: Finally, let’s explore the extent to which terrorist organizations are able to adapt to our own evolving counterterrorism strategies. New statistics from the West Point Counterterroism Center show more than 60 terror attacks across the world since July 1 -- most recently, the attack at a Kenya mall in which more than 60 people were killed. Does this suggest that the current struggle with terrorist groups is likely to be neverending, that it will be a permanent part of life in the 21st century?

I think my short answer to that question is -- it is a new normal. It is a part of our existence. It really is more a war of ideas than anything else. Clearly, there is the notion that we have seen over the course of the last 20 years of the localization, of the breakdown in the command-and-control structure of terrorist organizations into a very diffuse type of motivational [effort] based on ideas and recruitment. Because of the nature of what I would call a very fractured world, very difficult economic [times], the clash of ideas, what in the past has always been very compartmentalized through time and space and geography -- [these] forms of separation -- we have lost all that in this digital age in that everybody is on top of everybody and not everybody likes everybody. And the exposure to others' ways of thinking and acting and doing and being and cultures and DNA causes these incredible friction points. And within those friction points you have recruitment, you have terrorism, and have people that will act out.

So, what we saw most recently in Kenya is a matter of radicalization in a very specific area against some very specific ideologies and with access to armament -- that is an industry that has been in place forever, so it is not a current issue and it's not one that's ever going to go away. But with that type of access, multiple forms of access, access to ideas, access to personnel, to people [who can] be recruited, access to weapons systems, and access to each other -- [that's what] causes these kinds of events and I think this is the new normal.