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Understand the Threat

Seeking Strategic Clarity

Conflict and intelligence are two constants over the course of human history. Intelligence identifies the enemies and describes the threat through security and intelligence studies. Whether by formal or informal intelligence reporting, the leaders of the tribe or the nation developed a strategy to deal with threats. The unequivocal objective for intelligence is to provide clarity about the nature of the security threat.
World War II offers an example of threat analysis and strategic clarity. The Allies identified the Axis Powers as posing an existential threat to the current world order. The Allied strategy exemplified clarity: seeking the unconditional surrender of their enemies. However, after World War II, national strategies became less clear and more nuanced regarding threats and what constitutes “victory.” The Cold War between the two superpower blocs was not “so cold” in Greece, the Koreas, South Vietnam; the rise of “global terrorism” by non-state actors brought even less clarity to the definitions of the actual enemy as it became complicated by geopolitical and geo-social issues. Intelligence communities and political establishments struggled to provide strategic clarity rolling out explanations like “police action” for the Korean War, “insurgency” for the Vietnam War, wars of “national liberation,” conflicting terms of “freedom fighter” or “terrorist,” “asymmetric warfare,” and “proportional response” as defined by third parties. The inability to define the enemy and failure to define the outcome of victory produced an intellectual dysfunction in formulating strategies. Intelligence universities, military or online, have a responsibility to provide intellectual objectivity to define the threat environment in the contemporary world.

Give Clarity to the Identity of the Enemy; Then Build the Strategy

The US Department of Defense (DoD) created a Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) medal in 2004.1 How did this medal relate to the US counter-terrorism strategies in-place for over two decades? The DoD defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence or threat of violence, often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs, to instill fear and coerce governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are usually political.”2 Based on the DoD definition, terrorism is a tactic, a technique, used by an enemy. However, a recent study, Political Terrorism, lists 109 different definitions of terrorism.3 The US State Department lists some 59 organizations as terrorist groups.4 Terrorism is a tactic used by an ideology; terrorism is not “the enemy.” Security and intelligence studies must look to the ideology that provides the focus and motivation for “the enemy.” The ideology of “jihadi Islam” is the prevalent motivation for the vast majority of the groups on the State Department terrorist groups list, including al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, AQAP, and al Nusra among others. The intelligence community faces a politically sensitive problem since the core ideology of the “enemies” is a religion. The reality is that “jihadi Islam” intends to spread Islam by violence to establish theocratic systems that dominate as a national entity or a Caliphate. Although these groups often engage in sectarian conflict (Sunni versus Shiite) and group-to-group violence (Sunni versus Sunni), all the groups are “enemies” of the West, as well as all non-Muslim individuals and Muslims who do not accept the jihadi radicalism. Intelligence universities should show intellectual and academic integrity in identifying each of these groups not as a “terror organization” but as a “religious group” that is an enemy of the US.

Education, Politics, and National Security

Political correctness is a corrupting influence that often rejects a threat reality for the expediency of politics. National security is an inviolable responsibility for the intelligence community. Security and intelligence studies have a singular task to present objective conclusions based on the intelligence information. Then, the politics rest with the consumers of the intelligence studies. Intelligence universities serve as a keystone for national security.


1. DoD Announces Criteria for Global War on Terrorism Medals. (2004). Retrieved: www.defense.gov.

2. Joint Publication 1-02. (2014). Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Retrieved: www.dtic.mil/doctrine

3. Pipes, D. (2014). Terrorism Defies Definition. Retrieved: www.meforum.org

4. US State Department. (2014). Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Retrieved: www.state.gov

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