Skip to main content
Brookings Now

Bruce Riedel: Our terrorist enemy is more numerous, more barbaric, and more dangerous than ever

In a recent Brookings Cafeteria podcast, Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel responded to a question about how to combat global terrorism, specifically the Islamic State (aka, ISIS, or ISIL). “I think there’s a natural response of wanting to use force against very dangerous, very ruthless, very barbaric terrorists,” Riedel answered “but,” he continued:

that’s what we’ve been very good at. We’re actually quite good at the business of finding terrorists, hunting them down and then eliminating them. We’ve been doing it now since 9/11 actually since 1998 when al-Qaida attacked us the first time. And I think it’s safe to say that it’s not working.

We face more terrorists with more safe havens and more sanctuaries today than we’ve ever faced in the past. We have successfully built up our defenses so that here at home in the United States we’re probably safer than we were a decade ago but abroad our terrorist enemy is more numerous, more barbaric, more dangerous than ever before.

A strategy that only uses the stick isn’t going to work. We have to have a strategy that not only goes after the terrorists but also seeks to deal with the underlying issues that produce this wave of terrorism. That’s easy to say and very very hard to do. When President Obama came into office six years ago, I think he understood this. And he understood that he had to both use drones and also use diplomacy. Six years later, drones are on steroids and the diplomacy has largely faded out of the picture.

Listen to the full interview here:

When asked about the “underlying issues that produce this wave of terrorism,” Riedel added that:

One of them is the failure of governance in the Arab world. Four years ago, we had the Arab Spring—a spontaneous mass movement to change the way government is run in the Middle East, especially in the Arab world. Briefly it looked like a success but it turned out to be a failure and what we got in place of it is either failed, collapsed states like Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq or counterrevolutionary states like Egypt under General Sisi and Saudi Arabia. Neither one are very attractive models—both are examples of failed governance.

Now there’s no American solution to this problem but sticking with the counterrevolutionaries is a policy that’s not going to work. We need to encourage developments in the Arab and Muslim world where democracy, freedom, the rule of law, [and] tolerance is promoted, not where it’s put on the back burner.

Riedel, a former CIA official and senior policy advisor, is also director of the Intelligence Project at Brookings. In the podcast episode he also spoke about the war in Yemen, the Islamic State’s threat to the region and to the U.S., and the geopolitical issue that scares him most.


Get daily updates from Brookings