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Transcript Talks: Interview with Ms. Zimmerman, Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute



The following transcript is from an interview with Ms. Katherine Zimmerman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The text has been edited for clarity and flow.


Austin Myhre: Could you tell our readers about yourself, the work you do, and what inspired your interest in think tanks and the international space?


Katherine Zimmerman: I'm Katherine Zimmerman, and I'm a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. I work on the global Salafi-jihadi movement and related counterterrorism, focusing on the Middle East and Africa.


I was originally inspired by phenomenal high school teachers, and my interest in international relations continued through college because of my travels. As a young person, I was fortunate to see different parts of the world and to meet people from different backgrounds. It became my focus to be involved in the shaping of U.S. foreign policy. When I graduated, it was a hard time to get a job, because of the 2008/2009 financial downturn. It was also difficult because I absolutely did not want to be another Arabist studying the Middle East to talk about al Qaeda. I was looking for a think tank research assistant position, which are few and far between, and also trying my luck with the government or other organizations in the policy adjacent space. Someone told me that because I had not held an internship in Washington, no one could pick up the phone and vouch for me. I found an internship at AEI and the Wilson Center, working with Nathan Brown on his book on Islamist politics and with Flagg Miller on his book on the bin Laden tapes.


As an intern at AEI, I worked on the Critical Threats Project. I knew very little about my assigned countries, Yemen and Somalia, when I started. I knew there was a proxy civil war in Yemen between the Saudis and the Egyptians, and for Somalia, Black Hawk Down was my reference point. That's the extent to which Yemen was taught in Middle East courses. AEI hired me in January 2010, working under Fred Kagan. I had the opportunity within my first year to switch portfolios and work on Lebanese Hezbollah, which would have focused me much more on comparative politics issues that I’d studied. But at that point, I decided that it was better to be a bigger fish in a small pond working on Yemen. Six months later, Yemen collapsed during the 2011 Arab Spring, and I was one of the handful of people in D.C. who knew more than just the basic Middle East background on the country. That launched my career.


Since then, AEI has invested a lot in me and helped me establish myself as a foreign policy professional at a very young age in Washington.


Austin Myhre: Until my friend interned with the program, I had never heard of the Critical Threats Project or open-source intelligence. I'll go out on a limb to say that many of our readers are unaware, too. Could you talk more about the Critical Threats Project? What was the idea behind it? When you became involved, was it at the project’s inception or had it been going on a while? What has been your role in developing it?


Katherine Zimmerman: The Critical Threats Project (CTP) started in 2009, so I joined just as it was getting off the ground. The project’s intent was to provide an open-source, analytical assessment of developments in places where potential threats to the U.S. might emerge. Initially, it focused on the theaters, like Iran and Pakistan, adjacent to where the U.S. had active theaters of war, focusing on emerging threats to U.S. national security from the Iranian regime and al Qaeda.


In the summer of 2009, Critical Threats expanded to cover Yemen and Somalia, where al Qaeda affiliates like al-Shabab were operating. I was working on the Gulf of Aden Security Review, which is a daily rundown of top developments in Yemen and Somalia related to U.S. security interests. Fred Kagan, who led CTP, was unfortunately a bit prescient in terms of where he had elected to prioritize, because within a year of the Critical Threats Project covering Yemen, we saw the 2009 Underwear Bomb attack coming from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And, we saw a series of attempted attacks in the following years. It was fascinating, because AQAP had Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric who put the jihadi ideology in colloquial American English and uploaded it to Youtube. This was groundbreaking in the day, and he inspired attacks not just within the al Qaeda world but also in the United States. With the project’s work, Fred Kagan was trying to create an early warning system so that U.S. policymakers could see issues before they became a threat. When you look at the Critical Threats Project’s work, most of the threats predicted initially have emerged.


Today, the Critical Threats Project has two priorities: to provide data-driven analysis of U.S. national security threats, including taking a step back from our policies in each of these regions to assess how the U.S. can better combat these threats and secure American interests abroad and, to train tomorrow’s national security thinkers. Currently, CTP covers multiple issues. We still cover the Islamic State and the al Qaeda portfolio, which we've expanded to call the Salafi-jihadi portfolio and to include others places where you see those groups, such as West, North, and East Africa as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. CTP also covers the Iranian regime and its activities, including its nuclear program. And, now we’re covering the Russia-Ukraine war.


Austin Myhre: In how you describe it, CTP’s value to U.S. foreign policymaking seems obvious. But, I want to relate it to our students, our readers: why should students care about the Critical Threats Project? Why should they want to get involved?


Katherine Zimmerman: When you look at the Intelligence Community, how it functions, and how its various practitioners and policymakers work day-to-day, you realize they are trying to triage the various threats to U.S. national security. They often don’t have the opportunity to step back from the demands of that day. They get caught in this tyranny of the news cycle, and they are further constrained by where the U.S. has to prioritize its resources, especially with the rise of China and the belligerency of Russia placing very real demands on our military, our diplomats, and the Intelligence Community.


The Critical Threats Project and its partners, such as the Institute for the Study of War, have the time to analyze whether we are seeing the full picture and using the right approaches. The idea is not to try to beat the Intelligence Community at its own game; rather, it’s to see whether we are looking at different streams of information and coming to different conclusions and to allow each of us to test our assumptions about what is happening in the world. It ensures that we break group think, which is a challenge in any organization, and it develops the best picture possible for our policymakers.


CTP’s second priority is to to develop young thinkers in foreign policy. In our intern program, we want students to walk away with three things: new skills, a new understanding, and an answer to your question of “why care?” In most cases, these are skills that many young people have already developed, but we add a professional frame. They learn how to collect information from social media, how to assess what a source is saying, whether that source is reliable or accurate, and most importantly how to understand the value of data and information. They also develop an understanding that overlaps with these skills: “do you understand how the world works?” It’s an understanding few universities have spent enough resources to build into the curriculum. The project also develops an understanding of the ways of war, military strategy, and the difference between strategy, operations, and tactics to provide a framework for analysis. Lastly, why do we care about seemingly trivial developments in some African countries where there are seemingly no Americans and no American companies? We care because we see an exponential growth in capabilities for both al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and that directly connects to our national security interests. The U.S. must protect its global interests to protect the American way of life.


Austin Myhre: Now, I want to shift toward the substance of your study: the Salafi-jihadi movement. As my generation has grown up, we've heard about specific terror groups—we've heard about ISIS or al Qaeda. If you were to ask students what connects these groups, I think they would say that Islamic extremism is the common denominator. Most could not get down to the underlying movement, and it’s reductionist to say it’s Islamic extremism. The movement has tenets and a very strict ideology and is distinct from other movements in Islam. So, can you explain the Salafi-jihadi movement and where it came from?


Katherine Zimmerman: It's a fascinating question. And, you’re right, when I’ve talked to students before, they only understood it to be a radical terrorist movement based in Islam, which created this fight between “is all of Islam bad?” or “are these even Muslims?” The short answer is that the majority of Muslims today do not recognize the ideology of al Qaeda and the Islamic State. They see it to be so extreme as to be on the outside of Islam and that its fundamentalist interpretation of the religion is incredibly problematic. That being said, this interpretation does exist, and the challenge with ideologies is that you can never erase them. Like communism, Salafi-jihadism is here to stay; we need to prove that the ideology itself and its tenets are going to fail over the long term.


We can't just call it Islamic terrorism, because it's not all Muslims, and it's not even within all strains of Islam. For those who don’t know Islam well, there are two main branches: Shia Islam and Sunni Islam. Shia Islam is usually associated with Iran, groups like Hezbollah, and other Iran-tied actors. There are other sects within Shia Islam that don't practice the same type of Shi'ism, but it is highly hierarchical and is much more organized in terms of the sources of authority within the religion.


Sunni Islam is the predominant form of Islam, and you see it stretch from Northern Africa to Eastern Africa, throughout the Middle East, and into Southeast Asia. Some examples of Sunni countries are Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. There are many interpretations of Sunni practice, but Salafi-jihadists take on a small fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam known as Salafism. Salafism is the idea that the practice of Islam should return to the days of the followers of the Prophet Muhammad, who are known as the Salaf. In that sense, Muslims must erase man-made innovation and carve outs in the practice of the religion; for example, they must erase the belief that certain tasks, like praying five times a day, are no longer necessary. Even within Salafism, it's very complex, and you have Salafis who are known as Quietists. Although they live by this fundamentalist interpretation, they do not try to impose it on others through violent or political means; they try to lead by example. Others convert through proselytization. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood use political means to actualize this Salafism, and you have groups on the extremist end of the scale that use violence to install their interpretation of Sharia. These are known as Salafi-jihadists, because they believe jihad to be obligatory upon every single Muslim.


Salafi-jihadists initially spread their ideology the way that Islam spread under the Prophet Muhammad, when he called followers together, converted them, and taught them the ways of Islam. When these groups were attacked, they defended themselves, and as they gained, they began offensive operations with raids. These offensive operations would be the terrorist attacks that are so problematic for the United States and our partners today. These groups are willing to use terrorism against American interests and our partners on the ground. They thrive by creating and establishing themselves within pockets of insecurity. Additionally, one only needs to look at the Taliban’s Afghanistan—whose ideology is very close to al Qaeda's—to see the illiberal policies and practices that run against broader American interests in a free and fair global society.


Austin Myhre: In your answer, you dispel some misconceptions about these groups and you outline the underlying ideology that isn't taken to violent means. To discuss misconceptions further, is it accurate to say that a significant portion of Islamic terrorism is done by Salafists, but not all Salafists are Islamic terrorists?


Katherine Zimmerman: It’s a difficult answer. The majority of terror attacks coming from within Sunni Islam are tied to Salafi-jihadists, because they are carried out by groups linked to al Qaeda or the Islamic State, but you also have groups like Hamas, which is not a Salafi-jihadi group. Hamas doesn't have the same objectives as al Qaeda. It’s tied to this idea of Palestinian nationalism that is divorced from Salafi-jihadism, but it also has this fundamentalist understanding of Islam. We must be careful about how we understand both the groups themselves and how they are interrelated because yes, Hamas and al Qaeda have some common interests, namely defeating Israel, and certainly they would cooperate on that front, but they also have divergent visions for how the world should be run, which means they are not permanent bedfellows.


The most common misconception is in how much the ideology and the radicalization process affects the strength of these groups. There is a notion that every individual who fights under the al Qaeda or Islamic State banner believes in this idea of global jihad and the use of terrorism against the U.S., France, the UK, and even Russia. The reality is that the bulk of foot soldiers join these groups not because of the ideology, but because these groups are providing them with something they need in their day-to-day life. It is a pragmatic short-term relationship; young men and women join these groups to defend their family or their community. In Syria, for example, al Qaeda was able to grow on the ground because it was one of the few capable groups that was working against the Assad regime over the long term. People support al Qaeda or the Islamic State, because they are delivering water, fuel, and money—things that the community needs to survive.


This is a challenge in how we frame the problem from a policy perspective. If we misunderstand what the majority of the supporters of these groups are doing within that group, then we then create a bad framework for fighting them. We have adopted a very militarized approach. The idea is to fight these groups as such an overbearing force that it disincentivizes their members and prevents the individual radicalization processes that draw people into these groups. It misses the fact that there were existing conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel, which were only exasperated by the fallout of the Arab Spring. This instability made communities quite vulnerable to the penetration by Salafi-jihadis, who enter these communities providing defense, justice, reconciliation, and conflict mediation on the ground, as well as funding to join al Qaeda. That's a tangible relationship that the U.S. and our partners could use to break the reliance of local communities on these groups. It doesn't take guns; it takes governance. It really challenges the entire counterterrorism strategy with respect to al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Austin Myhre: Let’s talk more about how these groups find success in building relationships within communities. You mentioned some of the benefits they offer a community, but could you elaborate on how these groups penetrate and then operate within a community?


I also want to note that while the Arab Spring wave of instability affected many countries, these countries all have different environments. Is that why there has been such a proliferation of different offshoots from al Qaeda and the Islamic State?


Katherine Zimmerman: When you look at these groups in each individual theater, they have their own distinct flavor. That is—exactly as you point out—because the environment is different, because the practice of Islam is different across the world, and also because there is no cookie cutter approach. The Islamic State tried a homogenous approach, but it is hard to walk into a Muslim community that believes itself to be good practicing Muslims and tell them that they have been practicing Islam wrong and are not Muslim at all.


The successful organizations have a grassroots feel for the local dynamics and the needs of the community. They cultivate that relationship by having community members in their ranks—people who can inform them about the local politics, the village elders, and the standard customs. These groups also bring in resources and generally target marginalized populations and communities that have not received much attention from the government. Most communities are self-sufficient in various ways, and crises have made their futures look bleak, which allows for the penetration by these groups. In some of the worst cases, we’ve seen both al Qaeda- and Islamic State-linked groups stoke local identity-based conflict in order to then come to the defense of the community that they want to penetrate. It is a strategy that worked brilliantly for al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. This is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's vision of attacking the Shia. The Shia will attack the Iraqi Sunni, and the Iraqi Sunni will need a savior, which positions them to be that savior. That's now been utilized across the world.


Returning to Iraq, that was a major inflection point within the Salafi-jihadi movement for lessons learned about how to approach local communities. In the Anbar Awakening, Iraqi sheikhs became disenfranchised and disillusioned by what al Qaeda was doing and instead chose to partner with U.S. special operations forces to go after al Qaeda. Al Qaeda realized that its brutally violent tactics and its rapid movement toward the institution and implementation of Sharia government alienated the group from its constituency. In response, al Qaeda took a softer, more patient strategic approach. It works very slowly within those communities to transform the day-to-day lives, and it doesn’t wave the black flag as much anymore. Through its greater network, al Qaeda leaders mentor across continents and say to each other “move slowly with implementation of Sharia. Allah exposed Islam to the prophet Muhammad over a period of twenty-three years. You cannot expect a Muslim to change in a day when God Himself did not expect that of the Prophet. You need to treat them as children; you can't hold a child accountable for right and wrong until you teach that child good and bad.”


The Islamic State took the opposite lesson. They weren’t brutal and violent enough to keep control, which is why we see now this vice-like grip by the Islamic State when it gets into communities. We see a militaristic and—unlike al Qaeda—homogenous implementation of their strategy. Of course, the Islamic State looks different in Africa and Iraq or Syria, because local commanders on the ground make their decisions based on their local context.


Austin Myhre: Looking through the lens of American foreign policy then, can you delineate what has been the American approach to hampering or eliminating the operations of these groups? Has the approach shifted across administrations? Or, have administrations built upon and refined the policy of previous administrations?


Katherine Zimmerman: In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration was faced with the incredibly scary threat posed by al Qaeda, which had just killed three thousand Americans. It was unclear whether al Qaeda had access to chemical or biological weapons, and there was a real fear of another massive terror attack. The Bush administration pursued a traditional counterterrorism response: to hold those who perpetrated the attacks accountable and to disrupt and eliminate the al Qaeda terror network. President Bush said, “you are either with us or against us”’ and asserted that if the Taliban shielded Osama bin Laden, then it too would be held responsible for the terror attacks. Of course, the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda leaders, and we made the decision to invade Afghanistan to remove the Taliban regime and eliminate the terrorist sanctuary.


If you look at the progression of counterterrorism from there, al Qaeda was largely defeated in that initial assault. Within the ranks of al Qaeda, there was contention about whether they should have conducted 9/11 at all because it led to a force majeure within the Salafi-jihadi community. Al Qaeda was dispersed geographically, and its leaders were on the run. Many were captured, many were killed, and it didn't have a free space to operate from any more. Iran was cooperating with the United States against al Qaeda. Pakistan was helping us, and the Taliban was gone. It truly was a shift in fortune for the terror network that bin Laden had built.


However, al Qaeda eventually got its talons into the conflict in Iraq. I mentioned Abu Musab al-Zarqawi earlier; he would become the leader of what was then known as al Qaeda in Iraq. His group received some initial seed money from al Qaeda, but he disagreed with bin Laden on many points and there was hesitancy to welcome him into the fold. By the end of 2003 and early 2004, it was in their mutual interest to join forces. Bin Laden needed a big win for al Qaeda, and al-Zarqawi needed the legitimacy of al Qaeda’s brand and the money from its global enterprise.


This combination forced a transformation of the counterterrorism fight. The U.S. developed an exquisite set of special forces with the skills and capabilities to degrade the al Qaeda network, which means to target individuals to capture or kill them, to do hundreds of raids a night, and then to exploit the intelligence gained from found documents and subsequent interrogations. We would repeat that again and again. General Stanley McChrystal, who was in charge of this program, would reflect that he built a killing machine inside of Iraq; he noted, however, that al Qaeda didn’t seem much weaker. It wasn't until the United States adopted a complimentary counterinsurgency strategy that we actually saw changes in terms of al Qaeda strength. This became the “Winning Hearts and Minds” campaign led by General David Petraeus in the Iraq surge, and it was costly. We could clearly see that the U.S. was not going to expend those types of resources—150,000 boots on the ground, billions of dollars of financial assistance and foreign assistance. The programming was not sustainable, so the concepts that were developed by the Joint Special Operations Command on the ground in Iraq were built further. There was a massive investment in the drone capabilities and the ability to target terrorist leaders worldwide, which led to a winnowing of the threat from al Qaeda.


At the end of the Bush administration, this idea of defeating al Qaeda groups across the globe shifted to defeating the threats that al Qaeda posed to the U.S. This focus continued through the Obama years and through today. Essentially, if groups were not pursuing global jihad, if they were not directly threatening or supporting terrorist attacks against the United States or its interests abroad, then the U.S. was deprioritizing the fight against them. That’s not to say we stopped targeting terrorist leaders or taking back terrain; instead, we developed counterrorism partners on the ground. For example, we invested in Yemeni counterterrorism forces who were looking to go after the terrorist network inside of Yemen. Under the Obama administration, in 2012, for example, we began developing Somali forces to go after al-Shabab, and, of course, we invested a significant amount to develop special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.


As we seek a more sustainable counterterrorism approach, we need to target the terrorist leaders and build up counterterrorism forces on the ground that we can support. We bring in capabilities that no other nation on this earth can provide in terms of a counterterrorism fight, but we also don’t want to be just a killing machine. This is where we start to see an increased emphasis under the Obama administration on addressing the process by which people are brought into these networks. We implemented programs that try to prevent young people from hearing al Qaeda or the Islamic State's message. We put forward imams who can discredit the narratives of al Qaeda, and we work with local groups to identify and provide opportunities for individuals at risk of joining these groups.


That trend has effectively continued. The Trump administration began drawing down resources toward counterterrorism, and to some degree, we were the victims of our own success. Our special operations community became so effective that it required fewer resources, which meant we could whittle down spending on counterterrorism. Of course, there was also the rise of and the recognition of other national security priorities with China and Russia and other competitors that were state actors and not just this non-state threat from terrorism.


Austin Myhre: You emphasized that the U.S. is focused on countering threats to the homeland and foreign partners but that we are still pursuing tactics that break the pipeline into these groups. However, you also note that the U.S. has shifted toward this idea of great power competition with Russia and with China, which has an inevitable trickle-down effect on our theaters of engagement and other elements of foreign policy. I see a danger in deprioritizing these threats. Does that not leave a space for these groups to proliferate across Africa, across the Middle East, and into Asia and one day for too many groups to develop great enough capabilities that the threat becomes overwhelming?


Katherine Zimmerman: It’s the correct question, and it's something that we continue to fall prey to. You can see it with a very stark example under the Obama administration. They called the Islamic State the ‘JV Team,’ until all of a sudden it is the global threat that not only requires us to pull together a global coalition but pulls U.S. forces back into Iraq in a combat operation rather than in an advisory role. We have never been able to identify when a group decides to go from local jihad to the global jihad. The core challenge here is that all of the capabilities that a group would need to conduct a global attack are internal to a group that is focused on a local fight: they already have the recruits; they have explosive expertise; they have the training. They have access to various networks, arms, and personnel. They need only to develop a plot that would target American interests and the ability to move somebody into the theater of attack.


If we let these problems fester, there is a risk that at some point they decide to send suicide bombers on mass into the world in ways that might overwhelm our security forces and our intelligence. We have spent so much on defending the homeland and improving international infrastructure to make it harder for would-be terrorists to travel, but there is a point where the systems can't keep track of all the individuals who are moving around.


We’ve also seen a challenge in missing how these transnational terror networks function. They have groups that are focused on local fights. Some of those groups are really wealthy; some are less wealthy. Some are very capable, and some are less capable. There is a sharing of wealth, resources, expertise, and fighters across this global network. For example, the senior leadership will tell a wealthy group to fund an attack that will be conducted out of a different theater by the group that has the better bomb maker. That is how this transnational network can leverage its different resources and assets to its advantage. That doesn’t help the United States, and if you only focus on the point from which you're getting attacked, then the majority of the strength is being ignored.


Another challenge is that many of these groups are not that capable, but their adversaries—our potential partners—are equally incapable of fighting them. Sometimes, their actions make the problem worse rather than improve it. There is a level of engagement that would be helpful for the U.S., both to keep a tactile feel on the developing threats from each of these groups and to assist partners with their fight. In terms of what that looks like, it’s not just training and military assistance. For example, we can work with our partners’ justice sectors to ensure that they have terrorism laws, so you don’t have a terrorist revolving door through prison, to improve law enforcement, or to remove extrajudicial killings that stoke local blowback.


Fundamentally, I see a core space where the U.S. should be engaging and competing—the governance space. In almost all theaters, governance gaps allow these groups to grow. Within marginalized populations, it comes down to engaging in the political, information, and diplomatic spaces in a way that the U.S. has been uncomfortable with or under-resourced in over the years, both because we don’t do nation building and because we see those as local issues. Maybe they are local issues, but eventually they touch American interests. They’re fueling and strengthening the Islamic State and al Qaeda, and that's certainly within the scope of American interests.


Austin Myhre: At the end there, you touched on the governance gap, and you emphasize that we’ve been uncomfortable in this space and/or lack the resources to be there. What’s the proper approach going forward? How do we balance that plan and the resources it demands with the necessity of focusing on great power competition?


Katherine Zimmerman: It requires reframing how we define al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Within the U.S. government, we define them as terrorist groups, which leads to a counterterrorism strategy. This corresponds to ideas of deactivation, attrition, and threat prevention, moving all the way down to a preference for drone strikes, targeted killings, raids to disrupt the networks, and taking back terrain.


As I mentioned earlier, the issue is that it’s more complex. For example, many groups work within local insurgencies. We might identify an individual as an Islamic State facilitator or an al Qaeda operative, but the local community might see him as the local commander in their fight. They know him as a cousin, a brother, a husband, and a father. The common saying goes that, “if you kill one terrorist, you make a dozen more.” If our solution is always to kill, we overlook the various identities that every individual within the network holds and how that identity plays within the local community. Again, groups specifically recruit local power brokers, village elders, or individuals who hold a lot of weight in the community. To kill these individuals would provoke backlash, especially because many of them are not ideologically tied to the terrorist group and are instead involved for the resources they’re able to distribute to their loved ones.


The U.S. government has some initiatives that are engaging more smartly. One is the Global Fragility Act, which was a law signed by President Trump in 2019, though its effort started a few years before. There are three main goals. The first is to address the conditions within fragile states that extremists like al Qaeda or the Islamic State are able to exploit. The second is to take a long-term view of the issue. The long-term view refers to shifting our budgetary planning cycles—where we currently fund USAID or the State Department on a short-term two-year or one-year basis—to a 10-year planning cycle. The third goal is to build resilience in these states before they collapse or become a problem for the U.S. We have pulled resources away from these spaces in Africa and the Middle East, and that’s a challenge. The solution might not be to devote more military resources but rather to invest in the local communities that previously rejected this ideology and will continue doing so given the resources. Local resilience allows these communities to do the bulk of the work. As they repel al Qaeda and the Islamic State, it will reduce these organizations to the true ideologues and to a terror network only. The United States can then utilize our traditional counterterrorism means and foreign assistance programming to achieve counterterrorism objectives.


We are also building American influence in places where the Chinese are quite active right now. If you map the Belt and Road Initiative, it runs straight across where a lot of these terrorist groups are active. If we contest those areas, it buys us good will with partners on the ground while also achieving our own objectives. To be clear, though, it’s not just countering China for the sake of countering China, but it’s countering al Qaeda and the Islamic State, while also ensuring that the Chinese don't have the last word in that space.


Austin Myhre: I think you tied that answer together well. For our last question, whether it’s about the Salafi-jihadi movement or something else, do you have three key takeaways for the students that read the Loch Johnson Society Editorial?


Katherine Zimmerman: The first key takeaway is that students need to understand the framework we’re using to assess national security problems and ensure that they agree with it. Specifically with al Qaeda and the Islamic State, if you approach it with a counterterrorism framework, you'll get certain answers, and then we get into a seemingly futile twenty year effort—with the exception, of course, that we haven't had another major attack on American soil, thanks to our hardworking professionals. Again though, they don't have the time to ask, “what should we be doing?” So when you’re trying to understand the problem, you need to ensure that you're asking the right questions if you want to get a better policy response.


The second takeaway is that you need to understand how interconnected the world is today. We want to silo our adversaries into different buckets, so that we can fight them through specific means. The challenge is that the world is messy, and sometimes there are convergent interests among China and Russia, as well as Iran, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. They each seek to achieve certain effects on the ground in terms of destabilizing the current world order, and they exploit it through their own means. If we remove resources from fighting a certain adversary, then we are increasing the space for other adversaries to gain. Look at Libya for example. When the U.S. military pulled out of Libya after fighting the Islamic State, the Russian military and the Wagner Group [a Russian paramilitary organization] were quick to move in. Because of the Russian presence, it is now more challenging for the United States to go back when there are flare ups of conflict, even though the initial goal was to reduce the resources that we were expending in Libya. We now have the Russian military in Mali, Central Africa, Mozambique, and other places, and they are trying to ensure we cannot return. As we look at this global geostrategic competition and frame it against China and against Russia, we need to be careful about the places or theaters we leave behind—because they are moving in.


The third takeaway is a piece of advice for students in particular. There is not only one path to being successful. If that were so, I would be a failure. As I mentioned, when I set out on my career, I did not want to be an al Qaeda analyst, and I failed. I failed because I am now known as somebody in Washington, D.C. who is an expert on al Qaeda and is a go-to for the Intelligence Community and others to understand this organization. We have various preconceptions about what we want to be doing or what we should be doing, but you must be open-minded. You need to approach your career by asking, “what impact do I want to make?” When approaching the job market, you need to ask, “how does my choice get me closer to making that impact?” which is a very different question than “how do I get to the next job?”


This concludes the Loch Johnson Society’s interview with Ms. Zimmerman. We are deeply appreciative of her for spending her time with us.


For more information about the American Enterprise Institute, please check out their website at www.aei.org. AEI is a public policy think tank dedicated to defending human dignity, expanding human potential, and building a freer and safer world. It also offers internships to work with scholars and policy specialists conducting research on today’s prominent public policy questions. You can also learn more about Katherine Zimmerman here and the important work of AEI’s Critical Threats Project here.


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