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September 2014

Terrorism and Homeland Security

In the News

A man holds up a sign in memory of U.S. journalist James Foley during a protest against the Assad regime in Syria in New York City, August 22, 2014

Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Why the U.S. Swaps Prisoners But Doesn't Pay Ransom

The recent report that the United States refused to pay ransom to the kidnappers of journalist James Foley, only weeks before it released Taliban prisoners in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, has caused confusion about American policy. On the surface, the policy may seem inconsistent. Why will the United States exchange prisoners but not pay ransom? Brian Michael Jenkins explains the key differences between the cases in a recent commentary.

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Strategic Planning for Border Security ... Jihadist Threats Increase Leads to New U.S. Strategy to Combat Terrorism

Featured Research

Strategic Planning for Border Security

chain link fence protecting American border

Photo by Vivalapenler/Fotolia

Resources for border control have increased considerably over the last decade, but the government still lacks the analytic capability to determine what works, what doesn't, and why. According to RAND's Jack Riley, who recently testified before the House Science Committee, the United States is still "virtually flying blind" when it comes to border security. To fix this, the United States must invest in the basic policy science of border security.

Riley suggests the United States needs a strategy and data and technology infrastructure that accomplishes three things:

  • Accurately and confidently measures and tracks the extent of relevant border activity, including illegal crossing activity and smuggling.
  • Integrates that measurement and tracking data into frameworks that can be used to assess the effectiveness of border control policies.
  • Helps us understand the broader economic and social effects of border control, such as impacts on labor markets, cargo security inspections, or tourist travel.

Researchers can then use models to simulate various scenarios, helping inform better, more cost-effective border security policies. For instance, this could tell policymakers not only whether it'd be effective to deploy an additional "x" number of border agents, but, if so, where and how to deploy them to have the greatest effect.

While there is no single programmatic fix, Riley explains that border security can be achieved through a network of mutually reinforcing, and to some extent redundant, layers of defenses which will span the bounds of cabinet agencies in the federal government. As a consequence, policymakers need to consider not just the effects of individual programs, but also the interaction effects of multiple programs. It is important then to get an analytic framework in place soon so that more informed decisions about border control resources are possible.

Read more: "Strategic Planning for Border Security" »

Other RAND research on homeland security »

Increase in Jihadist Threats Calls for New US Strategy to Combat Terrorism

Militant with rifle

Photo by Oleg Zabielin/Fotolia

Since 2010, there has been a 58 percent increase in the number of jihadist groups, a doubling of jihadist fighters, and a tripling of attacks by al Qaeda affiliates, according to a recent RAND report by Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center. The most significant threat to the United States comes from terrorist groups operating in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Jones writes that based on these threats, the United States cannot afford to withdraw or remain disengaged from key parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it may be tempting for the U.S. to turn its attention elsewhere and scale back on counterterrorism efforts. But this research indicates that the struggle is far from over.

One reason for the increase in groups, fighters, and attacks is the weakness of governments across North Africa and the Middle East because of the Arab uprisings. Weak governments have difficulty establishing law and order, which allows militant groups and other sub-state actors to fill the vacuum. An additional factor is the proactive movement to these countries of foreign fighters who were trained on such jihadist battlefields as Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.

So how should the U.S. respond? In response to these threats, the U.S. should establish a more adaptive counterterrorism strategy that includes three components:

  • Pursue "engagement" -- the use of special operations, intelligence, diplomatic, and other capacities to conduct precision targeting of these groups and their financial, logistical, and political support networks -- where there is a high threat to the U.S. and a low local government capacity.
  • Adopt a "forward-partnering" strategy in countries with a medium threat to the U.S. and moderate or low local government capacity. Forward partnering involves deploying small numbers of U.S. military forces, intelligence operatives, diplomats, and other governmental personnel to train local security forces, collect intelligence, and undermine terrorist financing -- but not become directly involved in the war.
  • A third strategy, "offshore balancing," should be used in cases where there is little or no direct threat to the United States. Offshore balancing involves relying on allies and local governments to counter terrorist groups while avoiding direct engagement or forward partnering.

Read more: "A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists" »

Read more: Other RAND research on terrorism »

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RAND Congressional Resources Staff

Winfield Boerckel
Director, Office of Congressional Relations

Laura Patton
Terrorism and Homeland Security Legislative Analyst

RAND Office of Congressional Relations
(703) 413-1100, ext. 5395


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