Authorities for Military Operations Against Terrorist Groups

The State of the Debate and Options for Congress

by Christopher S. Chivvis, Andrew Liepman

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Research Questions

  1. How relevant are current counterterrorism authorizations to terrorist threats today?
  2. What specific changes might be desirable to existing legislation?
  3. Is new legislation needed?
  4. What would be the operational and political impact of any changes?

The United States has been undertaking counterterrorism operations against current threats under authorizations established in 2001 and 2002. Relying on this legislation is far from ideal, however, and Congress could update these authorizations to better reflect the current counterterrorism challenge. In early 2015, the Obama administration submitted its own draft authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to Congress, the content of which has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle. U.S. interests also face a developing threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The need to dismantle the group's terrorist and military capacity has gained new urgency, and it presents an opportunity for Congress to weigh in. This report surveys the main lines of debate over the requirements for a new AUMF. It assesses the terrorist challenge to which any such legislation should respond, outlines the purposes of such legislation, offers suggestions about key elements, and assesses congressional options. A principal challenge for Congress is to craft an authorization for operations against both the old, persistent threat (al Qaeda, its affiliates, and other jihadist groups) and the new, emerging threat (ISIL and its allies). Congress faces six considerations in deciding whether and how to move forward to pass a new AUMF: (1) whether to impose geographical limitations on the authorization, (2) whether to place limits on ground forces, (3) how groups or individuals are identified, (4) the stated purposes for using force, (5) reporting requirements, and (6) sunset and renewal clauses.

Key Findings

The United States Now Uses Military Operations Against Terrorist Groups in Multiple Ways

  • Military operations targeting terrorist organizations and safe havens may deter cooperation among these groups, reduce recruitment, restrict terrorist mobility, and hamper the groups' effectiveness.
  • Combat operations are often conducted in conjunction with other types of operations, including training and equipping partner forces, strategic communication, providing logistical or other support to forces being trained, providing support for development projects, and guiding institutional reforms.

Existing Authorizations for Such Operations Are Largely Outdated

  • The legislation under which the U.S. military conducts counterterrorism operations worldwide against al Qaeda dates from 2001. The AUMF provides the executive branch with broad authorization to conduct military operations against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and their associates.
  • The terrorist threat has changed considerably since the 9/11 attacks, with the evolution of al Qaeda and its expansion into new areas and with the development of ISIL. Congress may wish to pass an AUMF to respond to the current terrorism climate.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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