Former CIA Officer: Treat Domestic Extremism As An Insurgency

Feb 2, 2021
Originally published on February 2, 2021 2:58 pm

When it comes to domestic extremists such as those who stormed the Capitol, a longtime CIA officer argues that the U.S. should treat them as an insurgency.

That means using counterinsurgency tactics — similar in some ways to those used in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Robert Grenier served as the CIA's station chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001. He went on to become the CIA's Iraq mission manager and then director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.

"We may be witnessing the dawn of a sustained wave of violent insurgency within our own country, perpetrated by our own countrymen," Grenier wrote in The New York Times last week. And without national action, he argues, "extremists who seek a social apocalypse ... are capable of producing endemic political violence of a sort not seen in this country since Reconstruction."

In an interview with All Things Considered, Grenier discusses what that national action would mean.

As someone who has watched many violent insurgencies unfold in various countries around the world, what felt the same to you? What felt different?

I don't want to be one to suggest that somehow the United States is going to in any way resemble Iraq or Afghanistan at the height of violence. But what I think is useful is to have some way of thinking about the problem and thinking through the elements of the solution. So I think as in any insurgency situation, you have committed insurgents who are typically a relatively small proportion of the affected population. But what enables them to carry forward their program is a large number of people from whom they can draw tacit support. And that's what I'm primarily concerned with here. I think what is most important is that we drive a wedge between those violent individuals and the people who may otherwise see them as reflecting their interests and fighting on their behalf.

What do you do about it?

I think the most important element of the struggle, if you will, is information. We're not talking about an alien population here. There are friends of mine who believe that the election was stolen. There are members of my family who have very strong doubts. And I think there are a great many people who don't trust you, Mary Louise, I hate to be the one to break it to you, who don't trust NPR or The New York Times.

But again, I think this is the work of a nation. I mean, it's trite to say that we need a national conversation, but in fact, that's what we need.

And so it's people, it's all of us who really need to be engaging with one another in a very sincere way, admitting what we don't know and trying to seek out the truth together. Because without that, I think that there's a level of distrust that is not only unfortunate for the politics in this country, but will also provide a basis for sporadic but endemic violence in this country.

Is there anything that you think could be done with a sense of urgency?

Part of it is simply setting the proper national tone.

But another, I think, very important element that we haven't talked about yet is what I would refer to as insurgent leadership. The fact of the matter is that the most violent elements that we are concerned about right now see former President Trump as a broadly popular and charismatic symbol. He is their charismatic leader, whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not. You know, just as I saw in the Middle East that the air went out of violent demonstrations when [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein was defeated and seen to be defeated, I think the same situation applies here. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Trump has lost. It's very important that people see that he has lost, is a private citizen. But I think it's extremely important that his potency as a symbol for the most violent among us is somehow addressed.

Your view is that it's not enough that he was defeated at the polls, but that he must also be convicted in his Senate impeachment trial. And you argue this is a national security imperative.

I think it's a national security imperative precisely because he is seen as the charismatic leader of a great many violent people. And I think that that needs to be countered. So long as he is there and leading the resistance, if you will, which he shows every sign of intending to do, he is going to be an inspiration to very violent people.

You were station chief in Islamabad on 9/11, which meant it suddenly became your problem to find and kill or capture Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida leaders. Without comparing American citizens to al-Qaida, are there lessons that you take from that?

Yes. And that is that, you know, even at the seeming height of the crisis immediately after 9/11, there really weren't that many members of al-Qaida in Afghanistan. And the thrust of our campaign there was, yes, to hunt down al-Qaida, but primarily to remove the supportive environment in which they were able to live and to flourish. And that meant fighting the Taliban. And I think that is the heart of what we need to deal with here. Hunting down people who are criminals, that is something that which U.S. law enforcement is very well capable of doing and doing while preserving fundamental civil rights. That's in some ways the easiest part of the problem. The difficult part of the problem is affecting the environment within which violent elements otherwise would be able to thrive.

Matt Ozug and Courtney Dorning produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Robert Grenier has thoughts on how to defeat violent extremists here in the U.S., and he grounds them in his personal experience fighting violent extremists overseas. Grenier is a former CIA counterterrorism chief. He was the CIA station chief in Pakistan on 9/11. Grenier believes we may be witnessing the dawn of a sustained wave of violent insurgency within our own country, and he believes counterinsurgency tactics that worked abroad could work here.

Robert Grenier, welcome. Good to speak with you.

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, good to be on with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I want to start by understanding how you see the problem. As you watched events unfold at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, what did you see?

GRENIER: Well, I don't think we knew precisely what to make of it at first. Initially, it seemed as though these were a group of angry citizens who'd been fired up by the president and went marching off to the Capitol. Subsequently, what I think we saw was that disproportionately represented among them were a number of individuals from violent extremist groups, and they were taking advantage of the situation in order to do what they might otherwise have wanted to do in any case. And that was to upset the constitutional order.

KELLY: And as someone who has watched many violent insurgencies unfold in various countries around the world, what felt the same to you? What felt different?

GRENIER: Well, you know, I don't want to be one to suggest that somehow, the United States is going to in any way resemble Iraq or Afghanistan at the height of violence. But what I think is useful is to have some way of thinking about the problem and thinking through the elements of the solution. So I think as in any insurgency situation, you have committed insurgents who are typically a relatively small proportion of the affected population. But what enables them to carry forward their program is a large number of people from whom they can draw tacit support, and that's what I'm primarily concerned with here. I think what is most important is that we drive a wedge between those violent individuals and the people who may otherwise see them as reflecting their interests and fighting on their behalf.

KELLY: So the question - what do you do about it?

GRENIER: Well, I think the most important element of the struggle, if you will, is information. We're not talking about an alien population here. There are friends of mine who believe that the election was stolen. There are members of my family who have very strong doubts. And I think there are a great many people who don't trust you, Mary Louise (laughter). I hate to be the one to break it to you.

KELLY: Absolutely - deep distrust in poll after poll of mainstream media. Yeah.

GRENIER: They don't trust NPR or The New York Times. But again, I think this is the work of a nation. I mean, it's trite to say that we need a national conversation, but, in fact, that's what we need. And so it's people - it's all of us who really need to be engaging with one another in a very sincere way, admitting what we don't know and trying to seek the truth together because without that, I think that there's a level of distrust that is no longer - not only unfortunate for the politics in this country but will also provide a basis for sporadic but endemic violence in this country. And that's what I'm concerned about.

KELLY: Is there anything that you think could be done with a sense of urgency, given there is a sense of urgency here? The storming of the U.S. Capitol was less than a month ago, January 6.

GRENIER: Part of it is simply setting the proper national tone. But another, I think, very important element that we haven't talked about yet is what I would refer to as insurgent leadership. The fact of the matter is that the most violent elements that we are concerned about right now see former President Trump as a broadly popular and charismatic symbol. He is their charismatic leader, whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not. You know, just as I saw in the Middle East that the air went out of violent demonstrations when Saddam Hussein was defeated and seemed to be defeated. I think the same situation applies here. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Trump has lost. It's very important that people see that he has lost. He's a private citizen, but I think it's extremely important that his potency as a symbol for the most violent among us is somehow addressed.

KELLY: Your view is that it's not enough that he was defeated at the polls, that he lost his bid for reelection but that he must also be convicted in his Senate impeachment trial. And you argue this is a national security imperative. There are many people who would argue, yes or no, this is a political imperative. Why do you think it's a national security imperative?

GRENIER: I think it's a national security imperative precisely because he is seen as the charismatic leader of a great many violent people. And I think that that needs to be countered. So long as he is there and leading the resistance, if you will, which he shows every sign of intending to do, he is going to be an inspiration to very violent people.

KELLY: One more thing I'm curious about given your CIA experience. I mentioned you were station chief in Islamabad on 9/11, which meant it suddenly became your problem to find and kill or capture Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida leaders. Without comparing American citizens to al-Qaida, are there lessons that you take from that?

GRENIER: Yes. And that is that, you know, even at the seeming height of the crisis immediately after 9/11, there really weren't that many members of al-Qaida in Afghanistan. And the thrust of our campaign there was, yes, to hunt down al-Qaida but primarily to remove the supportive environment in which they were able to flourish. And that meant fighting the Taliban. And I think that is the heart of what we need to deal with here. Hunting down people who are criminals - that is something that which U.S. law enforcement is very well capable of doing and doing while preserving fundamental civil rights. That's in some ways the easiest part of the problem. The difficult part of the problem is affecting the environment within which violent elements otherwise would be able to thrive.

KELLY: Are there any cautionary tales you take from your past experience? Many people, including, I recall, you, have argued that the U.S. went too far after 9/11 with detention and interrogation programs for high-level detainees.

GRENIER: Oh, yes, absolutely. And, you know, there are understandable...

KELLY: And I'm thinking of how much more complicated it is again when we're talking about American citizens.

GRENIER: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. And it's that much more dangerous when we're talking about American citizens. And, you know, there are people in law enforcement now who are understandably saying, hey, look; you know, maybe you should be giving us more tools. You know, maybe we need to have new legislation that we can use to root out domestic terrorism. I think that would be a big mistake. I think that the behaviors that we are concerned about are already illegal, thank you very much. And I think that law enforcement has the tools that they need to deal with it. And so, sure, maybe on the margins, they would like to see more tools in the pouch, if you will. But I think it would be a very big mistake for us to go down that road.

KELLY: Robert Grenier, thank you.

GRENIER: You're most welcome. Good to be on with you.

KELLY: He ran the CIA's Counterterrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VERVE'S "REPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.