Reflecting on 9/11 and the War on Terror
By Farid Senzai
Founder and President
This week as the country observes the 16th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, we have an opportunity to honor those who lost their lives. We owe it to them to do all we can to succeed in the fight against terrorism. This is also a time for us to pause and reflect on all that has happened since that fateful day, and to assess how we as a country have responded to those horrific attacks.
Over the past decade and half, the United States has launched a “war on terror” defined by military intervention, nation building, and an effort to reshape the politics of the Middle East. The war on terror has been at the top of the U.S. national security agenda since 9/11, but the terrorism threat continues to grow while our effort to confront it has not delivered on the results its architects had hoped.
The Score Card
Prior to September 11, terrorism in America was predominantly of a domestic nature, treated as criminal activity requiring law enforcement to address. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration shifted the country’s focus to combat terrorism and launched two major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As part of this all-encompassing war effort, the United States began investing billions of dollars to build a new set of national security agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which have succeeded in preventing another large-scale attack on American soil. However, on the overseas front, billions more have been spent on still-unfinished wars that have now spread across multiple regions of the world. What started in Afghanistan and Iraq has led to military activity in Pakistan, Syria, Libya and Yemen, demanding continued sacrifice from our men and women of uniform, with no end in sight.
It is difficult to estimate the overall costs associated with the war on terrorism. Several economists have suggested the cost exceeds $3 trillion, with a recent study by Neta Crawford at Brown University suggesting the cost (including money spent to date and the money required for future veterans’ benefits) is closer to $5 trillion. This is an astonishing figure considering that our war effort remains unfinished, with the threat of terrorism increasing rather than decreasing across the globe. With this level of spending and in the face of growing terrorist threats resulting from increased instability in the Middle East region, it is prudent and timely that the US re-assess its approach and consider how best to invest in the war on terror.
Despite unprecedented military efforts across the Middle East and North Africa, the United States has been unable to reduce the number of terrorists. While our initial attack of Afghanistan may have disrupted al Qaeda’s ability to operate there, we have had less success as al Qaeda, and subsequently ISIS, has spread its reach into other countries. Our military intervention may have dismantled the central al Qaeda organization but it has subsequently sprouted affiliates around the globe, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which continues to pose a serious threat to stability in Yemen. The U.S. military can demolish terrorist groups but in the process weakens states where these groups are based. This feeds into a vicious cycle wherein the US aligns itself with autocratic states that are weak to begin with, further encouraging the breeding grounds for extremism – a Catch 22 situation. The Taliban in Afghanistan are a case in point. After 16 years of fighting, the group is stronger today and in control of as much as 40 percent of the territory in Afghanistan.
Just as troubling is that the war in Iraq inadvertently helped pave the way for the emergence of ISIS in Syria and sowed the seeds for the growth of new jihadist groups throughout the region. Equally consequential has been the unraveling of Syria. Certainly, the civil war in Syria has many causes, most notably the Arab Spring and the far-reaching revolutions that erupted across the Middle East region. But one cannot deny that the failed war in Iraq and the subsequent increase in sectarian violence in the country helped fuel the rise of ISIS and now the ongoing civil war in Syria.
The regional geosectarian tensions in Iraq and Syria have only intensified the animosity between the two major powers in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although the United States is not to blame for this sectarianism, our policies certainly have not helped and at times have exacerbated the tensions. President Donald Trump’s most recent speech in Riyadh certainly did not help when he said that, “All nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran.” By siding with the Arabs against Iran, the US further exacerbates the imbalance of power in the region.
While the Bush and the Obama Administrations did not effectively pursue democratization, President Trump has openly thrown his weight behind the monarchs and autocrats in the region. This is certainly bad news for those who advocate for human rights and democratic reform. More important, it is also bad policy that is likely to increase rather than decrease extremism in the region. Take for example, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, whom the Trump administration lauds as a “strong leader” against extremism. Yet it is Sisi who has been on a campaign of repression against his opponents, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood and now even liberal voices as well. While Trump has supported the draconian measures taken by Sisi in fighting terrorism, the reality is that over the long term, the repressive policies of the Sisi regime will likely exacerbate, rather than eliminate, the number of extremists in the country. One only has to look back at the country’s history to understand that the repressive tactics and torture chambers that President Gamal Abdel Nasser used against his opponents that produced the modern Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb and subsequently al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The Mushrooming of Terrorism
Over the past 16 years, reporting on terrorism and terrorist plots has proliferated. A more globalized media has allowed continual press coverage of terrorist attacks across the globe, while the emergence of social media in the past decade has only intensified the attention given to terrorism. It is hard to pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV and not be reminded of the ongoing threat from terrorism. Yet the heightened perception of danger is far greater than the reality. While most Americans may not think this, the Islamist terrorist threat to the United States is, in fact, much smaller than many may realize. Unfortunately, rather than correct the initial threat assessment, politicians have made a continued effort to portray terrorism as a very large, even existential, threat to the United States. And the public believes it. Even after 16 years of intense counterterrorism efforts, 40 percent of Americans believe the ability of terrorists to launch a major attack on the United States is greater than it was at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and another 31 percent believe it is merely the same. In absolute terms, the actual chance of a person being killed as a result of a terrorist attack is relatively small. An American is more likely to be shot by an armed toddler than killed by a terrorist.
The real danger for the United States is the ongoing instability in many Muslim-majority countries, especially in places where the U.S. has major strategic interests. Stability and governance have collapsed in many countries and are under threat in others. Iraq has been fractured, with the Kurds likely to gain further autonomy. Syria is in the midst of an entrenched civil war, and Libya is unable to pull together. Fighting between Houthi rebels and the central government in Yemen has once again torn the country apart, while the central government in Afghanistan continues to lose large swaths of territory to the Taliban.
Just a brief overview shows how precarious the situation looks for many of these fragile states. In each of these cases, if the central government is unable to consolidate power, the states will fail and the vacuum created is likely to be filled by extremists. In addition to the human cost, these failed states threaten the stability of U.S. partners and has led to entrenched conflicts and intensified sectarian violence. The danger, regrettably, enables major U.S. allies to resist the pressure to democratize, claiming that all forms of opposition are linked to terrorism. Herein lays the real policy question: How can the US succeed in the fight against terrorism while its strategy is based upon alliances with oppressive, autocratic regimes that fuel extremism.
What Policy Lessons Can we Learn?
There is much to learn from the September 11 attacks in our effort to fight and diminish the threat of terrorism. First, we should remember that terrorists have a purpose in mind when they engage in their acts of violence. It is essential to understand the inner logic that motivates extremism and terrorism. While we may wish to simply dismiss terrorists as irrational homicidal maniacs, we lose sight of the number of distinct motivations and reasons why groups use terrorist tactics to create change.
Just as terrorists wish to inflict maximum physical damage, their effort also has a psychological component. Their hope is to instill fear and intimidation and undermine the resolve of those fighting against them while also eroding the trust that the public has in its leadership. Part of al Qaeda’s hope was to cause panic and create an irrational and emotional response. Our countermeasures must therefore take this into account and respond in a balanced way. It is about logically assessing the enemy and giving a rational and measured response.
Similarly, we should be aware that our military interventions, even when they have a “light footprint,” tend to cause more problems than they solve. These interventions have heightened animosity and anti-American sentiment, and thus subsequently increased rather than diminished the conditions that lead to terrorism. Because of abhorrent actions like U.S. drone strikes that kill innocent civilians, and because of the conditions at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the enmity felt in many places throughout the world toward the United States has only intensified since 9/11. A recent global attitude surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center found that Muslim-majority countries have an unfavorable view of the United States. In addition to our military efforts, it is crucial that we redouble our pursuit of public diplomacy and our efforts to use U.S. soft power. Over the longer term, it is in our interest to win hearts to reduce the animosity that terrorists often use as recruiting tools. It is only this way that we will win successive generations. If not, we will continue to play whack-a-mole with terrorists for generations to come.
The danger posed by terrorism has evolved over the past 16 years. While our counterterrorism measures and intelligence capabilities have improved significantly, our overall strategy of how to counter terrorism remains entrenched in a 9/11 paradigm. Our goal of killing terrorists wherever we find them is a losing proposition. For each terrorist that we kill, two or three or 10 more are ready to take his (or her) place. According to a Stanford study, in 2001 there were roughly 32,200 fighters comprising 13 Islamist-inspired terrorist organizations. By 2015, the estimate had ballooned to more than 100,000 fighters spread across 44 Islamist-inspired terrorist groups.
While killing terrorists is important, in order to eliminate terrorism in the long-run, the U.S. must formulate effective foreign policy that is mindful of the causes of terrorism and the conditions that make it easy for it to flourish. First and foremost, this includes instability, civil wars and weak or failed states that are unable to properly govern or provide basic services for its people. A state’s inability to maintain territorial integrity or provide security for its people creates the right environment for terrorist groups to take root. An effective counterterrorism strategy entails effective promotion of good governance within fragile states.
Finally, as we continue to focus on the foreign policy arena, it is equally important to keep in mind our domestic efforts to intelligently stamp out radicalization at home. President Trump’s Muslim travel ban, as well as his statements suggesting “Islam hates us,” only further demonizes the American Muslim community and does not help in our effort to seek the community’s assistance. While the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice do engage with American Muslims, it is equally imperative that the president himself and those within his administration make a much more concerted effort to reach out and positively engage the Muslim community. True engagement, requires not just seeking the community’s assistance to stop radicalism in their ranks, but also protecting the community when it is attacked by right-wing extremist groups. American Muslims can be among our best assets in the fight against Islamist radicalization and terrorism.
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of all CGP.