The war against al-Qaeda is over, but continuing to fight terrorism will require understanding what we did that worked - and what didn't
New York police stand near a wanted poster for Osama bin Laden, in this file photo from September 18, 2001 / Reuters
Ten years into our struggle against al-Qaeda, it's time to acknowledge that the "war" is over and recognize that the United States and its international partners overreacted to the al-Qaeda threat. Terrorism, after all, is designed to elicit such overreactions. But the confluence of the recent death of bin Laden, harsh new economic realities, the democratic movements in the Middle East, and the ten-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks provide an ideal time to take stock of what it actually takes to deal with the al-Qaeda threat.
The Failure of Al-Qaeda
The immediate physical threat posed by al-Qaeda has diminished greatly over the past ten years. The elimination of Osama bin Laden -- a long-overdue counterterrorism triumph -- and the relentless dismantling of al-Qaeda's senior leadership in their Pakistani sanctuaries and redoubts are obvious but powerful signs of the enterprise's darkening prospects. The recent death of one of al-Qaeda's most capable and influential senior leaders, Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyyatallah, in an alleged U.S. drone attack in Pakistan, will only hasten its leadership's collapse.
More important, al Qaeda has failed utterly in its efforts to achieve one of its paramount political objectives. From the 19th century through the present day, terrorists and insurgents -- from transatlantic anarchists to Fanonists of the tiers monde to Nepalese Maoists -- have spun insurrectionist fantasies of taking over. But the Salafist-jihadists' worldwide Islamic uprising, against perceived enemies of the faith, never materialized. The Muslim masses have refused to play their part in the al-Qaeda dramaturgy. The terrorism intended to generate widespread rebellion has failed to arouse a global Muslim community. Most damningly, al-Qaeda has been irrelevant to the popular uprisings sweeping the heartland of the Muslim world.
Rethinking How We Fight Terrorism
In recognizing al-Qaeda's failures and weaknesses, we should reevaluate the political, military, economic, and other instruments the United States wields against terrorism. Three of these methods need particular scrutiny.
The first is social and economic development. It might be useful in dealing with large-scale insurgencies, but development is unlikely to address the idiosyncratic motives of the small number of people who join terrorist groups. It's true that addressing the "root causes" of terrorism sounds like a sensible, systemic course of action, but few truly agree what those causes are -- nor is there anything like a consensus on what measures are likely to prove most effective.
The second questionable tool is one used in part of a broader set of information operations: positive messaging about the United States. There are excellent reasons to pursue public diplomacy, but countering terrorism is not one of them. The young people who are vulnerable to al-Qaeda's recruitment pitches are likely to be impervious to positive messages about the United States. In addition, linking public diplomacy with counterterrorism risks alienating intended audiences, which can easily detect the fear and hidden agenda lurking behind the friendly American smile. The United States needs to dissuade people from attacking its citizens -- but those people do not need to like the United States in order to abandon violence.
The third tool to drop is the one with which we've had the least success: occupying the country from which a terrorist group is attempting to recruit. There might be good reasons to invade and occupy a country, but eliminating a terrorist group is not one of them. It only engenders new recruits for the terrorists' cause and it provides them a fertile training ground. Moreover, it plays into al-Qaeda's openly professed strategy of bleeding U.S. resources to force it to reduce its influence in the Middle East.
What Works in Counterterrorism
What's left in the counter-terrorist's toolkit? Most of the significant advances against al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers over the last ten years have come as a consequence of intelligence gathering, good policing, spreading the awful truth about al-Qaeda, and helping other governments do these same things. These are not ancillary to counterterrorism but rather its essential components.
Violent operations against al-Qaeda have garnered most of the public's attention. But, in terms of preventing terrorist attacks, the most powerful weapon has been decidedly unglamorous and much less visible: police work informed by well-placed sources inside terrorist cells. Major plots in New York, London, Stockholm, and other key urban centers have been foiled by police, often working in unison with intelligence services. Assisting foreign police forces should be a major component of the U.S. counterterrorism repertoire -- but such aid is limited by considerable restrictions from Congress and a lack of skilled police trainers able and willing to work abroad.
Eliminating terrorist networks is not enough. They also have to be discredited among the audiences they seek to influence. Although it is true that al-Qaeda has done much to discredit itself through its doctrinal and operational excesses -- killing civilians, attacking places of worship, targeting fellows Muslims -- the U.S. and its allies have done an excellent job of magnifying those excesses. Two effective techniques have been releasing private correspondence between al-Qaeda's senior leaders, which is rarely flattering, and quietly pointing the media to evidence that al-Qaeda does not represent the aspirations of the vast majority of Muslims.
Not only has the U.S. become adept at using these tools, it has also been skillful in showing others how to use them. For example, Indonesia, once a fertile ground for militant Islamist activity, is now a counterterrorism success stories because of these efforts.
Given the considerable damage that "kinetic" military operations have reportedly done to al-Qaeda, military and paramilitary force should obviously remain an important part of the counterterrorist arsenal. But it should be reserved only for killing the most senior leaders and operatives in a terrorist organization -- those whose skills are most lethal and most difficult to replace -- and only when local security forces are unable or unwilling to take appropriate action. This does not require occupying a country, but rather cultivating local allies and spending money to develop intelligence networks.
The War is Over
There will inevitably one day be another large attack on American soil and the U.S. government will inevitably overreact, That is the response terrorism is design to elicit and the United States, because its safety and isolation make terrorism feel so horrifying, is particularly susceptible to such a response. But if Washington can use this 10-year landmark to throw out the counterterrorism tools that haven't worked and to sharpen the ones that do, the negative consequences of that overreaction will be minimal. If not, the United States will have drawn the wrong lessons from the last ten years, obliging its terrorist enemies by repeating its worst mistakes.
William McCants is the director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. He is an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University and a former U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism.
William Rosenau is a research analyst at CNA Strategic Studies. He served as a policy adviser in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State.
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.
It was the apotheosis of the outsiders—two candidates, written off when their campaigns began, recovering from defeat in Iowa to deliver resounding victories in the Granite State.
In a year of outsider success, Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary was the apotheosis of the outsiders. On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders coasted to a huge victory over Hillary Clinton. And for the Republicans, Donald Trump regained his footing after a letdown in Iowa, winning about a third of the vote and notching a huge victory over the rest of the GOP field.
The results for the rest of the field threatened to remake the race, too. Ohio Governor John Kasich, a moderate technocrat who had seemed to lack traction throughout the campaign, saw his decision to bet all his marbles on New Hampshire pay off, as he came in second. Meanwhile, Senator Marco Rubio had a painful night, falling to an apparent fifth-place finish with the vote mostly tallied—a major stumbling block to his momentum. Chris Christie, whose demolition of Rubio during Saturday night’s debate helped knock Rubio down, didn’t get much of a boost and seemed headed for the exits. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz battled for the third and fourth spots, while Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson lagged far behind.
The Warriors star is the embodiment of basketball’s analytics revolution.
The Golden State Warriors are now some 15 months in to their turn as one of the best teams in basketball history. Last season, they won 67 games, the most in the NBA in eight years, and secured a championship in June against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This season’s Warriors make last season’s Warriors look like a team that hadn’t yet gotten loose. They started the year winning their first 24 games in a row, a record opening, and as of now have won 46 of 50.
Golden State’s brilliance is more than just statistical. The Warriors are a basketball idyll, a paradise of skill and collaboration. Their offense runs on nifty ballhandling, willing passing, and sublime shooting, with their point guard and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player acting as ringleader. A slim 6’3” and 185 pounds, with a bouncy jog and a barely post-pubescent tuft of beard at his chin, Stephen Curry dribbles with the intentional abandon of a card hustler, flings one-handed passes to all sectors of the court, and shoots better than anyone ever has.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
Sanders’s youth movement is powered by the energy of the new campus left. What does it believe?
RINDGE, New Hampshire—Twenty-three minutes into his typically rambling, hourlong stump speech in the arena here, at a private liberal-arts college on the Massachusetts border—after he had decried the Koch brothers and the prescription-drug companies, after he had accused Wall Street of bribing its way to deregulation, after he had called out the corporate media and the political establishment—Bernie Sanders turned to the bleachers behind him, which were filled with college students waving blue signs and chanting his name.
A sly, unusual smile crossed his face. “I feel like a rock-n-roll star!” he exclaimed, taking off his jacket and tossing it to a startled youth behind him. He pantomimed tearing off his sweater, too, prompting a fresh chant of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” Then he grinned sheepishly. “All right, nothing else is coming off,” he said, and continued to the next topic—the sins of Walmart.
He’s made the once-impossible seem possible—and now all bets are off.
CONCORD, New Hampshire—“Thank you, New Hampshire!” a somber but clearly gratified Bernie Sanders said to a crowd of thrilled supporters in a high-school gymnasium. The 74-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont had just resoundingly won the New Hampshire Democratic primary, dealing an astonishing blow to the Hillary Clinton juggernaut, casting the race into turmoil, and dramatically highlighting the dissatisfaction of the party base with its establishment.
Sanders’s win, he said, had sent a message to the country: “That the government of our great country belongs to all of the people, and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors and their super PACs!” The contest, he noted, had inspired record turnout, powered by a force that he implied would make him a better general-election candidate than his rival—“the energy and the excitement that the Democratic Party will need to succeed in November.”
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison and the artist Frank Quitely accomplished it in eight words and four panels: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
Donald Trump is back, Bernie Sanders is blowing up, and Marco Rubio is battered after the New Hampshire primary.
Trump is back, baby! The man who has made his business career by recovering from disasters did the same in his new political career Tuesday, setting aside his weak second-place showing in Iowa and delivering a commanding win in New Hampshire. The victory sets Trump up as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination once again.
How strong a frontrunner is he? There are still those who think he’s an unlikely nominee, but the wind is at his back for the moment. The next GOP contest is February 20 in South Carolina, where polls show him far ahead. And Marco Rubio, who the establishment hoped could rally an anti-Trump, anti-Ted Cruz coalition, had an awful night in the New Hampshire primary, finishing fifth—well short of his stated goal of second. Suddenly, Rubio seems less like the man who can unify the disparate party forces and more like, well, a robot.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Authoritarian leaders like the Gambia's Yahya Jammeh seem to relish the West's wealth. Why doesn’t the United States use that against them?
For those of us lucky enough to live in democracies, it is comforting to imagine foreign dictators as wholly foreign. The world seems less complicated when an autocrat fits the stereotype: say, wearing a leopard-skin hat and rarely stepping out of some jungle palace. Anyone fine with ruling undemocratically, one might like to think, should have no interest in a culture completely opposed to the practice. Or, at the very least, if such a leader did make meaningful connections with the West, surely his retrograde beliefs would melt away on contact.
Reality, alas, is not so tidy. Bashar al-Assad butchers Syrians despite having lived in London. Whatever Western values Kim Jong Un picked up at boarding school in Switzerland haven’t kept him from perpetuating North Korea’s totalitarian state. And, as I discovered while reporting on the Gambia, the authoritarian leader of this tiny West African country has a soft spot for the United States.