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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
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.
Protofeather fossils discovered entombed in amber from the Late Cretaceous era support theories of dinosaur and avian evolution
Protofeather fossils discovered entombed in amber from the Late Cretaceous era support theories of dinosaur and avian evolution -- and make for one beautiful gallery
Dinosaur and bird feathers preserved in amber from a Late Cretaceous site in Canada reveal new insights into the structure, function, and color of animals that date back to about 78 million years ago.
Researchers led by University of Alberta paleontologist Ryan McKellar say these specimens represent distinct stages of feather evolution, from early-stage, single filament protofeathers to much more complex structures associated with modern diving birds. After analyzing the preserved pigment cells, the authors add that these feathered creatures may have also had a range of transparent, mottled, and diffused colors, similar to birds today. They can't determine which feathers belonged to birds or dinosaurs yet, but they did observe filament structures that are similar to those seen in other non-avian dinosaur fossils. Their findings appear in the current issue of the journal Science.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
This is a low-stress way to ease back into the ancient art of blogging. Our leaders, from J.J. Gould to Chris Bodenner, have explained the logic behind this new feature on The Atlantic’s site here. My colleagues, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, have gotten into the swing of things as you will read.
Hikers on a moonlit night in Mexico, a massive ball pit in Washington, D.C., Usain Bolt taken down by a Segway in China, a squirrel monkey riding a capybara in Japan, and much more.
Hikers on a moonlit night in Mexico, Homer Simpson calls for calm at a protest in Chile, Kumbh Mela in India, a massive ball pit in Washington, D.C., Usain Bolt taken down by a Segway in China, a squirrel monkey riding a capybara in Japan, a conference of Furry enthusiasts in Germany, and much more.
Four and a half years of violent conflict have destroyed entire regions of Syria. Caught in the middle of all this horror are the children of Syria, relying on parents who have lost control of their own lives and are now being forced to make difficult choices in desperate circumstances.
Four and a half years of violent conflict have destroyed entire regions of Syria. Neighborhoods have been smashed by shelling and government barrel bombs, and towns have been seized by rebels and ISIS militants, then retaken by government troops, killing hundreds of thousands and injuring even more. The United Nations now estimates that more than 4 million Syrians have become refugees, forced to flee to neighboring countries or Europe. Caught in the middle of all this horror are the children of Syria, relying on parents who have lost control of their own lives and are now being forced to make difficult choices in desperate circumstances. Though many families remain in Syria’s war zones, thousands of others are taking dangerous measures to escape, evading militias, government forces, border guards, predatory traffickers, and more, as they struggle to reach safety far from home.