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.
The First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
His convention speech re-introducing his wife to the country was an uneven, but ultimately effective, performance.
Just before Bill Clinton strode onstage to be his wife’s character witness, his wife’s convention planners played a video tribute to him. “When he said stuff, you believed it,” a man dressed in union gear said of Bill Clinton, “because you lived it.”
This was no accident: An overwhelming number of voters don’t trust Hillary Clinton. That credibility and character gap is the one thing that might stop Americans from electing a second President Clinton. And so the master of persuasion bragged on and on about his wife: career highlights, familiar anecdotes, and enough warm and cheesy sentiments to launch a thousand wedding toasts.
“If you were sitting where I am sitting and you heard what I heard at every dinner conversation and … on every long walk, you would say this woman has never been satisfied with the status quo about anything,” Bill Clinton said. Having been the candidate of change in 1992, Bill Clinton knows his wife faces headwinds against Donald Trump’s promise of radical, unruly change. “She always wants to move the ball forward,” Bill Clinton said. “That just who she is.”
Why Donald Trump’s recent comments on the alliance caused such an uproar
Donald Trump shocked foreign-policy professionals and observers when he remarked to The New York Times that if he were president, the United States might not come to the defense of an attacked NATO ally that hadn’t fulfilled its “obligation to make payments.” The remark broke with decades of bipartisan commitment to the alliance and, as Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic, aligned well with the interests of Russia, whose ambitions NATO was founded largely to contain. One Republican in Congress openly wondered whether his party’s nominee could be “seemingly so pro-Russia” because of “connections and contracts and things from the past or whatever.”
It’s not unlike Trump to make shocking statements. But these ones stokedparticularalarm, not least among America’s allies, about the candidate’s suitability for the United States presidency. So what’s the big deal? What does NATO actually do?
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
But it is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
In his convention speech, he suggested that Muslims need to earn the rights that all other Americans enjoy.
I love Bill Clinton. But I didn’t love his speech Tuesday night in Philadelphia. Given the job of humanizing his wife, he came across as genuinely smitten. But he failed to do what he’s done in every convention speech he’s delivered since 1992: tell a story about where America is today and what can be done to move it forward. He called his wife a great “change maker” but didn’t define the change America needs right now.
But the worst moment of the speech came near its end, when Clinton began to riff about the different kinds of people who should join Hillary’s effort. “If you love this country, you’re working hard, you’re paying taxes, you’re obeying the law and you’d like to become a citizen, you should choose immigration reform over someone that wants to send you back,” he said. Fair enough. Under any conceivable immigration overhaul, only those undocumented immigrants who have obeyed the law once in the United States—which includes paying taxes—will qualify for citizenship. Two sentences later, Clinton said that, “If you’re a young African American disillusioned and afraid … help us build a future where no one’s afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future.” No problem there. Of course African Americans should be safe from abusive police, and of course, police should be safe from the murderers who threaten them.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Four decades after he asked his wife to set aside her own ambitions, he asked Americans to return her to the White House in her own right.
On Tuesday night, Bill Clinton spoke before thousands of delegates at the Democratic National Convention, and did his best to repay a debt he’d incurred 45 years before. He met Hillary in 1971, and she married him four years later. “I really hope,” he said, “that her choosing me and rejecting my advice to pursue her own career was a decision she would never regret.”
Now, as she pursues the presidency in her own right, he took the opportunity to reintroduce her to the public, spending most of his time on stage rehearsing the years before she became a national figure. “Cartoons are two-dimensional,” Clinton said, and did his best to render his wife vivid, human, and real.
It was a speech that aimed to move past some of the central paradoxes of Clinton’s candidacy. She sacrificed her ambitions to advance her husband’s career, but his success has now enabled her own rise. Most Americans view her unfavorably, and yet she has just become the first woman to be a major-party nominee for the president.
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.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.