Why America Gets a B+ in Counterterrorism

On the second anniversary of the death of Osama Bin Laden, there have been laudable achievements in the fight against al-Qaeda, but we can do better on human rights.
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Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam hold an image of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during an anti-American rally in Quetta May 2, 2012. (Naseer Ahmed/Reuters)

On May 2, 2011, the American people celebrated the news that Osama bin Laden, mastermind behind 9/11 and international symbol of al-Qaeda, had been brought to justice. Addressing the nation that night, President Obama praised the U.S. special forces that killed the terrorist leader in Pakistan, calling bin Laden's death "the most significant achievement to date" in the United States' efforts to defeat al-Qaeda. Yet, he cautioned that this victory was not the end of the fight against terrorism: "We must --and we will--remain vigilant at home and abroad."

The President was right. Although al-Qaeda has been degraded and become far more decentralized in recent years, its Salafist ideology continues to resonate among jihadis in many corners of the world. Over the past year alone, we have witnessed Islamic militants join forces with al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb to seize northern Mali, declaring the short-lived independent state of Azawad and imposing harsh sharia law; increased violence from al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups Boko Haram and Ansaru in Nigeria; and the alignment of the al Nusra Front rebel group in Syria with al-Qaeda. Even in the United States, the " self-radicalized " Tsarnaev brothers drew inspiration from jihadist internet sites in planning April's Boston Marathon bombing.

This litany of carnage should not obscure the considerable counterterrorism successes of the international community. The United States and its partners have indeed remained vigilant, and shown commendable stamina against this persistent threat.

This is a point we make in the Global Governance Report Card, recently released by the Council on Foreign Relations. The first effort to grade multilateral cooperation in addressing major global challenges, the Report Card gives both the international community and the United States high marks--a 'B' and 'B+', respectively--for their counterterrorism efforts.

These grades reflect several laudable achievements, including cooperation in eliminating high level al-Qaeda leaders, progress in developing counterradicalization strategies to reduce al Qaeda's attraction, and active measures to ensure that terrorists never get their hands on weapons of mass destruction or the materials necessary to build them. But perhaps most significant has been the effective international collaboration to crack down on terrorist financing, by stemming the flow of funds to terrorists' hands and providing legal frameworks to prosecute those providing them.

The United States stands out as the leader of counterterrorism efforts worldwide. Beyond the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the United States has denied safe-haven to al-Qaeda through its operations in Afghanistan and has thwarted at least thirty attempted al-Qaeda inspired attacks on U.S. soil since 2008, contributing to the deterioration of the network. Alongside Saudi Arabia, the United States established the influential Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), increasing multilateral coordination in counterterrorism strategies, and has worked with Russia and other nations to secure the world's stocks of fissile material, reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism.

That said, while a 'B' or a 'B+' is commendable, it also indicates room for improvement. The United States must work with partners to close remaining gaps in the counterterrorism regime, both at the international and domestic level. So what would it take to earn an 'A'? Well, finally forging international consensus at the UN on a definition of "terrorism" would be an admirable start. Beyond that goal, the Report Card suggests the following tangible steps:

Presented by

Stewart M. Patrick and Alexandra Kerr

Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog  The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance. Alexandra Kerr is program coordinator in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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