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.
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