Which is why one of the signature features of the “war on terror”—the invasion of Iraq—ended up unleashing more terrorism. “When a stable government is destabilized and collapses, that’s very bad from a counterterrorism point of view,” said Byman. This is true with or without massive U.S. involvement, as Syria’s civil war demonstrates.
Both civil wars offer muddled lessons for how a future President Trump or Clinton should design U.S. counterterrorism policy, according to Byman. He suggested an approach not unlike that which Barack Obama has pursued: “I end up with: Bad things are going to happen, and what we need is some degree of offensive [military] capability to keep the bad guys off balance, we need aggressive global cooperation to go after the global web [of terrorists], we need some homeland defenses, and we need … domestic resilience because some attacks will happen. I look at [the attack in] San Bernardino in particular and say, ‘I don’t know what really could have been done [to prevent] that one, with all the benefit of hindsight.’”
Still, Byman noted, Americans may perceive terrorism as an acute threat because the 9/11 attacks primed them to view most security issues through the lens of terrorism, whether or not it makes sense to do so. He pointed out that during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong’s terrorist tactics were generally interpreted as elements of revolutionary or guerrilla warfare, not terrorism. And Europe and the United States experienced far more terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 80s than they do now, though most of these were less deadly than today’s suicide bombings.
“Once you discover something that seems new, all of a sudden it’s everywhere,” Byman said. On September 12, 2001, Americans looked at the world anew.
And yet focusing on terrorism blurs other parts of the picture. Yes, ISIS practices terrorism, but it also governs territory, devoting much of its budget and personnel to maintaining an army and police force, minting money, establishing law and order, offering some semblance of social services, and so on. Saying ISIS is a terrorist organization is “like saying the Department of Defense is a health-care organization,” Byman told me. “It is. It’s the largest health-care bureaucracy in the U.S. government. But oh, by the way, they do something else.”
The recent car bombing in Baghdad, for example, represented something in between terrorist tactics used in conventional war (ISIS sending suicide bombers to kill enemy forces) and clear-cut terrorism executed outside a war zone (the Paris attacks). The bombing was “clearly directed against civilians, it’s clearly terrorism, but part of the purpose is to advance the Islamic State in a war, to demoralize the Iraqi military and police,” Byman said.
In several countries in the Middle East, he said, people have good reason to feel gravely threatened by terrorism. But elsewhere in the world, it’s more that people are paying greater attention to the terrorist threat than they used to. “We’re labeling things ‘terrorism,’ where before it would have been seen in the context of civil wars,” Byman argued. “It screws up our basic understanding of the most important question, which is: Are things getting worse?”