Abstract: For the past 15 years since 9/11, fighting terrorism has been one of the United States’ top priorities. The low number of casualties from terrorism in the United States indicate that intelligence and law enforcement agencies have performed well—preempting attacks, killing terrorists, working with partners overseas, and reducing the threat more comprehensively than any observer would have judged likely after 9/11. But the United States still suffers from a hysteria about terrorism, fueled partly by a distorted national dialogue on issues such as the extent of the threat; steps the country should take in areas as disparate as migration and cyberspace; and how the country should deal with youth who choose a potentially violent path.
The attacks on 9/11 forced the United States intelligence community (IC) to pivot quickly and dramatically. Practitioners from that era had few experiences to draw on and little time to reflect on the decisions of the global counterterror campaign. In the weeks and months after the attacks, resources and people flowed in, expertise grew, and analysts and operators grappled with a shadowy enemy they did not fully understand. The evolution of that enemy—from centralized al-Qa`ida to its affiliates, the growth of its propaganda arm, and finally the appearance of the multi-headed beast that includes the Islamic State—required the IC to adjust, from chasing a terror leader to his hideout in Abbottabad to finding an Islamic State-inspired Twitter follower in California. Along the way, successes ranged from the dismantling of al-Qa`ida’s leadership to a largely unheralded but effective defensive screen in the United States that has limited attacks here. No one in the dizzying days after 9/11 would have believed that annual terrorism-related casualties leading into 2017 would number only in the dozens; experts might have predicted hundreds, even thousands. This rapid intelligence escalation also prompted now much-debated steps such as establishing CIA prisons, how the CIA treated al-Qa`ida prisoners, and to the mistakes that led to the near-catastrophic miss of a terrorist on board a plane over Detroit in 2009.
Fifteen years since the attacks, analysts can bring more perspective to what worked well, what did not, and where improvements are needed. The record is pretty clear. Low casualties certainly indicate that intelligence and law enforcement agencies have performed well. But the nation’s leaders across government, including those in the IC, have yet to carve out a government communication strategy; fear and scaremongering creep too quickly into the national conversation, whether about preventive measures, immigration, or the safety of average Americans. The threat is real and enduring, but terrorism too often monopolizes the national security dialogue in emotional debates, leading to arguments that often lack factual context.
The following are reflections on the lessons learned, from the first 15 years of the post-9/11 era, drawn from the experiences of two former, long-time practitioners who witnessed this campaign from the CIA, the FBI, and the National Counterterrorism Center.
Denial of Territory
Terrorist safe havens are critical to terror groups’ durability, and controlling territory is essential to grow terrorists. After years of deploying U.S. combat troops, a decade-plus of Special Forces missions and intelligence operations, and drone surveillance and strikes in theaters around the world, there is no substitute for controlling territory. When the United States and its partners deny space to terrorists, with ground troops, Special Forces and intelligence operations, and local partnerships, the threat declines. Killing or capturing senior terror leaders counts as a critical element in these campaigns, but only when local ground forces eliminate the safe havens that allow future leaders to emerge, proselytize, and plan and then direct attacks. The Islamic State is using its safe haven to devastating effect in Syria; the same is true for al-Qa`ida in Yemen and Afghanistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Terror groups cannot build external operations cells over time unless they have the advantage of stable operating areas for planning and training. In the future, a United States suffering intervention fatigue will have to balance the limited will to spend resources overseas with the glaring reality that unless the United States helps foreign partners fight the next Islamic State-like generation in distant hotspots, those terrorists will eventually use their safe haven to target Americans.
Retaking territory takes time, often years. In the interim, killing terrorists remains key in any long-term counterterrorism (CT) campaign. Successes in this area have saved innocents and degraded the enemy, though we do not yet fully understand the unintended consequences of an aggressive lethal campaign; killing is a tactical device to disrupt or prevent attacks rather than a strategic tool to defeat a terrorist group. Removing leaders from the battlefield is critical to preempt and prevent terror plots. But as we have seen too clearly, removing successive generations of leaders, as we have done in the case of al-Qa`ida, is not sufficient to eliminate the threat. Lethal operations cannot be the only, or even the dominant, aspect of a comprehensive CT program.
Taking territory back, establishing a permissive environment in which U.S. forces can operate, and maintaining a secure and stable environment to prevent threats from resurging require local partners. After 9/11, one of the most productive exercises was casting a wide net, cajoling allies and partners of convenience to join the fight. This painstaking coalition-building was key to successes, from working with the coalition in Somalia to chipping away with allies in Syria and pressing Pakistan to move in harder near its western border with Afghanistan.
The United States cannot work just with its allies and friends to defeat terrorists. U.S. cooperation with Jordan and Israel, with European allies, and with Commonwealth friends are second nature in this CT campaign. But fighting terrorism is also about forcing tough choices. Does the United States work with regimes that violate American values or act with ulterior motives? Egypt’s General Sisi, for example, is an effective CT partner, but his crackdown on those he considers extremists may reinforce underlying causes of militancy. We could not have destroyed the core of al-Qa`ida without the close and troubled partnership with Pakistan. The United States wants the fundamental human right of democracy, but ethnic, religious, and tribal divides in these countries has resulted in electoral processes that are violent and destabilizing. Over time, in countries from Libya to Yemen, the United States may face the choice Washington encountered in Egypt: encourage the end of strongman leadership and hasten the rise of extremists in the resulting chaos, or quietly accept the kind of autocrats who sparked such unrest in the first place.
Western leaders, particularly those in the United States, endlessly debate how to combat violent extremism in the virtual space. The Islamic State is failing, but largely because it has lost safe haven and not because the West won the virtual war. We need to ask ourselves three serious questions. First, does it matter? Too often we assume that the Islamic State’s dominance in social media makes it stronger, more enduring. Maybe so, but perhaps not as much as we think. Second, how much effort do we spend on a more effective counter-messaging effort? And third, what role does government play? The United States overrates the war of ideas and the centrality of the United States in waging and winning the propaganda war. When terrorists lose territory, their message loses traction because potential followers do not have a geographic location to which they can migrate. As the Islamic State loses on the battlefield, its media and propaganda efforts decline. Even if it did have a role in this decline, the United States does not have much of a competing vision to offer a group of extremists who believe that they have been ordained by God to oppose the West.
Using rehabilitation to turn potential terrorists away from extremism has more potential than analysts have allowed, especially because many youth are falling under the sway of extremists without fully understanding the ideology they claim to accept. In Saudi Arabia, Denmark, and elsewhere, long prison sentences are not the only tool used to deal with offenders—not so in the United States. A terrorism-related offense here promises a lengthy jail term and minimal exposure to rehabilitation programs. Programs to work with radicalized youth can actually help. There is a tendency in the United States to too quickly categorize them as fundamentally different than youth who might join a gang or a cult. They are not. While the early members of al-Qa`ida, captured in the first years after 9/11, were ideologically committed to an Islamist revolution, the youth joining the Islamic State today, including many of the thousands who streamed into Syria, have little understanding of, or commitment to, the ideology for which they are signing up. That means that experts in Islam can challenge them in controlled environments, such as rehabilitation programs.
Labels and Tone
After an attack, partisan battles quickly emerge. The expected “Was it terrorism or not?” probe has far less to do with sensible responses and more to do with partisan traps. These labels do not matter much to counterterrorism professionals. Terrorism holds a special place in the American psyche: we cannot always explain why it happens and we may never understand it, but if you call something “terrorism,” it leaps onto the front page. Concerns and commentary tends toward overreacting to individual attacks and pointing fingers rather than improving our posture to respond to future attacks. Regardless of whether politicians can or want to draw distinctions between what scares Americans and what threatens Americans, practitioners should. Threats of bans on Muslims, bogus debates about sharia law in America, and relentless focus on violent crime in the name of Islam without reference to the vastly more devastating violent crime resulting from gangs and drugs in America are all indications of a society that cannot get beyond political points and emotional anger to focus on the question of how Islamic extremism truly ranks as a threat to the nation.
The numbers of Western youth who have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State dwarfs previous waves of volunteers for al-Qa`ida or al-Shabaab, but warnings about a long-term ripple effect of attacks in the United States are exaggerated. Yes, we must keep track of this group of potential terrorists, but compared to many other countries, from Jordan and Tunisia to France, Belgium, and the U.K., the United States has a manageable task. Some returnees may plot and execute attacks, but the relatively modest impact of immigrants and returning fighters in the United States today suggests that the level of violence from these groups will result in episodic tragedies, not national security catastrophes.
Mission Definition and Clarity
Confusion between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism obscures the debate about whether and how the United States should intervene. The Islamic State, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram all threaten governments in their respective areas of operation. Only a small sliver of these groups, though, is dedicated to trying to plan and stage attacks overseas. When the United States talks about defeating the Islamic State, debates about intervention are fuzzy. Are we targeting elements that threaten American cities? Or helping foreign partners defeat elements that threaten foreign cities? The first is and should be an American-led effort. The second is and should be, after the lessons from major American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, a foreign-led effort, supported by the United States’ military, diplomats, and intelligence officers.
Once popular to describe underlying social problems that might spur radicalization, the phrase “root causes” was overused and is now largely dismissed as ‘too hard.’ But these basic grievances—factors that cause young people to join extremist causes—still beg more attention. Governance, economic opportunity, corruption, and societal dysfunction are all likely causes of terrorism. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq is a case in point. How did a nearly defeated al-Qa`ida in Iraq (a group which started calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006) resurrect itself so quickly to become the Islamic State? Blaming it on the United States’ pull-back from Iraq grossly oversimplifies the problem. Rather, it was the Shi`a government in Iraq that ignored the needs of its Sunni minority that incubated the new threat. Whether it was the case of the Islamic State in its self-declared caliphate, AQAP in Yemen, AQIM in Mali, al-Shabaab in Somalia, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, militancy spread in a vacuum of authority where governments failed to provide a satisfactory alternative to the terrorists. It is that vacuum that must be filled, not simply with military operations against the terrorists but also basic services and security.
The United States is obsessed with terrorism, to an unhealthy and illogical degree. Gun violence, texting while driving, swimming pools, and synthetic street drugs all dwarf terrorism as causes of death in the United States, but none evoke the kind of visceral fear and overreaction that terrorism does. Part of this fear is a national failing, by government officials, politicians, community leaders, and communities themselves, for rarely attempting to communicate the complex and painful truth that not all attacks can be stopped. Why should the public accept some level of terrorist violence if their government seems unwilling to acknowledge that occasional failures are part of reality? Many nations, including the U.K. and Israel, among others, have suffered terrorism casualties in their homeland, but none have responded with the same intensity, the same level of public alarm or public blaming to which America succumbs. When politicians attempt to calm those fears, to put terrorism into perspective, they are accused of ignoring danger, of coddling the enemy. Terrorists want attention; our hyper-sensitivity to their violence feeds that need.
The American people must understand that while vast efforts are being undertaken to prevent terrorism, more attacks are inevitable. Americans may think there is some way out, that some politician will have a new solution that can stem or stop a small group of extremists from staging a strike against a random target. We do not think this way about gang violence; we do not think this way about school shootings or bank robberies; and we should not think this way about terrorism. We must do all we can to reduce the risk of terrorism and to address vulnerabilities, but we must admit soberly that perfection is not attainable. Until we get this idea across, as U.K. officials have, Americans will have unrealistic expectations of what their politicians can deliver.
Perspective in the divide between Silicon Valley and Washington on the government’s access to data and on how the government interacts with the private sector also would help. Rhetoric from U.S. officials about access to data is overheated. American firms have a responsibility to customers and shareholders, and they have a right to challenge sweeping requests for data. But counterarguments from U.S. firms are equally overwrought. There is, however, one fundamental shift that the U.S. government has yet to acknowledge. It does not control data as much as it did before the social media explosion, and U.S. officials should spend more time figuring out how to support data owners rather than requiring data owners and technology providers to support the government. Social media companies, for example, might benefit from working with government entities that ask a simple question: How can we help you with your efforts to police the slice of cyberspace in which you operate?
Meanwhile, we have not yet found the proper balance between civil liberties and security, partly because trust between government and the private sector and citizenry is at a low ebb. With persistent public questions about the government’s handling of private data, more dependence on private sector companies as partners, not just data providers, might help. The government has to learn how to communicate better what it is doing and why, and legal remedies to force private sector compliance are not a good long-term answer.
Fifteen years after 9/11, the fight continues. The energy and commitment our CT professionals have displayed is impressive. Many in the core CT community are the same people whose lives were upended on 9/11, and they have been in the fight ever since. Questions about winning and losing, political squabbles about whether an attack is terrorism, and irresponsible overreactions that paint immigrants, refugees, and indeed an entire religion as potential terrorists do a disservice to the nation’s CT efforts, unnecessarily extend the conflict, and distract us from our real target. The target is not Islam; rather it is the narrow extremist mindset that views murdering innocents as an acceptable tactic of war. That tactic is rejected by all of the world’s civilized communities, whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or any other.
Terrorists are not winning, by any measure. We can continue this successful campaign with a clearer focus on what we can achieve, what is relevant, and who can help. Less focus on breathless threats, fact-free allegations about Islam and terrorism, and wasteful claims about which American politician or bureaucrat is to blame are the downsides to this war. With a little more perspective, the next stage in this generational effort can take the United States to the next level: a relentless pursuit of individual terrorists and cells that threaten the homeland and a realistic program of supporting good, bad, and mediocre partners who can help along the way.
Andrew Liepman is a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation. He retired after more than 30 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, having served in senior positions in the offices covering Iraq, the Middle East, and Weapons Intelligence. For the last six years of his career, he headed the analytic arm of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and served as the Center’s deputy director until 2012.
Philip Mudd served as Deputy Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and a senior intelligence adviser at the FBI. He now speaks, teaches, and writes about terrorism and analysis, and he appears frequently as CNN’s counterterrorism analyst.