Up until now, America’s 2016 presidential campaign season has been dominated by wrangling over Wall Street speaking fees on the Democratic side, and the Donald Trump show on the Republican side. But there is one inescapable reality that the eventual winner will need to confront: he or she will inherit the most acute global terrorism challenge since September 11, 2001.
The facts speak for themselves: Al Qaeda and similarly inspired groups and networks are currently killing more people in terrorist attacks than ever before seen in history (more than thirty thousand in 2015 alone); Islamic State (ISIS) continues to expand its reach outside of Syria and Iraq; Europe has become the center of a new wave of Islamist terrorism; and the United States, after years of withdrawal, has been drawn back into conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with new terror-related missions in dozens of other countries in the region and around the world.
How should the next administration approach this monumental challenge? First, it will need to separate fact from fiction about the nature and purpose of the global terrorist movements. Then it should look back upon the counterterrorism approaches adopted by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in order to glean key lessons. Finally, it should endeavor to build upon an already evolving foundation to develop a coherent and politically sound long-term American counterterrorism strategy.
Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Global Jihad
There has been much confusion lately, particularly emanating from the United States and other Western governments, over today’s militant Islamist movements. In one well-known example, President Obama initially downplayed ISIS as a lesser “junior varsity” version of Al Qaeda, telling the New Yorker in early 2014 (as the group swept across Syria and Iraq): “the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
Of course, just a few months later ISIS was in control of the strategic cities of Raqqa in northern Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq, along with territory across the two countries roughly the size of Belgium. Soon thereafter, ISIS began expanding outside the region, and now has formal branches in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen, as well as partnerships with militant Islamist groups in Mali, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Indonesia and Algeria. And, despite losing significant territory in recent months thanks to stepped-up American air (and some ground) attacks, ISIS has vastly increased its out-of-area operations: in the past year alone, ISIS and ISIS-inspired agents have killed over a thousand civilians outside of Iraq and Syria, including the recent attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels.
And while Obama certainly received his share of criticism for his ISIS “jayvee” comment, less noticed was the way he simultaneously elevated Al Qaeda to the superstar status of a Kobe Bryant, despite the fact that his administration in those days was insisting Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” If one line stands out from Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, it is “Osama bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda is on the run.”
So it should also be noted that far from being defeated, Al Qaeda itself has been regaining strength of late, having branched off into an elite “Khorasan Group,” which is working out of Syria with Al Qaeda’s formal affiliate there, the Nusra Front; and having recently opened a new affiliate in South Asia known as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. The Khorasan Group is a cause for specific concern, as many of its members come from the 9/11 era, are seasoned international terrorists and are believed to be plotting major attacks against the United States, possibly using weapons of mass destruction.
This dramatic expansion and reinvigoration of Al Qaeda and related groups did not happen in a vacuum. It happened because most Americans and most Europeans (i.e., most Westerners)—a full fifteen years after 9/11—still have little real understanding of the global jihadi movement: how it is organized, what makes it tick and, by extension, how to defeat it. To paraphrase the nineteenth-century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz: we do not yet properly “know our enemy.”
Organizationally, the movement was never just about bin Laden’s Al Qaeda core (or AQ 1.0), which was significantly degraded after 9/11. Since then—and as directed by bin Laden—the movement has become increasingly decentralized, proliferating into a network of formal affiliates (AQ 2.0), such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Shabab in East Africa and Jemaah Islamiya in Southeast Asia. More recently, the movement further proliferated as loose networks operating inside Western countries with connections to Al Qaeda core or affiliated groups (AQ 3.0)—examples include the 2009 Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan, who was connected to AQAP, and the 2004 Madrid railway bombers, linked to an Al Qaeda affiliate in Morocco. And now, most recently, it has further proliferated as unconnected self-radicalized individuals and small groups operating in the West (AQ 4.0)—such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers and the 2015 San Bernardino shooters.
Most problematic, these evolving organizational layers are not an either/or—they now all operate simultaneously. This is why the death of bin Laden meant little in terms of the overall capacity of the jihadi movement: its component parts remain eminently flexible and organizationally adaptable.
Even more important than confusion over organizational issues, however, is the West’s inherent lack of clarity over what inspires militant groups like Al Qaeda and their followers in the first place.
We in the West are constantly being told that Al Qaeda and related groups have nothing to do with religion, and nothing to do with Islam. And of course it is true that the vast, vast majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world absolutely reject Al Qaeda and its affiliated and inspired groups—and are especially horrified that they claim to be operating on their behalf.
But it is equally true that this movement doesn’t just happen to be attracting Muslims. The movement itself is explicitly motivated by an austere and militant branch of Sunni Islam that has existed for centuries—starting in the Middle Ages with the preachings and teachings of the Damascus theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, through the eighteenth-century Arabian preacher Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, through late nineteenth-century intellectuals like Syrian-born Rashid Rida, and twentieth-century figures such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
And the fact is, ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—with Western imperial powers assuming control or influence over many Arab and Muslim lands—the movement has become as much cultural and ideological as spiritual and religious, presenting itself more and more as an ideological and political alternative to Western democratic capitalism and the modern globalized international system.
It is this ideological element that is the most troubling, because it means two things: first, Al Qaeda and similarly inspired groups can use Western foreign policies—wars in the Mideast, support for Arab dictators and oil monarchies, support for Israel—as a primary propaganda strategy to attract recruits (not to imply there are easy alternatives to some of those policies); and second, that these recruits do not necessarily have to be very religious, or even religious at all, to get ensnared in the sticky web of the global jihadi movements.
Expanding on the first point, Al Qaeda has always operated along the lines of a two-level game: at one level attacking Western policies as a means of gaining legitimacy and popularity in the Arab and Muslim world (for example, bin Laden’s demand in the 1990s that U.S. troops get out of Saudi Arabia) but at a second level working off an underlying macro-ideology that goes well beyond any current foreign policy—for example, nearly all U.S. troops were out of Saudi Arabia by 2001, but that did not prevent the 9/11 attacks, because those attacks were meant as the beginning, not the end, of a global civilizational war.
Another example is the Madrid railway bombings, which were understood—or rather often misunderstood—in the West as being the result of Spain taking part in the 2003 Iraq War. But even after Spain withdrew all of its troops from Iraq in summer 2004 (largely in response to the bombing), it remained and continues to remain a frontline jihadi target, because it possesses lands (Andalusia) of the original caliphate.
On the second point, many of today’s pundits and commentators like to refer to the fact that many Al Qaeda and ISIS foot soldiers are not very religious (or are recent Muslim converts) as evidence that the movements are disconnected from Islam. What they seem to not realize is that this is actually worse—that the movements are related to Islam in a much more cultural-ideological way, rather than a fundamentalist religious way, and that it is the underlying radical Islamist ideology (not fundamentalist Islam) that poses the greatest threat today. Indeed, most fundamentalist—or devoutly religious—Muslims are not violent at all, because most to do not subscribe to, or outright reject, the militant interpretations.
The Bush Approach Versus the Obama Approach
With President Obama in his eighth and final year in office, he has now been fighting terrorism for as long as President Bush had. Comparing and contrasting the approaches of the two presidencies offers important lessons for not only the struggle against Al Qaeda, but about challenges inherent in counterterrorism generally.
The best way to break this down is to first recognize that what we call “terrorism”—defined as political violence aimed at civilian populations—has been around since the dawn of civilization. And though over the centuries there have been countless terror groups operating on behalf of countless causes in countless regions of the world, these groups all have one big thing in common: they benefit when their adversaries overreact in retaliation.
Repressive, violent overreaction by targeted governments often instantly increases a terror group’s legitimacy, creating a powerful recruiting tool for new members and supporters. A prime example of this was the rise of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, which in the early 1970s went from marginalized to widely popular following a series of brutal crackdowns by British forces, setting the stage for a bloody decades-long conflict.
However, there is an important flip side to this same coin. Many groups, particularly those engaged in a broader ideological or revolutionary movement, also thrive from the very opposite: real or perceived weakness or complacency in their enemies is a tremendous boon for many terrorist groups. For example, the government of Colombia granted major territorial (and other) concessions to the country’s largest Marxist insurgent group in a 1990s peace push, which sparked a surge of new terrorist violence.
These may also be isolated as the shorthand lessons from the Bush and Obama years in their fight against Al Qaeda and the global jihad: the costs of overreaction, and the sometimes even greater danger from underreaction. And while it may be tempting to label them as “shortcomings” for each of the two presidencies, that is probably too strong a word when considering the challenging context of combating modern mass-casualty terrorism.
In the case of Bush, the effects of overreaction are by now well known. In the early months and years after 9/11 the United States assumed a very aggressive and confrontational approach to fighting terrorism—which included the rounding up and often mistreatment of thousands of terror suspects from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib; the legalized use of torture; the wide use of renditions and other covert operations, including targeted drone executions (of which the first trickle began in 2002 and 2003); and the vast expansion of electronic and other forms of surveillance, often directed at Muslims.
This era of overreaction also included the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was undertaken without appreciating the galvanizing impact it would have on the Muslim world. Injecting tens of thousands of U.S. troops into the heart of the Arab Middle East and ancestral home of the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate was viewed literally as a godsend by Osama bin Laden, and a clear example of how little the Bush administration actually “knew our enemy” early on.
Finally, even in the realm of the language used by the Bush White House after 9/11 we saw examples of costly overreaction. At its core, terrorism is a propaganda-fueled phenomenon, an ongoing political battle to win hearts and minds and entice new recruits for the cause. So it is important that the language used when fighting terrorism is not unnecessarily inflammatory. Much of the hot rhetoric of the Bush administration—“Islamo-fascism,” “smoke ‘em out,” “bring it on”—played right into the hands of the radicals.
Not to excuse any of this behavior, but it is important to remember the context under which it all played out. In the early period after 9/11 the administration (and the country) was desperately scrambling to get its bearings on this new and shadowy enemy, and their primary goal—even if it meant going to extremes—was to prevent another, possibly more devastating, attack inside the United States.
Even the Iraq War can be placed under this rubric: 9/11 awoke America and the world to an entirely new form of terrorism whose goal was to kill as many people as possible. Keeping weapons of mass destruction out of such hands became a top (if recklessly managed) priority, which is why targeting the world’s best known WMD outlaw was supported by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress.
The same was true for all the other aggressive Bush measures, from harsh interrogations, to renditions, to drones, to warrantless surveillance. In each case, the bipartisan leadership in Congress knew about—and authorized funding for—the programs. If it is true that the United States overreacted after 9/11, it is also true that it was a bipartisan overreaction.
Nonetheless, once these programs became publicly known and their counterproductive costs increasingly clear—alongside the growing quagmire in Iraq—the Democrats effectively ran against them in 2006 to win back Congress for the first time since 1994. And prior to the financial collapse in mid-2008, Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign was almost entirely about “reversing” Bush’s hyperaggressive counterterrorism policies and “restoring America’s leadership and moral standing” in the world. Most important to Obama was his repeated promise to end the “false choice” between liberty and security, and reconnect America’s national security policies to “our values and our Constitution.”
Once elected, the core macro foreign policy goal for the Obama administration was to “end America’s wars” in the Middle East (notably Iraq and Afghanistan), and vastly reduce its role in the region overall. On the more specific counterterrorism side, Obama pledged to close the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay and allow the detainees to be tried in civilian criminal courts (including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), ban torture and other harsh interrogation tactics, end the practice of renditions, and repeal the most intrusive parts of the Patriot Act while ending warrantless surveillance generally. And, after years of accusing the Bush White House of using the war on terrorism as an “excuse for unchecked presidential power,” Obama vowed to bring executive power back in line with “Constitutional values.”
The problem with all this was not that Obama followed through on everything he promised. With the exception of banning torture, Obama has maintained and in some cases expanded upon the aggressive Bush tactics, such as ever-widening electronic surveillance, and a massive increase of drone killings against thousands of suspected terrorists overseas (a far cry from a lawyer and a day in court). And on the use of executive power, despite greater efforts to justify constitutionality, Obama has maintained a Bush-Cheney approach to presidential wartime powers, including an increasingly controversial reliance on the “state secrets” privilege to withhold information from the courts and the American people.
Rather, the problem is that the administration believes that even if it keeps the most hard-line counterterrorism tactics and practices, as long as it speaks about terrorism in a different way—for example, eliminating the phrase “war on terrorism,” and never uttering the words “Islamic terrorism”—and as long as it is viewed as withdrawing from the Middle East and other parts of the world deemed provocative, then America will be, to use one of the administration’s favorite lines, engaging in a “smarter” fight against terrorism.
But this was also the mindset that led Obama to order the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, which, notably, sparked the rebirth of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), now known as ISIS. Obama’s rejection of requests by his senior military advisers and other cabinet officials to maintain a modest troop presence—to protect the peace gained by the 2007–08 “surge” (and the defeat of AQI)—will likely be remembered as one of his most consequential foreign policy blunders. Nearly five thousand U.S. troops (and counting) are already now back in Iraq, under much more chaotic circumstances.
And it was the mindset that led to the announcement of dates certain for the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan (2014), and for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops there (2015)—dates that have come and gone, clouded by the Iraq withdrawal debacle and the stubborn strength of the Taliban, which is patiently waiting for America to hit the exits. With ISIS now in Afghanistan, U.S. forces are currently conducting major operations against both groups.
And, finally, it is the mindset that motivates the administration to downplay every instance of terrorism inside the United States as, for example, “workplace violence” (the Fort Hood shooting), or acts of “isolated extremists” (the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber), or a “gun control” issue (the San Bernardino shootings), without leveling with the American people about the true nature of this globalized threat.
To be clear, following the Bush record of hyperbole and overreaction, it was perfectly reasonable (and wise) for the Obama administration to offer a calmer tone. And it is certainly true, as administration officials like to remind us, that overhyping terror threats only benefits the terrorists—whose sole purpose, after all, is to terrorize.
But Obama’s decision to cling to soothing rhetoric even in the face of the dramatic uptick in terror violence worldwide—he recently dubbed ISIS as merely “a bunch of killers with good social media,” and described bathtubs as a greater hazard than terrorism—helps explain why a record number of Americans (roughly 60 percent) now distrust his administration on issues relating to terrorism, ISIS and foreign policy generally. Such discontent plays right into the hands of a nativist demagogue like Donald Trump.
In other words, the temptation for Obama to do the opposite of Bush—to insist on limiting America’s role in the Middle East, to downplay terror threats at every turn—though understandable, and in some ways necessary, was not sufficient.
It was not sufficient, because the softer language used by the administration has been totally detached from its hard-line policies—creation of a surveillance state, ramping up drones, dispatching dozens more Special Operations units around the world—which has led to a profound disconnect with the American people and with America’s allies.
And it was not sufficient because even if America needs to recalibrate its role in the Middle East, constantly telegraphing its intention to withdraw from the region dovetails perfectly with militant Islamist ideology—again showing the danger of not fully “knowing our enemy.” Indeed bin Laden staked his entire theory of global jihad on the belief that America (and the West generally) is a “weak horse” unable to match the “strong horse” of martial Islam. The same way Bush’s rush to war in Iraq threw fuel on the embers of militant Islam, so too did Obama’s rush for the exits—and now the entire region (and beyond) is mired in terrorist violence.
Staying the Course (with Caveats)
None of this is to imply that the United States should be on a permanent war footing, taking on every jihadi group, large and small, all over the world. Nor is it to imply that the United States can simply throw up its hands, say fighting terrorism is too complicated and take its global leadership ball and go home (even that would not save the United States from being a prime target). It is, however, to suggest that America’s counterterrorism strategy moving forward—regardless of who sits in the Oval Office—will need to be clear, credible and consistent; and will need to marry a candid accounting of the terror threats we face with the tactical capabilities (and often hard tradeoffs) required to defeat them.
The positive news is that much of the template for this strategy already exists—it was developed first by the Bush administration after 9/11, and then adopted by Obama once he entered office. Setting aside their vast rhetorical differences, what we find is that both the conservative Republican Bush and the liberal Democrat Obama independently determined the same baseline approach and baseline policies deemed necessary for America to combat modern global terrorism.
This evolving (bipartisan) counterterrorism consensus consists of three core parts: First, recognition of the necessity of strong executive powers and presidential freedom of action; second, heavy reliance on aggressive intelligence gathering to level the playing field with mass-casualty terrorists lurking in the shadows; and third, broad use of military operations and covert actions to target terrorists and preempt terrorist planning and operations from abroad.
To be sure, much like the uneasy transfer of “containment” policy between Democratic and Republican administrations during the Cold War (notably the first transfer from Truman to Eisenhower), each president will (as did Obama) make his or her own adjustments and refinements to the strategy along the way—some no doubt more prudent than others).
But a few important additions stand out for the next president (and beyond), if America’s overall counterterrorism strategy is to remain stable and effective over the long run.
First, on the domestic side, all U.S. presidents must do their utmost to maximize civil liberties, transparency and the roles of Congress and the courts when fashioning their antiterror policies. Bush in his second term, and Obama in his first, made important strides in this direction. However, both also recognized that deference to such constitutional “rule-of-law” principles must take place in the context of a rigorous counterterrorism approach, not despite it.
The fact is an aggressive campaign against terrorism will only make sense to, and be accepted by, the American people if it come alongside an honest discussion of the nature of the global (and domestic) threat, and the necessity of at least some tradeoffs between their liberty and security. Like Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” before and during World War II, the American people would benefit greatly from similar calm but candid accounts.
Such long-term thinking is just as needed internationally, where partnerships and alliances remain invaluable in the fight against terrorism. As with fascism and communism in the twentieth century, America and the world currently face a determined ideological enemy out to destroy the contemporary order. And while it is clear that America cannot (and indeed should not) incur most of the costs in this fight, it is equally clear that American leadership—both militarily and diplomatically—will be essential if it is to succeed.
According to the U.S. government, radical Islamist networks now operate in forty countries around the world, and nearly two dozen Arab and Muslim countries have governments that are either collapsing or in danger of collapse due to violent instability. It is imperative that the United States and the West work directly with moderate forces in the Muslim world—those on the front lines of the fight against militant Islam—to undermine and ultimately destroy the jihadi groups and the ideology that sustains them. Though the United States must never be an occupying power, it should begin placing less emphasis on dropping bombs from fifteen thousand feet, and more on helping build bridges below.
Just like in the Cold War, there will be ups and downs, losses and victories, and new lessons learned along the way in the fight against terrorism. But with the right approach, a clear purpose and a little patience, there is no reason why America will not meet this latest global challenge.
Stuart Gottlieb teaches U.S. Foreign Policy, Counterterrorism, and International Security at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where he is also a member of the Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the U.S. Senate (1999–2003).
Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of Defense