A smarter counterterrorism approach is now within reach, writes Daniel Benjamin, president of the American Academy in Berlin, and Steven Simon, the Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies, for Foreign Affairs. The article first appeared here.
Among the many bitter ironies of the collapse of the US-backed government in Afghanistan, few are as painful as the prospect of a resurgence of al Qaeda and other jihadi groups in the country where so much American blood and treasure was spilled. After 20 years of war that cost more than 6,000 US service members and contractors their lives and the American public $2 trillion, a revival of the organization that triggered it all is difficult to stomach.
That possibility has come as a surprise to many. In the foreign policy establishment, the global “war on terror” ended in 2018, when US Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a National Defense Strategy that identified China and Russia, America’s great-power rivals, as the biggest threats to US security. For the broader public, the end came even earlier, when major print and broadcast media outlets reassigned many reporters from the terrorism beat to cover President Donald Trump, his shady relationship with Russia, and the subsequent raft of scandals. Even the first terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11 by a foreign national—a Saudi air force officer who killed three sailors and wounded 13 others in Pensacola, Florida, in 2019—did nothing to distract the public from the Trump imbroglios. The sense that the jihadi violence had receded carried over into the Biden administration, which turned its attention to right-wing white supremacist terror and made little mention of jihadi violence before the nightmare in Kabul.
Now, Americans are once again focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism, partly thanks to the kind of fear-mongering that characterized pre-Trump discussions of jihadi terror. Nathan Sales, who served as coordinator for counterterrorism in Trump’s State Department, told The New York Times with apodictic certainty that “the terrorism risk to the United States is going to get dramatically worse” and that “it is virtually certain that al Qaeda will reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan and use it to plot terrorism against the United States and others.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, declared on television that “the chance of another 9/11 just went through the roof.”
After years of hopeful delusions that the era of jihadi terrorism was past, it is indeed time for US policymakers to refocus on the threat. But returning to the fearfulness and hyperventilation that plagued the decade and a half before Trump is not the way to do it. A wiser, more durable approach to the enduring threat of terrorism is possible now that the forever wars are ending. It will require the government to confront multiple threats at once—from far-right extremism to jihadi terrorism to antisocial, misogynist violence—instead of swinging wildly between them. It will also require administrations from both parties to calm partisan tensions, which have driven maximalist policies that are unfeasible and ultimately counterproductive. And finally, it will require acknowledging that terrorism is an ineradicable fact of modern life. Because of the availability of dangerous technologies, the profusion of grievances in many quarters, and the openness of Western societies, there will always be someone somewhere who is ready to kill for ideological purposes. A more sensible approach to counterterrorism, therefore, will require Americans to recognize the great strides that have been made in protecting them, cultivate resilience, and accept a modicum of risk.
ALIVE AND WELL
The sudden prospect of a jihadi resurgence in Afghanistan might have come as a shock to many, but Islamist terrorism never disappeared. Although attacks against Americans and Europeans have grown less frequent, global levels of terrorism have remained relatively high. The failure of the Arab Spring, the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), and the Syrian civil war all rechanneled Islamist energies inward on the Muslim world. As a result, jihadi groups have “relocalized,” focusing more effort on Muslim or heterogeneous societies in the developing world and less on the Western nations they blame for supporting “apostate” and frequently authoritarian regimes. The Sahel and West Africa are currently the most active fields of jihad, and violent groups in these regions often affiliate with al Qaeda or ISIS as a branding strategy.
Still, the basic drivers of the global jihad—economic stagnation, political exclusion, resentment born of repression—have been little touched by the global war on terror and in some cases grown stronger because of it. In Egypt, where the modern jihadi movement was born during the harsh days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the repression of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime may outstrip that of its predecessor. Across the Arab and broader Muslim world, corruption flourishes and disregard for civil liberties remains common.
The United States and its allies have gotten much better at neutralizing threats from those groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS that have sought to target the “far enemy”—thanks in part to armed drones, capable special operations forces, and long-range surveillance. The United States has also dramatically strengthened its border and aviation security, expanded intelligence collection and analysis, improved communication within and between law enforcement and the intelligence community, and forged a global network of like-minded spy agencies to track and fight the terrorist threat. Nonetheless, as long as the jihadi flame burns, it is not just possible but probable that some group will eventually find a reason to target the United States and its allies again.
The collapse of Afghanistan will surely make US counterterrorism efforts more difficult. A rejuvenation of al Qaeda is indeed possible, since the Taliban never truly broke with the group. The United States will also have less ability to collect intelligence in a country where it may have no embassy or military bases (although it has a sizable universe of potential intelligence assets after 20 years of war and its ability to collect intelligence through technical means has improved dramatically). But the Taliban’s tolerance for al Qaeda terrorist conspiracies could be more limited than the more exercised commentators have assumed. As the former CIA official Paul Pillar has argued, the Taliban originally welcomed al Qaeda because they needed military support in the civil war. But if there is no civil war in Afghanistan, and the Taliban rule largely uncontested, they will not need the terrorist group.
Al Qaeda’s ability to threaten the United States will also depend far more on its ability to rebuild international networks, which Washington and its allies have 20 years of experience rolling up, than on a restored safe haven in Afghanistan. The Taliban will not enjoy sovereign control over Afghanistan’s airspace, where US aircraft will have free rein well into the future. US air assets launched from more distant bases in nearby countries will not have as much time to loiter over potential targets, but if they are given the necessary resources, they will still be able to get the job done.
As for penetrating the United States to carry out another mass casualty attack, al Qaeda and its imitators will have to evade the vast web of surveillance the United States and its partners have spun since 9/11. Would-be attackers will also have to learn to deceive a much-improved border security system. Leaks to the press have revealed that the United States has placed 1.9 million individuals on its no-fly list, which is just a subset of the much larger interagency terrorism watch list. The enemy knows this now, too, of course, which is a decidedly bad byproduct of the leaks, and many people will suffer inconveniences as a result of being misidentified as suspected extremists. Even if a new generation of jihadists embraces the old doctrine of striking Americans on American soil, however, it will struggle to succeed.
RULE OF REASON
This picture of the jihadi threat—alive, but more potent in Africa and the Middle East than in Western cities—demands a better approach to counterterrorism than the war on terror. After 9/11, the United States lost its ability to distinguish between real and notional threats. The intelligence community suddenly discovered al Qaeda operatives in 90 countries. Driven by the “one percent” doctrine of President George W. Bush’s administration, which demanded open-ended warfare if there was so much as a one percent chance that a terrorist foe possessed unconventional weapons, the United States declared war on the world. That war’s core element of decades-long military deployments was not only unsustainable but counterproductive, as ISIS’s rise out of Iraq’s sectarian chaos and the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan both demonstrated. Occupation, clearly, is a well-traveled road to radicalization.
Instead of forever war, the United States must embrace a rule of reason: it should be vigilant but not feel compelled to take military action against terrorist threats that are not directed at the United States or its closest partners. This will require doing more than one thing at a time, however—walking and chewing gum, to use the bowdlerized version of President Lyndon Johnson’s famous phrase. This has not been the norm in US counterterrorism. Government agencies focused intensely on the threat of far-right extremism after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 but largely ignored it after the watershed of 9/11. During the Trump administration, the subject of right-wing extremism was taboo within the government.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan poses the risk of the pendulum swinging in the other direction—away from far-right extremism and back to jihadi threats. This oscillation must stop. The United States needs to be able to deal with jihadis, white supremacists, and other extremists who have not yet emerged—all at the same time. Dozens of groups carried out terrorist attacks in the United States between 2015 and 2019. Movements that blend ideology with religion or race have the potential to do the most damage, but others can draw blood, too. Violence by “Incels”—misogynists who blame their sexual frustration on women—have carried out multiple lethal attacks. Bizarre as such threats may be, the United States ignores them at its peril.
The growing range of weapons available to would-be terrorists is also a cause for concern: cyber, chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons all pose a threat that will inevitably grow with time. The cyberthreat emanates from states but has also been privatized. It has not yet been deployed to kill, but it could easily be, given the penetrability of the data control systems that regulate industry, services, aviation, and health care, to name a few targets. The lethal potential of the biological threat is also considerable, owing to advances in life sciences, dissemination of technical knowledge on social media and the Dark Web, and uneven regulatory control of laboratories engaged in research and experimentation. The pandemic that swept the globe beginning in late 2019 underscored this danger: although the origins of COVID-19 might never be known, it is at least plausible that the virus escaped accidentally from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers were experimenting on coronaviruses.
Whether terrorists have been inspired by the pandemic is unknown, at least to the public. But terrorist groups have used chemical and biological weapons in the past. In the 1990s, the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo used several different toxins, including nerve gas, in both targeted and indiscriminate attacks. Al Qaeda and ISIS both consider these weapons doctrinally and morally legitimate and have pursued their development. Terrorists have also used anthrax and ricin in small-scale attacks, and combatants in Syria’s civil war have normalized deployment of chemical agents, probably lowering ethical and strategic inhibitions to their use elsewhere.
There are many reasons that terrorists have not sought to use such weapons on a broader scale. They are difficult to produce and dangerous to use. Their effects are unpredictable and could undermine their users’ claim to the moral high ground. Terrorists have also often found it easier to inflict mass casualties with conventional weapons than with exotic ones. Nevertheless, it is not too far-fetched to imagine a terrorist engineering the release of a highly lethal virus from a sloppily managed laboratory.
KEEP CALM, CARRY ON
In order to keep its eye on multiple threats from multiple sources, the United States will need to shield counterterrorism from the bitter partisan battles that have spread to nearly every policy arena. When politicians see every terrorist incident—whether it causes casualties or is a near miss—as an opportunity to pummel those in power, policymakers are driven to maximalist, unsustainable policies and to overkill. Politicized—and often overhyped—terrorism concerns crowd out other policy concerns, undermining the United States’ ability to deal with an array of global problems and weakening its global standing. The blood sport of blaming elected officials for counterterrorism setbacks also consumes precious time and political space that could be used for constructive purposes. One need think only of the endless congressional hearings that followed the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other Americans—or the gleeful remarks Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy, now the House minority leader, made in 2015 about the political damage this circus did to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Such political warfare also gradually erodes public trust in government. Setting aside the disastrous, unnecessary military expeditions the United States undertook in the wake of 9/11, its counterterrorism efforts have been extraordinarily successful. Anyone observing the catastrophe of 9/11 would have justifiably expected that the United States would face a long struggle during which terrorists would claim thousands of American lives on American soil. But in the two decades since then, scarcely more than 100 people have been murdered by jihadi terrorists in the United States. This remarkable record of success appears to have had little effect on Americans’thinking about the severity of the jihadi terrorist threat, however. Fear-mongering and political infighting, amplified through the media, have obscured all that has been achieved. US leaders must dial back the politics of division and join together in common cause—or else continue to weaken the country and its position in the world.
Just as important as political leadership, however, will be resetting Americans’ threat perceptions and their tolerance for uncertainty. The one percent doctrine must be permanently discarded, and Americans must learn to live with some level of terrorist risk. Countering the deeply ingrained idea that any risk at all is unacceptable will be difficult. It will require educating the public about the actual chance of various kinds of terrorist attacks and about risk assessment more generally. Armed with a better understanding of the facts, Americans will be more resilient when the next attack inevitably happens. “Keep calm and carry on” has devolved into a comic meme, but the wartime British government that coined the phrase understood its importance.
RISE TO THE CHALLENGE
The sudden collapse of the Afghan government has refocused the United States’ attention on the jihadi threat. But that threat is not as grave as it once was, at least not in the United States and Europe, and it is just one of many terrorist dangers that Washington must address. Instead of a boundless war on terror, the United States needs counterterrorism policies that are comprehensive enough to deal with multiple threats but sufficiently discerning about the costs and benefits of action.
The collision of the pandemic and the United States’ broken political system, which has turned an unprecedented public health crisis into a unbounded political brawl, has given Americans a taste of the danger ahead if the country continues down its current path. The terrorist threats the United States faces are manageable. The question is whether the country’s political leaders can rise to the occasion and manage them.
DANIEL BENJAMIN is President of the American Academy in Berlin. He served as Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the US State Department from 2009 to 2012.
STEVEN SIMON is Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies and a Senior Research Analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He served on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations.