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Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism$

Richard English

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265901

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265901.001.0001

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date: 04 June 2020

Counter-Terrorism in the Post-9/11 Era

Counter-Terrorism in the Post-9/11 Era

Successes, Failures and Lessons Learned

(p.39) 3 Counter-Terrorism in the Post-9/11 Era
Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism

Rashmi Singh

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter assesses the US-led counter-terrorism response to the September 2001 attacks on the American homeland in order to gauge the successes and failures of the Global War on Terror. It concludes that successes against transnational terrorist threats, as represented by al-Qaida and its affiliates, have been few and far between. Instead, the past decade has been marked by a failure to meet set goals for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: the shifting character of war, the unintended fallouts of the counter-terrorism policies adopted, and an inadvertent strengthening of al-Qaida’s material and ideological capabilities through the US macro-securitisation of the Global War on Terror–all of which point to the absence of a long-term strategic vision. However, our counter-terrorism failures hold crucial lessons for the future and the chapter concludes by outlining how they can enable us to translate our past failures into future successes.

Keywords:   terrorism, counter-terrorism, Global War on Terror, al-Qaida, 9/11, war


ON 5 NOVEMBER 2009, MAJOR NIDAL MALIK HASAN opened fire at the medical centre of Fort Hood, Texas killing thirteen and injuring over thirty individuals. At his military trial not only did he admit to killing unarmed soldiers waiting for their final medical check-ups before deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, but he also acknowledged that he acted in response to the United States’ aggressive foreign policy in both countries.1 A few years later, on 22 May 2013, two men ran over and then hacked to death an off-duty British soldier later named as Drummer Lee Rigby of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, on the streets of Woolwich in southeast London. Once again, instead of fleeing the scene the men, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, remained at the site and justified their actions to eyewitnesses as a response to the killing of thousands of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq by the British Army as part of their role in the Global War on Terror (GWoT).2 These incidents bring into sharp focus the numerous outcomes of counter-terrorism policies adopted after the 11 September 2001 attacks under the rubric of the GWoT.

(p.40) It has been thirteen years since the horrific attacks of 9/11 and over twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and what was euphorically, albeit somewhat unfortunately, termed the ‘End of History.’3 In that time it has become clear that the GWoT not only represents the single most significant conflict since the end of the Cold War, but is also undoubtedly the lengthiest and most far-reaching counter-terrorism enterprise in history. At the same time, the GWoT has significantly challenged, and arguably altered, expectations regarding how liberal democratic states can and do behave in the international system. Yet in all this time, there has been very little reflection regarding the real effectiveness of this huge enterprise. Many authors take the absence or, as evidenced by the examples cited above, the minimal presence of ‘terrorist’ attacks on the homeland as a key benchmark of success. However, this not only reveals a somewhat simplistic understanding of the notion of success in the GWoT, it is also deeply isolationist and risks disregarding the complex longterm consequences of what is perceived by many to be an overly aggressive foreign policy abroad. In short, it is imperative to look back at the past decade of counter-terrorism policy in order not only to assess its successes and failures but also to answer some key questions, including what our post-9/11 experiences teach us about the end of terrorism and terrorist organisations. It is also imperative to address questions about the likely decline of al-Qaida and transnational terrorism, as these should also quite rightly affect our notions of success and failure. Unfortunately, in painting a picture of counter-terrorism policy since 9/11 our strategic successes, perhaps somewhat predictably, seem few and far between, whereas our failures and their consequences are amplified across the world stage with what seems to be much greater resonance.

Understanding how terrorism ends is a critical element in formulating any counter-terrorism strategy. In 1991 Martha Crenshaw forwarded what was perhaps one of the earliest models in the discipline discussing the ways in which terrorism could decline.4 This model clearly outlined the relationship between specific government actions and the end of terrorist campaigns. Crenshaw argued that the decline of terrorism seemed to be related to the combination of three key factors: the response of the state under attack, the strategic choices made by the terrorist organisation in question, as well as its organisational resources. More significantly, Crenshaw underscored that hinging our understanding of success on the mere physical defeat of a terrorist group was too simplistic an understanding of this process. Nearly twenty years later, Audrey Cronin also identified and outlined six broad patterns in (p.41) how terrorist campaigns have historically ended.5 Cronin’s work reads like a deeper, historically grounded empirical engagement with Crenshaw’s original thesis and attributes the decline of terrorism to: decapitation or the capturing and/or killing of group leaders; negotiation or the organisation’s entry into a legitimate political process; success or the achievement of the group’s aims; failure or the group’s implosion and/or loss of public support; repression or the defeat and elimination of the group by brute force; and finally reorientation or the transition from terrorism to other forms of violence. Speaking about the counter-terrorism response to al-Qaida, Cronin quite rightly emphasises that recognising the ways in which the organisation is both similar to and different from previous terrorist threats is a critical first step in devising a more effective and measured strategic response to the physical and psychological challenge(s) it presents.

But if understanding how terrorism ends is an important element in formulating counter-terrorism strategy, then why have the US and its allies failed so dismally to grapple with the al-Qaida threat despite the insights provided by such models? Or perhaps, to frame it more precisely, why has strategic ‘victory’ against al-Qaida, its affiliates and their virulent ideology remained so elusive and indecisive? Have we achieved any degree of success in the GWoT? Contemporary developments suggest that the al-Qaida network, or some manifestation thereof, is going to exist and remain active for some time to come. This is despite the fact that up until September 2013 the war in Afghanistan alone had cost the United States $657.50 billion and it was spending over $17.0 billion in classified funds each year in fighting terrorism.6 Add to this the huge human costs as signified by the thousands of civilian and soldier deaths around the world during the course of this campaign as well as the recent developments in Syria and Iraq, including the rise of the Islamic State, and it would appear that the GWoT has been bitterly ineffective. However, at the same time it would also be inaccurate to suggest that the US and its allies have experienced pure failure in their post-9/11 counter-terrorism efforts against al-Qaida and its affiliates. To this end, in what follows I probe some of the reasons why policies against transnational terrorism have not only resulted in infrequent, indecisive victories but also why achievements in the GWoT have been limited to short-term tactical triumphs as opposed to (p.42) long-term strategic successes. I argue that counter-terrorism policies under the GWoT have failed to meet set goals for a number of reasons including, but not limited to: the shifting character of war, the unintended fallouts of the counterterrorism policies adopted, and an inadvertent strengthening of al-Qaida’s material and ideological capabilities through the US macro-securitisation of the GWoT–all of which, in combination, point to the absence of a longterm strategic vision. These reasons constitute critical lessons to be learned from the current counter-terrorism response to the al-Qaida threat and should inform future academic thinking as well as policy formulation on the matter.

Lesson I: A shift in the overall strategic character of war

Perhaps the single most relevant lesson learned over the past thirteen years from the operations conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq is that there has been a qualitative shift in the strategic character of war and conflict. Not only is it clear that new security threats have emerged but also that these threats do not readily lend themselves to a conventional military response. For similar reasons it has also become very clear that these new threats cannot be addressed by the United States alone, and nor are the old, established alliances sufficient to respond to what seems to be a much more insidious, unconventional and far-reaching menace. In other words, over the past decade or so the overall character of conflict within the international system has changed quite rapidly.

Since the 9/11 attacks, NATO countries have found their militaries deployed to places like Afghanistan and Iraq where the mission not only consists of destroying transnational terrorist infrastructure and pacifying insurrections, but where doing so has also often involved the broader goal of building what are viable states with effective governments. The state-building enterprises in Afghanistan and Iraq, which one can argue with the benefit of hindsight seem to have been largely unsuccessful, have been ostensibly undertaken to prevent the re-emergence of security vacuums and safe havens that can be leveraged in the future by al-Qaida, its affiliates and other like-minded organisations.7 At (p.43) the same time, researchers and practitioners alike are recognising that asymmetry is now part and parcel of the existing strategic and tactical security environment that the West finds itself in. Indeed, writers like David Kilcullen8 and Andrew Bacevich9 see the ‘fundamental mismatch between US military capabilities and those of the rest of the world’10 as a core characteristic of the contemporary security environment. It is worth recalling that it was with the end of the Cold War that the US entered a period in which it enjoyed what was an unprecedented military preponderance within the international system. This meant that no adversary, or indeed combination of adversaries, could engage the US in a conventional war and hope to win. While advances in global military technology are increasingly challenging11 and eroding US post-Cold War military–technological advantage, at least for the time being, it still continues to hold an unmatched advantage over both its friends and its rivals. At the same time, it also continues to exert an exceptional ability to project both air and ground forces as well as an extraordinary competency at combined and joint warfare. More significantly, the US has as yet unmatched levels of defence spending. Indeed, in 2013 alone the US defence budget amounted to a total of $640 billion and represented more than that of the next eight countries combined.12

But what we are seeing in the years since 9/11 is that many twenty-first-century adversaries of the United States and its allies have adapted in ways that make this US military and technological might largely irrelevant. In short, US air power, military and technological superiority are no longer enough to decisively ‘win’ contemporary conflicts. Instead, Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that twenty-first-century conflicts demand a new strategic vision and an ability to adapt just as quickly as our foes. Such adaptation demands a new sort of capability on the part of the US and its allies. It requires enhanced military intelligence, ‘Special Forces and small-unit capabilities even more than the traditional big divisions, large carrier task groups and long-range (p.44) strategic bombers.’13 Indeed, traditional confrontations between nation-states with standing armies are on the decline–though this is by no means suggests that conventional, force-on-force, state-on-state wars are no longer plausible. However, the US seems to be facing what is primarily an unconventional conflict scenario today–characterised by irregular,14 asymmetric15 warfare waged by what Gary Hart categorises as ‘dispersed terrorist cells, stateless nations, insurgencies, tribes, clans, and gangs’.16 These groups, exemplified by al-Qaida and its various allies–such as al Shabaab, Lashkar-i-Taiba and the Taliban–practise a hybrid17 form of warfare and tend to involve a relatively small number of combatants who are engaged in small-scale (and for the most part opportunistic and tactically uncoordinated) attacks against Western interests, forces and proxies. This hybrid form of warfare uses terrorism, insurgency, propaganda and economic warfare to sidestep what has been the West’s conventional capability advantage.18

Of course, the question that then needs to be posed is: why has such a shift occurred? For writers like Kilcullen, the strategic logic of terrorism, insurgency and unconventional war is founded precisely upon the mismatch in military capabilities between the US and the rest of the world. This means that no rational adversary, irrespective of ideology, will willingly challenge (p.45) the US in a conventional force-on-force confrontation, instead preferring to resort to asymmetric, unconventional, often hybrid means of engagement19 to confront it and take tactical advantage of the fact that it is still largely mired in conventional military thinking. In response, it is necessary that the US and its allies move away from relying on traditional tactics, institutions and policies in order to address this new operating environment. In short, ‘the West’ needs to adapt just as quickly to the new realities of the twenty-first century by moving away from monolithic, all-encompassing policy responses such as the GWoT towards a much more pragmatic, proportionate, case-by-case response system. It needs to build an internationalist grand strategy–one that is founded upon shared concerns and goals and which can encompass a shared security response. Most crucially, given the current economic climate, it needs to accept that this will necessitate burden-sharing with all its caveats–perhaps to an (as yet) unprecedented degree.

Lesson II: The law of unintended consequences

Lesson number two is perhaps best described by Peter S. Probst when he talked about the ‘law of unintended consequences’20–and it is worth spending some time discussing this with the aid of an illustrative case study. A key element of US response to the 9/11 attacks was the initiation of a policy that was vigorously promoted under the GWoT, namely that of capacity building and the formation of international partnerships against the perceived threat posed by al-Qaida, its affiliates and its particular brand of terrorist violence. The logic of capacity building was rooted in the idea that while a number of nations needed to fight extremism within their own borders, many lacked the capability to do so. As such, a key US policy in the GWoT involved assisting international partners to strengthen their capacity to ‘fight terrorism, defend themselves, and collectively meet challenges to common interests’.21 The US government believed that such assistance was vital for creating a global environment that would be inhospitable to terrorists and terrorist ideologies. However, as part of this policy the US not only worked with states that were willing partners but also cajoled, pressured and persuaded reluctant regimes (p.46) to meet their international obligations to fight terrorism by compelling them to participate in the GWoT. These were essentially countries that may have had the capability to fight terrorism but were unwilling, for a whole gamut of reasons, to do so, ranging from the presence of ‘external threats, internal schisms that enable[d] one faction to use the state to extend tacit or active disagreements over what constitute[d] “terrorist” … activity’.22 It would not be misplaced to state that implementing this particular policy in relation to Pakistan contributed towards what may be effectively categorised as the rising strategic instability of both the Pakistani state and the South Asian region more broadly for reasons addressed in some detail below.

First, it is a well-known fact that Pakistani authorities have had long-standing ties with various militant groups based in or operating out of Pakistani territory as well as with those located within neighbouring states such as India and Afghanistan.23 Indeed, Pakistan had been intimately involved with training and equipping the Taliban for almost a decade when it was asked to participate in the US-led counter-terrorism efforts targeting the very regime it had fostered.24 Reports suggest that post-9/11 the US essentially arm-twisted a reluctant President Musharraf into cooperating, pressuring him to either ‘abandon support for the Taliban or to be prepared to be treated like the Taliban’.25 This put the Pakistani regime in a difficult position, especially in light of the fact that, like the government, much of Pakistan’s population also supported the radical Taliban regime, clearly indicating that any government action taken against the Taliban would inevitably alienate the Pakistani population, and also key players in the military and Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).26

Similarly, the Pakistani government’s support and use of terrorist groups based within its territory as proxies has been a fairly long-standing policy. It was in the period immediately after the loss of East Pakistan in 1971 that Pakistan first took a series of measures to counter not only the perceived (p.47) threat from India but also Pashtun nationalism within its borders and, in the period after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the threat posed by its Shi’a minority. Several measures were implemented, including the deliberate and steady Islamisation of society. This not only involved an incremental rise in the number of madaris (plural of madrassa, a seminary) but also the support of various militant Islamist groups that were used as proxies to safeguard Pakistan’s strategic and security interests against nations and groups seen as threats.27 One of the consequences of this steady Islamisation was a consolidating anti-Americanism in Pakistani society. This was rooted in a number of factors including the United States’ support of Israel and failure to press for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state; what was perceived as the US abandonment of Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989; and also what can be best described as the slow but steady consolidation of hardline, radical Islamist forces within Pakistan. As such, forcing Pakistani cooperation in the GWoT placed it in a deeply vulnerable position as the radical and volatile religious populations in Pakistan viewed their government’s participation, in what was effectively seen as a ‘Crusade’ against Islam and its holy warriors, as deeply heretical and rapidly turned against the state.28

Pakistan’s internal stability was further compromised by the United States’ drone strike campaign that targeted al-Qaida and Taliban commanders based in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa. Operational since 2004, these drone strikes rose steadily under the Obama administration, so much so that the media eventually came to dub the campaign ‘the US drone war’ While there is no doubt that these strikes decimated core al-Qaida and Taliban leadership, they also concomitantly strengthened the radical Islamist movement in Pakistan, boosting both radicalisation and recruitment processes within the country. This occurred in several ways. To begin with, in 2007 several Islamist militant groups based in the northwest of Pakistan coalesced under the banner (p.48) of the Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP).29 Some of these militant groups had previously served as proxies but have, in recent years, started target-ing the Pakistani state in reaction to its participation in the GWoT as well as the increasing restrictions it had placed on militant activity in Kashmir. At the same time, Pakistani military operations undertaken in FATA and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to dismantle these networks along with the US drone campaign put a lot of pressure on groups located in the tribal belt and effectively served to push them out of these areas and into Pakistan’s mainland. In other words, groups like the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaida and the TTP were forced to flee the peripheral tribal provinces and entered what is in essence Pakistan’s political, cultural and economic centre of gravity.30 Southern Punjab also proved to be a much better sanctuary for these groups for several reasons. First, not only was the region a drone-free zone, it is also one of Pakistan’s most over-populated, poverty-ridden provinces. Moreover, the area has a deeply entrenched madrassa culture. When taken together, these factors not only helped provide ripe pickings of recruits for these groups but also provided a more receptive and supportive environment for their extremist Islamist ideologies. More significantly, this region also offered access to the core of the Pakistani state in a way the frontier provinces never did.31 For all these reasons, these developments contributed significantly to Pakistan’s rising instability and insecurity.

Another fallout of these developments has been the increasing contact between various Punjabi groups and the groups moving into the heartland from the tribal belt. As part of the GWoT, Pakistan had been forced to ban a number of Punjabi groups that it had previously used as proxies.32 A number of these now-banned groups took sanctuary in southern Punjab and came into increasing contact with both al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban.33 Given that even banned Punjabi groups can operate quite freely across the Punjab, stronger ties with al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, who were in turn looking for new alliances, should not come as a surprise. What has resulted is an obvious tactical and ideological cross-pollination between these groups. A good example (p.49) of such cross-pollination is that of the Punjabi Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)–one of Pakistan’s strongest, most favoured proxies and a group that has thus far, unlike other proxies, refused to conduct attacks against the Pakistani state. LeT’s relationship with al-Qaida pre-dates the latter’s movement into southern Punjab. Thus, LeT was instrumental in assisting in the exfiltration of al-Qaida cadres from Afghanistan immediately post-9/11 as well as in providing them with safe havens within and beyond Pakistan’s borders. LeT has also not only shared but also run training camps for al-Qaida at several points over the past decade. The obvious outcome of this interaction was more than evident in the 2008 Mumbai attacks where LeT tactics clearly mimicked the hallmark al-Qaida style of simultaneous attacks on soft targets. The ideological hybridisation between the two groups is also clearly evident in the shifts in LeT objectives. Historically, LeT has primarily been an anti-Indian group focused on waging a jihad in Kashmir. However, in recent years LeT has steadily developed both global connections and ambitions. ‘Various counterterrorism and intelligence agencies believe that LeT today has ties with militant groups in the Arab world and sleeper cells in the US and Australia.’34 In short, the policies adopted under the GWoT have had direct, if unintended, repercussions not only for Pakistan’s internal security but also for South Asian regional security.

Lesson III: Macro-securitisation of the GWoT has fuelled al-Qaida’s brand of ideology

Here I speak specifically of how the United States’ propensity towards hypersecuritisation (i.e. ‘its tendency to both exaggerate threats and resort to excessive countermeasures’35), has fuelled al-Qaida’s position as well as its virulent ideology within the international system. However, this tendency towards hyper-securitisation needs to be contextualised by understanding not only the evolution of American self-identity but also its position within the international system at a very particular point in history. First, it is worth remembering that the US has been preoccupied with establishing international peace and stability through the promotion of liberal democracy for some time now. Indeed there is little doubt that US foreign policy has been shaped by its belief in the significance of not only adhering to liberal democratic values but also (p.50) a perceived obligation towards spreading these values and norms internationally. In other words, the United States has traditionally viewed itself as ‘an agent of historical transformation and liberal change’36 in the international system. To this end, the use of military force by the United States for the cause of democracy promotion is not a new phenomenon and, at least empirically, one can argue that it has been a benchmark of American foreign policy since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. However, till the advent of the GWoT, US-armed interventions were largely what Freedman calls ‘liberal wars of choice’, i.e. they were an exercise in choice and fought only when resources were available. By the 1990s, these wars took the form of military interventions undertaken ostensibly to ‘protect the weak, shelter the poor, and feed the hungry’.37 In stark contrast, the GWoT was framed as a war fought for survival and as such as a ‘war of necessity … [where] no semblance of defeat could be tolerated’.38

Implicit within the idea of both the promotion of liberal democracy and an existential war of necessity is a clearly exceptionalist view of American identity and foreign policy. In this exceptionalist view, liberal values are un-derstood to transfer quite readily to foreign affairs and this essentially pushes the US towards remaking international society and asserting its rights to be different by ‘taking individual action against threats’.39 Inherent in this exceptionalism seems to be a very clear notion of what it means to be American and the rights and responsibilities that come with being the United States.40 One also gets a clear sense that underpinning this thinking is a belief in the universality and ‘essential rightness of American values’,41 which is arguably rooted in the liberal thinking of philosophers like Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill who have historically exerted a deep influence upon American politics and its political leaders. However, while this exceptionalist construction of self-identity may be historically rooted to some extent, it was further bolstered by both the United States’ victories in the ideological wars of the twentieth century and, more crucially, by the position of unmatched advantage in which it found itself in the post-Cold War period. Given this back-ground, the GWoT should then be understood as a strategic attempt on the (p.51) part of the Bush administration to secure this position of primacy by extending US hegemony in the international system. In this regard the GWoT essentially represents the culmination of the long-standing ‘neoconservative call for using force to check the rise of any potential challengers to US predominance that emerged in the period immediately after the Cold War ended’.42 This was based in the logic that American preponderance in the post-Cold War period was impermanent, because system-level changes would ensure that the US would not remain the sole superpower forever. This was, in other words, America’s ‘unipolar moment’ rather than a ‘fixed power structure replacing the Cold War balance of power system’.43

What resulted was the realignment in US foreign policy under the GWoT, most clearly evidenced by the gradual shift from multi-lateralism to unilateralism which eventually culminated in first the Bush administration’s refusal to allow a NATO-led response in Afghanistan after 9/11 and then again in its illegal attacks on Iraq in 2003.44 At the same time, the challenge of transnational terrorism was framed as an existential threat to not only US capabilities and values but to its very identity within the international system. It was the exceptionalist view of US foreign policy, rooted in a very particular vision of the United States’ mission abroad as well as a specific view of its rights and responsibilities in the international system, that enabled the successful hypersecuritisation of al-Qaida and transnational terrorism under the GWoT. In other words, as per this exceptionalist view, 9/11 demonstrated that as the sole superpower not only did the United States enjoy the ‘advantage of exceptional powers and privileges in the international system but also that it attracted exceptional threats’:45 America was attacked because it was America. Thus, al-Qaida came to be framed as a threat to not only every liberal democratic norm, value and institution that the US historically upheld and promulgated but also to the unchallenged projection of US power and capabilities within the international system.

This is reflected quite clearly in the US government metrics of success and failure in the GWoT, which measure US performance in the confrontation with al-Qaida against the standard of the post-Cold War identity that the US created for itself, i.e. as the world’s sole superpower, as an exceptional nation that not only enjoyed special rights and privileges within the (p.52) international system but also shouldered great responsibilities and duties.46 The extraordinary reach and influence of the superpower are also clearly evident in the metrics through which the United States gauged its own success against the al-Qaida network and international terrorism. These metrics included: a body-count of terrorist operatives captured and/or killed; restricting the geographical reach of al-Qaida and transnational terrorism; defeating al-Qaida in both the battle of arms and ideas; neutralising rogue regimes; controlling weapons of mass destruction; safeguarding the American homeland from future attacks; promoting democratisation around the world; and building an international coalition to fight transnational terrorism.47 These metrics constructed a truly exceptional US in that only a true superpower could have the enormous ideological and material reach implicit in each of these. At the same time, these metrics were also a reflection of the United States’ attempts at securing its position of preponderance in a unipolar world. Thus, in constructing 9/11 as exceptional the US not only underscored its unique and privileged status but also justified the GWoT as a legitimate and necessary response of an exceptional nation-state.

However, at the same time, in framing al-Qaida as the enemy these metrics simultaneously empowered al-Qaida and its ideology by constructing it as an exceptional, unprecedented threat on the one hand and an enemy worthy of the sole superpower on the other. Al-Qaida thus came to be framed as the counterpoint to the United States. If the US was the carrier of shared values and the upholder of liberty and justice then al-Qaida was the ‘inherent agitator’,48 the anomaly threatening tolerant societies and the civilised world. It was the antithesis of all that the US stood for. Hence, it was backwards, barbaric, evil, inhumane and murderous. At the same time, as (p.53) a worthy enemy, it had a formidable reach and capability within the international system, which is why it posed an existential threat to the United States and the modern world. Thus al-Qaida too was ‘exceptional’ in its systemic omnipotence, its material and ideological strength, its reach, capabilities and ambitions. It was a threat to the liberal values of freedom, democracy, civil liberties and human rights–indeed, to civilisation itself. A threat that was so great that it demanded an international coalition to counter and confront it. A threat so great that even the world’s sole superpower found itself helpless to either act alone, or catch the elusive bin Laden and Zawahiri. Hence, ‘in terms of agency, scope, geopolitical space, international agendas and the political and security policies of other states, the US metrics of the GWoT constructed a truly formidable al-Qaida, one that was the equal and opposite of the US-self’.49 But in doing so, the metrics also constructed an al-Qaida that was capable of posing a direct challenge to the sole superpower–which was a gross overstatement. Thus, in exaggerating the threat posed by al-Qaida to both its security and status, the US and its metrics constructed it as a much more formidable entity than it may well have been in reality. In other words, the US, through the GWoT, breathed life into al-Qaida in a way that would not have happened if it had responded to 9/11 in a proportionate, pragmatic and less militaristic manner.


Since 9/11 we have seen some successes and some costly failures in monies and lives lost in the GWoT. In this chapter I have explored some of the reasons why policies against transnational terrorism have only produced infrequent and indecisive tactical victories as opposed to long-term strategic successes. I have argued that counter-terrorism policies that were adopted under the GWoT failed to score a decisive victory against al-Qaida and its allies for a whole host of reasons, three of which were identified and framed as crucial lessons to be learned from our experiences of counter-terrorism since 9/11. From the discussion above, it is clear that there has been a qualitative shift in not only the international system and the character of wars and enemies but also in the reach and ability of US power. It is imperative both to recognise the existence of this shift and also to understand it in all its complexity in order to formulate an adequate and accurate response to future challenges.

(p.54) To some degree, formulating a more comprehensive, complex understanding is hindered by what some authors have argued is the US tendency to employ ‘a simple, all-encompassing, central organising principle as a substitute for national strategy’.50 During the second half of the twentieth century this was represented by the containment of communism. In the post-9/11 period this has come to be represented by the GWoT.51 When combined with an inability to recognise the complex new realities of a rapidly changing operating environment this can result in an overly militarised response, which in turn not only engenders a host of unintended and undesirable consequences but also does not embody an adequately holistic reaction to what is often a multi-faceted (and volatile) threat. This is precisely what we have seen in the GWoT and indeed, as suggested in lesson III, one would not be misplaced to argue that it was our failure to understand the true nature of al-Qaida that not only contributed towards hindering counter-terrorism policy but also greatly impacted upon how the group evolved. In other words, the real nature of the threat tends to be more than just physical and to this end requires a measured material and ideological response. However, the distinct emphasis on the kinetic response has meant that the state has failed to adequately address in a timely manner al-Qaida’s most virulent legacy: its ideology of global jihad.

Indeed, the manner in which al-Qaida affiliates across the Middle East and Afghanistan/Pakistan have incorporated the al-Qaida ideology into their local agendas, as reflected in a steadily increasing tactical and ideological hybridisation, suggests that this may well be the more significant future legacy of al-Qaida. Thus, while local agendas are once again being prioritised, the foundational ideology remains harnessed to that of al-Qaida, at least for this generation of jihadists. This ideology has been further propelled by the West’s overly military response. Undoubtedly, the Arab Spring demonstrated that the abstract notion of an ‘Islamic Caliphate’ does not really appeal to the majority of people across the Middle East. However, local grievances with what are perceived to be repressive Western policies not only remain but also continue to grow. Unless this is addressed though policies which are not purely ‘kinetic’ in nature, local groups–both historically affiliated with the core and otherwise–will use al-Qaida’s ideology and rhetoric of global jihad to wage battles and promote terror ostensibly in the name of a more equitable and peaceful future. Thus, what is required is a US grand strategy that looks beyond a purely kinetic response to the transnational terrorist threat and responds on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, (p.55) one can argue that the most crucial lesson of all in the years since 9/11 has been the undeniable advantage of a measured, calm, proportionate counter-terrorism response along with the fact that it is unwise to generalise across cases. All in all, while it is true that we have made mistakes we are also learning from these mistakes and adapting, slowly but steadily, to our new strategic realities. The million-dollar question given contemporary developments in the Middle East, and especially the rise of the Islamic State, is: have we left it too late?


Part of the research and writing for this paper was supported by the CAPES Foreign Visiting Professor Programme (2013–14) and undertaken at my host institution, Pontificia Universidade Católica (PUC) de Minas Gerais (Brazil). I am grateful to the Department of International Relations at PUC Minas for their support and generosity over this period. (p.56)


(1) The Associated Press at Fort Hood, ‘Fort Hood Shooter Nidal Hasan Sentenced to Death for Killing 13 Soldiers’, The Guardian, 23 May 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/10075488/Woolwich-attack-the-terrorists-rant.html [accessed 4 August 2014].

(2) There is a large body of news and commentary on both the Fort Hood Shootings and the Woolwich murder quite easily available online. For the Woolwich incident see, for instance, Simon Jenkins, ‘The Woolwich Killers Don’t Threaten the State, Yet are Treated as Warriors in a New Cold War’, The Guardian, 19 December 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/19/woolwich-killers-new-cold-war-lee-rigby [accessed 8 September 2014].Staff Reporter, ‘Woolwich Attack: The Terrorist’s Rant’, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/10075488/Woolwich-attack-the-terrorists-rant.html [accessed 8 September 2014].

(3) Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, Avon Books, 1992).

(4) M. Crenshaw, ‘How Terrorism Declines’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 3/1 (1991).

(5) A. K. Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton, Princeton University Press 2009).

(6) Dylan Matthews, ‘Twelve Years after 9/11, We Still have No Idea how to Fight Terrorism’, The Washington Post, 11 September 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/11/twelve-years-after-911-we-still-have-no-idea-how-to-fight-terrorism-2/ [accessed 4 August 2014].

(7) To some degree, the inclusion of state building into what was–at least initially–intended to be a pure counter-terrorism campaign was the direct result of what have been constantly shifting goal-posts in the GWoT. At the same time, this shift may also have occurred to some degree in response to an expanding literature that discredited the kinetic approach adopted in Afghanistan and Iraq on the one hand, and argued that the ‘battle for hearts and minds’ was central to allied efforts seeking to counter al-Qaida’s ideology of violent Islamist extremism on the other. See, for example: A. P. Schmid and R. Singh, ‘Measuring Success and Failure in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism: U.S. Government Metrics of the Global War on Terror’, in A. P. Schmid and G. F. Hindle (eds.), After the War on Terror: Regional and Multilateral Perspectives on Counter-Terrorism Strategy (London, RUSI Books, 2009); A. E. Hunt et al, ‘Beyond Bullets: Strategies for Countering Violent Extremism’, Solarium Strategy Series (Washington, DC, Centre for a New American Security, 2009).

(8) D. Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (London, Hurst & Co., 2009).

(9) A. Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York, Metropolitan Books, 2011).

(11) C. Morrison, ‘Technological Superiority No Longer Sufficient for US Military Dominance’, AEIdeas, http://www.aei-ideas.org/2014/08/technological-superiority-no-longer-sufficient-for-us-military-dominance/ [accessed 5 August 2014].

(12) ‘The US Spends More on Defense than the Next Eight Countries Combined’, Peter G. Peterson Foundation, http://pgpf.org/Chart-Archive/0053_defense-comparison [accessed 23 July 2014].

(13) G. Hart, ‘After Bin Laden: Security Strategy and the Global Commons’, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 53/4 (2011), p. 20.

(14) A type of warfare where the combatants are irregular military as opposed to regular forces. The term can include enemies of ‘any genus who choose to fight in an irregular mode; or it may refer to foes who are deemed to be irregular by definition because they are not the licensed sword arms of officially recognized polities’. See C. S. Gray, Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt? (Carlisle, PA, US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, 2006), p. 8.

(15) One of the most widely accepted definitions of asymmetry in the US context was provided in the 1999 Joint Strategy Review and stated that: ‘asymmetric approaches are attempts to circumvent or undermine US strengths, while exploiting US weaknesses using methods that differ significantly from the United States’ expected method of operations … Asymmetric approaches often employ innovative, non-traditional tactics, weapons or technologies, and can be applied to all levels of warfare–strategic, operational and tactical–and across the spectrum of military operations.’ See S. Metz and D. V. Johnson, Asymmetry and U.S. Military Strategy: Definition, Background and Strategic Concepts, (Carlise, PA, US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institution, 2001), p. 5.

(16) G. Hart, ‘A National Security Act for the 21st Century’, Huffington Post 11 December 2009 [accessed 4 July 2014]. See alsoG. Hart, Under the Eagle’s Wing: A National Security Strategy of the United States for 2009 (Colorado, Fulcrum Publishing, 2008).

(17) Hybrid threats are essentially combined threats: instead of ‘separate challengers with fundamentally different approaches (conventional, irregular or terrorist)’, hybrid threats reference ‘competitors who employ all forms of war and tactics, perhaps simultaneously’. In other words, there is a ‘fusion of war forms that blurs regular and irregular warfare … traditional and irregular tactics, decentralised planning and execution and non-state actors … using both simple and sophisticated technologies in innovative ways’. See: F. G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars (Arlington, VA, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007), p. 7.

(20) P. S. Probst, ‘Measuring Success in Countering Terrorism: Problems and Pitfalls’, in G. Muresan, P. Kantor, F. Roberts, D. Zeng, and F. Wang (eds.), Intelligence and Security Informatics: I.E.E.E International Conference on Intelligence and Security Informatics (Berlin, Springer, 2005).

(21) Department of Defense, National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (The Department of Defense, 2005), p. iv.

(22) The White House, The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (Washington, DC, The White House, 2003), p. 21.

(23) S. Puri, Pakistan’s War on Terror: Strategies for Combatting Jihadist Armed Groups since 9/11 (Abingdon, Routledge, 2012).

(24) A. J. Tellis, Pakistan and the War on Terror: Conflicted Goals, Compromised Performance (Washington, DC, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2008), p. 3; A. Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (London, I. B. Tauris, 2001).

(25) C. C. Fair, The Counterterror Coalitions: Cooperation with Pakistan and India (Santa Monica, RAND, 2004), p. 17.

(26) See, for example, the Gallup poll results as quoted in L. T. Hadar, ‘Pakistan in America’s War against Terrorism: Strategic Ally or Unreliable Client?’, Policy Analysis (Washington, DC, The Cato Institute, 2002), p. 3.

(27) See for example: S. Nawaz, Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army and the Wars Within (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008); Z. Hussain, Frontline Pakistan: The Path to Catastrophe and the Killing of Benazir Bhutto (New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2007). It is worth noting that Christine Fair underscores that militants in Pakistan, with the exception of suicide bombers, are on average better educated and tend not to be the products of madaris. At the same time, evidence also suggests that madaris are an important source of suicide attackers in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and that students who emerge from madaris are more likely to support militancy than those from mainstream public schools. SeeC. C. Fair, The Madrassah Challenge: Militancy and Religious Education in Pakistan (Washington, DC, USIP, 2008), chapter 3.

(28) For details see, for example, H. Abbas, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror (London, M. E. Sharp, 2005).

(29) See for example: S. M. A. Zaidi, The New Taliban: Emergence and Ideological Sanctions (New York, Nova Science Publishers, 2009).

(30) A. Majidyar, ‘Could the Taliban take over Pakistan’s Punjab Province?’, Middle Eastern Outlook (Washington, DC, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 2010).

(31) R. Singh, ‘Thinking About the Law of Unintended Consequences’, Journal of Terrorism Research, 1/1 (2010).

(32) B. Brandt, ‘The Punjabi Taliban: Causes and Consequences of Turning against the State’, CTC Sentinel, 3/7 (2010).

(33) Although it is worth noting that a number of these contacts pre-date the GWoT and can trace their roots back to the Soviet era.

(35) B. Buzan, ‘American Exceptionalism, Unipolarity and September 11: Understanding the Behaviour of the Sole Superpower’, International Studies Association (Montreal, Canada, 2004), p. 18.

(36) J. Monten, ‘The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism and Democracy Promotion in U.S. Strategy’, International Security, 29/4 (2005), p. 113.

(37) L. Freedman, ‘Iraq, Liberal Wars and Illiberal Containment’, Survival, 48/4 (2006), p. 51.

(38) Ibid.

(40) R. Singh, ‘Measuring “al-Qaeda”: The Metrics of Terror’, in A. Behnke and C. Hellmich (eds.), Knowing al-Qaeda: The Epistemology of Terrorism (London, Ashgate, 2012), p. 88.

(41) B. Buzan, The United States and the Great Powers: World Politics in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2004), p. 155.

(43) C. Krauthammer, ‘The Unipolar Moment’, Foreign Affairs, 70/1 (1990–91).

(44) J. P. McSherry, J. Ehrenberg, J. R. Sanchez, C. M. Sayej (eds.), The Iraq Papers (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010).

(46) Metrics can be defined as standard measures to assess performance in any field. Problems exist with developing metrics in counter-terrorism as opposed to conventional war. In conventional state-onstate wars success can be determined on the basis of territory won, the quantity of enemy weaponry, ammunition and ranks decimated, infrastructure destroyed, etc. This is not so clear in the case of gauging success in counter-terrorism where ‘the eradication of terrorist cells, decapitation of terrorist leadership, blocking of terrorist funds or the destruction of terrorist safe havens does not necessarily (and, in fact, rarely) result in the cessation of terrorist violence’. See N. Morag, ‘Measuring Success in Coping with Terrorism: The Israeli Case’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 28/4 (2005).

(47) For a detailed treatment of US metrics of success and failure in the GWoT see: Singh, ‘Measuring Success and Failure in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism: U.S. Government Metrics of the Global War on Terror’; Singh, ‘Measuring “al-Qaeda”: The Metrics of Terror’; R. Singh and S. Marsden, Assessing Success and Failure in Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Development of Metrics on the Global War on Terror and the Global Jihad (The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), 2011).

(48) C. Mullin, ‘Islamist Challenges to the “Liberal Peace” Discourse: The Case of Hamas and the Israel–Palestine “Peace Process”’, Millennium Journal of International Studies, 39/2 (2010).