More than sixteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American forces are still deployed in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq; and, in smaller contingents, they are training and supporting local forces combating terrorists across Africa and Asia. Whether one chooses to call it a “global war on terror,” “countering violent extremism,” or stopping “radical Islamic terrorism,” it has been a very long campaign—and it appears far from over.
As commanders-in-chief, three presidents have now supervised this campaign. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have exhibited dramatic differences in rhetoric and style and some real changes in policy, but overall, there has been remarkable continuity in their efforts. Instead of sharp reversals, policy has evolved as circumstances have changed and as each administration has learned lessons from previous experience and has tried to avoid or correct what it viewed as mistakes.
Hard decisions demanded by circumstances and political calculus, not desiderata, drive policy. As should be expected, all administrations enter office with their own attitudes and agendas, then they confront actual events. Early iterations of counterterrorist strategy tend to be theoretical, identifying broad objectives but not necessarily specifying how these will be achieved operationally. New approaches are added without abandoning current commitments or actions. Over time, commandments accumulate, most of which proscribe behavior: don’t declare victory, don’t lose Afghanistan, don’t put American boots on the ground, don’t withdraw prematurely. These reflect the understanding that we are facing a tenacious, resilient, and mutating foe.
In reviewing the evolution of U.S. counterterrorism policy since 9/11, it is important to remember that the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda began before 9/11. Two decisions by the Clinton administration paved the way for Bush’s declaration of war on terrorists.
In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that imposed economic sanctions on designated terrorist organizations. The ponderously named “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996” contained an assortment of counterterrorism measures, one portion of which was directed against extremists considered obstacles to the Middle East peace process. It changed the framework of U.S. policy from combating terrorist tactics to punishing designated terrorist groups. Following the terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the United States directly attacked al Qaeda. As the first military attack on a terrorist group rather than a state sponsor of terrorism, this set an important precedent.
The Clinton administration, which had initially viewed terrorism as a law enforcement problem, also approved efforts to kill Osama bin Laden. This would have been considered a violation of the long-standing executive order prohibiting assassination unless the United States regarded itself as being at war with al Qaeda, in which case bin Laden could be viewed as an enemy military commander. Targeting bin Laden was thus a further step toward putting terrorism into a framework of war three years before Bush declared the Global War on Terror (or GWOT, as it came to be called).
The Global War on Terror
The 9/11 attacks occurred less than nine months after Bush took office and would define his presidency. This was the deadliest attack in the annals of terrorism and the greatest loss of life on American soil since the Civil War. Intelligence had failed. No one knew what might happen next—9/11 fundamentally altered perceptions of plausibility.
Bush’s Global War on Terror did not begin with a clearly articulated strategy but was, rather, a desperate effort to prevent another attack of equal or greater magnitude. Prevent was the key word. The worst terrorist attacks in the 1970s killed tens of people. Escalating terrorist attacks in the 1980s raised this to the hundreds; by the 1990s, attacks of this scale were not uncommon. On 9/11, terrorists killed thousands. Extrapolation suggested that future terrorists would escalate to weapons of mass destruction to kill tens or even hundreds of thousands. The terrorist threat was seen as existential.
Counterterrorism immediately became the Bush administration’s highest priority. The war on terrorism signaled national mobilization and decisive action, without further questioning. Congress backed the war effort with a formal expression of support, authorizing the use of military force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It was tantamount to a declaration of war. However, the goal was not simply to punish the terrorists, as Clinton had done, but to disrupt, disable, and destroy al Qaeda—it was to be a fight to the finish.
Some in the administration spoke of a more-ambitious objective—taking down all terrorist groups. Although this idea did not survive the bloody conflict in Iraq, the definition of the enemy was broadened to include states identified as the “Axis of Evil,” comprising Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. This reflected the administration’s tendency to see terrorism as primarily state-driven and its determination to act preemptively. It opened the way for the invasion of Iraq, which turned out to be a costly distraction.
Some criticized the U.S. response as being exclusively military. It was not. Where the rule of law prevailed, law enforcement techniques were used. Where it did not, military means were necessary. American diplomacy brought other countries on board in the Global War on Terror. The Bush administration was committed to the spread of democracy and the re-engineering of Arab society to bring it about. At the same time, Bush was determined to avoid turning counterterrorism into a war on Islam.
The campaign to scatter al Qaeda and hunt down its operational leaders succeeded in degrading the organization’s operational capabilities, but it did not dent their determination to continue the struggle. Ironically, the Bush administration benefited from al Qaeda’s continuing terrorist campaign, which included major terrorist attacks in Kenya, Tunisia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, and India. The direct threat to their own security persuaded governments, some of which might have remained passive, to undertake efforts to destroy local jihadist networks while actively cooperating with international intelligence efforts. The terrorists’ operating environment became a lot more hostile.
The new level of international cooperation was rocked by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and by subsequent revelations that detained prisoners were being subjected to abuse and torture. Nonetheless, improved U.S. intelligence and intelligence cooperation worldwide remain undeniable achievements.
At home, the Bush administration rounded up suspects, obliged non-citizen, military-age males from Muslim countries to register, and initiated electronic surveillance that bypassed the rules established in the 1970s. These efforts were criticized as ineffectual, illegal, and contrary to American values.
Killing terrorists while avoiding war
President Obama entered the White House skeptical of the efficacy of U.S. military power as the primary counterterrorist tool, as evidenced by his order to replace the term “Global War on Terror” with “Countering Violent Extremism.” Operationally, the change was less evident. Like Bush, Obama found that his intentions ran into inconvenient realities on the ground.
Obama’s goal of ending U.S. participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while avoiding outright defeat proved impossible. Although the war in Afghanistan was viewed as a black hole, endlessly consuming blood and treasure with no good end in sight, removing the Taliban was viewed as morally more justifiable than the invasion of Iraq, since a Taliban return to power would reverse the real gains that had been made in Afghan society. When the military situation in Afghanistan appeared to be worsening, Obama ultimately opted to send reinforcements, although he accompanied the decision with a schedule for the eventual departure of all American troops, which he was later forced to abandon. While most other nations withdrew their forces from Afghanistan, American forces remained and, in 2017, had to again be reinforced.
Iraq’s refusal to sign a status-of-forces agreement that would protect U.S. troops in Iraq against local prosecution gave Obama the opportunity to bring those troops home. Many thought the United States had departed prematurely, but disengagement from Iraq proved to be temporary. Two years into his administration, Obama had to deal with rapidly evolving events resulting from the tumult that began with the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. In the following months, protests and armed uprisings occurred across the Arab world. Governments fell or were toppled, as in the U.S.-backed bombing of Libya, which led to Qaddafi’s overthrow and spread chaos throughout the adjacent countries of Africa. Protests in Syria turned violent and soon escalated into a complex civil war that led to a schism in al Qaeda and the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), followed by its dramatic expansion across eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
Confronting this situation, Obama sought to avoid new military commitments, especially of American ground forces. In an effort to limit U.S. casualties, share costs, ensure local ownership of responses to terrorism, and reduce perceptions of American unilateralism, Obama sought to assemble coalitions and lead from behind. This caution led to further criticism that he was weak.
The collapse of Iraqi defenses as ISIS forces swept east obliged the United States to renew military operations to prevent further massacres and to prevent ISIS from becoming a new base for terrorist operations against the West. Washington assembled an international coalition and led an ongoing air campaign, which supported ground offenses by Iraqi and U.S.-led Kurdish and Arab recruits in Iraq and Syria.
The tumult sweeping across the region also engulfed Yemen, weakening its already fragile government and opening the way for long-restive rebel tribesmen to launch a new civil war. The collapse of government resistance in Yemen prompted military intervention by Saudi Arabia and other surrounding countries, which was supported logistically by the United States. By the end of its second term, the Obama administration, which had assumed office determined to end America’s military role in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, found itself both directly and indirectly engaged in military operations in Asia and the Middle East.
While the Obama administration was wary of committing ground forces, it was not reluctant to take out terrorist leaders. Obama risked the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He also oversaw a tenfold increase in the targeted killings of terrorist leaders and cadre that Bush had initiated. Special operations and airstrikes became the principal expression of America’s counterterrorist strategy.
Both Bush and Obama recognized the need to work with partner nations that did not share American values but promoted political reforms. Obama renewed the idea of tackling the root causes of terrorism—poverty, corruption, and oppression. His policy pronouncements reflected the view that terrorism in the Middle East could be reduced only by eliminating a major cause of grievance—the extistence of dictatorial regimes, hence, the Obama administration supported the Arab Spring, the invasion of Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and initial efforts to unseat the Assad regime in Syria, or at least oblige it to become less dictatorial. Like Bush, Obama considered it America’s mission to deliver democracy to the world, although Obama placed greater emphasis on expanding human rights. As determined as Bush to avoid counterterrorism becoming a war on Islam, Obama sided with those he viewed as progressive Muslims, including the Muslim Brotherhood, against Arab dictators.
Obama sought to avoid taking sides in the deepening divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims, although the United States backed Saudi-led military efforts in Yemen. Faced with declining support for continuing sanctions, the Obama administration negotiated an agreement with Iran that critics, including Donald Trump, felt provided insufficient guarantees that Iran would not develop nuclear weapons. Some in the Obama administration may have hoped that ending the sanctions on Iran would facilitate a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. Some even envisioned Iran as a regional ally that could help stabilize an increasingly chaotic region. The Iranian government may see itself as a stabilizing force, certainly as a growing regional power, but not as an ally of the United States.
While continuing the wars, the Obama administration sought to reverse some of what it viewed as the excesses of the Bush administration. Obama banned the use of brutal interrogation techniques and sought the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp as one of his first executive orders. He succeeded in reducing the number of prisoners held there but faced fierce resistance in closing the facility. He eventually surrendered none of the assertions of executive authority claimed by his predecessor, including the right to indefinitely detain persons arrested in the United States for terrorist activities, both U.S. citizens and non-citizens.
The Bush administration saw the terrorist threat as coming from abroad and sought to destroy the ability of foreign-based terrorists to attack the United States. By 2009, when Obama took office, it was clear that foreign terrorists did not pose an immediate existential threat to the United States. However, homegrown terrorism increased on Obama’s watch, with attacks in Fort Hood, Boston, Chattanooga, San Bernardino, and Orlando. Even though the numbers of casualties in these attacks were exponentially lower than those on 9/11, opinion polls at the end of Obama’s term indicated that Americans were almost as worried about terrorism as they had been immediately after 9/11.
Reversal or continuity?
President Trump inherited a war in Afghanistan, an ongoing military campaign against ISIS, involvement in Yemen’s civil war, and military engagements elsewhere in the world. Many regarded this as a more dangerous, certainly a more complicated, mess than the situation Obama had inherited.
Trump has been in office barely nine months. As yet, there has been no major terrorist crisis requiring hard decisions and testing views. We, therefore, must judge Trump’s counterterrorist policy largely on the basis of his speeches, remarks to reporters, and tweets. These have been bellicose but operationally vague. To be fair, the formal counterterrorist policy pronouncements of both the Bush and Obama administrations tended to be sketchy on operational details—such is the nature of dealing with a diverse and changing adversary. Both administrations were ultimately defined more by what they did than by what they said.
Like Obama, Trump as a candidate was critical of continuing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, which he saw as a complete waste of lives and money. As president, however, he has agreed to send additional American forces to Afghanistan, where he promises victory.
Trump has been combative about going after ISIS, promising that he would “bomb the s--- out of” the terrorists and equally confident that the United States will defeat them. Trump sees the military as his principal instrument of power, which he feels Obama unnecessarily constrained. He has given greater latitude to his commanders. The rules of engagement have been relaxed. Since Trump took office, the U.S. bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen have all intensified.
At the same time, Trump ended U.S. support for the Syrian rebels fighting against the government of Bashir al-Assad. That effort, which began in 2013, never had the wholehearted support of the Obama administration and achieved only disappointing results.
Trump has reduced his predecessor’s emphasis on soft power and human rights. During his campaign and as president-elect, Trump said that, in contrast to Obama, he would fill the military prison in Guantanamo with “some bad dudes.” He also stated that he would bring back torture because “torture works” and that he backed waterboarding and “much worse.” As a candidate and as president-elect, Trump also said that he would target the families of terrorists. As president, he has not repeated this threat.
Candidate Trump repeatedly assailed Obama’s unwillingness to even utter the term “radical Islamic terrorism”; however, as president, Trump omitted the term from his recent 9/11 anniversary speech. Public comments by some of his political advisors suggest a broader definition of the enemy to include not just radical Islamic terrorism but Islamic belief itself, arguing that violence is a fundamental part of Islam, an inherently aggressive and violent ideology that threatens Judeo-Christian civilization. Trump himself has reinforced this view by imposing a temporary travel ban on persons coming to the United States from specified Muslim countries.
Trump portrays radical Islamic terrorism (both Sunni and Shiite) as a foreign threat against which America must protect itself with stronger borders, travel restrictions, reductions in refugee flows and immigration, and extreme vetting of those who want to come to the United States, to keep the bad guys out. Europe’s greater number of terrorists and higher levels of terrorist violence are held up as an example of what happens when countries adhere to politically correct policies in dealing with terrorism and fail to control the influx of immigrants and refugees. In Trump’s view, a similar fate awaits America if it does not name and confront radical Islamic terrorism.
In related foreign policy matters, Trump has clearly moved closer to Saudi Arabia in its strategic struggle against Iran. He believes that the agreement negotiated in 2015 to end some of the sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran’s agreement to restrict its nuclear program (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was a bad deal for the United States. During his presidential campaign, he swore that he would tear up the accord, although as president, he signed the mandatory letter to Congress declaring that Iran was complying with requirements to constrain its nuclear program. This, however, did not end Trump’s continued verbal attacks on the Iranian regime or his stated determination to renegotiate the agreement.
Trump has tended to be dismissive of America’s traditional allies in Europe. As a candidate and early in his presidency, he described NATO as obsolete, although his cabinet officers hastily reassured NATO allies that the United States still values the alliance, and Trump has softened his attack. Trump also sees Russia as a potential ally against radical Islamic terrorism, but he appears stymied by a Congress that is hostile to Russia and by continuing investigations of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections.
The overall pattern, then, is of a candidate and president-elect talking tough, emphasizing military power, trashing America’s alliances, and suggesting counterterrorist measures that would constitute violations of international law. The hard talk has been somewhat moderated, but not entirely abandoned, since Trump assumed office. Taken as a body, his statements represent a sharp departure from the counterterrorist policy of the Obama administration. And while closer to the Bush administration’s counterterrorist policy in several respects, the Trump administration’s dark view of Islam, hostility toward immigration, and dismissal of America’s traditional allies differ significantly from it.
It must be cautioned that the public face of Trump’s counterterrorism policy may not accurately reflect a more fluid situation inside the administration. There are internal differences. A draft of Trump's new counterterrorist strategy being prepared by the National Security Council reportedly says that the United States needs “to intensify operations against global jihadist groups,” but it makes no mention of “radical Islamic terrorism.” It argues that the United States must reduce the costs of American “blood and treasure” in pursuit of its counterterrorism goals, rely on allies and partners, and avoid large-scale interventions and open-ended military commitments. The draft reportedly concedes that ending terrorism once and for all is impossible. However, it is important to underline that these principles derive from publicly reported excerpts from a draft document—no official policy document exists yet.
Looking back, America’s worst fears on 9/11 were not realized. There were no further catastrophic terrorist attacks in the United States and not many smaller scale attacks. Jihadist exhortations to homegrown followers yielded negligible, though sometimes tragic, results. Most homegrown terrorist plots have been uncovered and foiled. The American public did not turn against the military counterterrorism campaigns as they did against the war in Vietnam. U.S. military institutions remain popular.
On the other hand, 9/11 and the U.S response that followed profoundly affected America’s political landscape and its culture, perhaps permanently. The country appears to have accepted the notion of permanent war, so long as it does not directly engage more than a tiny portion of the population whose members serve in the armed forces. Fear of the menace of terrorism has become a permanent feature of the American psyche, which has been exploited politically. This has permitted an enormous expansion of executive authority and national security structures and public acceptance of unprecedented government surveillance of communications and widespread secrecy within government. The same anxiety has contributed to a fundamental shift in how the nation views immigration.
The world too has changed since 2001. We cannot view U.S. counterterrorism policy in isolation; other priorities and events must be considered. New threats to U.S. national security have emerged. While the tumult that began in 2011 continues to convulse Africa and the Middle East, the United States and its allies must also deal with a revanchist Russia, an increasingly aggressive China, and a nuclear North Korea, which pose potentially greater threats to U.S. national security. While these threats are outside the realm of terrorism, they all significantly influence the continuing counterterrorist effort.
 Brian Michael Jenkins, a member of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s Professional Advisory Board, participated in a discussion of the evolution of counterterrorist policy at the ICT’s 17th World Summit in Herzliya, Israel. Given the time constraints of the plenary session, Mr. Jenkins could only briefly summarized his views. To make his complete observations available to all participants, the ICT is now publishing the full text of his remarks.