After Almost Twenty Years, America’s “War on Terrorism” Resembles Insanity
The United States has an opportunity to correct course in its fight against terrorism.
September 11th, 2020 will mark the nineteenth year since the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. For those nineteen years, terrorism underpinned U.S. foreign policy decision making. As a result, the United States and its allies have conceptualized and fought terrorism through a military-focused approach, or a finite strategy. This de facto paradigm has proven seldomly successful despite its longevity. And as the world returns towards great power competition, terrorism and how to fight it has scaled back in countries’ foreign policy priorities. This presents a momentous opportunity to shift how the United States conceptualizes terrorism and how it fights it, from a finite to an infinite strategy. In the reshuffling of strategic priorities, raising counterterrorism to one of the pillars of U.S. grand strategy will ensure that the U.S. moves away from the erroneous idea that terrorism can be defeated entirely, and enable it to suppress it through an infinite strategy.
A Finite Strategy
In game theory, there are finite and infinite games. In a finite game, the objective of the game is to win, thereby ending the game. In the infinite game, the goal is the perpetuation of the game. Since 9/11, the U.S. has implemented a finite approach to fighting terrorism. The “War on Terrorism (WoT)” archetype highlights this finite approach.
Three premises underpinned the WoT archetype: the theoretical idea that terrorism can be completely defeated, the militarization of the response to terrorism, and by extension, the overzealousness to targeted killing, especially of leaders.
As a rhetorical tactic, framing terrorism as a defeatable concept certainly helped galvanize the U.S. population and international community in the wake of the attacks. But as a theoretical approach, it is at best ill-conceived and, at worst futile. First, there is little sense to the idea of defeating terrorism completely. As scholars Arie W. Kruglanski and Shira Fishman have argued, terrorism is merely a tool.1 As a tool, terrorism has and is used by most non-state actors2across the political violence spectrum to achieve their goals.
Therefore, conceptualizing terrorism as something that can be defeated is as illogical as declaring war on a hammer. Second, and as alluded to earlier, the WoT archetype ignores the longevity of terrorism. In other words, it frames or at least creates the perception of terrorism as a sudden and unique phenomenon that rose to prominence only after 9/11. But one can look to terrorism’s history and longevity to dismiss this claim. During the Roman Empire, the Sicarii3 used terrorism to reject Roman rule over Judea, and the etymology of the word takes us as far back to the French revolution. Moreover, David Rapport, a scholar, demonstrated how terrorism has evolved in different waves through different geopolitical contexts since the late 1800s.4 The point is that terrorism has been used throughout history and will almost certainly continue to be used by groups around the world for generations to come.
Because the concept has erroneously been conceived as something defeatable, the U.S. foreign policy blob assumed militarizing the response would inherently resolve the problem by overwhelming the adversary. It is not hard to see why they assumed this. The U.S military has demonstrated an ability to fight and win in multiple theatres against a variety of opponents. The U.S has been most comfortable fighting finite games such as in the Second World War, and Korea. And even, erroneously, framing infinite wars like Vietnam into finite approaches.
As such and in response to 9/11, Congress quickly enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Three Presidents since Mr. Bush have used the AUMF to start, perpetuate, and expand military-led counterterrorism (CT) operations around the world. In a closer analysis, the AUMF5 has been loosely interpreted to include almost any terrorist organization. And true to form, today the U.S. leads or is a partner to military-led CT operations in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan6, and Pakistan. The operations are as global as they are diverse in targets. The U.S. prosecutes a wide range of terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda core, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), ISIS, and affiliates in North and East Africa, Al Shabab, and others. This expansion and continuation of operations have cost the U.S. approximately 6.4 trillion dollars,7 according to Brown University estimates. This militarization has led in turn to overzealousness in disrupting terrorist networks through the targeted killing of leaders.
This, by extension has transformed the premise of military-led operations into statically focused campaigns. Since 2004, the U.S. military has conducted approximately 14,040 strikes in various countries, according to Bureau of Investigative Journalism data,8 and has formed at least two coalitions9 of countries to fight terrorist groups.
But as it will be demonstrated next, the finite approach has severe limitations that, at a minimum, raise the important question of why it is still the de facto strategy after almost 20 years.
A Not-So-Effective Finite Strategy
The finite framework, one built on the premise of completely defeating terrorism, has not worked. The failure of this finite strategy is not an inherent weakness of the U.S. CT capabilities. Thanks to fast innovation, competent intelligence agencies, and superior technology, the U.S. has become overtly good at finding and fixing targets. The most recent example the death of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January of this year10.
Instead, the failure is symptomatic of a finite player competing with finite methods and goals against infinite players in what is an infinite game. ISIS is the best example of this clash.11 Since 2003, the U.S. and its allies have led on and off military-led CT operations against ISIS, fervently focusing on killing its top leaders. It is important to note that the U.S also led counterinsurgency operations (COIN) in 2006–2007 and from 2014–2017 — often in parallel to the CT operations — against ISIS in a response to their evolution from terrorist group to insurgency. These were narrowly successful in territorially defeating ISIS but fell short in “defeating” the group altogether. Even during COIN operations, where finite goals such as defeating ISIS territorially were achieved, the infinite strategy of the group was not sufficiently considered. This led to the continued finite approach of killing ISIS leaders. As such, in June 2006, U.S. forces killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,12 the founder of AQI. Subsequent leaders, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi met the same fate in April 201013, and on 27 October 2019, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in Northern Syria.14
While there should be no sympathy for dead terrorist leaders, the merit of this aspect of the finite approach is questionable when one looks at the resiliency of ISIS’s operational behavior after the death of its leaders. The decapitation approach claims to deal calamitous blows to organizations, ultimately leading to their demise by dismantling the figurehead that holds the organization together. But Audrey Kurth Cronin’s findings raise questions about this premise. Kronin found that the decapitation approach seldom works and arresting rather than killing leaders tends to be more effective in ending terrorist campaigns.15
Kronin’s findings can certainly be demonstrated when one looks at ISIS after the death of its leaders. Despite their deaths, the killings never achieved their finite goal of dismantling or ending the terrorist group. After the death of its overall founder Zarqawi and despite heavy territorial losses in, during the U.S.-led surge in 2007, ISI16 rebounded and was able to inflict extraordinary terrorist attacks throughout Iraq. From 2008–2010, the three years after the COIN operations (or Surge), over 200 people were killed per month by terrorism in Iraq.17 Before and after the death of Omar Al Baghdadi, ISI assassinated over 1345 Awakening leaders according to one estimate, 18 and launched its infamous “Breaking the Walls” campaign where it carried out 24 bombings and eight prison breaks.19 By the same extension, and since the death of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, ISIS has conducted approximately 285 attacks in Iraq, according to a review of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Even after the death of its top leader and U.S. claims that it had dealt catastrophic and “final” blows to the organization, the organization mustered the necessary capabilities to continue their terror campaigns, remain relevant, and at times outdo what it had done in previous years. This resiliency demonstrates that the finite approach of targeted killings has been futile in its efforts to “defeat” terrorism.
The ISIS example also highlights terrorist organizations’ infinite doctrine. Part of the ability, in this case of ISIS, to continue despite the endless cycle of dead leaders is the infinite framing of its goals. While external factors helped ISIS 20, the “infiniteness” of ISIS goals allowed it to turn defeats to victories as part of a longer “infinite” struggle. In the aftermath of its Iraqi territorial defeat, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi stated,
“For the Mujahideen holy warriors, the scale of victory or defeat is not dependent on a city or town being stolen or subject to that who has aerial superiority, intercontinental missiles or smart bombs…… “Oh, Caliphate soldiers… trust in God’s promise and His victory… for with hardship comes relief and a way out.”21
If one strips away the religiosity, what is evident in Baghdadi’s rhetoric is that deaths and loss of territory do not amount to detrimental finite loses, instead they represent loses as part of a predetermined plan (in this case formulated by God according to Baghdadi) that will “ultimately” lead them to victory. The “ultimately” is worthy of closer analysis. It is this word that represents the infinite mentality ingrained in groups like ISIS. Stated differently, it does not matter how much they lose, insofar as they continue their path, “they will ultimately” be rewarded. In this regard, ISIS is not seeking to achieve finite metrics or goals, they seek an almost abstract infinite goal that might never materialize. By this logic, the U.S. inability to recognize this, and continue with a finite military-led CT approach of maiming and bombing ISIS leaders, only played to what ISIS expected and was/is “comfortable” dealing with.
Towards an Infinite Approach
However, insufficient the finite strategy has proven to be, some argue that it has and will continue to work. They point to the lack of 9/11 like attacks, something they attribute to sustained military-led CT pressure in countries that offered haven to terrorist groups.
Indeed, the U.S. has not suffered 9/11-like attacks. But the role of military-led CT operations is surely overestimated while the vast changes to airport security, intelligence capabilities, international law enforcement cooperation, and other safety mechanisms, are underestimated.
Proponents have also not sufficiently explained why the threat of attacks, or attacks that have not materialized continue to exist. In December 2019, an al-Qaeda operative shot eleven people at a U.S. military base in Florida.22 The December 2019 al-Qaeda attack is just one of many attacks since 9/11 that have been at the lower end of the extraordinary scale, failed to materialize, or were foiled before they occurred. Moreover, al-Qaeda media continues to call for attacks against the United States, including in statements from regional al-Qaeda leaders, reflecting the network’s enduring efforts to pursue or inspire attacks in the West.23
This is to say that if the premise of the finite approach was to “defeat terrorism,” the evidence in the sheer number of intended attacks since 9/11 dismisses this. The threat is well and alive, and the finite approach has not been sufficient in quelling or even stopping it. The recent statements by the U.S. State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, Ambassador Nathan Sales, effectively kills any debate.
When asked by the BBC, “whether this war — as originally conceived by the Bush administration — about the War on Terrorism is over?” He said, “No, the fight is very much ongoing, we’re winning the fight, but we’re continuing to fight against a determined enemy, or I should say a determined group of enemies.”24
Calls to change how the U.S. conceptualizes and fights terrorism are not new. Analysts, policymakers, and the public generally recognize that a continuation of the finite approach will prolong military-led CT operations with little or no long-term solution to the threat of terrorism. What is new, however, is the shifting tectonic plates of geopolitics. And as the U.S. foreign policy blob construes a grand strategy to answer this shift, the choice presented would be at best to leave the current CT approach intact and at worst drop CT; neither are viable options for U.S. long term security interest.
Despite changing geostrategic priorities, developing and implementing an infinite CT strategy is easier said than done. Terrorism is poorly understood. This leads to criminal acts being incorrectly labeled as terrorism, effectively politicizing it. For example, in late March, the U.S. Department of Justice warned that “people who intentionally spread COVID-19 could be charged with terrorism,” arguably a stretch of interpretation.25 Moreover, the political clime is such that politicians look strong in supporting military-led CT policies, and weak when they do not. When coupled with the fear terrorism generates, it is easy to see why change will be difficult.
Notwithstanding, the time to course-correct is now. An infinite strategy emphasizes a whole-of-government approach that folds finite metrics within an infinite or abstract vision. It starts with accepting terrorism can never be completely defeated; acknowledging its relatively low threat level; and it particularly means employing all aspects of national power to combat terrorism, including diplomatic, economic, military, and others.
It also means using those elements of national powers towards what the research points to as most effective in ending terrorist campaigns. Research shows that terrorist groups and their terrorism campaigns most often end when they implode from within or when splinter groups challenge the main group’s narrative. They are also particularly weak during generational shifts and when non-violent alternatives are created that facilitate underlying social movement to express their political grievances.26
As such, an infinite strategy calls for a sustained and prolonged multifaceted approach. It focuses on a strong role for the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S.AID) to fund and work with marginalized groups in politically unstable countries. Their work should focus on alternative non-violent social movements. Likewise, the U.S. should increase efforts to bolster intelligence and law enforcement cooperation and create international law enforcement and intelligence task forces that are not under military purview, using military-led CT operations as complementary elements. Equally important is the need to build alternative narratives to the religious interpretations used by religious terrorist groups. An alternative narrative seeks to implode groups from within, loosening the bolts of religious interpretation these groups use to justify their actions. None of these few examples are short-term or finite, easily measured, and tangible. But this is the nature of truly fighting terrorism through an infinite strategy — the actions are not easy to measure and there are no fast wins. Instead, it’s a long, slow, and prolonged approach that will challenge groups’ infinite mentality.
In all, the time is now to change how the U.S fights terrorism. An infinite strategy will ensure the U.S. reduces its dependency on military-led CT operations and starts leveraging all realms of its national power to effectively suppress the threat. If the U.S does not correct course now, then its surely proximus to insanity: continuing to do the same thing, expecting different results.
1 Arie W. Kruglanski & Shira Fishman (2006) The Psychology of Terrorism: “Syndrome” Versus “Tool” Perspectives, Terrorism and Political Violence, 18:2, 193–215, DOI: 10.1080/09546550600570119 ;
2 Scholars in the Critical Studies of Terrorism field have argued that States can also and do use terrorism. I take the majority view and focus primarily on non-state actors who employ terrorism.
3 It’s been widely cited that the Sicarii were considered the first political violent group that used terrorism. See Stewart J. D’Alessio & Lisa Stolzenberg in (1990) Sicarii and the Rise of Terrorism, Terrorism, 13:4–5, 329–335, DOI: 10.1080/10576109008435840; as well as Donathan Taylor, Yannick Gautron. 02 Apr 2015, Pre-Modern Terrorism from The Routledge History of Terrorism Routledge
4 See David Rapport’s Four Waves of Modern Terrorism (2001)
5 The original text of the AUMF authorized the U.S. military to “ that the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” It was always mostly focused against those responsible for 9/11 i.e. AQ. It has since been broadly interpreted to mean almost any terrorist organization.
6 The U.S. CT operations against ISIS-K and Taliban leaders are different than the NATO-led mission that emulates elements of a counterinsurgency strategy and also of other U.S.-led missions training the ISF.
7 This number includes appropriated and obligated money towards 2020. Afghanistan, which as mentioned above, has three different mission sets. While the article focuses on the CT operations, the numbers account for the COIN, and broader missions.
8 The BIJ started to collect data since 2004, and it includes a wide range of U.S military activity, not just targeted killings. See the full methodology at thebureauinvestigates.com; the numbers are estimative and cannot be independently confirmed.
9 This again accounts for coalitions that were formed to defeat ISIS when it was an insurgency from 2014–2017
10 Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was the leader of Iran’s Quds forces, considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist organization. The designation might be more political than true to what terrorist groups are. Still, the Quds forces do support groups that commit acts of terrorism in line with Iran’s foreign policy objectives.
11 ISIS is the most contemporary example, but the finite vs. infinite clash can also be demonstrated with AQ core and other terrorist groups.
15 See How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns
16 AQI became ISIS in 2007.
17 See Brian H. Fishman in The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory
18 This estimate is from retired LTC, Craig Whiteside, cited in # 17.
20 U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003, the subsequent withdrawal in 2011, etc.
21 The audio was released in August 2018 before the https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-45277322
24 Frank Gardner — BBC- https://www.bbc.com/news/world-53156096
26 See Martha Crenshaw, Audrey Kurth Kronin, and others.
John Arias works at a major U.S. consulting firm and holds an MA in International Relations with a focus on terrorism and political violence.