Are We Winning the War on Terrorism?

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

May 23, 2003

A range of officials have rightly lauded recent progress in the war on terrorism. In his State of the Union address, President Bush declared, “We have the terrorists on the run. We’re keeping them on the run. One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice.” Several months later, Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed, “We are winning the war on terrorism.” Highlighting this progress was the March arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—the most devastating of a series of deaths, arrests, and disruptions that al Qaeda has suffered since the September 11 attacks.

However, the recent bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco indicate that the war on terrorism is far from over. Al Qaeda and the ideology it promulgates remain strong, and the Middle East in particular will remain fertile ground for anti-American radicalism for the foreseeable future. As a result, for years and perhaps decades to come, Americans must be ready to live with the risk of large-scale terrorist violence.

Measuring Success

Successful counter-terrorism is difficult to measure. Unlike a conventional military campaign, there is no enemy capital to capture, army or industrial base to destroy. Even a terrorist organization that is divided and demoralized still has the capability to lash out and kill many innocents. In their open statements to Congress, FBI Director Robert Mueller III, CIA Director George Tenet, and other senior officials have emphasized the number of arrests and disruptions as a way of indicating success. Director Mueller testified that “We have charged over 200 suspected terrorists with crimes,” while Director Tenet noted that, “more than one third of the top al Qaeda leadership identified before the war has been captured or killed.” President Bush himself reportedly keeps a “scorecard” that notes which al Qaeda and Taliban leaders are dead or in custody.

Such a body count approach is appealing because it provides a concrete measure of success and failure. Yet, as we learned in Vietnam, a body count can be misleading because the size of the terrorist cadre is often unknown, and many of those killed or captured are low-level recruits who can easily be replaced. More important, such an approach generally fails to measure accurately the status of the adversary’s morale, recruitment, fundraising, organization, ability to conduct sophisticated attacks, and other vital components. If al Qaeda can still recruit new members, maintain the support for its cadres, fund its operations, sustain its organizational structure, and mount sophisticated operations, the loss of even a Khalid Shaikh Mohammed may have little impact on its overall strength.

It is difficult to obtain data on al Qaeda morale and these other crucial intangibles, and far easier to know which individuals we have removed from the terrorist mix. However, accurately gauging success against a terrorist network like al Qaeda requires doing more than just “looking under the light” of those killed or arrested. From that somewhat broader perspective there are additional successes worth noting, but also looming problems—problems that call into question the prospects for long-term victory in the global war on terrorism.

Progress Against Al Qaeda Leaders

So where does the United States stand with regard to the body count? The total number of those arrested numbers over 3,000, according to DCI Tenet. In March, the United States and its allies scored perhaps their biggest success yet: the capture in Rawalpindi of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 and a key al Qaeda planner and facilitator, the latest in an impressive series of arrests, detentions, and disruptions.

There is no question that this constitutes considerable progress and should be lauded as such. However, it should not obscure remaining tasks. Even within the scope of taking out more names from the al Qaeda organizational chart, much of the senior leadership apparently remains alive, including of course bin Laden himself and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. Not only can these leaders continue to organize and plan, but the failure to kill or capture them bolsters their cause. As terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman explains, “…for bin Laden—like guerrillas and terrorists everywhere—not losing is winning.” As long as these leaders remain alive in the face of a massive worldwide manhunt, they gain stature for their movement through nothing more than successful defiance.

Focusing on a body count of the pre-September 11 al Qaeda leadership also misses a frightening characteristic of al Qaeda: its ability to regenerate. An anonymous Intelligence officer, in the book Through Our Enemies Eyes, notes that in the years before September 11, police and security forces disrupted al Qaeda cells worldwide and arrested many members. These efforts probably saved hundreds if not thousands of lives—but they did not stop al Qaeda.

In addition, al Qaeda is more than a single movement: it is also an organization that seeks to inspire and coordinate other groups and individuals. Even if al Qaeda is taking losses beyond its ability to recuperate, there is still a much broader Islamist movement that is hostile to the United States, seeks to overthrow U.S. allies, and is committed to violence. A proper listing of the al Qaeda roster should also include at the very least senior officials of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Jamaat-e-Islami in southeast Asia, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, and Al Itihaad al Islamiya in Somalia. A more comprehensive list would add Kashmiri groups, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Armed Islamic Group, al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, and other organizations with strong institutional and personal ties to al Qaeda.

The conceptual key is not to see al Qaeda as a terrorist group, but rather as a global insurgency. Unlike, say, the 17 November organization in Greece, al Qaeda cannot be crushed with a few key arrests. Rather, it requires a painstaking and lengthy struggle to take out not only the current leadership, but also the broader organizational structure.

Freedom To Operate

Al Qaeda’s freedom to operate fell dramatically in the first six months after September 11, and has yet to recover. Most apparent was the success of the United States and its Afghan allies in ending al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan. Skeptics regularly contend that such dispersal has little impact since, in the information age, al Qaeda can still use computers and cell phones to plan and organize attacks from anywhere in the world. However, Afghanistan was also a haven for recruitment, training, and planning. Al Qaeda and its supporters sent thousands of radicals to Afghanistan, allowing the group to choose the most skilled and dedicated to help with operations. In addition, in Afghanistan al Qaeda members enjoyed relative immunity from attack, reducing the stress inherent in the life of a radical revolutionary. Now al Qaeda members must be constantly on the run, unable to relax or to vet and train new recruits with the same thoroughness.

A second, less noticeable advance is the worldwide police and intelligence campaign against al Qaeda. Before the attacks, many governments around the world allowed al Qaeda a permissive environment in which to operate. Although these governments generally did not support Islamic radicalism, their own indifference or legal restrictions allowed al Qaeda operatives to recruit, train, and plan with relative impunity.

Today, allied governments’ police and intelligence services are far more aggressive. In Europe and in Asia, security services are far more willing to monitor and act against suspected radicals. DCI Tenet testified on February 11, 2003 that over 100 countries have been involved in the capture and arrest of al Qaeda members. Although we may not have hard evidence to prove it, it seems reasonable to believe that this shift has undoubtedly had an important impact on al Qaeda’s capabilities.

A Surprising Calm

Although incomplete, these impressive advances may explain perhaps the biggest surprise since the September 11 attack: the lack of another mass casualty attack involving Americans. In 2002, al Qaeda or its allies killed 200 people, 19 of whom were American. But this low American body count was a close-run thing. Richard Reid, the so-called “shoebomber,” was thwarted from killing hundreds only by an alert stewardess and his own incompetence. Islamic radicals with links to al Qaeda killed more than 180 people by blowing up a club in Bali. Radicals have killed Americans in Yemen, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Kuwait.

Nevertheless, the predictions of many first-rate terrorism experts that another major attack on U.S. soil was imminent have proven false. This may have been the result of the disruptions to al Qaeda’s command structure in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the organization’s temporary suspension of operations until police and intelligence pressure let up, or just sheer luck. Trumpeting this success would be foolish, as tomorrow may witness massive bloodshed. But even a year and a half of only limited violence—and violence confined to targets overseas—should clearly be counted as an achievement.

Perhaps disturbingly, the Bali attack and recent killings in Kuwait and Yemen can even be portrayed as a sad sort of progress in the effort against al Qaeda. In the past, al Qaeda focused its attacks on symbolic targets linked to the United States, particularly diplomatic and military facilities. The 1998 attacks on U.S. Embassies in Africa and the 2000 attack on USS Cole both indicated an adversary that sought to confront American power head on, and was admired for it. Even the September 11 attacks were against notably symbolic targets, and the attackers’ audacity is unquestionable.

The Bali attack, in contrast, is not the sort of gesture that draws admiration from potential sympathizers. To all but the most zealous or deluded, young Australian tourists are a far lesser foe than American soldiers, diplomats, and financiers. A comparison can be made to the 1997 al-Gamaa al-Islamiya attack on the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt, where they killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians. The attack was roundly condemned, not only by Western governments but by other radical Islamists who viewed it as discrediting their cause. Support for the Gamaa plummeted in Egypt.

In any event, the lack of a major attack against Americans so far should not obscure the fact that al Qaeda and affiliated groups probably remain capable of another major attack. Numerous senior U.S. officials have publicly and repeatedly warned that the United States is at risk of another attack from al Qaeda and that this attack could occur with little warning.

Losing Hearts, Losing Minds

In the short-term, the war against terrorism appears to be going well, but the long-term outlook is far more troubling. Al Qaeda and like-minded groups continue to draw numerous recruits throughout the Middle East and the Islamic world more broadly. The September 11 attacks built on al Qaeda’s past successes, making it clearly the leading anti-American movement in the world. Although it is difficult to get more than an anecdotal sense of al Qaeda’s recruitment, bin Laden himself gloated about their successes in a videotape recorded before the overthrow of the Taliban. A UN report released in December 2002 also noted that al Qaeda continued to attract recruits and raise money successfully.

Even as al Qaeda remains attractive, the United States appears to be failing to win support in the Muslim world. Polls taken before the war with Iraq became imminent suggest that in Jordan, Pakistan, and Egypt—whose governments strongly support the war on terror—popular antipathy toward the United States is particularly intense. Much-touted U.S. efforts at public diplomacy have, so far, made little progress. Indeed, the most egregious and ridiculous conspiracy theories continue to gain more credence than patient U.S. efforts to build support for its policies or demonstrate Presidential commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ironically, U.S. efforts to fight terrorism have resulted in the fostering rather than diminution of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. Washington’s embrace of sordid governments such as the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, its silence regarding Russian brutality in Chechnya, and other distasteful, albeit perhaps necessary, concessions needed to ensure vital cooperation against al Qaeda are paradoxically bolstering al Qaeda’s claims that the United States supports the oppression of Muslims and props up brutal governments.

New Sanctuaries

Meanwhile, another sign of problems on the horizon is the emergence of new Afghanistans, where would-be radicals are able to congregate and form lasting ties. The formative experience for much of al Qaeda’s leadership cadre was their participation in the jihad against the Red Army’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today, a number of other jihads continue without letup. Chechnya remains a bloody standoff, attracting militant Islamists as well as homegrown radicals. Kashmir has died down, but it may soon re-ignite. Xinjiang remains turbulent, and Indonesia may flare up. If the United States mishandles the reconstruction of Iraq, it too might become a new training ground for potential al Qaeda recruits.

An even more troubling development is the discovery of what may be al Qaeda cells in the United States itself. The September 11 hijackers were infiltrators into the United States, taking advantage of permeable U.S. borders to mount their attack. In contrast, the arrests of alleged militants in Lackawanna, Seattle, Detroit, Chicago, Florida, and Portland indicate that Islamic radicalism is appealing to individuals rooted in American communities. The FBI estimates that several hundred militants linked to al Qaeda are now in the United States. This challenge creates tremendous new requirements because it means that the United States must do more than merely protect its borders and correct flawed visa procedures.

No Simple Plan

There are few easy choices in the war on terrorism, and no silver bullets. Several measures, however, will help the United States better posture itself against terrorist groups for the long-term as well as for the coming months. Most obviously, homeland defense must become a true priority. So far, the United States has not fully embraced the range of measures necessary to secure itself more completely. In addition, we must avoid a false sense of complacency. Declarations of victory, even after impressive counterterrorism successes, will only make Americans surprised rather than resolved during the many trials to come.

Public diplomacy in the Middle East also deserves more than lip service. This requires heavy investment in measures that will help woo the next generation of leaders and improve America’s image among the many Muslims and Arabs currently suspicious of the United States. To return to the analogy of a global insurgency, to actually defeat al Qaeda will mean winning the hearts and minds of the people in the Islamic world to eliminate al Qaeda’s recruitment and financing base, and make it impossible for its operatives to move and operate in the greater Middle East. This is a much bigger campaign than the war on terrorism has so far embraced, and will require tools—economic, political, and cultural—that the United States has so far only defined but has yet to wield effectively.

No strategy guarantees complete security. The United States and its allies must accept the inevitability of a large, global movement bent on murder as a form of political expression. Ultimate victory, when it comes, will take decades rather than years.

* An expanded version of this memo will appear in the Summer 2003 issue of The National Interest.