Grading the War on Terrorism

Richard A. Falkenrath
Richard A. Falkenrath Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution

January 1, 2006

The following is a review of the book The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon (Henry Holt, 2005)


With the end of the Bush administration coming into view and the threat of terrorism still pressing, there is a real need for a comprehensive reassessment of the U.S.-led “war on terror.” The next administration will need a firm grasp of the nature of the challenge, a precise understanding of its predecessor’s strategy, and a realistic plan for achieving better results.

Fundamental questions remain. In what sense, for example, do the events since the attacks of September 11, 2001, constitute a “war”? Who or what is the enemy? How can one judge success or failure? How serious are the threats to and vulnerabilities of the U.S. homeland, and what should be done to address them? And how should the competing claims of foreign and domestic policies, economic and security interests, and American and foreign sensibilities be reconciled?

There is much to learn from the Bush administration’s record. The administration itself, of course, rarely admits doubt or mistakes. The White House briefing room is not a Catholic church: there is precious little to gain from confession. The pressures of American politics and governance dissuade serving officials from speaking candidly, and so the burden of sustaining serious public debate falls to journalists, pundits, and outside experts.

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon have written a good book about the contemporary terrorist threat and the U.S. government’s efforts to deal with it. That text, The Age of Sacred Terror, was published in 2002. It drew effectively on the authors’ experience as National Security Council staff members under President Bill Clinton and provided genuine insight into al Qaeda, Islamist radicalism, and the bureaucratic politics of counterterrorism during the Clinton administration. The book was widely—and rightly—praised.

Now, Benjamin and Simon have written another book on the same general subject, updating the story through the Bush years. This effort is a disappointment, less a work of scholarship than a polemic.


Benjamin and Simon’s thesis in The Next Attack is that “we are losing” the war on terrorism because of the ignorance, ineptitude, and ideological blinkers of the Bush administration. The authors believe that the unilateralism, provocative rhetoric, and overly aggressive tactics of the Bush team, and most of all the invasion and occupation of Iraq, have fanned the flames of Islamist radicalism around the world and are creating legions of new terrorist enemies. Their argument generally tracks that first put forward by the authors’ former boss, Richard Clarke, in his 2004 book, Against All Enemies. The target audience seems to be readers who already agree with their conclusions. The book contains little new research about or analysis of what has happened or what should be done next.

Certainly, there is plenty to criticize in the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terrorism. Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, slipped away in the winter of 2001-2 and are still at large. Al Qaeda has metastasized from a well-funded, hierarchical organization based within a limited geographic sanctuary into a diffuse global movement and propaganda machine that inspires terrorists of all stripes. Several of the premises for the invasion of Iraq turned out to be false or misleading, and the U.S.-led coalition was unprepared for the massive postwar challenges of occupation, reconstruction, counterinsurgency, and political transformation. Anti-Americanism and radical militancy in the Muslim world seem to have intensified in part because of events in Iraq. The handling of detainees continues to be a grave problem for the United States. President George W. Bush and some of his aides have at times overreached with their rhetoric, such as with calls to “bring it on” or loose talk of “ending states.” Meanwhile, many serious vulnerabilities in the homeland have gone unaddressed; Hurricane Katrina revealed the continuing limitations of federal, state, and local emergency-management capabilities.

Still, if the list of shortcomings is long, so is the list of achievements. A significant portion of the pre-9/11 al Qaeda leadership has been killed or captured. The Taliban has been deposed, a profound political transition is now under way in Afghanistan, and leadership of this effort is being progressively handed off to nato. Saddam Hussein is behind bars, and, despite long odds, a legitimate constitutional and electoral process is under way in Iraq. Saudi Arabia largely routed a dangerous al Qaeda network on its soil through aggressive counterterrorist operations conducted with U.S. assistance after May 2003. The Pakistani security services have demonstrated the ability and willingness to take down al Qaeda operatives in urban settings.

There has also been progress on the home front. The legal and policy impediments to information sharing between U.S. foreign intelligence agencies and domestic law enforcement agencies have been eliminated thanks to the U.S.A. Patriot Act and other laws, court rulings, and policy directives. The National Counterterrorist Center (first known as the Terrorist Threat Integration Center when the president established it in 2003) successfully integrates intelligence from and coordinates operations across multiple agencies. The new Terrorist Screening Center has created a single terrorist watch list for the whole country. The Department of Health and Human Services has stockpiled enough smallpox vaccine for every American and has significantly improved disease surveillance at home and abroad. The new Transportation Security Administration has compelled major improvements in the security of U.S. commercial aviation, reducing airliners’ vulnerability to hijacking. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State have enacted a series of border-security reforms that have made it significantly more difficult for foreign terrorists to enter the country through official points of entry. There is very little evidence that Muslims living in the United States are succumbing to radical militancy. And there have been no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11.

Any fair-minded assessment of the administration’s record would have to compare these lists of shortcomings and achievements, but Benjamin and Simon do not. They start by discussing the evolution of the jihadist threat since 9/11. They focus initially on the apparent new breed of Islamist terrorists, “self-starters” such as the ones who carried out the bombings in Madrid, Casablanca, and London, or the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. They paint a picture of terrorist cells proliferating spontaneously, without any central direction but with common motivations, similar ideologies, and universal access to terrorist how-to guides on the Internet. Theirs is a thoroughly mainstream set of conclusions, purveyed by most outside experts as well as U.S. intelligence analysts and government officials, including President Bush. Benjamin and Simon’s treatment of such issues is fine, but readers looking for a more subtle and original analysis would do well to consult Marc Sageman’s Understanding Terror Networks.

The Next Attack also contains a rambling discussion of “jihad in the age of globalization.” “The most dramatic transformation wrought by Islamization,” the authors argue, “has been to strip away national and ethnic distinctions, so a Jordanian of Bedouin descent from the country’s eastern desert, an Algerian immigrant in a Parisian banlieue, and an Indonesian from Sulawesi now increasingly view themselves as part of a singular community with common interests. Everything else is secondary.” The evidence presented to support this and many other sweeping assertions about the Muslim world is flimsy. In the case of the passage above, for example, the authors refer to a single poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2003, and then they footnote a Pew report entitled “U.S. Image Up Slightly, but Still Negative” that turns out to be on a different subject. The authors presumably meant to cite the center’s “Views of a Changing World.” But this report offers evidence that pan-Islamic religious identification has risen with time, not that religious identification among Muslims has superseded their national or ethnic identities. The Next Attack is riddled with such dubious claims about what is going on in the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world, and with such sloppy documentation.

Recent reports from the Pew Research Center present a considerably more nuanced picture than the one portrayed in The Next Attack. A study from June 2005 states, “Many Muslims see the U.S. supporting democracy in their countries and many of those who are optimists about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East give at least some credit to U.S. policies. But progress for America’s image in these countries is measured in small steps; solid majorities in five predominantly Muslim countries surveyed still express unfavorable views of the United States.” A study from July 2005 notes, “Most Muslim publics are expressing less support for terrorism than in the past. Confidence in Osama bin Laden has declined markedly in some countries and fewer believe suicide bombings that target civilians are justified in the defense of Islam.”

Benjamin and Simon, by contrast, write, “America’s image in the Muslim world has never been more battered, and the jihadist claim that the United States seeks to oppress Muslims has never seemed more plausible—no matter how noble we view our own sacrifices in the liberation of Iraq. There is, as has so often been said, a war of ideas going on, a battle for hearts and minds. Unfortunately, America has wound up on the wrong side.”

The Pew Research Center’s foremost interest is to elucidate; Benjamin and Simon’s is to lambaste.


Benjamin and Simon devote two long chapters to an analysis of the Bush administration’s decision to remove Saddam from power and the administration’s failure to anticipate, prepare for, or manage the aftermath. In so doing, they follow a well-beaten path, adding little to the critiques of authors such as Clarke, James Bamford, Larry Diamond, James Fallows, Seymour Hersh, George Packer, and Bob Woodward.

Benjamin and Simon are convinced that the invasion and occupation of Iraq worsened the terrorist threat to the United States and the entire Western world and that it will continue to do so. In their view, Iraq is providing a base for terrorists to hone their tradecraft and gain operational experience and is supplying a never-ending series of images that intensify worldwide Muslim animosity, feed the al Qaeda propaganda machine, and undermine political support for pro-American policies in key countries around the world. Benjamin and Simon may well turn out to be right. At the moment, however, their view is only a hypothesis: plausible but not proven. It is particularly difficult to evaluate in the context of the trend toward radicalization that began long ago. (The authors’ first book, The Age of Sacred Terror, after all, was written before the invasion of Iraq.)

The publicly available evidence suggests that for now, at least, Iraq is more of a terrorist graveyard than a breeding ground: a bloody, terrible, but faraway free-fire zone to which surviving members of al Qaeda and its allies have traveled to fight the United States and its allies. A significant number of non-Iraqi terrorists have elected to fight there rather than attempt to infiltrate Western societies. Some of them have been killed or captured by coalition or Iraqi forces, and others are being consumed by tactics such as suicide bombings. The perpetrators of the suicide attacks in Amman, Jordan, on November 9, 2005—reportedly Iraqis dispatched by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—appear to have been the first terrorists to have traveled from Iraq to conduct an attack. Many terrorism experts, including Benjamin and Simon, predicted this worrisome development, but few foresaw that such an incident could rally Arab Muslims against radical militancy, as it has in Jordan. The situation in Iraq is a grim and continuing challenge for the United States, but its impact on the threat of Islamist terrorism is not as simple or obvious as Benjamin and Simon’s new book suggests. The net effect of having removed Saddam from power cannot yet be fully known, and all sides of the debate should show greater circumspection.

The sections of The Next Attack dealing with the domestic dimensions of the war on terrorism are superficial. The scattershot chapter on homeland security deals with only a handful of the issues that properly fall under this rubric and with at least one (fissile-material security in Russia) that does not.

The chapter contains many exaggerations, misinterpretations, and errors. “We have done little to … prepare to manage the consequences of such possibilities as a biological or radiological attack,” Benjamin and Simon write. False. “Our approach is like the ‘cult of the offensive’ that permeated the French general staff before World War I.” False again. “The FBI’s attempts to expand its analytical corps have not gotten off the ground.” Once again false. Benjamin and Simon’s claim that a combination of two factors—”the president’s conviction that warfare against radicals in Iraq would obviate the risk of attacks on American homeland soil” and “an array of powerful bureaucratic, ideological, and political hurdles”—”underlay White House opposition to creating a Department of Homeland Security in the winter of 2001 and the spring of 2002” uses a false premise to set up a false conclusion.

The new prescriptions the authors have to offer are thin gruel. Their cursory ten-point plan for improving homeland security, for example, contains only one idea that is not already part of the debate: “control[ling] general aviation and remotely piloted aircraft.”

On the legal aspects of the war on terrorism, Benjamin and Simon reveal a surprising ignorance and disdain. For example, about the six Yemeni Americans arrested in Lackawanna, New York, in September 2002 on charges of supporting terrorism, they write, “The possibility that [the suspects] would be handed over to the Defense Department for internment probably helped convince them to agree to plea bargains on charges of providing material support for terrorists and to years of jail time.” But Benjamin and Simon present no evidence that the defendants believed they might be handed over to the Defense Department as enemy combatants or that U.S. authorities threatened them with such a possibility. (U.S. authorities did not.)

Similarly, Benjamin and Simon write flippantly of the Saudi graduate student Sami Omar al-Hussayen, who was charged in March 2002 with raising funds for terrorist organizations and managing Web sites that supported terrorism: “Though at trial the jury decided that he was guilty only of committing free speech, his acquittal was soon followed by his deportation for immigration violations, presumably because of the effect his free speech might have in radicalizing American Muslims.” In fact, Hussayen was deported because the government believed that he had fraudulently obtained a visa and was thus in the country illegally; rather than remain in custody while the case wound its way through the courts, Hussayen consented to voluntary deportation to Saudi Arabia.

There are many serious issues regarding the construction, interpretation, and enforcement of U.S. counterterrorism laws, but The Next Attack sheds no light on them.


Criticizing the government is easy; doing so constructively is not. Useful policy prescriptions set out proposals that offer a better chance of achieving desired objectives while being both practical and politically feasible. Advancing them requires an analyst to take seriously the pressures and constraints that policymakers face, as well as the complexity and interrelationships of the issues they confront.

Take, for example, the question of whether administration officials should continue to speak of a “war on terror.” The phrase clearly does not play well with foreign audiences: it gives them the incorrect impression that for the U.S. government, military action is a first, rather than a last, resort, and it is vague enough to encompass virtually any particular objective of U.S. policy. But it plays very well at home: speechwriters and political strategists like the toughness and vigor it conveys; any politician who shies away from it risks being charged with weakness. National security experts need to develop a case for shifting the object from “terror” to “Islamist radicalism” and for deemphasizing martial terminology and images—a case that is so thorough, objective, and compelling that it will help persuade politicians to do something that is inexpedient for them but good for the country.

Also consider the question of how to relate U.S. immigration law and policy to counterterrorism. It is true that in the course of various domestic enforcement actions taken after 9/11, Muslims have disproportionately borne the brunt of a highly disadvantageous legal process. But it is also true that 9/11 has made the U.S. government highly risk averse and has created the expectation that law enforcement agencies will prevent attacks, not just investigate them after they occur. For long- and well-established reasons, immigration law grants the executive branch great flexibility in questioning, temporarily detaining, and deporting noncitizens who are suspected of having violated the extraordinarily complicated immigration code. Furthermore, immigration officials, prosecutors, and judges have relatively little discretion to not enforce the law once a noncompliant person comes to their attention. Hence the dilemma: the most effective body of law for heading off foreign terrorist threats at home is also fundamentally capricious, a true nightmare for anyone unlucky enough to be ensnared by it and thus yet another obstacle to winning over the hearts and minds of Muslims at home and abroad. To help policymakers resolve this dilemma, independent experts need to wade far enough into this legal, institutional, operational, and political thicket to point a realistic way out.

Finally, consider Iraq. American men and women are dying there almost every day; mind-numbing sums of U.S. taxpayers’ money are being spent; terrorist and insurgent attacks may be worsening and spreading internationally; the Iraqi people and independent Iraqi leaders display little gratitude for U.S. efforts; and domestic support for the U.S. presence is in decline. What is most needed now is not another rehashing of the administration’s past actions, but a serious and forward-looking discussion. Should the United States “see the job through” at any cost, or is there a level of casualties and financial expenditure at which it should cap its losses? Should the United States deploy more U.S. soldiers to speed the pacification of the insurgency, or reduce their numbers to help normalize Iraqi politics and deprive the terrorists and insurgents of their most potent rallying cry?

Given their past government service and earlier writings, it is clear that Benjamin and Simon know these are the sorts of questions that truly need to be asked and answered. Unfortunately, their latest book does not rise to the challenge.