Has the ‘War on Terror’ Been an Effective Response to Counter the Threat of Terrorism?

Few would dare contest the enormous impact the events of September 11th 2001 had on the world of terrorism. As a result of the ‘wickedness and awesome cruelty’ demonstrated that day, counter-terrorism has split into two distinct categories of thought, ‘September 10 thinking’ and ‘September 12 thinking’, with the ‘war on terror’ or ‘Global War on Terrorism’ (GWOT) coming to encapsulate the latter (Crelinsten, 2013; Fisk, 2001; Schmid, 2004). The term was born out of George W. Bush’s now infamous speech to the American people and Congress on September 20th in which he said ‘our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there, it will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated’ (Guardian, 2001). This sentence alone signalled the beginning of a new era of counter-terrorism based predominantly around proactive counter-terrorism involving a heavy emphasis on the military and mass surveillance (Sandler, 2011). This essay will primarily cover three key aspects of the GWOT, these being military intervention, surveillance and detainment, in order to assess whether the $1.7 Trillion (1,700,000,000,000) US taxpayers alone spent on the war effort has been successful (Forbes, 2015).

Terrorism as a concept is incredibly nuanced, with its definition being almost impossible to decide upon. The United States department of defence defines terrorism as ‘the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inoculate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological’ (Dziegielewski & Sumner 2004). This is, whilst not being widely accepted by all, arguably the most widely used definition at a policy level. Sir Jeremy Greenstock puts forward an interesting view that simply ‘terrorism is terrorism… What looks, smells and kills like terrorism is terrorism’ (Schmid, 2004). Not only is this an intriguing interpretation but also something that makes counter-terrorism easier to define and in many ways test. In direct opposition however, Boaz Ganor argues that such an outlook misses the entire aim of counter-terrorism, saying ‘an objective definition of terrorism is not only possible; it is also indispensable to any serious attempt to combat terrorism’ (Ganor, 2001). Such disparity can be confusing and detracts from the matter in hand, the actual terrorists. If it is unclear how to identify a terrorist, how can it be possible to stop them?

Alex Schmid echoes this sense of confusion, describing the enemy of the GWOT as an ‘abstract generic evil’ and a ‘phantom enemy’ as opposed to the state army or ‘guerrilla formations’ soldiers are trained to fight against (Schmid, 2004). This highlights the fact that the true power and threat of terrorism is largely based around an ideology instead of a standing army as such. The War on Terror, despite being an ‘attractive and a potent rhetorical device’ for galvanising a state against a common evil, runs into the issue that ideology simply cannot be killed by traditional warfare. Tony Blair’s statement that ‘it is a war, if you like, between the civilised world and Fanaticism’ demonstrates the fact that the war on terror can never definitively identify the enemy (Gani & Mathew, 2008). Not only this, but as Audrey Cronin notes, ‘it was a war with no specified end’. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) did not specify an end goal and was followed by a ‘series of continuing resolutions providing open-ended funding, 94 per cent of which went to the Defense Department’. It appears that the GWOT was in many ways an emotional reaction to the acts of 2001, creating a scenario in which ‘Ill-defined ends and means are placing US actions outside of familiar strategic, legal, and moral frameworks for evaluating their pros and cons’ (Cronin, 2013). Due to the fact that many in Muslim countries see the Iraq war in particular as unjust, it has become ‘more difficult for the USA to sustain a meaningful alliance of forces against terrorism which includes Muslim governments (English, 2010). This in turn reduces the United States’ ability to maintain a clear understanding of terrorist activities in the area, thereby depleting their primary proactive counter-terrorist strategy (Crelinsten, 2013).

With such foreign policy strategy one is reminded of the warning Dwight Eisenhower gave on January 17 1961 in which he cautioned against the onset of a ‘military industrial complex’ amongst the countries elite (Weber, n.d.). Turley argues that this complex, which appears more applicable than ever in modern times, is fuelled by a ‘conveniently ambiguous and unseen enemy: the terrorist’ (Turley, 2014). The famous slogan used by Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984 that ‘war is peace’ appears to ring true here, as war ‘eats up the surplus of consumable goods’ and ‘helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that the hierarchical society needs’ (Orwell, 2002). With constant pressure from arms dealers such as Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems along with the Department of Defense to engage in operations against terrorist organisations, it could be argued that perpetual war and resulting ‘perpetual profits for a new and larger complex of business and government interests’ is seen as a priority as opposed to effective counter-terrorism (Sedghi, 2012; Turley, 2014). Combine this with the ‘dubious grounds’ upon which both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were entered, namely the lack of the infamous Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the GWOT strategy appears to be severely flawed (English, 2010). Furthermore, the lack of focus on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also demonstrate that ulterior motives were also at play in the GWOT. The impact especially of Saudi Arabia in the acts of 9/11 is absolutely integral, not least with the fact that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi and Bin Laden himself came from a ‘Saudi elite’ that provided much of the funding for Al-Qaeda. Not only this, but possibly the most significant aspect is Saudi Arabia’s link to both Al Qaeda and ISIS through Wahhabism; a form of Islamic practice that underpins the very ideology of both groups (Cockburn, 2015; Polychroniou, 2015). As taxpayer money is syphoned off to the arms industry to fund a counter-terrorist strategy with no true end goal, it could be argued that safety of citizens is actually getting worse while the true perpetrators are protected by the common interests of arms and oil. Such a discrepancy in focus caused former Pakistan and Afghanistan US special representative Richard C Holbrooke to comment ‘we may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country’ (Gall, 2014)

Along with the actual implementation of proactive counter-terrorist measures designed to eliminate the threat itself, an equally important aspect of such policy is ‘ensuring the continuation of ‘normal’ life’ (Tembo, 2013). Whilst ‘the American people will never recapture their pre-9/11 sense of safety, just as the intrusive security procedures and intelligence collection will never disappear’, ensuring governments are not forced to implement a ‘perpetual crisis atmosphere of hypervigilance, paranoia, and, ultimately, terror’ similar to that of Brussels’ recent military lockdown is crucial (BBC, 2015; Cronin, 2013; Crelinsten, 2013). Along with the infamous war campaign, a second and equally important aspect of the GWOT to assess is the use of surveillance. The successes of mass surveillance carried out as a result of the 2001 Patriot Act are questionable and unfortunately ‘given their first-mover advantage, terrorists will always uncover weaknesses in countermeasures they can then exploit’ (Sandler, 2011). As a result of this, surveillance has changed since 9/11 and ‘rather than look for a single needle in the haystack’ NSA chief Kieth Alexander’s approach is simply ‘let’s collect the whole haystack’ (Nakashima and Warrick, 2013). In this instance, surveillance goes from ‘systematic, routine, and focused attention to personal details for a given purpose’ to bulk data collection in which everyone is monitored (Lyon, 2014). Public opinion about privacy rights are largely a ‘toss up’, but a 2013 Pew Research survey found that 56% of Americans saw NSA phone tracking as ‘an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism’ (Verble, 2014). Even more surprising is the 62% that believe it is ‘more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy’, demonstrating that the ends largely justify the means if the only sacrifice to ‘normal life’ is a lack of privacy (Pew, 2013; Tembo, 2013). As Tembo details, the effectiveness of the GWOT should not be measured purely on the ‘internment or killing of insurgents and/or terrorists’; arguably the most critical aspect of terrorism is the fear that the perpetrators instil in a population (Tembo, 2013). Whilst it may never be known to what extent surveillance truly contributes to the capture of terrorists, the argument could be made that this constant state of hypervigilance itself instils fear in the population that terrorists ultimately strive for.

It is regularly assumed that modern liberal democracies do not engage in torture. However, the GWOT has demonstrated that quite the opposite is true. Avery Gordon attributes this to ‘American exceptionalism’; essentially the belief that the US is ‘inherently more democratic, egalitarian and just society than all others’ (Gordon, 2006). Gordon believes this is a lie, with events in Abu Ghraib and perhaps most notably in Guantanamo bay serving as a stark symbol of the USA’s interrogation strategy and places that continue ‘publicly to undermine US credibility in the War on Terror’ (English, 2010). While the standard rhetoric of the USA is centred around its commitment to spreading democracy and liberty, the now well documented procedures of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib amongst dozens more demonstrates that this promise is not being carried out. Noam Chomsky argues that the war on terror has cemented the United States’ already infamous reputation as a state employing its own terrorist tactics, making it more a war of terror as opposed to a war on terror (Chomsky, 2003). Ultimately, English believes that ‘what we see here is a specific, post-9/11 version of the broader pattern by means of which state response to terrorism can, at times, help to sustain that very terrorism which the state quite rightly wants to extirpate’ (English, 2010). Whilst immediately after a major attack ‘the policymaker’s natural instinct is to lash out against the enemy and to focus maximal state resources on shoring up the government’s primary source of legitimacy, which is the protection of its citizens’, this cannot come at the expense of others’ human rights (Cronin, 2013). In opposition to this however, is Alan Derhowitz who presents the case for using torture as a last resort in the case of a ‘ticking time bomb terrorist’. For Dershowitz, the non-lethal torture of one terrorist is acceptable if it is guaranteed to save 100 lives (Dershowitz, 2002). Such a case is, however, extremely unlikely, with much of the torture in reality being based on largely unreliable sources incentivised to hand over potential terrorists for cash rewards. Richard Wilson believes this abuse has ‘cast a pall of illegitimacy over American justice that will take decades to repair’ while also undermining the security of Americans by ‘undermining legitimacy and cooperation abroad’ (Wilson, 2005). This again demonstrates the way in which the GWOT has severed its ties to the middle east through its largely bullish approach to counter-terror, a key aspect of American foreign policy that appears to be doing more harm than good.

The Global War on Terror is possibly the most controversial policy measure of the 21st century, with the reactions from 9/11 leading the US into two major wars and many other smaller military operations. By the same token, counter-terrorism may be one of the most difficult aspects of modern politics. This being said, as English notes, ‘one can broadly sympathise with the US desire to thwart terrorist violence, while arguing that many features of recent US foreign policy have, in fact, made things more rather than less difficult’ (English, 2010). Sympathy for the difficulty of the US government’s situation especially in the days following the horrific acts of September 11th does not excuse the fact that in many ways the decisions made in the War on Terror have been largely unsuccessful. The US and indeed much of the remaining western world is now presented with a dilemma in which continued war and intervention will only exacerbate already fragile affairs while complete withdrawal will signify a victory on the part of the terrorist organisations. This paradox comes as a direct result of US counter-terrorist strategy since 9/11 that has arguably caused more atrocities than it has prevented. While there is no way of truly knowing how many lives have been saved due to intelligence and surveillance, the effects of the USA’s rampant and brutal intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria largely via drone operation are very much clear. A global war intent on seeking out and eliminating every terrorist threat has arguably done the opposite, creating in many ways the perfect terrorist group. As ISIS continues to gain ground in Syria and neighbouring countries the world of terrorism seems even worse than it was in the wake of 9/11, demonstrating the US counter-terrorist strategy of near perpetual war.


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