As the legacy of September 11, 2001, fades, it is time to reassess the war on terror. The United States has negotiated an Afghan withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, significantly drawn down its military presence in Iraq, and maintains only a small troop contingent in Syria. The grim innovations associated with the war on terror—indefinite detention, black sites, extraordinary renditions, torture, military trials, targeted killings—have for the most part been abandoned, although a small group of prisoners remains at Guantanamo and drones are still deployed to kill terrorism suspects. At the same time, U.S. counterterrorism (CT) operations have increased in Africa.
During this period, homeland security efforts were ramped up quickly but have remained the junior partner in the war on terror. Yet it was no doubt due to the maturation of these efforts that, since September 11, jihadists have successfully infiltrated the United States only once to carry out deadly attacks, when a Saudi aviation student deployed by the Saudi Air Force to a US naval air station in Florida murdered three U.S. sailors in December 2019. According to the FBI, the student had been in contact with al-Qaeda. The greater danger now is posed by self-radicalized individuals at home, the majority of whom are linked to white supremacist movements.
As the external terrorist threat has declined, with U.S. defenses strengthening and insurgents turning their guns on local adversaries, the U.S. has an opportunity to realign its war on terror with the realities of a new strategic dispensation. The policy departures recommended in this paper are intended to thread the needle by reducing the scope and intensity of U.S. CT operations and increasing congressional oversight while retaining an effective capacity for self-defense. Our policy proposals include the following:
• Repeal and Replace the AUMF. The authorization for the use of military force, first signed into law a week after the September 11 attacks and followed in 2002 by a second measure authorizing the use of force against Iraq, is now interpreted as providing widespread authority for the president to wage war. Congress should repeal the 2002 authorization, replace the 2001 authorization with a more narrowly tailored law, and pass a reformed War Powers Act that would preserve the nation’s ability to respond rapidly in a crisis while ensuring congressional and therefore public oversight.
• Reduce Forward Deployed U.S. CT Forces. The focus on counterterrorism in our overall military presence in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia should be reduced and reconstituted offshore, or in friendly countries where it is less likely to become a target of itself. Controlling territory and garrisoning U.S. forces have serious countervailing effects that are often overlooked: the inherent potential for escalation, the contribution of U.S. occupation forces to instability, the exacerbation of civil conflicts where they are deployed, and potential harm to non-combatants. There are also opportunity costs as other, more immediate threats to U.S. interests are neglected, and the reputational risks incurred when civilians are inadvertently injured or killed. These downsides tend to offset the advantages of holding ground.
• Reduce Targeted Killing. Targeted killing should be confined to preempting imminent threats to U.S. persons when no other resolution is feasible. As a means of disabling terrorist organizations, targeted killings have an uneven record and should be reserved only for contingencies when a jihadist group emerges with the determination and capacity to strike the United States, U.S. civilian installations abroad, or U.S. citizens overseas where such operations are feasible.
• Scale Back Partnership Capacity Building. Some of the arrangements the U.S. has made to build the CT capacities of partner countries are valuable, but many are unsuccessful and liable to link the U.S. with corrupt or repressive governments and draw in U.S. forces as combatants rather than as advisers, which engenders an inherent risk of escalation in civil wars of peripheral interest to the United States. Capacity building efforts should continue, but only under close oversight and with full awareness of the risk of mission creep and complicity in human rights violations by partner governments. They should be terminated where they have failed to achieve stated objectives.
The roots of the war on terror extend back well before 2001. It began in earnest during the 1980s, with American responses to attacks by Iranian-backed militants against U.S. installations in Lebanon, the kidnapping and torture of U.S. officers, also in Lebanon, and a 1986 Libyan bombing in Berlin that took two American lives and wounded 79 others. The Libyan attack triggered a U.S. airstrike against one of Muammar al–Gaddafi’s encampments. In a ghastly game of retaliation, Gaddafi ordered the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988, killing 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground.
The U.S. faced renewed attacks in the 1990s by Shiites organized by Iran and by Sunni jihadists—as well as the murder of 168 Americans in Oklahoma City in 1995 by self-designated Christian patriots. The September 11, 2001 tragedies in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. transformed the war on terror, after which it became a pillar of U.S. security policy. Although there had been “extraordinary renditions”—the abduction of terrorist suspects without the knowledge or consent of host governments—before September 11, these subsequently increased sharply. We also saw the creation of black sites, the use of torture, military trials of alleged terrorists, targeted killings, and, of course, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and long military occupations of both countries.
Much of this is now behind us. The black sites are gone, as far as is known. Reports of torture have dwindled, and troop numbers are rapidly diminishing in Afghanistan, from a peak of 100,000 in 2010 to 13,000 in 2020 and to 8,600 this year, assuming the U.S.–Taliban agreement, concluded in February 2020, holds. A relatively small number of U.S. troops remain in Iraq—5,200, down from a 2007 high of 170,300—primarily in training and advisory roles. In Syria, there are thought to be about 500 personnel. Targeted killings still occur, however, even as reports of extraordinary renditions no longer appear in U.S. or foreign media. As spending on the war on terror has decreased, spending on homeland security has ramped up in recent years. International intelligence and law enforcement cooperation have also improved over time. Taken together, these developments—an emphasis on homeland security, intensive intelligence collection, more effective coordination of policing across borders, suppression of core al-Qaeda, combined with changes in jihadist strategy and probably a fair bit of luck—had driven the number of successful attacks by jihadists infiltrating the United States to zero until the morning of December 6, 2019 when a Saudi airman shot and killed three American military personnel at the Pensacola naval air station. This was a revealing exception to a 19-year span free of such tragedies.
The gunman, 2nd Lieutenant Mohammad Saeed Alshamrani, was in the U.S. as a consequence of the close military relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. There is a strong current of anti-Americanism in Saudi Arabia; Bin Laden himself was Saudi. And support for jihad in defense of Muslims perceived to be beleaguered has strong roots in the Kingdom going back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The risk of infiltration by a radicalized Saudi military detailee was long appreciated, but the potential for “green on blue” — a periodic feature for example of NATO-Afghan operations — has been seen as worth the gain. No forward-deployed U.S. forces could have prevented the murders at Pensacola and no defensive framework at home would have been able to block it. The attacker did not emerge from a war zone, but rather from within the ranks of an informal ally, whose own intelligence services evidently failed to detect the perpetrator’s contacts with al-Qaeda operatives. And there is no conceivable military response to this kind of attack unless the plotters are located in a war zone and can be identified and targeted. Otherwise, the response lies in investigatory and forensic work by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. As explained later in this study, the reduced threat of jihadist terrorism does not signify an eternally decisive end to terror attacks. And there will be more of these attacks in the future.
Jihadist ideology and propaganda are still powerful and widely disseminated. The anarchic conditions and sectarian rivalries created by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan sparked a bloodletting; as the U.S. was blocking the infiltration of jihadists, regional states were unable to do so. The violence that characterized the war on terror has likely widened the pool of recruits in countries that became battlefields.
Nearly two decades after the September 11 attacks, the jihadist threat within our borders has devolved to self-radicalized individuals as well as a burgeoning, violent, white supremacist movement. Many U.S. troops and air and naval units remain active in the Middle East, but chiefly as a counterweight to Iran rather than as a bulwark against jihadist terror. A large-scale reduction in the U.S. regional presence will therefore entail a change in U.S. strategy or in the strategic environment.
This paper proposes changes to U.S. policy to better align policy with the reduced threat.