The ill-named ‘war on terrorism’ is not going well

The title of this blog is biased, of that there is no doubt. This offering is also perhaps not really necessary as Rowman and Littlefield have just published my 4th book, An End to the War on Terrorism, in which I have a much longer discussion on the premise of this much shorter piece.  So if you want a more detailed look on why the framing of counter terrorism since 9/11 (at least, perhaps even before) through the prism of war is wrong I recommend you read my book.  If you are not so inclined, maybe this blog will either provide you with some reasons or spur you to buy the longer tome.

Why, then, after having written 150 detailed pages on this topic do I feel the need to put fingers to keyboard yet again on this topic?   Well, I was struck by a recent piece in the New York Times on a recent study by the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies entitled The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat (you can read the whole report here or the NYT summary here).  As an aside, the Center for Strategic and International Studies is known of course as CSIS, which happens to be the same acronym for where I toiled for 15 years: the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.  Whenever I traveled in the US I had to be careful to distinguish the two as the thinktank was always people’s first choice as to what CSIS stood for.

Here are some salient excerpts from the NYT article penned by Eric Schmitt:

  • Nearly four times as many Sunni Islamic militants are operating around the world today as on Sept. 11, 2001, despite nearly two decades of American-led campaigns to combat Al Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State (IS).
  • There are as many as many as 230,000 (!) Salafi jihadist fighters in nearly 70 countries, with the largest numbers in Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • The West has largely failed to address the root causes of terrorism that perpetuate seemingly endless waves of fighters who are increasingly turning to armed drones, artificial intelligence and encrypted communications to foil the allies’ conventional military superiority
  • The slow pace of reconstruction in Iraqi cities like Ramadi, Falluja and Mosul — once controlled by IS — has angered residents in those Sunni-majority areas and made them more susceptible to militant entreaties.
  • “The good news is that there has not been an attack anywhere near the scale of 9/11 in the US since that day, a significant achievement…the bad news is that the ideology that leads someone to fly a plane into a building or drive a car into a crowded sidewalk seems to have metastasized.”
  • The US will have spent $5.9 trillion on activities related to the global counterterrorism campaign by October 2019.
  • The countries with the highest number of fighters this year are Syria (43,650 to 70,550), Afghanistan (27,000 to 64,060), Pakistan (17,900 to 39,540), Iraq (10,000 to 15,000), Nigeria (3,450 to 6,900) and Somalia (3,095 to 7,240), the report said.
  • IS remains the predominant threat, with as many as about 40,000 members globally this year, up from 30,200 in 2014, when the group’s fighters seized the northern third of Iraq.
  • IS attacks in the West have fallen sharply in 2018 compared with the previous four years, the first time the number has fallen since 2014. But the number of attempted attacks remained steady, suggesting that the group remains committed to carrying out devastating harm.
  • Tens of thousands of IS members — including senior leaders, veteran field commanders and foreign fighters — have been killed in United States airstrikes and partner actions. The extremist group now holds less than 1 percent of the territory it seized in Iraq and Syria in 2014, or about half the area of Manhattan.
  • “Americans should understand that terrorism won’t end,” the report concluded, “even though the terrorism threat may ebb and flow.”

Wow!  I hate to be a Debbie Downer on a Sunday, but there is very little to celebrate in this report.  Even our successes against IS are tempered with cautionary statements.  This is not a good piece of news folks.

So, what do we draw from it?  I think one lesson is key – and obvious.  We really, really, really, really, really have to stop seeing counter terrorism as war.  This approach has been so clearly a failure that I now question the qualifications of those who maintain its continuation.  If the ‘war on terrorism’ strategy were submitted to West Point as a thesis it would receive an ‘F’.

No, we have to keep telling ourselves that a multi-pronged plan is what is required, everything from early intervention, alternative narratives, getting social media companies to take down terrorist material, allowing our security and law enforcement services to do their jobs, and rarely getting the military to play a role (like the bin Laden takedown).  And get rid of the war analogy.

Gee, maybe you should have a read of my latest book, all modesty aside.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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