We are scoring tactical victories and “winning” every military engagement we have, but we are unfortunately losing the greater war as the al Qaeda ideology is flourishing. ISIS and other similarly themed offshoots continue to prosper, particularly in the growing list of failed and failing states in the Middle East and Africa. Plus, we are never going to be able to get to the point where we can have a decisive win, proclaim victory, take territory, and call it quits on the war on terrorism.
This is going to go on forever.
None of this is to suggest that the tactical victories we’ve accomplished are not worth doing or are somehow unimportant—they are important. The tactical victories against al Qaeda senior leadership have derailed countless terrorist plots that were stopped before the terrorists ever had the chance to launch their attacks against the West. The success of these tactics speak for themselves: No major terrorist attack has been successfully launched against the U.S. from abroad since 9/11.
The intelligence community strategy after 9/11 was to take the fight to them, on their territory, rather than to wait to get attacked again in the United States. By relentlessly attacking every aspect of al Qaeda’s senior leadership, we have kept them on the defense, which has kept them incapable of mounting much offense. We have attacked their financing nodes, their recruiting, training camps, freedom of movement, command and control, communications networks, and yes, through surgical operations, we have also attacked their leadership.
But, our tactical successes against al Qaeda senior leadership notwithstanding, we are missing the bigger questions: Can we really kill our way out of this? Are we capturing and killing terrorists faster than new ones are being created in that endless web of radical madrassas and Muslim clerics?
The first order effects of a Predator shot are immediate, clear, and unambiguous: We see a bad person plotting terrorist attacks against the U.S. and we eliminate that person, and hopefully the threat that they pose dies with him. But it is the second, third, and fourth order effects that are much harder to calculate. Does our current modus operandi ultimately help to counter radical Muslim extremism or are we inadvertently fueling it? That is the million-dollar question.
The US shouldn't take her foot off the gas in the war on terrorism and decelerate the pace of operations against terrorists. On the contrary, She needs to be even more aggressive and resolute, because tactics play a big role in this effort. The tactical efforts have kept us safe over the last 15 years. But, we can’t have another 15 years of all tactics and no strategy.
Who in the U.S. government is working on that piece? Who’s in charge of the messaging that tries to build bridges to the Muslim world? The State Department? The White House? The Department of Homeland Security? The truth is that all of them have some counterterrorism and countering violent extremism element, but the efforts have been unfocused and mostly ineffective around the world. And can we even lead this effort in the U.S. and Europe? Any effort to counter radical extremism that is U.S.-led is going to be viewed with suspicion in Muslim communities as something that is being imposed on them by their Christian and Jewish overlords.
There has been some effort to take on this challenge, and there have been good efforts on de-radicalization in Saudi Arabia, Jordon, and elsewhere. Even Pakistan is trying. In the wake of their taking back Swat from the Taliban in 2009, the Pakistanis created the Sabaoon Center for Rehabilitation in the Swat Valley to de-radicalize young men and to figure out how to re-introduce them to civil society. In 2013, as the commander of Swat, Major General Sanaullah Niazi was in charge of he center, and he showed me around during an August 2013 visit. It was an impressive place, with theological training coupled with vocational training to learn a skill (like small engine repair or furniture making). Unfortunately, Niazi was killed with a terrorist car bomb a couple weeks later.
But despite the risks, the Muslim world is going to have to persevere and to lead this effort on de-radicalization while condemning extremism at every opportunity. That is the only way that it might be effective. We must collectively start to focus to see if we might unwind radical Muslim extremism while preventing more territory from slipping further in the abyss of failed states.
Extremism and the lure of terrorist organizations are strongest when five criteria are met in a country or region: significant economic deprivation, extreme corruption, a feeling of utter powerlessness, no rule of law, and no hope for the future.
We decimated al Qaeda in their home in Pakistan’s troubled Tribal Areas, and we can win this broader war on extremism and terrorism, but only if we get smart and work on the strategy as well as the tactics.