The War on Terror arose from the shock of 9/11. As the smoke was still clearing, President George W. Bush’s government swung into action and embarked upon a campaign against global terrorism—primarily jihadis—that continues today.
Each anniversary of the 9/11 attacks prompts reflections on the war: was it an over-exaggeration? Did it go too far? Was it worth the cost in money and lives?
With an estimated $1.5 trillion spent on fighting Islamic extremists worldwide, are Americans now any safer? Or has the country’s foreign policy only served to create more enemies while fear and political division undermined civil liberties and democracy at home?
The uncertainty that followed the 2001 tragedy was unprecedented. Never had so many Americans been killed in a single terrorist act. It was not immediately clear whether this was a one-off incident or the beginning of a new reality—huge attacks claiming thousands of lives.
This explains, to some extent, what some observers now say was an exaggerated response by the Bush administration. Terrorism against the U.S. was not new, but the scale of 9/11 was. Authorities did not know what would follow—huge bombings, more plane attacks or even the use of weapons of mass destruction.
“Scenarios that had or would have been dismissed on September 10 as far-fetched, on September 12 became operative presumptions,” Brian Michael Jenkins, a counter-terror analyst at the RAND Corporation, told Newsweek.
While the invasion of Afghanistan was backed by dozens of allies, the lines of the conflict have become blurred as American boots have marched across the world to continue—at least nominally—the fight against extremism.
In doing so, U.S. forces found themselves engaged in numerous low-intensity, long-lasting engagements with no clear parameters for victory and no plan of exit.
In other cases, namely the Iraq War, America was distracted from the campaign against jihadis, and its actions ironically created new spaces and fuel for terrorist narratives to flourish and recruit over the long term.
An evolving threat
But rather than the feared “vertical escalation,” as Jenkins described it, the U.S. and its global partners saw a “horizontal escalation” as jihadis’ influence spread further and inspired more attacks, but with lower lethality than feared. ISIS has been the most notable proponent of this method, and its decentralized command structure and online presence influenced multiple lone wolves, even those who have never had any contact with the group.
Such low-intensity or lone-wolf attacks still grab the headlines, but are not comparable to centralized Al-Qaeda operations that characterized the early portion of the War on Terror. Though relatively small-scale efforts have been inflicted upon countries across the Western world, they remain limited in scope and ambition.
Intelligence services in the U.S. and further afield have been highly effective in curbing attacks. Jenkins put the figure at 80 percent of jihadis’ plots in the U.S., though noted it is unlikely every plot would have matured to an attack. “The intelligence cooperation worldwide has improved enormously since 9/11,” he explained.
But the smaller attacks that do succeed sow terror. Indeed, that they can be so random sends the message that no one is safe. The odds of being caught up in an attack are extremely low, but the fear remains nonetheless.
“It’s a matter of alarm,” said Jenkins. He suggested that the idea of what terrorists might achieve is more of a driver than what attackers have done in the past. “The level of terror becomes detached from the level of terrorism,” the expert said.
Whether Americans are safer or not has become the perennial question for politicians, analysts and journalists. But Jenkins believes it misses the mark, suggesting that “we have somehow become a nation of cringing individuals living under the kitchen table.”
“This is a contest, it is a violent contest,” and one that will necessarily pose a threat to the safety of Americans, Jenkins noted. That said, he argued American levels of apprehension remain high, even though the level of jihadi terrorism since 9/11 has been “remarkably low.”
Since 2001, just over 100 people have been killed by such acts, 49 of which died in a single incident at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016. “That’s not going to bring down the republic,” Jenkins said, “and yet it’s achieving this much greater effect of creating alarm and contributing to the divisions in this country.”
The U.S. is no stranger to terrorism. In the 1970s for example, there were hundreds of bombings by groups such as the Weather Underground, the World Liberation Front, Puerto Rican separatists, anti-Castro Cuban extremists and more. Such a level of activity now would be unthinkable.
Fewer than 200 jihadis have either managed to carry out an attack in the U.S. or have been arrested while plotting to do so, Jenkins said. While tragic and challenging, this does not present an existential threat.
Violence across the spectrum
Such actors are far from the only extremists facing the American people. Some are related to single issues, such as animal liberation, environmental activism or anti-abortionism, while others are ethnocentric. Some groups come in the form of white supremacists or anti-Semites, for example, and similar organizations have existed throughout American history. But a highly polarized society magnifies their potential.
Extreme right-wing groups are generally not well organized, despite their recent visibility in the media and endorsements by national political figures. Nonetheless, they are of concern, not least because they offer easy answers to people who consider themselves pushed to society’s fringes by shifting political terrain.
Dealing with right-wing extremists “operating close to a political third rail in this country” offers an entirely different challenge to jihadi groups, Jenkins said. Though Islamic extremists—most of whom are American or moved here at a very young age—remain “the most salient threat,” it is by no means the only long-term test.
“Democracy eats itself in small bites”
An even bigger threat than individual extremist groups looms large. Jenkins suggested the American counterterrorism approach in the last 17 years has laid the foundations for an increasingly repressive society in which political actors could create a tyrannical government.
“What’s going to bring down the republic is the corrosive effects of that fear and alarm, the exploitation by some of fear and alarm to advance political agendas,” Jenkins warned. “If this democracy is going to go down, it’s going to go down by suicide, not by the actions of Al-Qaeda or ISIS.”
“Democracy eats itself in small bites,” he continued, noting that each measure represents a sensible, defensible response to an incident or threat. But if these measures are allowed to become permanent fixtures of the political landscape, they create the baseline for further tyrannical measures.
The emergency counterterrorism powers introduced after 9/11 have been allowed to remain in place. “We’re in an open-ended contest that has gone on for many years, and could easily go on for many more years. There is no notion of a finite undertaking here, and these measures simply pile one on top of another and—over a period of time—fundamentally alter our society,” Jenkins explained.
Terrorism can also act as a condenser of fears, whether they are economic, political or demographic, to corrode the democratic system. Such anxiety can legitimize “some of the darker currents in our history” such as racism and xenophobia, Jenkins said, making it difficult to actually address the societal issues facing the country.
According to Jenkins, the contribution of terror to this equation has the potential to undermine American democracy, a threat far greater than that of the country’s individual extremists.
“We have a rhetoric of division, a rhetoric of fear, a rhetoric of anger,” he added.