Terror vs. Terror: The Global War on Terrorism… 15 Years and Counting

On September 11, 2001, nineteen men hijacked four passenger jets and carried out attacks that killed almost 3,000 people in the United States, demonstrating the vulnerability of powerful nations to massive attacks by small groups of violent extremists. This shocking example of “asymmetric warfare” between powerful nations and sub-national adversaries was an appropriate wake-up call for a nation seemingly inured to its vulnerability to mass political violence within its borders. But rather than waiting for a full accounting of the facts surrounding the attacks and for a debate of all reasonable responses to them, the U.S.-led coalition chose to respond to the violence with more violence - massive military retaliation framed as a “Global War on Terrorism” (GWOT).


On September 11, 2016, although most Americans and virtually all global media will appropriately “remember” the tragic day fifteen years earlier, few will pause to analyze the reasons for the attacks and the “effectiveness” of the world war that has ensued. Even fewer will perform a dispassionate “cost/benefit” analysis of the GWOT, both from strategic and ethical standpoints. In contrast, I argue that the US-led counterterrorist strategy initiated by the Bush administration and largely preserved by Obama’s should be reexamined because it has been shown to be largely ineffective in reducing the global incidence and lethality of acts of political violence that Western leaders brand “terrorist.”

Since the beginning of the GWOT, terrorist attacks have dramatically increased outside the U.S. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), there have been stunning recent and post-9/11 increases (up to 900% since 2000) in the global number of civilian victims of terrorist attacks perpetrated by non-state actors; in the incidence of such attacks (up 80% from 2013 to 2014, to its highest-ever recorded level); in the global economic costs of “containing” terrorism (ca. $53 billion in 2014, also the highest level ever); in the number of hostages taken by non-state terrorist organizations; in the number of perpetrator fatalities, and in the number of mass-fatality (>100 non-combatant deaths) terrorist incidents (up about 400% since 9/11).

The most frequent perpetrators of non-state terrorist attacks in 2014 were the Islamic State, Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Donetsk People’s Army, and the New People’s Army; and the countries most victimized were Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Somalia, India, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Including 9/11, fewer than 3% of the deaths due to non-state terrorists occurred in the West, mostly victims of lone-wolf perpetrators (except for 9/11). Globally, most victims of terrorism are Muslims.

The realpolitik strategy of waging a global war as cloaked as counterterrorism, put into effect in September 2001 - a decade and a half ago - has not defeated radical Islamism, has resulted in, at minimum, hundreds of thousands of casualties, has led to a global clash between extremist elements within Western and Islamist civilizations, and threatens to escalate to a war of the world in which non-state terrorists and state counter-terrorists may both employ weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, it is clear that the GWOT, as a primarily military effort to defeat al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and to subdue the Taliban and other insurgents, is not succeeding now and is not likely to succeed in “defeating” “Global Terrorism” in the future.

There is an alternative. Social scientific data indicate that the incorporation of official terrorist groups in the political process, combined with the efforts of police and intelligence services to prevent terrorist attacks, result in a success rate (ending terrorist actions) greater than other, more militaristic strategies. So why shouldn’t this primarily nonviolent antiterrorist strategy replace the violent, but unsuccessful counterterrorist strategy of the GWOT?

Antiterrorism is an ethical and possibly effective alternative to the largely unethical and ineffective counterterrorist strategy of the GWOT.

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