I imagine that there are a lot of people – academics, analysts, former practitioners, etc. – weighing in on what the 20th anniversary of 9/11 means. We often see nice round numbers (10, 20, 50 years later) as significant milestones worthy of not only commemorating but analyzing what lessons have been learned. This is especially important when it comes to the largest single act of terrorism in world history, an event we all hope never is superseded.
For the purposes of this op-ed I would like to focus on a few items, both looking back as well as gazing forward. My views are that of a former (retired) Canadian intelligence analyst who spent more than 32 years in SIGINT (for CSE) and HUMINT (for CSIS), with the latter focus on counterterrorism. It is worth noting that 9/11 did lead to an important shift in my career in intelligence, a shift that has continued to this day. Six books on terrorism later it is time to weigh in on a number of things
First and foremost, the biggest error we in the West committed in the days following 9/11 was to frame counterterrorism as the “War on Terrorism,” i.e. seeing terrorism through a military lens. Some may say that the word ‘war’ is used as a metaphor for lots of social ills – the war on cancer, the war on poverty, etc. – but in this instance the metaphor is literal. We decided that the best way to deal with terrorism and terrorists was with a military response, hence the decision by the U.S. and its NATO allies (including Canada) to go into Afghanistan in October 2001, the U.S. decision to invade and occupy Iraq, and other lesser-noticed military engagements (Somalia 2005, France in the Sahel in the 2010s, and so on).
While it is not correct to say that there is NO role for the military in counterterrorism operations it should be quite clear by now that this is not a panacea. Despite 20 years of boots on the ground – and in the air – in Afghanistan terrorism is rampant in that nation. The Taliban takeover of the country over the past few weeks demonstrates quite well that the two decades of U.S. and allied military actions did not ‘destroy’ the terrorist group (quite the opposite, actually).
Despite these lessons learned we are still seeing moves to use military forces to engage terrorists: in the Sahel, in Somalia (15 years and counting), in Mozambique and elsewhere. In light of the limited successes to date a reasonable person would ask why we keep going back to that solution. Didn’t a wise man (Albert Einstein) once describe “crazy behavior” as doing the same thing in the exact same way while expecting different results?
My personal biases aside it does stand to reason that counterterrorism is primarily a security intelligence/law enforcement prerogative, at least when it comes to identifying and neutralizing threats, and a more general one for civil society in identifying and preventing the conditions under which terrorism flourishes. That was what counterterrorism was before 9/11 and we would be smart to go back to the model today.
Another mistake we have made is to see terrorism as an existential threat when it is nothing like that. Aside from a few nations where violent extremists have actually assumed power, such as in Afghanistan, terrorism is a blip on the radar. As I noted in my most recent book The Peaceable Kingdom? A history of terrorism in Canada from Confederation to the present, we can count on the fingers of two – okay, maybe three or four – hands the number of successful terrorist attacks north of the 49th parallel. That equates to a maximum of one attack every SEVEN YEARS: how ‘existential’ is that?
By according far too much importance and influence to terrorists and their organizations we do their job for them. Our over-emphasized fears feed their propaganda machines and make them look attractive to those who may seek to join them. Is this a good strategy?
In recent years we have also allowed the terrorism narrative to shift to another threat despite the lack of data to justify this move. All anybody wants to talk about is the menace described widely as ‘right-wing’ – often abbreviated to RWE (right-wing extremism). This dog’s breakfast of actors (white supremacists, white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis, even violent incels) constitutes a group with few commonly held tenets, at least when compared to jihadis, all of which share much of the same doctrine.
“Our over-emphasized fears feed their propaganda machines and make them look attractive to those who may seek to join them”
This change in outlook and attention flies in the face of the facts. When we examine what is happening on a global scale, we see immediately that Islamist terrorists in 2021 are still responsible for 99 percent of all attacks and casualties. Does this warrant a major redeployment of resources? Not to my mind.
Note that I am NOT suggesting there is NO RWE threat: there most certainly is. And yes, security intelligence and law enforcement agencies have had to look at these players more and more, although those advocating this change rarely address the issues of where the women and men to do so are being taken from (it is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul). Furthermore, these agencies also have counter-espionage, foreign interference and cyber threats on their plates. In a world where states have assumed massive amounts of debt because of COVID-19, where will the money to fund more bodies come from?
The events in Afghanistan should serve as a reminder that the jihadi threat is anything but ‘dissipated’. Whether or not the Taliban allow other groups to operate in their state remains to be seen – as does the possibility of a whole new wave of ‘foreign fighters’ – but we must acknowledge that Islamist terrorism continues to pose BY FAR the single greatest terrorist threat.
When we add in the non-destruction of ISIS – Kurdish authorities recently reported that the terrorist group has launched 4,887 attacks in 4 years in the area around Kirkuk or three a DAY – as well as the flourishing of several ISIS ‘affiliates’ in Africa and Asia, and other Islamist groups around the world, it should be beyond doubt that the days of these actors are not numbered. We will not see a ‘Rapoportization’ of Islamist terrorism (David Rapoport’s ‘wave theory of terrorism’ demonstrated that larger terrorist ‘themes’ had a 30-40 year lifespan on average: jihadis are into at least decade five and going strong).
What then to take away from this solemn anniversary? Terrorism is a social phenomenon with roots deep in human history and unlikely to disappear. Our responses need to be commensurate with the actual level of danger and not knee-jerk reactions to events, even ones as massive as 9/11. And, finally, we must ensure that the proper individuals and agencies/organizations are allowed to assume the lion’s share of counterterrorism efforts.
Twenty years later our record on dealing with terrorism is mixed. We can do better.