With the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001 soon to arrive, the United States is now engaged in the longest war in its history. Coined by President Bush on the day of 9/11, the term “War on Terror” describes a general conflict against all global Islamist terror groups, especially Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces, and now the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
But the terrorist threat is not confined to overseas. It also comes from domestic jihadists who are inspired by the evil of radical Islam to kill Americans here on the homeland.
The War on Terror began on 9/11 when nearly 3,000 Americans were tragically killed in a series of terrorist attacks here on American soil by 19 members of the radical Islamic terror group Al Qaeda. These radicalized Muslims hijacked four US passenger planes while in flight and intentionally crashed two of the aircraft into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third aircraft targeted the Pentagon in Northern Virginia and the fourth plane, United 93, went down in a field in Pennsylvania, most likely as a result of the heroic efforts of some of the passengers who stormed the Al Qaeda pilots.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the United States well understood the criminal justice system’s inability to deal with ideological-driven terrorists with the ability to recruit tens of thousands of followers across the globe. Consequently, the United States employed a combination of traditional law enforcement tools, such as criminal investigation and federal prosecution, along with the more muscular use of military force applied under the law of war.
As a consequence of these devastating attacks, terrorism became a reality not just in far-off Afghanistan or Iraq, but also here in the United States. While many hoped that the homeland would not suffer follow-on attacks, they were wrong. From the time President Obama took office in 2009, Islamic terrorists have killed 91 people and injured more than 370 on US soil. The latest 2016 attack in Orlando, Florida saw 49 murdered and 53 injured.
And the terrorist threat remains on the rise. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, over 1,000 terrorism cases—in every state across the nation—are currently being investigated. The most significant terrorist threat facing Americans today comes from these jihadists, some inspired by ISIS but others acting alone.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has developed a series of antiterrorism policy and legal initiatives designed to disrupt the Islamic terror organizations and their affiliates in an effort to prevent future terror attacks against the homeland. A wide variety of sweeping changes have been instituted including the passage of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (PATRIOT Act), creation of the Department of Homeland Security, passage of a much strengthened Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, creation of military commissions, and the establishment of a new combatant command, the United States Northern Command, in Colorado.
Strangely, fifteen years later, it is unfortunate that there still remains great public confusion when it comes to comprehending fundamental concepts associated with how the United States should respond to radical Islam. Given that no community in the United States is immune from attack by these fanatics, clear leadership is required to address the true causes and then to develop short and long term solutions. While President George W. Bush often failed to address the underlying religious ideology of jihadists, President Obama has all but ignored it. In today’s politically correct society, those who point out that radical jihadists are motivated by their interpretation of Islam become the subjects of great criticism. While the majority of Muslims do not adhere to the “violent” verses of Islam, it is clear that substantial numbers do and they are a threat to the safety and security of the US homeland.
The first lesson for all Americans in understanding the asymmetric-style warfare employed by terrorist actors is to be alert and to provide information to local law enforcement regarding suspicious activity. Domestic jihadists often attack more than once, whether inspired by a terrorist organization, such ISIS or Al Qaeda, or directed by them. At the end of the day, it is the general public that can provide the best real-time assistance to law enforcement. From the inception of the DHS, it has employed the slogan “If you See Something, Say Something,” which encourages the public to report suspicious behavior.
The second lesson is that one of the underlying goals of the jihadist is to cause fear. As the old Chinese saw goes, the goal of the terrorist is to “kill one and frighten ten thousand.” While it is naive to believe that we can always be successful in stopping jihadists before they strike, we need not give in to fear. For example, it is far more probable that an individual will be killed in a car accident than at the hands of a domestic terrorist. The real danger, of course, is the threat of a jihadist employing a weapon of mass destruction in a populated area.
Finally, moral and strategic clarity must go hand-in-hand in the nation’s fight against radical Islam. Accordingly, achieving victory in war requires three things: (1) identify the enemy; (2) identify the enemy’s center of gravity; and (3) crush them. The first element of identifying the enemy has never been fully explored under President Obama who is notoriously famous for denying even the existence of radical Islam and the jihadist’s lust for world domination. Nevertheless, the United States can make major strides in ending the War on Terror.
In the short term, the full strength of lawful violence should be employed to destroy the current poster children of radical Islam at their physical bases in Iraq and Syria. This means bringing the battle to ISIS, the center of gravity of radical Islam. This also means committing large numbers of boots on the ground, but only for the limited purpose of destroying the enemy, not nation building. Indeed, such a move will go a long way towards achieving the long term strategy of blunting the teachings of radical Islam and thus closing down the “Hitler Youth Camps” that spew out the teachings of radical Islam.
Overall, until the United States defines the enemy for what they are—radical Islamist terrorists—the nation is fighting a losing battle.
Lt. Colonel (US Army, ret.) Jeffrey F. Addicott is a full Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law, San Antonio, Texas. An active duty Army officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps for twenty years, Professor Addicott spent a quarter of his career as the senior legal advisor to the United States Army’s Special Forces.