“The Beirut bombing [October 23, 1983] and its aftermath remain seared in my mind as the beginning of the modern war waged by Islamist radicals against the United States of America. It was one of those rare moments when our country was awakened, however briefly, to the dangers foreign elements could pose to our interests. Another of those moments would occur on a bright September morning in 2001…I watched stunned, as the twin towers of the World Trade Center, symbols of America’s economic strength, were engulfed in smoke and flames.“
Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 elevated global terrorism to the number one security threat in the minds of most Americans. Yet, the 9/11 assaults were not the first such acts against the United States and its interests. American embassies, business firms, military personnel and citizens have been subjected to violence overseas for decades. The rise of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and the use of terror tactics by rogue states like Iran, raised the scale of violence and the death toll, but did not change the fundamentals of this kind of warfare. Terrorism seeks to intimidate; to scare a people and their government into changing policies out of fear. The key to defeating terrorism is to refuse to be terrified and to remain steadfast in national purpose.
Terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Though the casualties of 9/11 were on a par with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was no surge of enemy forces that could capture territory or establish a rival great power as in World War II. Al-Qaeda must be combated because of its lust to kill Americans, but its weakness must also be recognized. Al-Qaeda cannot overrun the United States or overthrow its government; but American forces can do these things to any foreign state or entity that supports al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organization. The balance of power still rests with America.
In reaction to 9/11, the United States called on its NATO allies and others to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban regime that had given support to al-Qaeda. Nine years later, coalition forces are still there. The goal is to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for terrorists. Yet there are dozens of other failed states and rogue regimes around the world that could serve as terrorist sanctuaries, and the U.S. cannot mount a nation-building effort of the cost and duration of the Afghan campaign in all of them. America must find more effective ways to suppress terrorist groups, disrupt their operations and deter or punish governments that support them.
Homeland Security: There must be close cooperation between all government agencies to collect and distribute information regarding terrorist cells, whether operating overseas or within the United States, if plots are to be discovered and attacks prevented. Federal agencies must support and welcome state and local law enforcement cooperation in the common effort to protect the country from foreign threats. Border security must become impenetrable, with no one being able to enter the U.S, without authorization, regulation, and a thorough screening. And increased attention must be paid to countering the efforts of foreign agents to recruit residents to commit terrorist acts, including the close monitoring of international communications.
Overseas Counter-Terrorism: The United States should provide aid and training to foreign governments who are the first line of defense against the creation and operation of terrorist cells. Soldiers, police and administrators drawn from the local population are better at combating terrorism because they possess the necessary knowledge of the people, language, and culture. Foreign governments must also be held accountable for maintaining control of their land and preventing its use as a staging area for attacks on American citizens, assets or interests.
Punitive Expeditions:The U.S. must be prepared to retaliate or pre-empt strikes against American targets by taking action against terrorist groups and any state that supports them. Airstrikes and special operations may be the most common form of such actions, but the U.S. must also be prepared to intervene with major military forces to more thoroughly eradicate a menacing group by destroying its infrastructure, arsenals and leadership. Any collaborating government must also be punished so as to deter future bad behavior. Anyone who provokes the United States must expect to have an unprecedented cataclysm visited upon them.
Avoiding Distractions: The United States should not, however, become so obsessed with terrorist threats that it allows its forces to become bogged down in overseas contingencies of irregular warfare and nation building. Protracted campaigns of this sort are best left to local forces with the U.S. in a supporting role. There are larger threats to the international balance of power coming from ambitious regional powers and rising would-be peer competitors that must be met by robust, high-end American capabilities. Nothing would please terrorists more than if their pinpricks weakened or distracted the U.S. to the point where it lost its Superpower status in global politics.
ON THE WEB
- Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
- Al-QA’IDA’S Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records