The Full Circle of Counterterrorism
By Professor Rohan Gunaratna
The 9/11 attacks were a defining event for global extremists and terrorists. Widely considered the most egregious act of international terrorism, it killed almost three thousand people (2,977 victims plus the nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists), injured an estimated twenty-five thousand, and inspired attacks in Bali, Djerba, London, Madrid, and elsewhere. The horror of 9/11 galvanised the world to come together to try to defeat terrorism.
To address the common threat, military forces, law enforcement authorities, and intelligence services built common databases, exchanged personnel, conducted joint training and operations, shared intelligence, technology, expertise, and experience. The driving force behind the effort – the United States – now faces a new set of daunting threats. The counterterrorism response to 9/11 evolved in four waves. First, the US -led coalition in Afghanistan dismantled the Taliban and al-Qaeda infrastructure in 2001, captured 9/11 operational leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003, and killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Dismantling the terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan, where three dozen terror groups were training, prevented countless attacks worldwide. Although the CIA took ten years to find bin Laden, US intelligence efforts targeted and eliminated terrorist leaders time after time. Second, the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 – a fatal mistake. The hollowing out of the Iraqi military and the collapse of the administration led to a civil war, fostering an environment for the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The US drawdown created the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a movement that swept across Iraq and Syria.
Although the Islamic State today is a shadow of what it was in 2015, its ideology and operational entities present a formidable threat to international security and stability. Third, the United States established a dedicated Department of Homeland Security that brought its domestic intelligence and law enforcement entities under one umbrella. It also successfully prevented and pre-empted attacks against the US homeland by fusing threat information and strengthening its counterterrorism capabilities to detect and disrupt threats.
Fourth, the United States spearheaded global counterterrorism programmes by offering training and supporting governments that needed capabilities to fight their domestic and regional threat groups, networks, and cells. It built bridgeheads to penetrate and neutralize threats. The global war on terror was made sustainable. To complement the US guiding search and destroy missions, US partners built capabilities to challenge the quality of terrorist ideology. China’s rise and the Russian annexation of Crimea distracted the United States, however, refocusing it on great power politics.
Now that Afghanistan has fallen again to the Taliban, which hosted al-Qaeda in an uneasy alliance, the revitalization of al-Qaeda is inevitable. Between the return of Taliban and the continued peril posed by the Islamic State, the global threat of terrorism is as bad as or worse than it was twenty years ago. US counterterrorism needs to be resilient. If chaos takes over in Afghanistan, a repeat of 9/11 is likely.
Now, though, United States is no longer the sole counterterrorism force in the world. China and Russia will need to protect their interests from terrorists at home and overseas. US counterterrorism capabilities – despite the failure of Western forces to restore stability and security in Iraq and Afghanistan after two decades and a million deaths and injuries – are ten to twenty years ahead of any other country’s. Today, in terms of responsibility, a greater commitment by other countries, especially the great powers, is vital to stabilising conflict zones and preventing and pre-empting terrorist attacks worldwide.