The Myth of the Terrorist Safe Haven

A pernicious and persistent theory that America’s enemies flourish in foreign sanctuaries -- and that only military means can rout them -- has led us abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

taliban crop
taliban crop

In the U.S. military planning process, the need to develop, test, and finish operational plans in a timely manner requires -- in the absence of clarifying information -- making assumptions.

In the U.S. military planning process, the need to develop, test, and finish operational plans in a timely manner requires — in the absence of clarifying information — making assumptions.

What’s an “assumption,” then? Well, the military defines it as: “A supposition on the current situation or a presupposition on the future course of events, either or both assumed to be true in the absence of positive proof, necessary to enable the commander in the process of planning to complete an estimate of the situation and make a decision.” This refers to temporary gaps in knowledge that intelligence analysts will (hopefully) fill in and validate before the operation commences, such as overhead imagery maps of road and bridge networks or updated enemy force-structure estimates. Planners and commanders recognize the risks of relying on untested assumptions, but they nevertheless do so to provide sequenced guidance for forces in the field in an expeditious manner.

I’m sure you’re shocked, shocked! to hear it, but assumptions are also present in U.S. officials’ and policymakers’ thinking about foreign-policy challenges. This is most apparent with the widely agreed-upon assumption underlying counterterrorism strategies over the past 13 years: Terrorists need safe havens to plan international terrorist attacks. This supposition is attractive because it whittles a complex problem set down to a clear mission that, not coincidentally, can be countered by U.S. intelligence and military capabilities. However, this simplifies a far more complex problem of terrorist violence, ignoring other factors that were overlooked prior to the 9/11 attacks, such as homeland-security intelligence collection and sharing discrepancies. Subsequently, this assumption has driven much U.S. foreign and military policy since 9/11, yet it remains wholly untested.

The main lesson of 9/11, according to George W. Bush’s administration, was that it is necessary for terrorists to “have a safe haven to plan and launch attacks on America and other civilized nations.” This thinking was similarly adopted by Barack Obama’s administration in its 2010 National Security Strategy: “We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa’ida and its affiliates through a comprehensive strategy that denies them safe haven.” And in September 2014, Obama highlighted its prevalence when he articulated the “core principle” of his presidency: “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

The need to destroy safe havens — defined by the U.S. State Department as an “area of relative security exploited by terrorists to indoctrinate, recruit, coalesce, train, and regroup, as well as prepare and support their operations” — was the premise for the war in Afghanistan and for the expansion of drone operations into Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Most recently, it has underlined the rationale for initiating an open-ended war to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. Although Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has emphasized since September that the Islamic State poses no credible threat to the U.S. homeland, policymakers continue to conflate the group’s relative safe haven with its ability to conduct international attacks. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed, “These fighters can exploit [the Islamic State’s] safe haven to plan, coordinate, and carry out attacks against the United States and Europe.” Similarly, Nicholas Rasmussen, now director of the National Counterterrorism Center, contended that a safe haven would allow the Islamic State “to bring additional Western potential operatives into Iraq or Syria, into that safe haven, and potentially train, equip, and deploy them back out to Europe and the United States.”

Given that the United States is over 13 years into this campaign and that the size of foreign terrorist organizations that the United States is at war with has grown or stayed the same size, it is well past time to test the truth and wisdom behind the safe-haven assumption. Spoiler alert: The support for its universal acceptance simply is not there.

An overreliance on the myth of 9/11

It is an accepted fact in Washington that the lesson of 9/11 is that the relative safety that Osama bin Laden and his senior aides enjoyed in southern Afghanistan resulted in the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. However, this limited understanding ignores other facts that are just as important, if not more relevant today.

Among the forgotten reasons that the catastrophic terrorism was able to occur were glaring deficiencies in U.S. homeland and intelligence policies. For example, the 9/11 hijackers passed undetected through border security 68 times and operated freely in nine states. According to the 9/11 Commission’s report, policies and misunderstanding “blocked the arteries of information sharing” between the CIA and FBI, a consequence of which was that the FBI was not informed by the CIA that it was watching one of the hijackers who had a visa. Commercial aviation security was abysmal: The Office of Special Counsel’s investigation into a whistleblower suit filed by Bogdan Dzakovic, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) red-team leader, found that FAA officials ignored and “grossly mismanaged” the red team and the many security lapses it uncovered before 9/11. This negligence made America needlessly vulnerable, and these shortcomings have all been addressed to varying degrees through new legislation, funding, and a massive expansion of America’s homeland-security and intelligence infrastructure.

As Stanford University professor Amy Zegart determined through her careful reading of pre-9/11 government documents, the CIA and FBI collectively missed 23 opportunities to potentially disrupt the 9/11 plot. Although the loopholes al Qaeda utilized are now far less susceptible to such exploitation, policymakers continue to rely on the safe-haven assumption when the causation, sources, and enabling factors of post-9/11 international terrorism portray a vastly more different and complex problem.

Core al Qaeda — the ultimate perpetrators of 9/11 — has not conducted another attack against the homeland. More broadly, it is overlooked that other terrorist groups based in safe havens have accounted for only 1 percent of terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for just two out of more than 200 attacks, neither of which resulted in any deaths. And only six of 60 publicly documented, uncovered plots by international terrorist organizations against the United States since 9/11 were directly linked to al Qaeda — either operatives communicated with or the plot was orchestrated by senior leadership.

Of course, the threat to Americans is different where such post-9/11 security protections are not in place — particularly in safe-haven countries. However, according to the State Department and Global Terrorism Database, of the 335 Americans who have died from terrorism since 9/11, 268, or 80 percent, died within Iraq or Afghanistan — the very places where the United States started wars to prevent or destroy safe havens. It’s tragic but unsurprising that these contractors, development workers, and journalists operating bravely in war zones face severely heightened risks to their personal safety. Before Afghanistan became a combat zone, no Americans were killed by acts of terrorism in the country. In fact, in 2000, only 19 Americans were killed by international terrorism — 17 in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, 1 in West Timor, and 1 in Sierra Leone. Similarly, after the United States declared war on Iraq in 2003, deaths of Americans in the country multiplied by nearly eight times — increasing from eight to 63. The high rates of American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are less a result of a safe haven, which existed long before U.S. military operations, and more a result of combat.

Comparatively, only 15 Americans have been killed while living or working in State Department-designated safe-haven countries — Yemen (4), Pakistan (3), Algeria (3), Lebanon (2), Indonesia (2), and Somalia (1) — while 35 Americans were killed elsewhere. The 13-year-long myth that 9/11 occurred exclusively because of the Afghan safe haven has constricted U.S. officials’ ability to subjectively evaluate the realities of international terrorist threats to Americans.

Mischaracterized sources of terrorist threats

The recent mass shooting at Charlie Hebdo magazine’s office in Paris and the alleged foiled plot against the U.S. Capitol by Ohio resident and apparent Islamic State-supporter Christopher Cornell expose a growing shift in the sources of terrorist threats against the West — away from al Qaeda operatives toward homegrown, or self-radicalized, lone wolves. In fact, the primary threat against the homeland emanates from within: Americans, themselves, have been responsible for 50 percent of plots and attacks against the United States since 9/11, followed by Brits at 21 percent. If anywhere is a safe haven for terrorism against the United States, it is America.

Moreover, when attempting the inherently difficult task of uncovering these lone wolves’ motivations, it turns out that the very U.S. wars and counterterrorism operations intended to deny terrorists a safe haven motivates Americans to become terrorists. Ali Muhammad Brown, accused of killing four men in Washington and New Jersey, described his murder of 19-year-old Brendan Tevlin as an act of “vengeance” for the U.S. military operations in the Middle East: “All these lives are taken every single day by America, by this government. So a life for a life.” In short, bombing them there makes it more likely that those here will resort to bombing.

Although there have been four successful jihadi terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 — all homegrown — only 17 of the 51 Americans killed by terrorism in the United States died in those attacks. Despite the fact that none of the perpetrators sought training abroad in safe havens, policymakers have attempted to tie these homegrown threats to foreign sanctuaries. On Jan. 11, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder agreed with an interviewer who asked him whether the United States is in a phase of terrorism in which “these homegrown terrorists … go to other places, get training, then come back to their home country and carry out these attacks.” But this claim mischaracterizes the relationship between safe havens and homegrown threats. Of the 63 jihadi terrorist plots or attacks against the U.S. homeland between 9/11 and 2012, perpetrators of just eight of them traveled abroad to safe havens; the other two who went abroad traveled to Saudi Arabia and Canada.

Intentionally overlooked forms of terrorism

Some terroristic acts are not categorized by the United States as terrorism unless they are directly linked to a foreign terrorist organization, and they are therefore frequently excluded from policy discussions. Coincidentally, evidence that contradicts the safe-haven theory is overlooked. While the Islamic State’s beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were undeniably considered acts of terrorism, Alton Nolen’s beheading of a co-worker and Isaiah Marin’s near beheading and murder of a college student, both in Oklahoma weeks later, were not considered as such.* Had the perpetrators been Muslim, it’s likely the term “terrorism” would have been used widely by media and law enforcement officials attempting to make a connection to terrorist organizations abroad. In another example, religious extremist Larry McQuilliams’s firing of more than 100 rounds at the Mexican Consulate, a U.S. courthouse, and police headquarters in Austin, Texas, was framed as “violent anti-government behavior” by the local police department. While the overseeing police chief described him as a “homegrown American extremist” and “terrorist,” the media refrained from categorizing it as terrorism.

Other instances of domestic terrorism labeled by the FBI as “hate crimes” killed 84 Americans between 2002 and 2012: for example, Frazier Glenn Miller’s murder of a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather at a Jewish community center in April 2014 and Wade Michael Page’s rampage at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that killed six.* Similarly, mass killings, defined as having four or more victims, are generally not categorized as terrorism by the federal government unless they are motivated by Islamic extremism. Since 2006, there have been more than 300 mass killings — including the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, and the 2013 Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C. And since 9/11, more than 112,000 Americans have been murdered with guns. The semantic difference between traditional domestic acts of terrorism — “hate crimes,” “mass murders,” or simply “murder” — and foreign-inspired acts of terrorism, by its very nature, leads the United States to look abroad for solutions to “terrorism.”

The assumption that international terrorism against the United States requires a safe haven necessitates immediate and in-depth study. It’s easy to imagine a bearded plotter in a cave halfway around the world dreaming up dastardly plans to blow up the White House. But the causation of terrorist violence, its sources, and its enabling factors are far more complex than solely the existence of a safe haven — itself a relative concept often categorized as being a binary either-or. Not only has online coordination diminished the importance of safe havens to a terrorist organization’s ability to undertake international attacks, but evidence of the true threat of terrorism to Americans suggests that a hotel room in Hoboken can be just as much a safe haven as a hut in Helmand — and more dangerous too, given the proximity to American targets.

Officials and policymakers have oversubscribed to the safe-haven assumption for too long and have developed policy responses accordingly — and the costs and consequences have been tremendous. Denying safe havens in Iraq and Afghanistan took nearly 7,000 American lives at an eventual estimated cost of $4 trillion to $6 trillion. These officials and policymakers overwhelmingly supported these military operations because they based them on a selective, and flawed, understanding of what factors enabled the terrorist attacks to occur on 9/11. Now, over five months into a war against the Islamic State that is rationalized on the premise of safe-haven denial, the United States is unquestionably pursuing the same costly policies that have achieved so little since then.

*Clarification, Jan. 26, 2015: Alton Nolen’s beheading of a co-worker occurred Sept. 25, 2014, and Isaiah Marin’s near beheading and murder of a college student occurred Oct. 29, 2014 — both several weeks after the beheadings of James Foley on Aug. 19, 2014, and Steven Sotloff on Sept. 2, 2014. An earlier version of this article said Nolen’s and Marin’s violent acts occurred in the month following the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff. (Return to reading.)

*Clarification, Jan. 26, 2015: Frazier Glenn Miller is the name of the man charged in the killings at a Jewish community center in April 2014. An earlier version of this article said his last name was “Cross,” another name he uses. (Return to reading.)

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans. Twitter: @MicahZenko

Amelia Mae Wolf is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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