The United States Can’t Put Terrorism Behind It

The 9/11 Commission Report is 15 years old—and the issues it raises are more relevant than ever.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security police officer in front of an American flag in Portland, Oregon, on June 4, 2017.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security police officer in front of an American flag in Portland, Oregon, on June 4, 2017. Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Fifteen years after the 9/11 Commission published its findings, for which I was among those interviewed, we find ourselves at yet another critical juncture, with the war against the Islamic State largely won and negotiators attempting to strike a peace agreement with the Taliban. But before we attempt to put the Islamic State in the rearview mirror or agree to terms with the Taliban, we might do well to dust off the old report.

The United States’ desire to put terrorism behind it is natural. The country is understandably exhausted. After 18 years of war, the metrics suggest that terrorist attacks are down. The Islamic State appears defeated, and the Taliban are discussing a pathway to peace. But is the United States done with terrorism, or is the threat regenerating in ways for which the country has not prepared? By some accounting, this past weekend’s shooting in El Paso, Texas, or the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh last October might suggest so. There are no easy answers, but the 9/11 Commission Report raises some points for debate.

The 9/11 Commission Report sought to explain how the attacks of that day could possibly have happened and what was required to avoid such a disaster in the future. Its message was sobering: In order to truly free the United States from the long-term terrorist threat, the country would have to pay a price—one that would impact American lifestyles and span at least a generation.

The report had supporters and detractors on all sides. It is an imperfect document, albeit well-written and emotionally compelling. In seeking accountability and reform, one can argue it did too little regarding the former and too much on the latter, possibly even doing more harm than good in its suggested reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community. But since many of its recommendations were adopted, it remains the United States’ main framework for preventing another such disaster.

The 9/11 Commission Report articulated the need to adopt a preemptive strategy, an approach that was formally recapitulated in the Trump administration’s unclassified October 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism. The commission’s findings were largely focused on denying foreign sanctuary to the United States’ adversaries. “Working through intelligence, law enforcement, military, financial, and diplomatic channels to identify, disrupt, capture, or kill individual terrorists,” the 9/11 Commission offered, “the U.S. government must identify and prioritize actual or potential terrorist sanctuaries. For each, it should have a realistic strategy to keep possible terrorists insecure and on the run, using all elements of national power.”

Noteworthy was the suggestion for a whole-of-government, holistic approach. This strategy guided Washington in its extended commitment to Afghanistan. It also justified the United States’ return to Iraq’s battlefields and foray into Syria after the Islamic State’s unchecked 2014 conquests and the 2015 Paris attacks.

Further, despite suggesting otherwise, both the Trump and Obama administrations have embraced the 9/11 Commission Report’s judgment that locally executed terrorist attacks, horrible as they are, are less of a threat than those attacks directed and resourced from foreign-based terrorist organizations. The 9/11 Commission Report observed that “[t]he 9/11 attack was a complex international operation, the product of years of planning. Bombings like those in Bali in 2003 or Madrid in 2004, while able to take hundreds of lives, can be mounted locally. Their requirements are far more modest in size and complexity. They are more difficult to thwart. But the U.S. government must build the capacities to prevent a 9/11-scale plot from succeeding, and those capabilities will help greatly to cope with lesser but still devastating attacks.”

It is true that the American people are more accepting of the occasional domestic attack by a lone actor or actors than those enabled from abroad by al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or some other organized terrorist group. Domestic attacks against schools, places of worship, workplaces, and increasingly shopping and entertainment venues quickly become discussions of gun control and mental health as opposed to terrorism, regardless of the perpetrator’s motive. That’s despite the fact that domestic “hate crimes” attributed to people with mental illnesses align disturbingly well with the same intent and tactics that the foreign-based Islamist extremist terrorist groups have provided as examples. The political message is that, while tragic, the government cannot be held responsible.

But in settling for degrading overseas terrorist organizations, the United States at best defers their capacity to directly strike American soil. Left on life support, they need only time and opportunity to revive their fortunes. And in their relatively dormant state, their capacity to inspire, guide, and validate homegrown terrorist threats is neglected. Becoming too comfortable with this status quo risks dismissing critical lessons not merely from the post-9/11 experience but also more recently with the Islamic State.

While the United States remains focused on hardening itself against yesterday’s threats, the next generation of terrorists may be learning to make better use of evolving commercial technologies. Artificial intelligence, drones, cyberwarfare, and self-piloted vehicles are but a few tools increasingly available to these enemies.

One can’t wish away the dangers. And the 9/11 Commission suggested a way to stop them: an intelligence war, using all sources of national power—soft, kinetic, legal, diplomatic, and covert, among others. The kinetic tactics focus on removing the right terrorist targets at the right time, whereas the more holistic efforts work to strategically weaken groups at their key leadership levels while simultaneously addressing the ideology that binds them both at home and abroad.

Done right, it’s an approach not exclusively reliant on the extremes of withdrawal or “whack-a-mole.” Rather, it tries to destroy terrorism at its source and target the resources that sustain it and allow it to recruit. The United States employed this strategy between 2008 and 2011, only to trade away its advantages during the ensuing years. It’s not easy, it’s not quick, and it’s not cheap, but it’s the comprehensive theme that resonates throughout the 9/11 Commission Report.

In abandoning this strategy, the United States has also been losing in one key part of the counterterrorism battle: hearts and minds. Influence efforts are hard. But the 9/11 Commission Report’s authors spoke of the need to “engage the struggle of ideas,” acknowledging that “the United States has to help defeat an ideology, not just a group of people, and we must do so under difficult circumstances.” To that end, the 9/11 Commission Report recommended: “The U.S. government must define what the message is, what it stands for. We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors. … It includes respect for the rule of law, openness in discussing differences, and tolerance for opposing points of view.”

The United States has at times vacillated concerning the price it would pay to deny terrorists sanctuary within failed states. It has struggled to likewise develop and stick with a holistic, whole-of-government approach executed in collaboration with international partners. But it seems prudent to have measures beyond trusting the Taliban, Damascus, Ankara, Tehran, and Moscow to do the job, their priorities being the consolidation of their own power and influence.

The United States’ terrorist foes fare better when it comes to patience and in adapting to changes in battle, both those fought with guns and that waged with ideas. But this need not be the case. The United States has time and again proved its toughness and resiliency in the face of threats. Heeding the lessons of the 9/11 Commission Report requires America’s use of all means of national power in a very long game—one that brings a balanced use of surgical operation, soft power, and messaging consistent with its values. The United States can’t afford to forget the lessons of nearly 20 years ago.

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