Review

How the United States Terrorized Itself

“Reign of Terror” is an important, heated look at America’s post-9/11 wars.

By , a postdoctoral research fellow at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University
The Pentagon on 9/11
Smoke comes out from the southwest E-ring of the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia, on Sept. 11, 2001. Alex Wong/Getty Images

 The journalist Spencer Ackerman’s new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, advances the important work of integrating America’s global counterterrorism campaigns with the history of politics and race in the two decades since the 9/11 attacks. Ackerman’s core argument is that the post-9/11 wars helped radicalize the right in the United States, pushing it toward nativism, Islamophobia, and a paranoid sense of civilizational decline that created a political niche for former President Donald Trump. It’s an important book—but one that sometimes falls into the sweeping generalizations that characterized the post-9/11 era itself.

Ackerman contends that even if counterterrorism is no longer the defining paradigm of U.S. foreign policy, the United States still operates in a political era defined by the response to terrorism. This open-ended, amorphous conflict became a political resource for various ideologues and office-seekers. The web of campaigns known as the “war on terror” has been used for numerous purposes, many of them racialized: limiting immigration to prevent what some have dubbed “white replacement,” lifting American culture out of supposed decadence and dissolution, and forging a narrative of the conflict as a struggle of the West against Islamic civilization. The ideological and political baggage attached to the post-9/11 wars not only made the conflict theoretically boundless but also encouraged a huge swath of the country to view Muslims, immigrants, liberals, and other groups as enemies.

Trump appealed directly to this complex by demonizing immigrants as a national security threat, spreading the lie that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, promising to bar Muslims from the country, and portraying the U.S. political elite as weak and incompetent. Ackerman insightfully notes that Trump did not seek to end America’s sprawling global counterterrorism campaigns, as his defenders sometimes claim, but to intensify their violence and turn their surveillance and law enforcement tools on his domestic political foes. The impact of the “war on terror” mentality on the homeland peaked in mid-2020, when Trump and his allies unleashed militarized law enforcement on protests against racial injustice, often wielding the same hardware that the U.S. military employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ultimately, Trump’s rise and resulting disasters such as the travel ban on several Muslim countries, family separation at the border, and the Jan. 6 insurrection cannot be understood outside of the context of the post-9/11 wars’ radicalizing effects on domestic politics.

 The journalist Spencer Ackerman’s new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, advances the important work of integrating America’s global counterterrorism campaigns with the history of politics and race in the two decades since the 9/11 attacks. Ackerman’s core argument is that the post-9/11 wars helped radicalize the right in the United States, pushing it toward nativism, Islamophobia, and a paranoid sense of civilizational decline that created a political niche for former President Donald Trump. It’s an important book—but one that sometimes falls into the sweeping generalizations that characterized the post-9/11 era itself.

Ackerman contends that even if counterterrorism is no longer the defining paradigm of U.S. foreign policy, the United States still operates in a political era defined by the response to terrorism. This open-ended, amorphous conflict became a political resource for various ideologues and office-seekers. The web of campaigns known as the “war on terror” has been used for numerous purposes, many of them racialized: limiting immigration to prevent what some have dubbed “white replacement,” lifting American culture out of supposed decadence and dissolution, and forging a narrative of the conflict as a struggle of the West against Islamic civilization. The ideological and political baggage attached to the post-9/11 wars not only made the conflict theoretically boundless but also encouraged a huge swath of the country to view Muslims, immigrants, liberals, and other groups as enemies.

Trump appealed directly to this complex by demonizing immigrants as a national security threat, spreading the lie that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, promising to bar Muslims from the country, and portraying the U.S. political elite as weak and incompetent. Ackerman insightfully notes that Trump did not seek to end America’s sprawling global counterterrorism campaigns, as his defenders sometimes claim, but to intensify their violence and turn their surveillance and law enforcement tools on his domestic political foes. The impact of the “war on terror” mentality on the homeland peaked in mid-2020, when Trump and his allies unleashed militarized law enforcement on protests against racial injustice, often wielding the same hardware that the U.S. military employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ultimately, Trump’s rise and resulting disasters such as the travel ban on several Muslim countries, family separation at the border, and the Jan. 6 insurrection cannot be understood outside of the context of the post-9/11 wars’ radicalizing effects on domestic politics.

Ackerman stresses the perils of building a massive national security state because, as civil libertarians warned in the early years of these campaigns, some day that apparatus might be handed to an authoritarian demagogue. Obama missed several opportunities to roll back the wars, particularly after the killing of Osama bin Laden, and Democrats continued to support broad executive powers to combat terrorism, even when Trump was president. Ackerman faults Democrats for trying to make the conflict “sustainable” by focusing more on surveillance, special forces, and drone strikes rather than military occupations, a shift that perpetuated the conflict and maintained excessive executive powers.

Ackerman’s most important contribution is to integrate race into the story of America’s post-9/11 wars. He begins by comparing the U.S. reaction to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to the reaction to 9/11. While these crimes were of a different scale, he shows that Oklahoma City did not lead to a massive expansion of government powers to combat white supremacist, anti-government terrorism, which politicians and law enforcement officials downplayed.

In fact, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 focused on expanding the government’s ability to deal with foreign terrorist groups in spite of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s homegrown status. McVeigh was portrayed as a lone wolf rather than one actor in a larger white supremacist movement. In contrast, Islamist terrorism was explained, especially but not exclusively on the right, as a symptom of a larger set of pathologies in Islam, requiring major overseas military interventions and intensified counterterrorism efforts at home.

As Ackerman shows, white supremacist violence would continue to be minimized throughout the decades that followed, even as such violence increased and became legitimized by Trump, culminating in Charlottesville in 2017 and the 2021 Capitol insurrection, both of which Trump defended or excused. Race and religion have clearly shaped how the United States has diagnosed and addressed different threats, and the gap in its responses has created a massive vulnerability for democracy. For all the horrors of 9/11 and subsequent attacks around the world, al Qaeda could never threaten constitutional and democratic processes the way that a radicalized white nationalist right has in recent years.

Despite these valuable contributions, this book has several problems. Numerous statements need qualification, such as the claim that “patriotic vengeance fueled the War on Terror.” This may be true for many Americans, but the United States was on solid moral and legal ground in pursuing the perpetrators of 9/11 as an act of justice. In another case, Ackerman claims that the United States had “killed at least 801,000 people” in its interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and four other countries. While the United States may share responsibility for creating these conflicts, most of the actual killing was done by sectarian participants in Iraq’s civil wars and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ackerman’s overall arguments are important, but his occasionally overheated rhetoric risks limiting this book’s appeal to those who already share his politics.

Ackerman thoroughly documents the expansion of detention, surveillance, and war powers to combat terrorism at home and abroad, suggesting that this apparatus should be dismantled. This critique has merit, but it would be stronger if he explored the scale and nature of the terrorist threat since 9/11. The United States has been struck numerous times since 9/11 by mostly homegrown terrorists, although many of these actors were inspired by overseas groups. Moreover, there have been attempts by terrorists who received training overseas, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Many attacks, such as Faisal Shahzad’s attempted car bombing in Times Square in 2010, were avoided only by citizen interventions and the incompetence of the terrorists themselves. A 2011 study by Erik Dahl of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School found that there were 176 failed terrorist attacks against the United States between 1987 and 2010, 73 percent of which Dahl describes as thwarted by intelligence and/or law enforcement.

The underlying assumption of this book is that Islamist terrorism is an over-hyped threat, making America’s global counterterrorism campaigns a massive and unnecessary overreaction. Certainly, terrorism has monopolized U.S. foreign policy and politics to a disproportionate degree, especially in the massive overreach of the Iraq War, given the relatively few casualties terrorism has caused in the United States since 9/11. Proving this argument, however, requires a clear accounting of the threat’s scale, not just in terms of successful attacks but in terms of the total attempted attacks, especially those that may have succeeded without the actions of law enforcement or the U.S. military. Just because this problem has been exaggerated, as such scholars as John Mueller and Mark Stewart have argued, does not mean it is insignificant.

This problem leads to another: the lack of clarity on whether or not the entirety of post-9/11 U.S. counterterrorism efforts were a mistake. Ackerman advocates “the entire War on Terror [be] abolished” but does not specify what that means. Should the United States return to a law-enforcement counterterrorism paradigm while de-emphasizing the military’s role? Was the initial foray into Afghanistan a mistake despite the presence of core al Qaeda there? Should all use of force authorizations and executive powers be rolled back to the baseline of Sept. 10, 2001? Ackerman’s book seems to condemn the entire set of military interventions, but he doesn’t make that case with precision.

Furthermore, Ackerman’s portrayal of these conflicts as motivated by racism and Islamophobia oversimplifies the recent history of conservatism. They were largely motivated by an ambitious moral universalism, especially in initial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol had claimed since the end of the Cold War that human rights and democracy were universally applicable to all peoples and that the United States had a responsibility to topple tyrants and spread democracy.

The Iraq War, the core blunder of America’s post-9/11 conflicts, was rooted as much in naive universalism and a messianic conception of U.S. power as Islamophobia or racism, outlooks that reject universalistic commitments. The George W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq was predicated on the idea that democracy, human rights, and capitalism could succeed in Arab and Muslim-majority societies and that the spread of democracy in the region would address the causes of extremism. He made this link explicitly in February 2003: “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder.” Bush leaned more heavily on the rhetoric of democracy after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but it was a key part of the administration’s thinking before the invasion. As Bush declared in June 2002: “The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation.”

In contrast, anti-universalistic paleoconservatives such as like the political scientist Samuel Huntington, Patrick Buchanan, and writers for the American Conservative magazine were more likely to oppose the Iraq invasion in part because they believed that liberal democracy was an exclusively Western value that could not be transferred to Islamic societies. The Iraq War may have been a product more of U.S. idealism than prejudice, although both factors must be considered.

Moreover, Ackerman overlooks the extent to which Bush and many other conservatives attempted to refute Islamophobia and assert the equal rights of Muslims following 9/11. Bush appeared with Muslim leaders shortly after 9/11 and asserted that “these acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.”

A more accurate framing would be that the post-9/11 wars started as a morally universalistic crusade in which Bush sought to marginalize members of the conservative camp who wanted to portray it as a civilizational struggle with Islam writ large. The failure of this project then shifted momentum to the nativist, proto-Trumpist right that wanted a brutal war against terrorists without any kind of democratic or human rights agenda. Overall, this book could have benefited from more recognition of the factionalism and variety of the modern U.S. right.

The Taliban victory in Afghanistan makes this book especially timely as the United States reconsiders its global role. The costs of America’s post-9/11 wars are usually counted in lives, resources, and the U.S. global standing, but Ackerman correctly includes the weakening of democracy and the stoking of racism as additional costs. This book’s comprehensive nature and reasonable size make it worthwhile for those who know little about these conflicts, and its innovative argument make it an important read for scholars and policymakers alike. Despite some problems, Ackerman’s analysis establishes a touchstone for future research and issues a warning about how ill-defined, overly ambitious foreign policies often return home with dire consequences.

Joseph Stieb is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. He received his Ph.D. in U.S. history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019. His first book is The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990-2003. He has published additional work in Modern American History, the International History Review, the Washington Post, War on the Rocks, and Arc Digital.

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