Winning the longest war after 9/11
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On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of Americans were killed in the worst mass casualty terror attack of the modern age. No American war has lasted as long as the one that began on that dreadful Tuesday morning, 16 years ago today. Since then, we have engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and deployed our military and intelligence assets across the globe to neutralize the threat of jihadi terrorism to America and her citizens.

We restructured our national security enterprise in a reform more drastic than any since the 1947 National Security Act, which created the National Security Council and the CIA. We have spent trillions of dollars to fund these campaigns and government reforms. And thousands of our servicemen and women have died in what some call the “never-ending war.”

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Shockingly, three presidential administrations after 9/11, we still seem unable to answer the simplest and most important questions about America’s war with the global jihadi movement: Are we winning? Can we win? What will it take to win? According to one simplistic metric, we seem to be faring well: We have not suffered an attack similar in scale to the Sept. 11 attacks here in the United States. The most severe post-9/11 attack was the Orlando massacre of 49 people by an American citizen of Afghan descent.

 

This may lead some to declare a partial victory. That would be a myopic conclusion. The fact is, we have seen more jihadist attacks and plots on U.S. soil in the last two years than any previous comparable period. In arrests as far apart as California and New York, we see an enemy that has moved from attempting to send foreign terrorists to America, to recruiting and indoctrinating U.S. nationals or residents already in the country, such as the Boston bombers and the San Bernardino killers. This is not an “improvement,” given that such homegrown terrorists are much harder for our domestic agencies to detect prior to an attack.

If we use a less parochial filter and look at what the jihadi movement has wrought globally since 2001, we cannot claim any kind of victory. It is not America’s job to police the world — this is especially true under the presidency of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE, who eschews the idea of the United States as “globocop” — but the fact is that global jihadism has increased, not decreased, and greatly.

ISIS may have lost the capital of its physical “caliphate” in Mosul, but the group which usurped and eclipsed Al Qaeda’s brand has more than 15 fully functional affiliates across the globe. Not only that, using simpler but deadly tactics such as vehicular attacks, ISIS has taken its “holy war” to the streets of our allies, from Paris to Berlin, Nice to Istanbul, Manchester to Brussels. Its wanton ability to do this undermines American interests and has led to the murder of Americans abroad.

The United States is the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. No longer a superpower, it is now the world’s sole “hyperpower.” How, then, can we explain the rise of ISIS and the spread of insurgent tactics onto the streets of our NATO allies? As with all significant matters, there is no one answer. However, certain policies have helped the jihadists to prosper.

First, all administrations since 2001 have focused almost exclusively on the “kinetic” aspects of counterterrorism: killing terrorists, either with invasion and occupation under President Bush, drone strikes under President Obama, or a new “strategy of annihilation” under President Trump. Killing terrorists is the right thing to do if you cannot arrest them or if your allies and partners can’t kill them. But if the dead jihadi can be easily replaced from a large and willing recruiting pool, the cycle is everlasting. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked in one of his now notorious “snowflake” memos, “Are we killing more of them than we are making?”

If we really want to win this war, which is in fact winnable, then we must stop young men and women from wanting to become jihadists. And this will not be done by killing more terrorists, given that the Al Qaeda and ISIS “incentive” narrative promises guaranteed salvation to the jihadi killed in battle. Victory in a war with adherents to a religiously fueled totalitarian ideology will only come when the message peddled by our enemy is undermined and delegitimized. This will require aggressive counter-propaganda measures, information and influence operations that leverage our Muslims allies around the world, especially those on the frontline of this war, such as Jordan and Egypt.

In the last 16 years, all U.S. administrations paid lip service to the need for a “war of ideas,” but they never engaged in a serious and strategic fashion akin to the way we did against the propaganda of our last totalitarian adversary, the Soviet Union. The Trump administration has yet to produce its national security strategy or its national counterterrorism strategy, in which a serious commitment to psychological warfare could be signaled, but the choice of a recognized expert, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, to head the Middle East Broadcast Network of government-funded broadcast platforms is a positive indicator. Much more is, however needed, especially an indication from the White House that the West Wing cares for this issue and will coordinate and drive a counter-propaganda effort from the very highest level.

At a more operational level, after 16 years it is high time to understand where the true center of gravity is within counterterrorism in America. The focus on finding individual terrorists or cells before they execute an attack is fundamentally wrongheaded, leading as it does to a “mowing the grass” or “whack-a-mole” approach to keeping Americans safe. As the European experience (and our own) has shown us, it is almost impossible to find all the terrorists, or potential terrorists, before they initiate an attack. Instead, we must focus our attention on those who are the recruiters, indoctrinators and sanctioning authorities of jihad.

We have some amazing counterterrorism professionals working across thousands of law enforcement agencies and the federal intelligence community. But in a population of more than 300 million people, resources must be marshaled and prioritized for greatest effect. This means refocusing our attention onto individuals who may never pull a trigger or detonate an improvised explosive device but who, through their preaching and mentoring, encourage dozens or even hundreds of fellow believers to walk ever further down the path of jihad.

One such man is Ahmad Musa Jibril, who pushes the ideology of “holy war” to literally thousands of radical followers online. He is a far more valuable focus of our attention than the massive effort expended to find just one so-called “lone wolf.” In this, we will have to explore the most righteous mode for protecting our fellow citizens while protecting general First Amendment and fundamental freedom-of-conscience rights. Lastly, as we recalibrate our strategic focus to delegitimize the ideology of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, and target the purveyors of its heinous message at home and abroad, we need to take a step back and see the broader picture of modern jihad.

For 16 years we have been targeting the non-nation state entities headed by the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Unfortunately, their Sunni-brand of jihad is not the most dangerous version today. With the disastrous consequences of the so-called “Arab Spring,” and the precipitous decision by Obama to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq just as that nation had been stabilized, a perfect situation developed for Iran to exploit instability across the Middle East and North Africa.

Iran remains the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world today. With the rise of ISIS, the collapse of Syria, and the continued conflict in Yemen, the mullahs and the forces under their command have expanded their destabilizing actions in support of their Shia version of radical Islam. As a result, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress, the whole region is now victim to “a game of thrones for the crown of the caliphate.”

ISIS wanted to have the neo-caliphate be a Sunni one. The Islamic Republic of Iran has its own Shia version of the caliphate ready to expand beyond the borders of the modern Persian state, using a deadly combination of official Republican Guard Forces and proxy or irregular forces such as Hezbollah, the Shia militias of Iraq and the Quds Force.

The Trump administration’s strategy to defeat Sunni jihadism must not play into the hands of Shia jihadism. All the more so after the billions of dollars released by the last White House back into the coffers of Tehran. A nuclear caliphate informed by an apocalyptic vision of Islamic salvation will not succumb to the logic of nuclear deterrence and the prior stability of mutually assured destruction.

Action must be taken now to obviate the establishment of a nuclear-capable Shia Caliphate. Recertification of the Potemkin accord that is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran deal, will not stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons but, at best, delay its acquisition. Now is the time to send a message to the religious dictators in Iran that America is as determined to halt a Shia caliphate as it is a Sunni one.

President Trump is not an ideological leader. He is a pragmatist. As such he is in the best position to jettison the subjective blinders of the past that undermined our response to the deadliest terror attacks in modern history. With clear-sightedness, he and his team can end “America’s longest war.”

Sebastian Gorka, Ph.D., is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War.” He most recently served as deputy assistant and strategist to President Trump. The above is adapted from his address today to the World Counter-Terrorism Summit in Israel. Follow him on Twitter @SebGorka.


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