The New York Times recently ran a piece with astounding implications that didn’t get very much attention. The headline read: “Two Decades After 9/11, Militants Have Only Multiplied.”
The story reported on a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a pillar of the American foreign policy establishment. CSIS concluded that the number of Islamist militants operating around the globe is nearly four times what it was when the U.S. government began fighting them in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Despite a cost of nearly $6 trillion dollars and the loss of nearly 7,000 U.S. military service members, the war on terror has clearly failed.
The study estimated that Islamist militants now number 230,000 and are spread across 70 countries, with fighters recovering from conventional battle defeats in Iraq and Syria likely to launch guerrilla attacks there and in other nations. Yet CSIS warns that withdrawing American forces from Africa and the Middle East, which the military has already started to do as it prioritizes countering conventional powers, will only help terrorists. The report states that the West has failed to address the root causes of terrorism and concludes that “[p]erhaps the most important component of Western policy should be helping regimes that are facing terrorism improve governance and deal more effectively with economic, sectarian, and other grievances.”
Seth G. Jones, one of the study’s authors, predicts dire consequences if this is not done: “Some of these groups do want to target Americans overseas and at home, particularly the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. All this indicates that terrorism is alive and well, and that Americans should be concerned.”
The Soufan Center of New York, which also studies terrorism, recently characterized the results of America’s counterterrorism campaigns as “mixed at best.” The center argued that one achievement has been the absence in the United States of another terrorist attack of the magnitude of 9/11 in the years since, even though the terrorists’ ideology has metastasized. Yet the center admitted that “many of the conflicts that comprise America’s global counterterrorism campaign have a fiercely local component to them, meaning there is little that a Western country and its military can actually do to impact events on the ground for a sustained period of time.”
The shocking CSIS statistics about the growing threat from Islamist terrorism are an arresting signal that U.S. policy must change drastically and soon. Yet the think tank’s report and one of its authors seem to conclude the U.S. government merely needs to rethink its adjustment of priorities: Instead of slogging through unending brushfire counterterrorism wars (at least nine are currently being conducted), Washington should favour planning for conventional threats from possible nation-states while spending more American resources to help developing countries deal with societal grievances and with governance. The Soufan Center implies that the absence of a 9/11-scale attack is due to U.S. government counterterrorism campaigns. Yet in all the years before 9/11, North America experienced very few terrorist attacks compared to other, more conflict-ridden continents. North America, and especially the United States, sits far away from the world’s centers of conflict. It presents problems of logistics and sanctuary for such terrorists. The Soufan Center is correct, however, that most terrorist groups have primarily local grievances. This can be said of even “global” terror groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.
The “war on terror” has been a disaster, as the CSIS statistics imply, simply because the U.S. government has never been honest with the American people on the underlying causes of the anti-U.S. terrorist attacks that do occur. George W. Bush, after the 9/11 attacks, told Americans that they were attacked because of their freedoms. Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of the strikes, noted sarcastically that if that were the case, he could just as well have attacked Sweden. He was very specific that his war on the United States was in response to Washington’s military support of the corrupt government of Saudi Arabia, which is the guardian of the holiest sites in Islam. ISIS originated from resistance to the unneeded U.S. invasion of Iraq and spread from there.
So instead of running at least nine counterterrorism wars at once -- and escalating them as the Trump administration has -- President Trump should follow his stated instinct to avoid unnecessary wars. He should not let the military, the foreign policy establishment, or think tanks and the media goad him into continuing these endless fiascos. Radical Islamism has existed for centuries and may exist for centuries more, but it is usually fueled by local grievances. It need not and likely will not be directed at the United States. The excessive use of American military power in Islamic countries and around the world is not the solution to terrorism. It only breeds terrorism and retaliation.
Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of "Eleven Presidents." The views expressed are the author's own.