Six years ago, on October 7, 2001, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom. Over the next 78 days, the U.S., working with Afghan allies and bolstered by a coalition of support from around the world, drove the Taliban from power and destroyed al Qaeda’s infrastructure in that country. But even as a new Afghan interim government was being inaugurated in Kabul that December, Osama bin Laden and several of his key lieutenants were completing their escape from Tora Bora to safe refuge across the border in Pakistan. Since that point, the United States, despite some sporadic successes, has been gradually losing ground in the “war on terror.”
Measured by the number of terrorist incidents, the threat posed by violent jihadism is more significant now than it was prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It is, most notably, significantly worse than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when the American response focused on al Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan. Even when excluding attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and those related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are more attacks by jihadist groups on an annual basis than at the beginning of the Iraq war. This is a stunning finding given the tremendous activity of jihadist groups in those theaters.
The jihadist movement remains vibrant and dynamic. Early claims about disruption of the al Qaeda network were dramatically overstated. Only five of the twenty-two most wanted terrorists in 2001 have been captured or killed. Though some high ranking al Qaeda members have been eliminated, the organization has been able to promote or recruit members to replace losses. Furthermore, al Qaeda has expanded its reach globally by forging closer relationships with previously autonomous groups.
The United States is losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world. According to a Pew Global Poll, the United States is perceived as the biggest threat in important Muslim countries including Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. According to the same poll, only 21 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the United States as do 15 percent of Pakistanis, 9 percent of Turks, and 29 percent of Indonesians. And while it is true that Muslim populations are increasingly denouncing terrorism in the abstract, Osama bin Laden remains more popular in Pakistan and Indonesia than is President Bush in the United States.
U.S. foreign policy has done virtually nothing to reduce ungoverned spaces around the world where terrorists can find safe harbor. Indeed, there has been a net increase in areas that lack effective governance given the weakness of the current Afghan government and the insurgency in Iraq. There has been minor progress on disrupting terrorist financing, including better financial controls and more supervision of charities, but all this seems to have accomplished is to push jihadist financing deeper underground and prompt greater involvement of terrorist groups with the growing drug trade in Afghanistan.
It is true that state sponsorship of terrorism is down since 9/11 and nominal international cooperation in the fight against terrorism is up. Yet, even in this case, the silver lining is pewter. Many of the successes in reversing state sponsorship of terrorism pre-date the “war on terror.” Libya abandoned its sponsorship of terrorism in the 1990s, and Sudan has similarly backed away from this course despite its atrocities in Darfur. In terms of broader international cooperation against terror, while the number of countries that have publicly pledged support is high, actual cooperation lags.
U.S. counter-terrorism strategy after the initial success in Afghanistan has been largely unsuccessful and counterproductive, resulting in a loss of focus and momentum and the deterioration of American standing in much of the world. The jihadist movement relies on a very specific narrative – that Islam is under attack by the West. Though the removal of the Taliban was both necessary and defensible, our actions since have produced unintended consequences that have made winning the “war on terror” a much more distant goal. Worse, the war in Iraq has so distracted from and distorted appreciation of the jihadist threat that our leaders no longer seem to remember what they were so close to achieving when they had bin Laden and his murderous cronies on the run.
Bernard I. Finel is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project and author of “Are We Winning? Measuring Progress in the Struggle Against Violent Jihadism.”