The “war on terrorism” was launched by the administration of George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The word war was applied in the metaphoric sense, as in the “war on drugs” and the “war on poverty,” and the campaign has embraced a variety of policies and governmental efforts focused on dealing with the problem of terrorism. These efforts have included military ventures, policing efforts—both international and domestic—and policies designed to make the country more secure and less vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The chief military venture of the “war” was the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. It was established that the 9/11 terrorists were linked to and apparently trained by Osama bin Laden’s al‐​Qaeda, a group of foreign terrorists based in Afghanistan. The United States actively threw its considerable military support to the efforts of anti‐​Taliban forces in the civil war that had been going on for years in that country. It did so bolstered by an outraged domestic public, favorable resolutions passed in NATO and Congress, and crucial aid from Pakistan, which had previously supported the Afghan Muslim fundamentalist Taliban regime.

Special Forces teams and agents from the Central Intelligence Agency entered the country armed with large metal suitcases packed with U.S. currency. The Americans hired platoons of combatants and supplied leadership, tactical direction, and the coordination of precision, and sometimes massive, bombardment from the air. After 8 years of chaotic and often brutal rule, the Taliban had become deeply unpopular, and its poorly trained forces mostly disintegrated under the air and ground onslaught, although many al‐​Qaeda members did stand and fight. A later operation undertaken to dislodge residual al‐​Qaeda elements from bases in remote mountainous terrain was only a qualified success because many of the most important al‐​Qaeda and Taliban leaders were able to escape.

In the wake of the war, a new, somewhat broadly based government was set up, many Afghans returned to their tortured country, and foreign aid and assistance contributions were sent in by a large number of countries. A fair amount of security was established, particularly in the capital, Kabul, but much of the country continued to be run or plagued by warlords following traditional modes of conduct. After a few years, Taliban fighters and terrorists regrouped and, apparently working from bases and training camps in tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan, began an increasingly effective campaign against the new government and its foreign supporters.

A second military venture connected to the war on terror involved an invasion, this time without international approval, of Iraq in March 2003. Efforts to tie Iraq directly to international terrorism mostly proved futile, but fears that Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, could develop weapons of mass destruction remained high, now embellished by the argument that he might palm them off to dedicated terrorists to explode in the United States.

As expected, the Iraqi military disintegrated under the onslaught. The victors then sought to build a viable national government out of the rubble that remained after Saddam. However, severe economic sanctions and the war had taken their toll. Although many Iraqis were glad to see Saddam’s tyranny ended, the invaders often found the population resentful and humiliated, rather than grateful. Moreover, bringing order to the situation was vastly complicated by the fact that the government‐​toppling invasion had effectively created a failed state, which permitted widespread criminality and looting. In addition, some people—including some foreign terrorists drawn opportunistically to the area—were dedicated to sabotaging the victors’ peace and to killing the policing forces, and the occupation became increasingly costly in lives and treasure. In late 2004, some elements in the insurgency linked themselves with al‐​Qaeda, and this connection seems to have helped further in attracting recruits and in generating financial and logistical support.

The international policing of terrorism—including the sharing and coordinating of intelligence—has been enhanced by heightened concerns about terrorism around the world in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. No matter how much they might disagree on other issues (most notably on America’s war on Iraq), there is a compelling incentive for states—including Arab and Muslim ones—to cooperate in dealing with international terrorism. These cooperative international policing efforts may not have prevented a large number of attacks, but more than 3,000 “suspects” have been arrested around the world, and doubtless at least some of these were dangerous.

In addition, continuing and perhaps accelerating a long‐​range trend, state sponsorship of terrorism (at least against countries other than Israel) seems to be distinctly on the wane after 9/11. Moreover, a key result among a great many jihadists and religious nationalists was a vehement rejection of al-Qaeda’s strategy and methods.

The post‐​9/​11 willingness of governments around the world to take on international terrorism has been much reinforced and amplified by subsequent, if sporadic, terrorist activity overseas. For example, a terrorist bombing in Bali in 2002 galvanized the Indonesian government into action. When terrorists attacked Saudis in Saudi Arabia in 2003, that country seemed, for self‐​interested reasons, to have become considerably more serious about dealing with terrorism. In addition, al-Qaeda–linked explosions in Jordan in 2005 resulted in outrage, causing the number of Jordanians expressing a lot of confidence in bin Laden to “do the right thing” in polls to plunge from 25% to less than 1%.

The war on terror also has embraced massively enhanced police and intelligence efforts within the United States. After 9/11, for example, fully 67% of those people working on criminal investigations in the FBI were reassigned to counterterrorism activities. Between 2000 and 2006, Justice Department funds devoted to counterterrorism programs tripled while organized crime prosecutions dropped 38%. State and local policing efforts also have been extensively enhanced, as have intelligence‐​gathering efforts at bureaus like the National Security Agency.

The results of this preoccupation and effort thus far seem to have been rather limited. In 2002, intelligence estimates concluded that there were up to 5,000 people loose in the country who were “connected” to al‐​Qaeda. However, a secret FBI report in 2005 noted that, after years of intense and well‐​funded hunting, the agency had not been able to identify a single true al‐​Qaeda sleeper cell anywhere in the country.

Since 9/11, a dozen or two apparent plots or enterprises put together by local or “home‐​grown” terrorists have been uncovered. Only a handful of people picked up on terrorism charges have thus far been convicted, and almost all of these charges have been for other infractions, particularly immigration violations. At least some of these have clearly been mental cases or simply flaunting jihadist bravado—rattling on about taking down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch or conducting a “full ground offensive” against the United States.

In the meantime, thousands of people in the United States have had their overseas communications tapped under a controversial warrantless surveillance program. Of these people, fewer than 10 U.S. citizens or residents per year have aroused enough suspicion to impel the agencies spying on them to seek warrants to carry out surveillance of their domestic communications as well, and little, of any, of this activity, it appears, has led to indictments on any charges whatever. Meanwhile, 80,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants have been subjected to fingerprinting and registration, another 8,000 have been called in for FBI interviews, and more than 5,000 foreign nationals have been imprisoned in initiatives designed to prevent terrorism. This activity has resulted in few, if any, convictions for a terrorist crime. There also have been massive eavesdropping and detention programs, as well as the yearly issuance, without judicial review, of 30,000 “national security letters,” in which businesses and institutions are forced to disclose information about their customers and are forbidden from telling anyone they have done so—a process that has generated thousands of leads that, when pursued, seem in almost all cases to have led nowhere. Monumental amounts of personal data have been accumulated, and there has been an incredible number of false positives.

In addition to much enhanced policing and intelligence efforts, the war on terror has inspired (and funded) extensive efforts to protect the country, to make it more secure and less vulnerable to terrorist attack. Most of this activity has been carried out under the auspices of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A senior economist in the DHS candidly acknowledged in 2006 that “We really don’t know a whole lot about the overall costs and benefits of homeland security.” Nonetheless, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on the program—airline security alone is approaching $10 billion a year, far greater than total airline profits in a good year—with results that have often been questionable.

Because terrorism can be committed by any single person or small group that takes a notion to do so and is willing to make the effort and to take the risks, there is no way to make everything completely safe from terrorists any more than every store can be protected against shoplifting or every street can be made permanently free of muggers. Nor is it possible to secure every border or have perfect or, for that matter, semiperfect port security—a particular vulnerability, among billions, that has attracted the focused attention of many in the homeland security business, if not so far of any actual terrorists.

To get some idea of the magnitude of this issue, the DHS sought to list potential terrorist targets in the United States, and by 2005 it had enumerated 80,000—a tally that apparently has become much larger since. Although the list has remained secret, there have been a number of leaks indicating that miniature golf courses are included, as well as Weekee Wachee Springs, a roadside water park in Florida. An additional problem for this exercise is this: If one tempting target becomes less vulnerable, an inventive terrorist could simply move on to other ones.

Any coherent exercise in target protection is likely, then, to prove close to impossible as well as expensive and disruptive. For example, the Pentagon extrapolated from 9/11 to conclude that “it is unsafe to have employees in urban office buildings” and is in the process of moving tens of thousands of people in its more obscure agencies to a remote area with little consideration about how they will manage to get to work on highways that are already congested.

An alternative policy—but one probably politically unacceptable—to seeking to make everything (or even a lot of things) safe would be to stress resilience: Be prepared to absorb the (probably limited) damage terrorism is likely to inflict and then use the money saved to repair any terrorist damage and to compensate any victims. That is, one would focus preventive efforts on only a few especially dangerous concerns—nuclear weapons and the power grid, perhaps—and then wait for the event to take place, fixing problems as they arise.

In approaching a terrorism policy, three key issues set out by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther require careful consideration:

  1. How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?
  2. How much should we be willing to pay for actions that are primarily reassuring, but do little to change the actual risk?
  3. How can certain other social measures, which some think provide broader protection than counterterrorism, get greater attention?

Without such an approach, and given the extreme vagaries of estimating risks and vulnerabilities—there are an infinite number of potential targets, and the likelihood that any single one will be hit approaches zero—protection measures have often been dictated by political infighting and outbidding. The result has been such spending as $180,000 for a port that receives less than 20 ships a year, $30,000 to buy a defibrillator for use at a high school basketball tournament, $100,000 to fund a summer‐​jobs program in Washington, D.C., and $100,000 for a child pornography tip line. A 2006 congressional report pointed to $34 billion worth of projects that have “experienced significant overcharges, wasteful spending, or mismanagement.”

There also have been efforts by people with political agendas to fold them into the war on terror. The gun control lobby, for example, wants “to deny weapons to terrorists and to actively prevent private citizens from providing them,” whereas the National Rifle Association asserts that people would rather face the terrorist threat “with a firearm than without one.”

In all these efforts, there are opportunity costs as other important societal needs may go underaddressed. As risk analyst David Banks puts it, if resources are directed away from apparently sensible programs and future growth to pursue “unachievable but politically popular levels of domestic security,” the terrorists have won “an important victory that mortgages our future.”

Further Readings

Cole, David, and Jules Lobel. Less Free, Less Safe: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror. New York: New Press, 2007.

Ellig, Jerry, Amos Guiora, and Kyle McKenzie. A Framework for Evaluating Counterterrorism Regulations. Mercatus Policy Series, Mercatus Center, George Mason University, September 2006.

Flynn, Stephen E. The Edge of Disaster: Building a Resilient Nation. New York: Random House, 2007.

Healy, Gene. “The Imperial Presidency and the War on Terror.” Cato Policy Report, March/​April 2006.

Lustick, Ian S. Trapped in the War on Terror. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Mueller, John. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Schneier, Bruce. Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World. New York: Copernicus, 2003.

Simon, Jeffrey D. 2001. The Terrorist Trap: America’s Experience with Terrorism. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sunstein, Cass R. “Terrorism and Probability Neglect.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 26 no. 2/3 (March–May 2003), 121–136.

John Mueller
Originally published
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