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Defeating Terrorists, Not Terrorism: Assessing U.S. Counterterrorism Policy from 9/11 to ISIS

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, killed nearly 3,000 innocent Americans. Thousands more Americans have died in the subsequent military campaigns and intelligence operations that have kept America safe. Sixteen years later, we pause to honor those Americans lost on 9/11 and those who have served and sacrificed to protect the American people in the years since.

In 2004, the 9/11 Commission Report offered 41 bipartisan recommendations to secure the homeland, defeat terrorist networks, and ultimately prevail in what we termed the “generational struggle” against Islamist terrorism. Thanks to the efforts of policymakers in both parties, most of those recommendations have been implemented in whole or in part.

Overall, the U.S. government’s record on securing the homeland and taking down terrorist networks is good. The courage and skill of our military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies have prevented another mass-casualty attack on U.S. soil. Congress created the National Counterterrorism Center and reorganized the intelligence community under a new Director of National Intelligence. Homeland security officials have closed security gaps at airports and at the border. Overseas, U.S. operations have killed Osama bin Laden and severely damaged the al Qaeda network. A U.S.-led coalition has nearly driven ISIS from Iraq and is pushing into its strongholds in Syria.

Yet despite these tactical successes, it is hard to conclude that we are winning. While we have pummeled terrorists on the battlefield, we have struggled to defeat their ideas. Unfortunately, recent evidence suggests that jihadist ideology remains attractive to many, including in the West. In 2014, ISIS’s call to jihad attracted thousands of “foreign fighters” from across the world into its ranks. Over the past year, even with the ISIS caliphate rapidly losing territory, ISIS-inspired “homegrown” terrorists have conducted attacks in Europe and the United States. As long as jihadists can replenish their ranks as fast as we can take them off the battlefield, the threat will persist.

We can, and must, do better to defeat terrorists’ ideas. Since 9/11, the United States has expended hundreds of millions of dollars on counter-radicalization and counter-messaging programs, with limited success. Indeed, basic questions remain unanswered: What role does ideology, as opposed to political, social, or economic grievances, play in driving people to terrorism? What is the relationship between Islamist terrorism and other strains of Islamist thinking? Can the United States and other non-Muslim actors meaningfully influence cultural and religious currents in the Islamic world? Which Muslim partners are most credible and effective in reducing the appeal of jihadism?

This Bipartisan Policy Center project aims to take stock of 16 years of counterterrorism struggle and make recommendations for long-term success. As in the 9/11 Commission Report, we begin by “looking backward in order to look forward.” This paper takes stock of U.S. counterterrorism efforts since 2001, with a focus on U.S. efforts to counter extremist ideology. A future paper will make recommendations for defeating terrorists’ ideas over the long term.

Executive Summary

Sixteen years after the 9/11 attacks, the United States continues to grapple with how to defeat the terrorist threat. The fight against terrorism dominated the national security agenda of the past two U.S. administrations. It will almost certainly remain among the major challenges confronting the current president.

This new Bipartisan Policy Center project springs from the conviction that it is time to assess U.S. progress in this struggle. Much as the 9/11 Commission examined how the horrendous attacks of that day occurred, it is appropriate and necessary, more than a decade and a half later, to take stock of both the state of the terrorist threat and the record of U.S. counterterrorism policies in combating that threat.

What have the significant investments the United States has made in its intelligence, military, law enforcement, and public diplomacy capabilities achieved? Has the terrorist threat diminished? Is the United States safer today than it was 16 years ago? Is the U.S. approach to counterterrorism working? Or is something different needed?

This paper provides an assessment of U.S. counterterrorism policy to date, its achievements and shortcomings, and compares them against the scale and scope of the current terrorist threat.

This paper aims to answer these questions. It provides an assessment of U.S. counterterrorism policy to date, its achievements and shortcomings, and compares them against the scale and scope of the current terrorist threat. A future study will develop recommendations for a more effective, comprehensive, and long-term counterterrorism strategy.

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