By Ramin Karbasi

Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

The ongoing and costly ‘war on terror’ presents the United States with a crucial opportunity to redefine it and consider viable policy alternatives. The current US counter-terrorism strategy is not without its faults. It is mired with controversies amidst its seemingly proliferating drone program, increasing anti-American sentiments, and failures in essential US counter-terrorism goals abroad. Operating largely under the theoretical conceptions of containment and freedom, much of the strategy has championed direct actions in the pursuit of preemption, total defeat, and a ‘Zero Risk’mentality. However, greater reliance on drone strikes coupled with the inherent vagueness of the ‘war on terror’has hindered US counter-terrorism successes. The once warranted overreaction, bolstered by both a ‘Rally Around the Flag’mentality and increased prevalence of drone technology, is not conducive to a modern counter-terrorism strategy.

To ensure success in its ongoing ‘war on terror’, the US must narrow the scope of the war and rebrand the ‘war of ideas’as a ‘dialogue of ideas’. Where a drone strike cannot achieve these ends, the establishment of an internationally coordinated antiterrorism program can. Similarly, the active pursuit of a cyber strategy aimed at gathering intelligence and debilitating Al-Qaeda’s networks and infrastructure can also prove to be a powerful policy alternative. Though these policy options are effective on their own, the joint utilization of both options will yield the most ideal results.

With respect to counter-terrorism, one ought to note that the ‘war on terrorism’ was (and is) not just about security. It was (and is) a ‘war’ waged in the name of freedom’s triumph over the era’s rampant evil. Bolstered by former President, George W. Bush’s language (“axis of evil”, “evildoers”), the theoretical foundations of US counter-terrorism found deep-rooted support in abstract concepts such as freedom and containment of so-called ‘evildoers’. Current President Barack Obama continued much of Bush’s toughness, but also valued a greater effort to seek common ground with adversaries. This newfound desire and effort eventually gave way to innovations like improved policing and counter-radicalization programs. Unfortunately, these innovations failed to fully understand the nature of terrorism. The implication, then, was that as the theoretical underpinnings of counter-terrorism shifted from an eerily Cold War dichotomy under former-President George W. Bush, the policies themselves should have followed suit.

The current nature of United States politics and organizational capabilities supports the feasibility of a policy shift. Though drone strikes offer an ideal counter-terrorism policy – they are cheap, effective, and distant – they are not without their faults. For instance, they simultaneously undermine US policy goals as much as they progress to achieve them. This undermining is both counterintuitive and politically damaging for US politicians that support drone use. Drones risk breeding domestic terrorists like Faisal Shahzad – the infamous 2010 Times Square bomber – who cite US policies toward Muslim countries as motive. This motive, in turn,poses a pressing dilemma for policy-makers: while drones seemingly keep problems away from US shores, they also grossly nullify the American ‘Zero Risk’ security policy in the homeland by inadvertently bringing the problem home. In a sense, the dilemma assumes the role of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The success of drone usage is well-documented. They overwhelmingly succeed in exhausting terrorist organizations’ resources and operative pools. Amidst these successes, however, lies a rather repugnant trade-off: what drones fail to kill today, they nurture for tomorrow. This would imply that while drones kill operatives likely to attack the US in the near future, they also risk embittering locals that are afforded the ignominious title of ‘collateral damage’. At the risk of sounding redundant, increased drone usage assumes the role of a self-fulfilling prophecy in this respect as well in that it effectively creates a vicious recruitment cycle for the terrorist organizations. When considering such a phenomena, it is little wonder as to why or how Al-Qaeda has somewhat successfully evolved from a predominately regional movement in the 1990s to a formidable transnational movement in the new millennium.

Given the highly controversial air about drones, and the seemingly innumerable studies that provide veracity to this article’s principal claim, an alternative policy should be adopted by the US, at least in some part moving forward. A new antiterrorism program, conducted through the Department of State, will ideally provide equipment and training to countries that will willingly coordinate with the US to combat Al-Qaeda’s prevalence – a transnational movement calls for a transnational policy strategy. These provisions will, ideally, improve antiterrorism capabilities via enhanced skills in crisis management and transportation security, amongst others. The program should provide incentives — economic/development aid, enhanced security, etc. — for cooperation. The program should also attempt to resolve the widespread negative foreign sentiments that prevent the US from acquiring vital and necessary assistance from individuals and governments in the form of intelligence, preparation, and prevention, amongst others. The program will decimate the space for Al-Qaeda and its recruiting pool, effectively putting an end to the aforementioned cycle. The program should also actively seek to revive the importance of public diplomacy, which was premised on the belief that the terror problem was principally a communications one.

Through coordinated efforts with NGOs and allied governments, the US government will fundamentally challenge the Al-Qaeda narrative. This should be conducted through media reports, educational programs, and ambassadors that exploit the fallacies and atrocities of the Al-Qaeda narrative and its deviance from mainstream Muslim practices. Consequently, these actions will begin a process towards victory in the ‘dialogue of ideas’—drones do little to destroy a narrative, while they do considerably more to make it compelling. An accompanying cyber strategy, sponsored by the Department of Defense, would also be wise in that it further bolsters the program’s success via intelligence gathering and monitoring of high-profile Al-Qaeda operatives. While it is chiefly an ‘intelligence-strategy’, the cyber arm of the program should also have an ‘attack’component that will aim to debilitate key Al-Qaeda infrastructure, technology, and communications/recruiting networks. This is especially worrisome for Al-Qaeda because it does not possess the technology and resources (both human and capital) to pose a formidable front. Such a strategy is invaluable in that it not only guarantees sustained vital intelligence gathering that drones would otherwise destroy, but it also allows the US and its allies to remain ahead of the terror operatives.

The decision by the US to pursue an aggressive strategy in the aftermath of 9/11 was warranted because it expressed national resiliency and power. However, this does not discredit the act of terror itself. Terrorism attempts to achieve political or social objectives via coercive or violent measures, which implies that the success of a terrorist’s actions may be gauged by the response that it generates. With respect to 9/11, simply stating that the attack was immensely successful is quite an understatement. Perhaps the most unsettling legacy of the attack, however, is that nearly 13 years later the US’counter-terrorism policy has entered a stalemate. To overcome this stalemate the US must adopt new policy strategies that forgo military options in favor of more effective, and ‘less sexy’, alternatives. It is upon this notion, then, that the article advocated for an internationally coordinated antiterrorism program compounded by a cyber strategy aimed at crippling Al-Qaeda from the inside out. It is quite unlikely that the US counter-terrorism strategy will experience anything more than marginal success if it does not consider and pursue alternative policies moving forward.


Ramin is currently a Senior Honors student at Southern Methodist University, where he majors in Political Science and Sociology. An avid student of comparative politics and economics, Ramin hopes to one day pursue post-graduate International Development studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. As such, and acknowledging the works of Mr. Nayef Al-Rodhan, he best describes himself as a symbiotic realist. A self-ascribed Francophile, Ramin also enjoys reading works of French existential literature in his spare time.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind