Mission accomplished? That was doubtless then-President Barack Obama’s expectation as he anxiously watched a team of American Navy SEALs kill al-Qaida’s leader, Osama bin Laden, six years ago. It was clearly Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s hope last month when he visited the city of Mosul, newly liberated from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
But consider this: Al-Qaida had some 400 combatants on Sept. 11, 2001. Today it is stronger than ever, with several thousand adherents in countries from the Arabian Peninsula to Southeast Asia. If Western powers like the United States and the United Kingdom and their regional partners like Iraq continue to frame the countering of violent extremism as an existential “war on terror” that ends only when the last terrorist has been killed, the campaign against the Islamic State will be no more successful than the fight against al-Qaida.
We are not doing everything wrong, and the terrorists are not doing everything right. In hindsight, the Islamic State paid a high price for the short-term public relations benefit of holding territory and calling itself a state, since it was bound to be defeated in a pitched battle against the powerful coalition assembled against it. The jihadi group also made a mistake in committing such barbaric atrocities, as alienation began to outweigh intimidation among the populations it controlled. And the coalition against the Islamic State was probably right to apply some military pressure to break the militants’ aura of invincibility, which was a powerful recruitment tool.
The question that needs to be answered now is who is learning quickest from past mistakes. So far, the terrorists seem to have the edge. The Islamic State learned from al-Qaida that sophisticated terrorist attacks in the enemy’s heartland are useful if they draw the enemy into protracted wars that create the kind of chaos that terrorists need to thrive. Bin Laden probably did not plan on 9/11 bringing the U.S. to Afghanistan, let alone Iraq, but al-Qaida opportunistically capitalized on both wars. The Islamic State brilliantly exploited the U.S. occupation and aftermath, gaining support from Sunnis who suffered the atrocities of Shiite militias, and from officers of the Iraqi army summarily dismissed as a result of a poorly conceived policy of de-Baathification. Now al-Qaida has learned from the Islamic State’s gruesome later mistakes, softening its hard-line stance and toning down its global agenda to gain support with movements driven by local grievances, notably in Yemen.
The Western-led coalition, for its part, wages this war on terror as if it were a traditional war in which military dominance opens the path to political victory. But if a coalition that technically counts the involvement of some 60 countries can be militarily overwhelming, politically, its heterogeneity guarantees its failure: The bigger the coalition, the less likely it is to find a political agreement for the day after the military victory, as is evident now in Mosul. And the more politically incoherent the coalition is, the more it describes terrorism in sweeping terms as a global strategic threat. This veers into error when the terrorist label includes movements and combatants that have little in common, grouping local fighters driven by local grievances together with foreign fighters succumbing to the appeal of a global struggle.
Such a blind war on terror, with no longer-term vision, lays the ground for an endless war. In the Middle East, crushing terrorists without a plan for the day after will generate the same vacuum and chaos that produced them in the first place. And in Western societies, the elevation of terrorism into a strategic struggle continuously refills the pool of foreign fighters for whom terrorist acts are the ultimate selfie.
Terrorism is the product of multiple crises, which need to be addressed separately, rather than brought together in one all-encompassing, geostrategic struggle. The crises of the Middle East each have unique characteristics, and external actors should be wary of feeding a global narrative that may turn them into targets. This is as true for fragmenting Western societies, which are vulnerable to violence and poorly prepared to withstand terrorist acts after decades of peace, as it is for Middle Eastern powers like the Arab Gulf states and Iran, whose geopolitical rivalries complicate the resolution of conflicts initially driven by local grievances, whether in Yemen or Syria.
We need a radical shift in priorities. We will not defeat terrorism by making the fight against it the guiding principle of our policies, in the Middle East or in our own countries. The liberation of Mosul and Raqqa will be a minor episode in the fight against terrorism if civil wars continue to rage in Iraq, Syria, Yemen or Libya. The relative decline of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could be offset, for example, by its resurgence in the Maghreb if the governments of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya fail to address societal grievances and tensions that the Islamic State has proven adept at exploiting. The many jihadi fighters returning to North Africa from foreign battlefields are less likely to lay down their weapons and embrace civilian life if the same grievances that drove them to fight in the first place persist.
Defining new priorities should also include greater investment in multilateral frameworks like those offered by the United Nations, which can help stabilize and reconstruct war-torn states prone to breeding terrorism. In the case of Yemen’s war, which has brought the country to the brink of famine and allowed al-Qaida’s local affiliate to take advantage of deep-rooted local grievances, the U.N. plays multiple roles by leading a peace process, coordinating reconstruction funds and providing humanitarian relief. Fighting terror is doomed to fail without the political and economic tools needed to support such fragile states.
After 16 years of the war on terror, the inherent limits of military and security measures are plain to see. The security of Paris, Brussels or London might first depend on painstaking intelligence and police work, but the threat can be reduced if we stop helping terrorists by parroting their rhetoric of a grand geopolitical struggle. By recognizing and addressing the local disorder in which terrorism is born, the war on terror may finally find an end point.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno is the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organization.
Originally published in World Politics Review