Sixteen years after 9/11, are we any better at fighting terrorism?

The National 9/11 Flag is unfurled during a ceremony on May 15, 2014, marking the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City. (Don Emmert/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks — 16 years ago on Monday — President George W. Bush declared a war on terrorism that he pledged would not end until every terrorist group of global reach was defeated. Bush drew a line in the sand, telling every nation, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” The Bush administration was more flexible than this rhetoric suggested, but it still evinced a strong willingness to act unilaterally.

President Barack Obama sought to make U.S. counterterrorism efforts more sustainable, and thereby enable the United States to focus more on other challenges. To do this he not only pursued a more focused counterterrorism campaign than the Bush administration had, but also put an even greater emphasis on working with partners. This was intended to share the costs of counterterrorism and make gains more sustainable by giving partners ownership of the fight.

Where does the war on terrorism stand under President Trump? Although Trump has gone out of his way to reverse many of Obama’s policies, he has largely embraced the burden-sharing aspect of his predecessor’s “indirect” approach. Yet, instead of pursuing enduring partnerships, Trump has treated engagements with partners as transactional exchanges.

Counterterrorism requires international cooperation

Despite their differences, all three presidents confronted two fundamental facts about counterterrorism. First, even a superpower cannot combat every terrorist threat alone. As the 9/11 Commission observed, “Practically every aspect of U.S. counterterrorism strategy relies on international cooperation.” Second, many partner nations help and hinder U.S. counterterrorism efforts. To understand why, it is critical to recognize that counterterrorism is much broader than commonly recognized.

In a forthcoming book — “With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror” — I demonstrate the paradoxical nature of counterterrorism partnerships across four areas of cooperation. The United States not only faces trade-offs within each area, but also between them:

1) The United States needs its partners to act as the tip of the spear and conduct domestic counterterrorism operations. These can include dismantling terrorist organizations by killing or capturing their members, or curtailing illegal activities by members of society who may or may not be part of an organized terrorist movement. Because the United States cannot and should not invade every country where terrorist groups are based, it relies on partner nations to conduct these operations.

How much a partner is willing to do depends on how that partner perceives the terrorist threat relative to other threats. For example, the United States and the Yemeni government under Ali Abdullah Salih shared a threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yet Salih was considerably more worried about threats from Houthi insurgents and a southern separatist movement. He did just enough to keep the AQAP threat at bay, while simultaneously using its existence to extract assistance from the United States.

2) Non-coercive methods are necessary to reduce the pool of terrorist recruits. The U.S. government has adopted various programs under the umbrella of countering violent extremism (CVE) to reduce radicalization and recruitment and encouraged its partners to do the same. Some of these efforts are top-down. Others are community-driven. In both cases, agreeing on the right methods and convincing other countries to get on board has been difficult.

While even undemocratic regimes might be willing to make modest reforms if they can be convinced that doing so would help them counter domestic or foreign enemies, it is unrealistic to expect they will make fundamental changes to their polities. Numerous partners also use the threat of terrorism to crack down on civil society organizations engaged in CVE.

When faced with trade-offs between short-term battlefield gains and longer-term reforms, U.S. policymakers often opt for the former. Under the Trump administration, this trend is increasing. Trump has consciously avoided calling on autocratic partners to stop pursuing repressive policies that contribute to the terrorist threat or to begin addressing the political and economic conditions that enable terrorism to flourish.

3) The United States needs military access and intelligence cooperation. Access is needed for military basing and direct action — Special Forces raids and strikes by manned or unmanned aircraft. Although often described as “unilateral,” these operations typically involve permission from the host nation. Intelligence cooperation is a vital aspect of many counterterrorism partnerships. It can include intelligence sharing, joining forces to collect information and providing access to intelligence officers.

Incentives such as security assistance are more useful for obtaining these types of cooperation than for getting an unwilling partner to commit to domestic counterterrorism campaigns or CVE initiatives. Yet the more unwilling or unable a partner is to do the job itself, the more necessary access for unilateral direct action or intelligence on a terrorist threat may become. In Yemen, for example, the United States was reliant on Salih’s government for access to prosecute its own direct action campaign.

4) Because terrorist groups don’t recognize national boundaries, regional cooperation is necessary. The United States looks to its partners to support or participate in regional counterterrorism initiatives, contribute to military coalitions like the one formed to oppose the Islamic State, and help with stabilization and reconstruction in post-conflict zones. Challenges related to traditional alliance relations, such as maintaining coherence in military coalitions, are common. Regional cooperation is also needed to end civil wars where terrorists have become key players. Yet partners sometime exacerbate and prolong these conflicts in pursuit of their own national interests.

Counterterrorism cooperation will remain frustrating — and essential

Partnerships between two countries often see cooperation in some areas and competition in others. This dynamic is magnified when it comes to counterterrorism. Because combating terrorism was historically not a major component of U.S. foreign policy, the paradox of counterterrorism partnerships was not that big a challenge. That changed after Sept. 11. The dilemmas of counterterrorism partnerships will continue to bedevil U.S. presidents. Yet cooperation will remain an essential element of any counterterrorism strategy.

Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His forthcoming book on counterterrorism cooperation will be published in spring 2018. You can follow him on Twitter at @StephenTankel.

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