One month to the day after the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush announced this country’s response: “A new and different war, the first, and we hope the only one, of the 21st century. A war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them.”
Immediately a global debate broke out: was war the right word, was warfare the right technique to combat terrorism? Were terrorist threats and murders something new and different or really just big crimes, better fought with traditional crime-fighting weapons, police surveillance, harassment, arrest and conviction?
15 years later, and the inadequacies of warring against terrorists, and trying to police them have been made apparent, and today, both warfare and law-enforcement are being actively applied against terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, aka ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.
Both war and policing have had profound effects, but neither separately nor together have they been able to defeat terrorism.
But is defeating terrorism a reasonable, reachable goal? No one expects conventional crime to be defeated entirely.
If the goal is containing terrorism, reducing it, as modern law-enforcement has contained and reduced crime in most so-called “first world” cities and countries, there is some good news.
Al Qaeda has become a second-string conspiracy, and the Islamic State is facing expulsion from the 2 most important cities in its aspirational caliphate, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and this defeat may be changing, and in some ways reducing the terrorist threat in Europe and the United States.
Still, as the recent spate of terrible “lone wolf” terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, England have shown, terrorism is still alive, specifically Islamist terrorists continue to kill and maim.
Brian Michael Jenkins serves as the Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation. He is also the Director of the National Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute. From 1989 to 1998, Mr. Jenkins was the Deputy Chairman of Kroll Associates, an international investigative and consulting firm. Responsible for the firm’s crisis management practice, he directed the responses to kidnapping and extortion cases worldwide. Before that, he was Chairman of RAND’s Political Science Department where, from 1972 to 1989, he also directed RAND’s research on political violence.