Small Wars Journal

The War on Terror... Over? Part 2

Tue, 04/16/2013 - 3:20am


This paper represents the second in a series of papers regarding whether or not the War on Terror has reached completion from a functional vice nominal perspective.  The first paper in the series outlined the similarities and differences between the Bush and Obama Administrations in regards to defining and prosecuting the War on Terror. This paper examines the specific research questions of whether or not the War on Terror is over, the particular facets of the security of the US Homeland, weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), international counterterrorism (CT) and anti-proliferation efforts and rogue states.  These issues are particularly pertinent to the War on Terror, regardless of Qa’idat al Jihad, as their explicit inclusion was present in defining the War on Terror.  The original intent of the author had been one of explicit exclusion of Qa’idat al Jihad.  The organization, its affiliates and Qa’idat al Jihad as an ideology, however, in regards to the issue of US Homeland security, precluded such an exclusion.

The US Homeland

Having established the foundation of the (global) war on terror, the War on Terror, the overseas contingency operation, or any other singular overarching term that fundamentally references the same or substantially similar issues, goals and promulgated solutions, we can now address the first question, in the first form, of is the war on terror over?   In the first form, the question requires consideration independent of the contingencies associated with the Qa’idat al Jihad organization (for the most part) and focuses on the following three issues: domestic security, coalition building (in the general sense) for CT purposes and anti-proliferation efforts (in the general sense). The specification of the parenthetical generalities is necessitated by the potential overlap into the second form.

On the domestic front, the US developed significant organizational and legislative infrastructure to facilitate the war on terror. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 established The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and incorporated 22 federal government agencies including the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC), the US Coast Guard (USCG) and the US Secret Service (USSS). The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), newly minted as of 2001, moved to the DHS in 2003. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001, its reauthorizations and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004 established the legislative framework for the War on Terror. The last led to the establishment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).  The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act expanded the ability of the US to detain indefinitely terrorism suspects without trial, including US citizens. In 2012 March, ODNI and the DOJ released updated guidelines allowing the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) access to and storage of, domestic datasets concerning US citizens not suspected of terrorism for the purpose of identifying those individuals who are at-risk of committing future hostile acts against the US. 

The majority of attempted terrorist attacks on the US homeland since the start of the War on Terror are Qa’idat al Jihad linked, organizationally or ideologically, and are therefore included in the discussion of the protection of the US Homeland.  Excluding these incidents, the answer to the question of whether or not the War on Terror is finished as it relates to the domestic front is indeterminate.  The lack of any significant non-Qaida linked attacks or attempted attacks on the US homeland clearly do not point to the singular conclusion that the post-September 11, 2001 security and legislative framework represent the causal factor or even a causal factor.  The lack of any significant attacks could also readily be due to differential target selection on the part of non-Qaida linked threats or due to a lack of pervasive non-Qaida linked threats.  A foundational basis for answering the question of whether or not the War on Terror is finished in regards to the general threats faced by the US homeland, outside of the Qaida threat, will remain unresolved until there is an attempted attack that is foiled by the new security and legislative apparatus or until there is a successful terrorist attack on the US homeland. 

Threats to the US Homeland from Qa’idat al Jihad are present in two forms.  The first is through direct organizational linkage with the organization, its affiliates or allies and the second is through ideological similitude.  These two forms are not mutually exclusive.  Direct Qaida, affiliate or allied linked attempted attacks such as the December 22, 2001 attempted bombing of American Airlines Flight 63 by Richard Reid, the December 25, 2009 attempted “underwear bombing” of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 and the May 1, 2010 attempted Times Square bombing all failed due to operational incompetence on the part of the perpetrators rather than through the action of the new security infrastructure. Small scale, less-spectacular attacks, like the ideologically motivated July 4, 2002 shooting at the El Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles International Airport, the March 5, 2006 sport utility vehicle mediated attack by Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, the July 28, 2006 attack at the Seattle Jewish Federation, the June 1, 2009 shooting at a Little Rock military recruiting station and the November 5, 2009 attack at Fort Hood, Texas experienced success in their operational effectiveness and highlighted various failings of the homeland security infrastructure.

Authorities stopped a series of other attacks in the conspiracy stage. Federal authorities arrested The Lackawanna Six, with no apparent plot in the making, after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intercepted an e-mail from one of the members describing his wedding plans. British authorities largely disrupted a 2004 conspiracy to bomb financial targets in the US and the UK. Local law enforcement disrupted a 2005 plot by a group of released prisoners who converted to Islam while incarcerated, under the group name of Jami’at ul Islam is Saheeh, after its members embarked on the curious funding method of robbing gas stations.  Federal law enforcement foiled the 2006 Toledo terror plot and the 2009 Dallas bomb plot. Federal authorities also stopped the 2009 plot to attack Jewish targets in New York and the fantastical use of Stinger missiles to shoot down military aircraft. A combination of citizen reporting and infiltration by Federal law enforcement foiled the 2007 Fort Dix plot.  The 2007 plot to bomb jet fuel pipelines at JFK International airport, though far from operational and of questionable formative efficacy, was uncovered through the aid of an informant working for local and Federal law enforcement. The 2009 New York subway-bombing plot, while stopped, revealed the problematic difficulties associated with interagency cooperation between local and Federal law enforcement.

Additional plots such as the 2009 Springfield, Illinois federal building bombing plot, the 2010 attempt to bomb Wrigley Field in Chicago, the 2010 plot to bomb Washington DC area subway stations, the 2010 attempted bombing of the Portland, Oregon Christmas tree lighting ceremony, the 2010 plot to bomb a Catonsville, Maryland military recruiting center, the 2011 plot by Khalid Aldawsari to bomb a series of targets in Texas, the 2011 plot to bomb Jewish targets in Manhattan, the 2011 plot to attack the Military Entrance Processing Center in Seattle, a 2011 planned second attack on Fort Hood, the 2011 plot to bomb the Pentagon and the US Capitol using explosives equipped remote controlled model aircraft, the 2011 New York pipe bomb plot, the 2012 plot to attack targets In Tampa Bay, Florida and the 2012 plot by Amine El Khalifi to attack targets in Alexandria, Virginia and Washington DC all share a number of commonalities.  First, regardless of the quizzical nature of some of these plots coupled with an almost blatant disregard for operational security, the presence of the plots show a continued threat to the US Homeland, which in the context of the War on Terror, has not ended.  Secondly, a combination of citizen reporting, local law enforcement and/or Federal law enforcement detected the vast majority of these plots.  Federal law enforcement has also been involved in the disruption of plots involving domestically based individuals that sought to strike targets overseas or provide material support to foreign US-designated terrorist groups.  Inclusive of this has been the very recent arrest of four individuals in California with ideological linkage to the deceased cleric Anwar al Awlaki, the arrest of two individuals in Georgia who had plans to strike targets in North Africa.  The degree to which the post September 11, 2001 security infrastructure played a role appears to be limited to increased awareness and potentially increased cooperation amongst local law enforcement agencies and Federal law enforcement.  Finally, the fact that these plots were present and continue to be attempted shows that the threat to the US Homeland remains patent.

International Cooperation, WMDs and Rogue States

Since September 11, 2001, there have been a number of global and regional initiatives that have been undertaken in regards to CT purposes.    These include the expansion of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, the Group of Eight (G8) Counterterrorism Action Group, the G8 Secure and Facilitated International Travel Security Initiative, the G8 Global Counterterrorism Forum, the Pan Sahel Initiative, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Counterterrorism Task Force, the establishment of the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counterterrorism, the establishment of the Eurasian Group (EAG), the establishment of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force and the establishment of the Trans-Sahara Counterterror Initiative/Partnership. Have these partnerships and initiatives been successful to the point of serving as a basis for declaring the War on Terror as being finished in the particular context of developing functional CT partnerships?  The answer appears to be no.  As the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) notes, international CT efforts are plagued by three general weaknesses consisting of a lack of definitional agreement on the term terrorism, a lack of compliance with and enforcement of treaties governing CT and a lack of progress in regards to strategies associated with “counterradcalization” and “deradicalization” strategies.

On the non-proliferation front, specifically within the context of terrorism, the primary new instrument has been the adoption of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1540.  Among the various declarations contained within this resolution, it was noted that “all States shall refrain from providing any form of support to non-State actors that attempt to develop, acquire, manufacture, process, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological[1] weapons and their means of delivery.”  Furthermore, it was noted that:

Decides also that all States, in accordance with their national procedures, shall adopt and enforce appropriate effective laws which prohibit any non-State actor to manufacture, acquire, possess, develop, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery, in particular for terrorist purposes, as well as attempts to engage in any of the forgoing activities, participate in them as an accomplice, assist or finance them.”

The degree to which global, regional and national WMD anti-proliferation efforts, in the context of terrorism and the War on Terror, have exhibited efficacy remains difficult to gauge.  A good portion of this difficulty arises from the inherent difficulty associated with developing, producing, procuring and delivering WMDs and thereby accurately gauging the threat posed by WMD use at the hand of terrorist organizations.  The cohort of successful WMD use by sub-national actors is rather limited and consists of the use of Salmonella in 1984 as the agent for inducing gastroenteritis in the potential voting population and others of The Dalles, Oregon, by the Rajneeshee religious group, the use of Sarin gas and the failed attempt at the use of Bacillus anthracis by the Aum Shinrikyo religious group in Japan in 1995 and the post-September 11, 2001 Bacillus anthracis, “anthrax letters” disseminated in the US.   With the anthrax letters, should the final determination of culpability be linked to the now deceased Dr. Bruce Ivins, the classification of the acts as acts of terrorism remains dubious secondary to the lack of apparent political motivation.  The anthrax letters example also shows the almost universal importance, excluding the singular case of the limited effect Aum Shinrikyo Sarin gas program, of either state sponsorship or state agent access when it comes to the threat represented by WMDs.  Even state sponsorship, the support of hundreds of experts and the presence of the level of funding generally available to only state-level entities does not ensure the development of WMDs.  Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, in discussing the necessity for tacit knowledge in addition to explicit knowledge for WMD development noted the following:

“Explicit information such as designs and instructions cannot be efficiently used in the absence of the related tacit knowledge.  Science and technology scholars had demonstrated that it took Manhattan Project scientists with explicit knowledge of physics and possession of fissile material considerable time to design and construct a workable and reliable prototype implosion nuclear weapon.  First they needed to solve a multitude of difficult engineering and interdisciplinary scientific problems which required hiring thousands of technical specialists to develop a unique knowledge base and building an extensive, indigenous infrastructure.”

 On the WMD issue, especially in regards to nuclear weapons, at the state level, the degree of success of international anti-proliferation efforts remains questionable.  This statement is readily evidenced by the successful North Korean atomic weapons test in 2009, the continued attempts by the North Korean government to develop long-range rockets (involving a failed launch in February, 2012 and a successful launch in December, 2012), which could serve as a nuclear weapon delivery mechanism, the continued worries of future North Korean nuclear device test as well as the issues surrounding the Iranian nuclear program.  The degree to which these issues translate into the terrorism narrative remains dubious as do the foundational issues of the actual threat of the use of WMDs by terrorist groups and the corresponding efficacy of the War on Terror global infrastructure for mitigation of the same.  While the term “rogue states” has largely been absent from the vernacular of the current administration[2], replaced with terms such as “outliers,” the fundamental problems, in regards to the US foreign policy perspective remain.  A greater emphasis on diplomacy by the current Administration in regards to Iran and North Korea, the two remaining countries of the previous Administration’s “Axis of Evil,” has thus far not yielded a different result.  The engagement policy regarding the North Korean government was left in limbo, resulting in the withdrawal of US offers for food aid, after the North Korean government conducted the long range rocket test in February, 2012.  Similarly, attempts to engage Iran’s theocratic government have met with no success and the administration, instead, has resorted to sanctions and an escalating war of words over Iran’s threat to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz.  One may also consider the evolving situation involving the civil war in Syria, in which a coalition of rebel forces, inclusive of the Qa’idat al Jihad influenced and former Islamic State of Iraq manned and led al Nusra Front and the Salafi Islamist Ahrar al Sham, are engaged in fierce combat with forces loyal to the Alawite government of President Bashar al Assad.  The undeclared but known chemical weapons capability of the Syrian government, consisting of sulfur mustard based blister agents and both non-persistent (sarin within the G-agent classification) and persistent (VX within the V-agent classification) nerve agents along with missile-based and aerial based delivery mechanisms represents a potential concern for two reasons.  The first reason being deployment by the government and the second being loss of control of the weapons.


The War on Terror, by this name and others, remains virtually unchanged over the course of the previous and current Administration when it comes to the goals involved.  These goals primarily focused on the Qa’idat al Jihad organization but also included broader concerns such as protection of the US Homeland, US citizens and US interests, limiting or mitigating the threat of WMD proliferation and seeking increased regional and international cooperation against organizations that employed terrorism.  While this paper sought to limit the discussion of Qa’idat al Jihad, it could not do so when it came to the discussion of the protection of the US Homeland.  In this regard, the majority of attempted attacks on the US Homeland were under the organizational responsibility of Qa’idat al Jihad, its affiliates or its allies and failed, not secondary to the post-September 11, 2001 security infrastructure but rather secondary to operational incompetence.  Also considered were a series of actions inspired by Qa’idat al Jihad as an ideology as these actions represented the preponderance of successful and attempted domestically derived incidents of terrorism since September 11, 2001[3].  The successful attacks were not stopped by the post-September 11, 2001 security framework and the unsuccessful attacks were stopped by a combination of citizen reporting, local law enforcement and federal law enforcement.  In the view of the subject authors, the post-September 11, 2001 security framework remains relatively untested, however, the threat to the US homeland still remains a pervasive reality.  The War on Terror, in regards to the protection of the US homeland, clearly is not over. 

The WMDs issue ties into two particular facets of the War on Terror.  In the first, regarding mitigating the risk of non-state actor possession and deployment, the actual threat is overstated but beyond that, the degree of increased international cooperation has been limited.  The latter argument also holds for increased cooperation for CT efforts.  In the second, rogue states or outliers, describing not only the same entities but also the same problem set in regards to US foreign policy objectives, remain obstreperous in their intransigence when it comes to yielding to US pressure (diplomatic, economic or otherwise).  In regards to the issues of WMD proliferation to non-state actors and by state level actors, increased international CT cooperation and rogue states or outliers, US objectives in the War on Terror have not been met.

[1] The absence of radiological weapons and/or agents is noted by the subject authors.

[2] The term “rogue states” was used three times during the 2008 Presidential campaign in the speech, “A New Strategy for a New World.”

[3] The claims of a proliferative threat of “Right wing” domestic terrorism for the most part have failed to materialize while terrorism predicated on environmental issues, animal rights and traditional “Left wing” causes, exemplified by the Weather Underground splinter faction of the Students for a Democratic Society remain very limited.


About the Author(s)

Ajay Singh received his Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and his Master in Social Work Policy from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He currently works at the Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, focusing on issues related to societal stability in the post World War 2 era. His recent projects focus on the relationship between natural resources and conflict, and the role of demographic variability in civil conflict.

Jai Singh holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a master of science degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Southern California and a master of arts (with honors) degree in intelligence studies with a focus on terrorism and counterterrorism from the American Public University.  His master of arts thesis focused on the strategic, theater and tactical evaluation of the Haqqani network.  His works have previously been published in the Small Wars Journal and the Journal of Strategic Security.  He is currently employed in private practice, working as an expert in the fields of accident reconstruction and trauma biomechanics.  His research interests include, but are not limited to, the development of mathematical modeling methods for studying the governing issues surrounding the sociological phenomenon of insurgency and terrorism.