Matt Gurney: Lessons from the War on Terror


Terrorism can be contained, and even defeated, but with a range of mid-level options like cyber warfare, targeted assassinations and limited air campaigns, and much more emphasis on intelligence

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Twenty years ago today, as the towers fell and the Pentagon burned down and first responders picked up body parts and wreckage in a quiet Pennsylvania field, the United States and its allies very quickly concluded that the astounding events of that dark day were the actions of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.


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International terrorism directed against the West was nothing new: the World Trade Center itself had been bombed eight years earlier, and the USS Cole had been hit the previous year (not to mention the bombings of African embassies including few remember today). But international terrorism, especially al-Qaida, has grown from a level of tragic and devastating but limited incidents to something truly catastrophic.

It is not a surprise that the choice was to go to war, because it seemed that only our soldiers could meet such an enormous, so dangerous and so original challenge.

The rest is history, of course. Western military power has won all battles and lost all wars. Al-Qaida has been downgraded as a threat, but it is still unclear whether it was even capable of another 9/11-type attack, or whether that dark day was a grim but dramatic fluke of luck. a group that would never have been able to repeat it.


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International terrorism remains a threat, of course, and that includes Islamic extremism, but Western countries are threatened as much – perhaps more – by their own internal political divisions as by terrorist groups on the other side of the world.

And terrorism, especially Islamic extremism, has adapted. We even have a new grammatical tip for it now – we’re just adding an “-inspired” to capture the ambiguity of terrorism in an age of online self-radicalization and distributed terrorist networks without bases in remote mountainous regions, but active social media presences.

A few years ago, as shootings, bombings and car attacks rocked cities in the Western world, we often didn’t know if they were “ISIL” or “inspired by ISIL”, and it didn’t really matter. You can’t fight that kind of distributed, low-level threat with military forces. How many infantry brigades would it take to clean up YouTube? The absurdity of the question belies the altered nature of the threat.


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If there was another September 11 today, the answer would be different. Even assuming relatively similar conditions – a devastating attack on an American city, massive destruction and death, fear and panic among the population – we would almost certainly see a war much more like the one we waged on possessions. Islamic State in Syria and Iraq than something like the war in Afghanistan or the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

If we could identify a geographic location that was a functional safe haven for the responsible group, perhaps a limited ground incursion would seek to root out the terrorist leaders, but apart from special forces our response would likely be limited to airstrikes. , drone missions and support for local forces who would do the dirty work for us.


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None of this would be pretty, and it would raise all kinds of legal and moral issues. So don’t take this as an endorsement in itself. But if there was another spectacular attack on America, and if it could be attributed to just one group, and if that group was stupid enough to have a geographic footprint somewhere, this is probably how it would play out. .

We have tried the alternative of massive retaliation and occupation on the ground, and the result is not only total failure abroad, but an ill-divided American and Western alliance. Does anyone think we would really do this again?

It is not an abstract concern. Terrorism has not disappeared, even if it is at its lowest. It’s not the main threat we face today, but the threat remains, and sooner or later (hopefully much later) there will be another 9/11 or something like that.


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Twenty years of shed blood and treasures, ultimately producing little beyond tragedy and collateral damage, have taught us a painful lesson, and perhaps even the right one: Terrorism can be contained, and even defeated, but with a range of level options such as cyber warfare, targeted assassinations and limited air campaigns, and much more emphasis on intelligence and, if possible, deradicalization.

These tools will not give us the kind of massive victory and confidence-building that the people of the Western world so desperately wanted 20 years ago. But that’s probably the best we can hope for the next time something like this happens.

National post

Join us on Wednesday September 15 for a live online debate. From Universal Social Programs and High Taxes to “Greening” the Economy: What Kind of Government Should Canadians Have in Their Lives – and How Much?

  1. A Montreal volunteer walks past the destroyed World Trade Center site with the flags of a nearby Canadian ceremony in New York City on December 1, 2001.

    Aaron Shull: It’s been 20 years since September 11. Canada needs a new national security policy

  2. An aerial view of the debris and damage left after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center days earlier in New York City on September 17, 2001.

    Matt Gurney: The Lost World Before the 9/11 Attacks



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