Small Wars Journal

The War on Terror - Over?

Tue, 08/28/2012 - 5:30am


Michael Hirsh, in a recent National Journal 2012 Decided blog post, cites an unnamed senior State Department official working on Middle East issues as making the following statement:

“The war on terror is over.  Now that we have killed most of al Qaida, now that people have come to see legitimate means of expression, people who once might have gone into al Qaida see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism.”

While there is no readily available mechanism for gauging the specific source of the statement, the totality of the published statement in comparison to the original statement or the degree to which the statement reflects the fullness and nuance of the views of its originator, or more broadly the US Department of State, the statement is itself worthy of consideration. To gauge the accuracy of the statement and determine if the war on terror is indeed over, one must first determine how the administrations defined terrorism over the past decade and identify their goals related to the eradication of terrorism.

This paper intends to focus on defining the tenets, regardless of nomenclature used, of the War on Terror, by the current and previous US administrations. This includes each administration’s overarching goals in combating terrorism, the methods used to accomplish these goals and the issues associated with the each approach. The proceeding sections look at the comparisons in both strategy and execution in the War on Terrorism by the Bush and Obama Administrations, examining the similarities and differences between the two.

The War on Terrorism

The Bush Administration

Terrorism refers to a particular methodology utilized by individuals and/or groups seeking political change.  The constituent components that define this methodology, however, are not under agreement and oft serve as the basis for contentious debate.  For the purposes herein, the authors adopt the definition of terrorism as utilized by the US Government for Department of State reporting requirements, under Title 22, Chapter 38, § 2656F, of the US Code, for international incidences of terrorism.  This document defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”  The adoption of this definition does not preclude the consideration of additional aspects of the war on terror.

The Bush Administration, through its September 2002 document, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS), defined terrorism simply as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents (pg. 5).”  This document set forth a series of priorities in regards to “a war against terrorists of global reach.”  These consisted of disrupting and destroying terrorist organizations of global reach by means of the following (pp. 5–7):

  1. Attacking terrorist organization leadership elements, command and control elements, communications, material support and finances.
  2. Encouraging regional cooperation to isolate terrorist organizations.
  3. Disrupting terrorist financial networks by means of increased cooperation with allies.

The 2002 NSS described the willingness of the US to use the full range of national and international power against transnational terrorist organizations, and state sponsors of the same, that attempted to gain or use weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and their precursors. It provided additional information about defending the US homeland and interests (through unilateral action if necessary), mitigating the role of states as sponsors or safehaven providers and waging “a war of ideas to win the battle against international terrorism.” 

The document provided a five-part definition of rogue states (pp. 13-15), consisting of states that brutalized their citizens and/or squandered national resources for the personal gain of leadership elements, displayed no regard for the norms of international law, exhibited a determination to acquire WMDs along with advanced weapons systems for use in offensive actions, sponsored global terrorism, rejected basic human values and who “hate the United States and everything for which it stands.”  The document specifically singled out Iraq and North Korea as rogue states, fitting the criteria provided by the NSS.

One of the first uses of the term ‘War on Terrorism’ appeared in the February 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (NSCT).  Beyond the simple identification of the term in question, this document presented a quadripartite set of goals consisting of defeating terrorists and their organizations, denying sponsorship, support and sanctuary to terrorists, diminishing the underlying conditions that terrorists sought to exploit and defending US interests and citizens both at home and abroad.  Each broad goal included a series of objectives. 

For the goal of defeating terrorists and their organizations, the objectives consisted of first indentifying the terrorists and their associated organizations through the work of the Intelligence community and law enforcement agencies. Second, locate terrorists and their organizations through technical and human intelligence. The final objective aimed to destroy terrorists and their organizations by using military power and law enforcement efforts and “eliminate the sources of terrorist financing”. 

The objectives for the goal of denying sponsorship and sanctuary to terrorists consisted of ending the state sponsorship of terrorism, establishing and maintaining an international standard of accountability and strengthening internal counterterrorism initiatives. The US would work with states that were willing and able to engage in the fight, help weaker states through capacity building, persuade reluctant states to cooperate and compel those that were unwilling to engage in cooperation. Finally, the US and its allies would work to mitigate material support for terrorist groups and eliminate terrorist safe havens. 

The objectives for the goal of eliminating the underlying conditions that terrorists sought to exploit relied upon increasing international cooperation to strengthen weak states as a palliative measure to prevent the emergence or reemergence of terrorism, and to win the war of ideas.  Quoting directly from the document:

“Together with the international community, we will wage a war of ideas to make clear that all acts of terrorism will be viewed in the same light as slavery, piracy or genocide: behavior that no respectable government can condone or support and all must oppose.  In short, with our friends and allies, we aim to establish a new international norm regarding terrorism requiring non-support, non-tolerance and active opposition to terrorists.”

The final goal elucidated by the NSCT consisted of defending US citizens and interests at home and aboard, and involved five objectives. The first objective involved implementing the National Strategy of Homeland Security. Second, attain domain awareness by developing knowledge of all activities, events and trends in all domains that could threaten the US, its citizens or is interests. Third, enhance measures to ensure the integrity, reliability and availability of critical physical and information-based infrastructure both domestically and overseas. Fourth, integrate measures to protect US citizens abroad. Finally, ensure an integrated incident management capability. 

Record, in a broad ranging piece published in 2003 by the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College reached the following conclusion about the Global War on Terrorism (pg. 41):

“The central conclusion of this study is that the global war on terrorism as currently defined and waged is dangerously indiscriminate and ambitious, and accordingly that its parameters should be readjusted to conform to concrete US security interests and the limits of American power.  Such a readjustment requires movement from unrealistic to realistic war aims and from unnecessarily provocative to traditional uses of military force.”

Record suggested six specific bounds for the War on Terror. The first consisted of deconflating the threat posed by rogue states and terrorist organizations at war with the US, and those not at war with the US. Second, he recommended the substitution of credible deterrence of preventative war as the primary means for managing rogue states seeking WMDs. The third recommendation suggested refocusing the War on Terrorism primarily on Qa’idat al Jihad and homeland security. Fourth, Record suggested using the full arsenal of US national power, short of war, to seek regime change in rogue states. The fifth measure proposed involved being prepared for stability rather than democracy, with international rather than US responsibility for Iraq. Sixth and final, reassessing US troop levels, especially ground force levels.

The 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism noted six points that defined a strategy for winning the War on Terror.  These points consisted of advancing effective democracies as the (purported) long-term antidote to the ideology of terrorism, preventing attacks by terrorist networks, denying WMDs to rogue states and terrorist allies, denying terrorists the support and sanctuary of rogue states or the control of any nation that they would in turn utilize for launching operations and finally, building institutions and structures needed for carrying forward the fight against terrorism. 


The 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States of America detailed nine points regarding what the United States must do in relation to confronting the challenges faced by the country.  Inclusive within these points were those that dealt with terrorism.  These consisted of strengthening alliances to defeat global terrorism, preventing attacks upon the United States and its allies and preventing “our enemies” (the document is replete with references to terrorists and terrorist networks within the narrative of enemies) from threatening the United States or its allies with WMDs. 

The Obama Administration

The term “War on Terrorism” was dropped from the official US government vernacular in 2009 and replaced with the term overseas contingency operations.  The Obama administration’s first National Security Strategy, released in May 2010, eschewed the nomenclature of the Bush administration’s (global) war on terrorism or its variants.  However, a substantial number of goals and objectives listed therein were consistent with the aforementioned goals and objectives of the War on Terrorism.  These consisted of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaida and its violent “extremist” affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan and globally, preventing attacks on the US homeland, strengthening aviation security, denying WMDs to terrorists, denying al Qaida the ability to threaten US Citizens, overseas interests and allies, using the multiplicity of US national power to mitigate the threat of violent “extremists” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, denying safe havens, strengthening at risk states and contrasting al Qaida’s intent with the vision of the United States. 

The most recent National Strategy for Counterterrorism, released in June 2011 following the successful targeted killing of Usama bin Laden, also bears substantial similarity to the Bush administration’s War on Terror even with the consideration of the explicit indication that, “…this Administration has made it clear that we are not at war with the tactic of terrorism… (pg. 2).”  The overarching goals of the latest iteration involve protecting US Citizens, the US homeland and American interests, disrupting, degrading and defeating al Qaida, its affiliates and adherents, preventing the fruition of the panoply of concerns governing terrorists and WMDs, eliminating terrorist safe havens, building enduring counterterrorism (CT) partnerships and capabilities, degrading the links between al Qaida, its affiliates and adherents and depriving terrorists of their enabling means.  An important point of focus, however, appears to be the realization of the ideology of al Qaida and necessity for countering it.  The areas of focus involve not only the US homeland but also a number of regional foci spanning Europe, Asia and Africa, thereby imparting a global focus. 

Comparisons between the Bush and Obama Administrations

These documents show a substantial degree of similitude in describing the War on Terror, irrespective of the use of that particular descriptor, with a nuanced differentiation between the two administrations rather than overt except in the view on Iraq.  McCrisken, in describing the changes within the Bush Administration and the comparisons between the Bush and Obama Administrations, regarding the War on Terror, notes the following:

“…few have appreciated how much the Bush strategy was quietly modified in the last three years before Obama’s accession.  Partly under pressure from European allies and partly as a result of internal squabbles, there was a step-change in strategic thinking during 2006 and 2007.  In other words, Obama has adopted a counterterrorism strategy that is late-Bush rather than early-Bush.  He has introduced some significant changes of his own, but these were in the spirit of the adaptations that were already under way.  Many of the things that Obama promised to fix were already being fixed in the last year of the Bush presidency.”

The differences between the War on Terrorism between the later years of the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration, therefore, are relatively minimal in the conceptualization of the construct, regardless of terminology utilized, with a slightly greater difference being present in the prosecution.  Terrorism, itself, is merely a method and is present in concrete form when utilized by physical, human agents.  From the conceptual perspective, the difference between a war on terrorism and a war on groups that utilize terrorism, both within the threat analysis context relating to the US and its interests, is a matter of semantics and borders upon the tautological.  Both administrations singled out Qa’idat al Jihad as being a principal threat to the US secondary to its operative methodology and its ideology.  This groups and its ideological basis, however, were not the singular focus in either administration’s conceptualization regarding the countering of terrorism.  Both administrations considered the broader precepts of security of the US Homeland, the potential threat posed by WMD proliferation and the need for enhanced regional and international cooperation when it came to CT initiatives.  Toned down from the original Bush Administration perspective, by the time of the later years of the Administration, was the explicit indication of unilateral action.  This muted perspective, in regards to stated policy, has continued under the current Administration, although, in practice, its specter is present in consideration of US “red lines” relating to Iran.  The perspective on the role of Iraq as a supporter of global terrorism and developer of WMDs, coupled with the necessity for military intervention, represents a defining difference but does not alter the reality of the temporal differences in the country and the role of the US within the same as it was present within the timeframe of the current and previous administrations. 

There are differences in how the Obama administration prosecutes certain aspects in the War on Terror. The nomenclature regarding rouge states, specifically in regards to Iran and North Korea, as discussed in the second part of this study, has changed, as has a portion of the approach on the part of the US, in dealing with them.  Executive Order 13491 ended the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.  The use of drones as a proactive CT tool increased dramatically under the Obama administration. However, there is some continuity between the two administrations. The detention facility at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the closure of which represented an important aspect of the platform of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, remains open.  The domestic security surveillance apparatus has not lessened under the current Administration. Both administrations still consider Iran and North Korea as existential threats to the security of the US and its allies.


The (Global) War on Terror(ism) and its subsequent descriptive iterations functionally refer to the same conceptualized set of issues in regards to US national security interests.  The particular facets of the crystalized threats within the issue set has shown minor changes across the previous and current administration.  While Qa’idat al Jihad enjoyed an important focus on the part of both administrations, the scope of the goals and objectives of the War on Terror was and is broader in scope.  Because of this broader embodiment, the consideration of the War on Terror, and its terminus, embodies more than simply Qa’idat al Jihad.  On the prosecutorial front, the differences between the approaches of the two administrations have shown a greater degree of difference than in regards to the differences present in the formulation of the goals, objectives and threats present.  These differences consist of a greater attempt at diplomatic engagement with countries such as North Korea and Iran, the termination of the use of enhanced interrogation methods and the increase in drone based attacks against identified terrorist targets. 

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.


Greetings SWJ:

I read with interest the article by Singh and Singh but could not reconcile its central thesis with the evolving threat paradigm and my current and previous field experience. To focus upon Al Qaeda as the classic “model” of terrorism is myopic and ignores the reality of the changing terrorism construct. What we are witnessing from Afghanistan to Chechnya and across the Atlantic to Latin America is a synchronicity of terrorism, insurgency, and transnational organized crime that signals not some evaporation of terror as a strategy or tactic, but rather its metamorphosis into a new presentation that will require new approaches. The Western preoccupation with definitions and categorization of the phenomenon reflects a simplistic approach to a complex geopolitical issue.

I am completely unsurprised at the assertion by the Singhs’ unnamed State Department official regarding the demise of the GWOT through the apparently magical sociopolitical enlightenment of the “people” (whoever they are) by “legitimate” Islamism (whatever that is). We do have people in the State Department who occasionally permit the diplomatic winds to blow away their critical thinking caps. It’s up to rational, clear thinking people to discern strategic patterns and develop policy that both reacts to current trends and anticipates future ones.

Louis DeAnda, M.S.
Kabul, Afghanistan