The United States is engaged in an unusual global war, fighting a tactic rather than an enemy nation. Unlike traditional warfare, it is possible that this war between the US and terrorist networks will not produce a clear winner. The US and its allies have been involved in military engagements over the past decade and a half, costing the US taxpayer an estimated $1.5 to $5.6 trillion dollars The longer the US remains embroiled in this armed conflict, the less likely it is that such a war ends favorably from an American perspective. While US defense strategy will need to include counter-terrorism efforts for decades to come, it is time to end the war by beginning to reframe the narrative behind the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
In the context of the GWOT, terrorism refers most frequently to random attacks on civilians by groups who seek to conduct religious war against the United States. In using these terrorist tactics, these groups specifically intend to sow widespread fear. Recent polls show that a growing number of Americans feel “less safe” than they did before 9/11.
But by allowing that fear to continue the GWOT or even drive domestic policies, including those on immigration and refugees, the US allows terrorists that psychological victory. That fear has become an enemy in itself. Reframing terrorism in the minds of the American public will be a difficult task. It will require reshaping the narrative around terrorism, from a constant and devastating threat into an unlikely event in our daily lives.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis may have started this transformation with the most recent National Defense Strategy, redefining terrorism as a distractor. General Mattis is correct to instead focus attention on near-peer nation powers. To fully shift to a new narrative, the focus must stay on traditional threats, including Russian election interference and North Korean nuclear facilities development, which appears to be continuing even after Kim Jong-Un’s meeting with President Trump. This will allow Congress to shift its attention from counter-terrorism efforts to other critical national security concerns, such as military infrastructure and future systems acquisitions. To change the current narrative and move towards ending the GWOT, politicians, government officials, military spokespersons, and media outlets will need to work together. If politicians and media outlets revert to fear-generating coverage of terror events, any new narrative will fail.
Now is also the time to shift away from the battlefield and toward non-military counterterrorism measures by focusing on innovative domestic solutions. The United States is at greater risk today from homegrown terrorists than foreign terrorist groups, actors who operate within family and local community structures. Countering violent extremism domestically should focus on preventing individual radicalization. Such efforts could include empowering influential individuals and communities to lead the effort. For example, the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Grant Program has “award[ed] grants to state and local governments, universities and non-profit organizations in order to assist local communities in their own efforts to counter violent extremism.” Religious and secular leaders should continue to be trained to recognize early warning signs of violent extremism. These programs, which could be tailored to individual communities, allow flexible community self-monitoring and acknowledge that individuals radicalize for a myriad of reasons. Such programs also acknowledge the best way to prevent a terrorist attack is to prevent radicalization, and the people best placed to know an individual is radicalizing are those who know them personally.
Finally, domestic programs could cost less than expanded traditional measures and incorporate new allies into the counterterrorism effort. The United States’ efforts in the GWOT have, thus far, prevented major terrorist organizations from conducting a second 9/11-style attack. Yet, efforts to protect the homeland have not been failproof. The growing threat of domestic radicalization requires the US to refocus on counter-terrorism efforts at home – regardless of whether it is Islamic or white-nationalist extremism. Pursuing a strategy that shifts away from military engagement and towards stronger domestic policy will save trillions in taxpayer dollars, prevent future terrorist attacks, and help end the GWOT.