American Counter-terrorism after 9/11

By Donna Starr-Deelen, Adjunct Professor University of Baltimore Law School



The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which killed almost 3,000 people and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York city, shocked the United States, its government, and the world. As one terrorism expert noted, the mastermind behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden, single-handedly changed the history of terrorism. The administration of President George W. Bush could do no longer assume a non-state terrorist organization such as al Qaeda was not capable of destruction on a vast scale inside the United States. In response to the threat posed by al Qaeda, President Bush instigated a “war” on terror that stressed the use of military means to eradicate terrorism. Under Bush, counter-terrorism policies reflected a war paradigm and detention and targeting policies were consistent with fighting an armed conflict with terrorists.


One of the most controversial aspects of the Bush war on terror was the establishment of the GITMO or Guantanamo detention camp in Cuba in 2002. Suspected al Qaeda terrorists were flown there and detained as part of the war on terror. It remains open in 2021, despite the pledges of various American politicians to close it. Only 39 detainees are housed there now, and President Biden has pledged to close it. Its effectiveness as part of the Bush war on terror is questionable as it became a symbol of unchecked and indiscriminate American detention policies for those suspected of being Islamic terrorists.


When President Obama arrived at the White House in 2009, the expectation was that the new administration would drastically change the orientation of the war on terror because Senator Barack Obama had campaigned extensively on changing many aspects of the prior administration’s policies. At the time, the US was involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and was mired in an economic crisis. President Obama was faced with resolving pressing economic problems while handling the “war on terror” with its controversial policies on detention, interrogation, and the use of force against terrorists. He did not have the same freedom of maneuver that previous presidents encountered regarding counter-terrorism strategy because the Bush administration policies constrained subsequent policy options. The Obama administration responded to the challenge of al Qaeda terrorism by advocating a hybrid approach to counter-terrorism with some elements of the Bush war on terror combined with more emphasis on other counter-terrorism methods using diplomacy and law enforcement. President Obama also increased the use of armed drones to eradicate terrorist leaders in countries outside the US.


The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections was a surprise to many observers. Candidate Trump had campaigned on slogans about destroying ISIS and other groups engaging in radical Islamic terrorism, but there were few specific policy proposals. Many of President Trump’s closest advisors in the campaign and the first year in office like National Security Advisor Michael Flynn analyzed the counter-terrorism regime as a “war against Islam,” a controversial term. While he rhetorically moved away from the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policies, in reality, President Trump built on those policies and pursued an intensification of Obama’s policies to degrade and defeat the ISIS caliphate. In addition, President Trump moved to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan as part of his pledge to end America’s longest war.


The election of Joe Biden, the Vice President in the Obama administration, in November 2020 indicates that US counter-terrorism policies will resemble the security regime advanced by President Obama. However, President Biden is constrained by the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic which is not yet contained worldwide and by domestic terrorist threats which were seen in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capital. President Biden is also limited by the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. President Trump agreed with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar in February 2020 that American forces would leave Afghanistan in 2021. In return for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban pledged not to let their territory be used as a terrorist haven as al Qaeda used it prior to the 9/11 attacks. Critics maintain that the agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban has no enforcement mechanisms so there is no way to compel the Taliban to honor their commitments. Moreover, the chaos of the American withdrawal in August 2021, including the horrific terror attack by ISIS-K at the Kabul airport on August 26, appear to have weakened President Biden by raising questions about his competence.


Current trends regarding international terrorism are concerning. For instance, the terrorist threat has been de-centralized since al Qaeda perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, making it more difficult to contain transnational terror cells in Africa and other parts of the world. Instead of eradicating terrorism as President Bush promised in 2001, the war on terror has led to jihadi ideology metastasizing and menacing more civilian populations worldwide. Several terrorist groups, ISIS for example, have proven adept at harnessing new technologies such as social media platforms for spreading propaganda and recruiting followers. They are also interested in using weaponized drones for many reasons, including the psychological impact a successful drone attack would create. President Biden and his advisors may be preoccupied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the domestic terror threat, but it would be highly unadvisable to ignore the potential of jihadi terror groups to terrorize and disrupt Americans and allied countries.