Skip to main content

Earlier this month, the Biden administration confirmed the targeted killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

While the administration hailed the strike as a success—especially given reports that no civilians were harmed in the operation—soon after, commentators began to ask the question, “Now what?”

FCNL has catalogued many of the failures of the U.S. approach to counterterrorism in our new report, “The Failures of the War on Terror.”

Did this mean the war on terror was finally over? Legal experts queried the lawfulness of the strike, while others drew attention to the immense human and financial toll of the last two decades of war.

Indeed, while the Zawahiri strike might be regarded as a victory, it did nothing to erase the failures of 21 years of a war-based, military-first approach to terrorism. And these failures cannot be relegated to a distant past. They remain ongoing.

A recent example is a March 2021 report which found that the $2 billion U.S. counterterrorism program in Nigeria not only failed to quell terrorist groups in the country, but that the Nigerian military itself was routinely committing gross human rights violations. The human and financial costs of U.S. wars also continue to rise, with more than 929,000 people having been killed in the post 9/11-wars, at a cost of over $8 trillion to American taxpayers.

Despite clear evidence that this approach is both ineffective and harmful, the United States has continued to expand its militarized counterterrorism operation abroad. From 2018 to 2020, such operations were conducted in 85 countries, up from 80 countries in the prior two years.

FCNL has catalogued many of the failures of the U.S. approach to counterterrorism in our new report, “The Failures of the War on Terror.” Our review of international terrorism studies found that the “war on terror” has not only failed to eliminate terrorist groups abroad but has led to their expansion and proliferation.

The report also documents how pursuing this war-based approach abroad has had devastating impacts on our communities at home. It has led to the militarization of police, the vilification of Muslim communities, and the exacerbation of climate change, all while detracting from what experts confirm is by far the greatest extremist threat to the U.S. homeland: white supremacist violence.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Annual terror attacks worldwide increased fivefold between 2001 and 2018.
  • There are more groups engaging in terrorism, with an estimated 67 groups in 2018, the highest level since 1980.
  • The number of  Sunni-Islamist-inspired fighters willing and able to use violence to achieve their goals increased 270% to a total of 230,000 between 2001 and 2018.
  • The number of attacks from terror groups in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger increased sevenfold to over 1,000 in the three years after these countries entered a U.S.-supported joint force to combat terrorism in 2017.
  • Over 387,000 civilians have been killed in the post-9/11 wars, with significant systemic problems in U.S. operations, including the misidentification of civilians as terrorist targets and the failure to determine the presence of civilians prior to conducting lethal strikes.
  • Over $1.6 billion in military equipment has been given to state and local police departments since 9/11. Correlations have been found between transfers of miliary equipment and increased police killings of civilians. Researchers have also found that “militaristic tactics and imagery breed fear and mistrust, particularly among poor and hyperpoliced communities of color.”
  • Between 2001 and 2017, the U.S. military emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, with more than 400 million metric tons produced directly from war-related activities. It is one of the world’s top emitters and the single largest consumer of oil, making it a significant driver of climate change.

Upon taking office, President Biden directed a review of U.S. counterterrorism policy. While that review has still not been made public, it must take stock of the very real failures and tremendous harms produced by 21 years of a military-first response to terrorism. The “war on terror” was neither a necessary response to the events of 9/11 nor an effective one, and it is time to find a better way.

Heather Brandon-Smith

Heather Brandon-Smith

Legislative Director of Foreign Policy

Heather Brandon-Smith is FCNL’s Deputy Director for Foreign Policy. Heather leads FCNL’s work to repeal outdated war authorization, promote respect for human rights and international law, and reduce U.S. armed interventions around the world.