The war against terror in the United States has been evolving, particularly in a reactionary manner to the various terrorist threats and incidences that the country faces. Before 9/11, the US had a lackluster approach to issues terrorism. Even the 1998 missile attacks on Al-Qaeda were ordered after extensive deliberation and with much reluctance. However, the 9/ 11 attacks brought in an entirely different dynamic in the United States concerning terrorism. The U.S sought to radicalize its counterterrorism strategy to meet the new demands of such a threatening terrorist situation. Hence, in the years after 9/11, the U.S counterterrorism strategy became more versatile and more aggressive in order to deal with terrorist threats in an effective manner (Parisi, 2011). However, questions still rage as to how efficient these strategies are in combating terrorist attacks.
Soon after the September 2001 attacks, President George W. Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act into law. This was on October 26, 2001, barely a month after the deadly attacks of 9/11. Whether or not this law was hurried and, therefore, faulty, is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that it formed the basis for the current U.S policy against terrorism, which has attracted the criticism of several critics for its violation of human rights, its victimization of several innocent people and its effectiveness for countering the terrorist threat.
The Patriot act was expected to intercept and Obstruct acts of terrorism in a number of ways. First, it cut down the restrictions that law enforcement agencies would have to run into in the course of gathering intelligence. The act also broadened the Secretary of Treasury’s power to control financial transactions, especially those that involved foreign individuals. Next, the act also gave more power to immigration and law enforcement authorities to detain terrorism suspects. The act was the first of many steps that have been taken to reduce the effect and reach of terrorism in the United States of America.
Barely a year after the Patriot Act was signed into law; another major anti-terrorist legislation was once again before the house seeking to be passed into law. This law was also reactionary to terrorist threats that the US was facing in different forms. Some terrorists had mailed anthrax spores, causing an outbreak of anthrax. This once more triggered and propelled the US federal lawmakers into action concerning the defense of American soil against further terrorist attacks.
The legislation seeking to be passed into law this time round was the Homeland Security Act of 2002, introduced into the House by Dick Armey in June 2002. By end of November on the same year, the President had signed the bill into law, sanctioning the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, and a new cabinet position of Secretary of Homeland Security. The Department of Homeland Security has been responsible, in large measure, for exercising the influences of the Patriot Act.
These two legislations are, arguably, some of the most functional laws in the war against terror in the United States. They are responsible for most of the successes that were listed in a September 2007 report by the State Department in the war against terror. Some of the successes in the document are: elimination of al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan; striking Iraq off the list of state sponsors of terrorism; incorporation of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the fight against terrorism; consolidation of counterterrorism efforts under the department of Homeland Security; and breaking down of barriers that prevent information sharing among government agencies.
These are some of the successes that the United States has been able to cite in the war against terror. However, the question then arises: how safe is the United States from future terrorist attacks? Are the successes made in the war against terror a true reflection of the level of vulnerability of the US, or do they hoodwink the US citizen and yet the threat of terror is as real as it was even before these policies came into place?
John Brennan, the point man of President Obama on counter-terrorism strategy, argues that the efforts that the US has made have made the country much safer from external terrorist threats (Wilson Center, 2012). He argues that the death of al-Qaeda’s core, which consists of people like Osama bin Laden, Illyas Kashmiri, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Younis Al Mauritani, has left the terrorist group demoralized and disorganized. He observes that al-Qaeda has had trouble replacing its most experienced leaders, because they have fallen to US sources in quick succession. This has left the organization vulnerable and weak, unable to stage major attacks in the US
The destruction of the al-Qaeda core has made the organization reach out to its allies and sympathizers. These include organizations like al-Shabaab in East Africa, the al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), the al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb ((AQUIM) and the Taliban. These have, however, felt the heat of American forces too. Their power is fast being drained, and their influence waning. In fact, the al-Qaeda is fast losing sympathy among Muslim faithful and Arabs because of its inhumane treatment of women and children, and this loss of popularity in the Arab world is working against its recruitment program. The al-Qaeda is no longer capable of staging grand attacks on the US.
Another measure of the success of the US counterterrorism policy is that the al-Qaeda has alienated itself from the rest of the world. The al-Qaeda no longer has enough sympathizers to carry on its activities and execute its threats. This is partly because it has lost popularity in violating its ideals by killing innocents, and partly because it has faced the wrath of US forces, underscoring its vulnerability and bleak future.
Despite the successes that the US boasts over al-Qaeda, the terrorist group remains a venerable threat to the United States. Several academicians argue in favor of this. From their general tone of discourse, the state of affairs is still wanting. There is still so much to be done in the war against terror. As Cronin (2012) notes, there is lack of clarity as far as the answer to questions concerning the safety of the United States against terrorist attacks are concerned, and it is due to the fact that terrorism is hard to measure. She says that terrorism campaigns always offer poor metrics. One cannot use the yardsticks used to measure military success – such as casualties suffered, leaders killed or territory gained – to measure success in the war against terror. This is because terrorist usually exploit a position of weakness; even when they appear weakest, they are capable of their most lethal blow.
This was the case in 2001, and it is very likely to repeat itself. Before 2001, policy makers relied on such metrics as plots foiled, numbers of incidents, membership in terms of numbers of the al-Qaeda, and the number of members prosecuted. They concluded that the threat posed by the terror group was peripheral and waning. They were mistaken.
The al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain as strong in their resolution to attack the United States, as they were when their leadership core was intact. The terrorist group seeks alternative routes into the United States, and for as long as this continues, the threat that the al-Qaeda poses in the US remains real and a source of concern and constant surveillance.
US counterterrorism efforts have not only been criticized for failing to guarantee total security against terrorist attacks on American soil, but they have also faced the castigation of the human rights activists for violating several human rights (Hoffman, 2004). Since 2001, the United States has established a list of capture/kill terror suspects, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq severally, trained thousands of anti-terror officials in over 60 countries, ordered raids orchestrated by Special Forces to kill terrorists and programmed unmanned drones in foreign airspace, which are meant to attack terrorist sanctuaries.
The measures taken by the US government have been extreme, and they have ended up in the violation of the human rights of several people. One such case was unearthed when the European Court of Human Rights made an unsettling observation in the case involving an innocent German citizen, who had been mistaken for being a member of al-Qaeda. Khaled el-Masri, the man in question, was abducted and handed over to the CIA in Macedonia, and later thrown into an Afghanistan prison. According to the court, he was severely beaten, shackled, hooded and even sodomized. The court highlighted serious concerns over the transnational practice of the US concerning terrorism since 9/11.
This has been the tone with which the counterterrorism policy of the US has been treated since 9/11. The international community has lost faith in the policy of the US concerning anti-terrorism, and this is compounded by the fact that it does not necessarily guarantee safety against terrorist attacks in the United States. The stories and allegations surrounding the treatment of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp are an embodiment of the international cries against the underhand tactics used by the United States in the war against Terror. It has been confirmed that the detainees in Guantanamo Bay underwent various forms of torture during interrogations, including loud music, sleep deprivations, exposure to hot and cold and bright lights (Council of Europe. Parliamentary Assembly & European Commission for Democracy through Law, 2007).
Moreover, the use of drones to target specific al-Qaeda terrorists has sparked a debate over the ethics of the issue. The US has severally tried to defend the ethics and legality of the issue, but the debate rages on. In the speech by Brennan over the ethics of the issue, he stated that the ethics of being able to target a specific individual from thousands of miles away, though questionable, is undoubtedly ethical. He argues that the US is in armed conflict with both the al-Qaeda and the Taliban in response to the 9/11 attacks, and that the use of military force on these targets follows reliable intelligence that the targets are of military value. Therefore, there is no ethical question that needs to arise over such attacks. The legality of these attacks, according to Brennan, are also beyond reproach. International law has nothing against the use of lethal force or remotely piloted aircraft against an enemy outside an active battlefield, especially when the host nation is either unable or incapable of taking action against the enemy. Brennan argues that the attacks are consistent with the inherent right of the United States to defend itself against threats.
The extreme measures taken by the United States in the defense of the country against terrorist attacks have underscored the gravity with which the country takes terrorist threats. However, several questions remain unanswered, and several mysteries unresolved. The measures taken to prevent any more terrorist attacks in the US have been castigated for being extreme, and yet questions linger over whether or not they will hold the peace long enough. The ethical issues surrounding the policies that the US has employed in order to protect its territory against foreign attacks are heavy, and yet it is difficult to verify the truth of these ethical claims because of the secrecy with which the US treats its operations.
The terrorist threat that the US faces is as real now as it was real in 2001 before the 9/11 attacks. The counterterrorism efforts, though spirited, have left a lot to be desired, both in the eyes of the citizens who desperately need to be protected against terrorist threats and in the eyes of the international human rights community who are concerned about the treatment of suspects. The United States may have to review its counterterrorism policy many more times before it comes up with a solution that is not only workable, but also acceptable in the fight against terrorism. However, there is no denying that numerous strides have been made in the war against terrorism.