Our Troubled Path to Greater Security

The counterterrorism initiative launched in response to the horrific attacks on our country 10 years ago continues to this day.

On this solemn anniversary, it is appropriate to reflect on how this initiative has fared. Those who were killed in the attacks, the police and firefighters who perished trying to save others, the soldiers and intelligence agents who have died or been injured in foreign lands and all of their families deserve no less than a candid appraisal of how we responded and an informed strategy of how to proceed in the future.

If we look only at the effect our efforts have had on al-Qaida and the security of our civilian population, one would have to conclude that our strategy has been a success. There have been no successful al-Qaida-sponsored attacks inside the United States since 9/11. Bin Laden is dead. Many hundreds of his foot soldiers have also been killed. Al-Qaida has been severely weakened, and its ability to mount attacks has been compromised. Bin Laden's quest to create Islamic states governed by strict sharia law and dedicated to conflict with the United States has flopped. Al-Qaida's popularity among the world's Muslims has plummeted.

These are important achievements that were certainly not foreordained. They resulted from large-scale improvement of counterterrorism capabilities in both our military and civilian agencies, extensive coordination with allies and the expansion of governmental powers that remain controversial to this day.

We have denied al-Qaida safe havens abroad, dried up many sources of funding, tracked individual terrorists relentlessly, applied deadly force in even the most remote areas of the globe and tightened our immigration controls and border security. We could not do this prior to 9/11. Now we can, and we are a safer nation.

Bin Laden took a long view of history. He believed that the United States is at war with Islam, and his core goal was to rally the world's Muslims to Islam's defense. He was wrong to believe that killing thousands of American civilians on 9/11 would attract Muslims to his cause. But he was correct in predicting that this attack would provoke American intervention in the Muslim world and ratify his narrative.

We fell into the trap that bin Laden laid for us. We labeled our response to 9/11 a "war on terror" that encompassed not only the relatively small organization that attacked us but also every terrorist group with global reach, the "axis of evil" of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and terrorist groups threatening Israel like Hamas and Hezbollah. Our response was too militaristic and too unilateral.

In Afghanistan, we removed a dangerous regime, but we failed to secure and rebuild the country in a way that demonstrated the benefits of siding with us against the extremists. In Iraq, we attacked a Muslim nation without provocation, occupied it and allowed a deadly insurgency to emerge, resulting in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions being displaced. We so lost our way during the Iraq War, our soldiers tortured and humiliated scores of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

We called for greater freedom and democracy in the Middle East, but quickly reverted to our traditional policy of supporting repressive dictators in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere in exchange for counterterrorism assistance, stability and access to oil. We've called for the creation of a Palestinian state, but have made no progress in actually achieving one.

We were not at war with Islam. But we made it far too easy for our enemies to make it seem as if we were.

So it is no wonder that despite having been pummeled for a decade, al-Qaida's ideology advocating violence against the United States continues to resonate among small, but still potentially dangerous, groups of young Muslim men scattered around the globe. Of course, this ideology perseveres due to many factors internal to the Islamic world as well, about which we can do very little. Many of our actions, however, have made things worse.

The al-Qaida once based in Afghanistan has metastasized, with strong al-Qaida affiliates now present in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and weaker but still dangerous ones in Iraq, the Maghreb (northwest Africa) and Southeast Asia. Other extremist organizations are capable of causing serious destruction. And individual al-Qaida-inspired terrorists continue to plot and sometimes successfully execute attacks inside the United States and Europe.

Perhaps our greatest self-inflicted wound has been allowing anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment to grow and fester inside our borders. We find ourselves trying to compete economically in a hyper-connected world, yet building fences on our border and resisting the construction of mosques in some communities. China and India are fighting for the jobs of the next century; we are fighting the clash of civilizations.

Moving forward, this conflict must be framed as an alliance between people of all faiths fighting to advance peace and prosperity in the modern world against those who kill civilians to impose an archaic, intolerant theocracy on others. All of our counterterrorism policies need to advance this narrative and undercut the claim that the West is at war with Islam.

There is a role for force in combating violent extremists, but we are better off training and equipping our allies to confront the terrorists than trying to do it ourselves. When we do use force, we should do so with allies, preferably Muslims, as we have done in Libya. Integrating Pakistan into the surveillance and weapons-firing drone program would also make this a more sustainable policy.

The "Arab Spring" gives us a historic chance to reset our relations in this critical region. Al-Qaida is an irrelevancy to this movement. The protesters did not topple regimes to install Islamic theocracies opposed to the West. If we can help these countries build stable democratic systems and participate in the global economy, the extremists will be further marginalized. If good governance cannot be established and economic stagnation persists, al-Qaida could find an opening to re-emerge.

We could further undermine the al-Qaida narrative by reducing our reliance on Middle East oil, which dictates much of our unpopular foreign policy in the region. All Americans should be asked to save energy at home and work in the name of fighting terrorism.

Our security apparatus has grown exponentially over the past decade. At a time when we are laying off teachers and our infrastructure is crumbling, we should carefully assess whether we can achieve our counterterrorism objectives without such massive expenditures.

It would be helpful in this regard to provide an updated assessment of the extent of the terrorist threat to the American people. Al-Qaida-inspired terrorism will continue to warrant close attention and substantial resources, but it does not present an existential threat to our nation. It would be healthy for our national psyche for the media and our leaders to ratchet down the rhetoric, calm fears and reduce our preoccupation with terrorism.

Finally, we need to regain our bearings and rededicate ourselves to the great American values of pluralism, tolerance and diversity. We've allowed the combination of bin Laden's attacks and the recession to undermine our national confidence in fundamental American principles. Thankfully, Muslim-Americans and immigrants are still deeply patriotic, despite what they have endured since 9/11. It is high time to marginalize those who intentionally try to divide us by preaching hatred and spreading ignorance.

We endured a terrible blow on 9/11. Preventing subsequent attacks has been an important achievement. But we can prevent terrorism and act as a great nation. Hopefully, 10 years from now, we can look back at the record of the prior decade with less ambiguity and greater pride than we can on this somber anniversary.

This commentary was first published in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.  David Schanzer is an associate professor of the practice of public policy and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.