Is the U.S. Winning This War?

Al Qaeda has suffered setbacks, but America may have lost ground in the long-term fight, experts say. Statistics can't tell the full story.

By Doyle McManus

Los Angeles Times

September 11, 2006

WASHINGTON — Five years after Sept. 11, is the United States winning the war against Al Qaeda? President Bush says yes, but most experts — including many inside the U.S. government — say no.

An all-out effort by the United States and its allies has succeeded in making life difficult for Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, and has probably disrupted any plans they had for further terrorism on the scale of the attacks in 2001, the experts say.

But as even Bush acknowledged last week, Al Qaeda is far from dead.

"In the five years since our nation was attacked, Al Qaeda and terrorists it has inspired have continued to attack across the world," the president said. "The terrorist danger remains."

In a series of recent speeches to mark the anniversary of the attacks, Bush has declared: "America is winning the war on terror" and cited a list of achievements: "We've removed terrorist sanctuaries, disrupted their finances, killed and captured key operatives, broken up terrorist cells in America and other nations, and stopped new attacks before they're carried out."

But terrorism experts worry that those successes have been mostly tactical, short-term gains — the equivalent of winning the first few battles in a long war. On longer-term strategic issues, they warn, the U.S. may have lost ground since 2001:

•  Al Qaeda, the initial focus of the "global war on terror," has been disrupted and dispersed. But it has been succeeded by a looser network of affiliates and homegrown terrorists — like those who carried out bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 — who could grow to be just as dangerous.

•  The war in Iraq has become a training ground for Islamic extremists from Saudi Arabia and other countries, and some have returned home with expertise in urban warfare and explosives. Some experts fear the Persian Gulf's oil terminals could be among their next targets.

•  Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon have damaged the image of the U.S. in much of the Muslim world and made it easier for terrorist organizations to win recruits. The wars and controversies over U.S. treatment of detainees also have made it more difficult for allied governments to cooperate with American counterterrorism programs, diplomats say.

•  When Foreign Policy magazine surveyed more than 100 experts earlier this year, 84% said they did not believe the United States was winning the war on terrorism. In a Los Angeles Times poll, fewer than one-fourth of Americans said they believed the nation was "winning"; more than half said it was too soon to tell.

"Even the most sanguine optimist cannot yet conclude we are winning," John F. Lehman Jr., a former Navy secretary under President Reagan, warned in a recent article for the U.S. Naval Institute.

"It looks worse to me," said Bruce Hoffman, a former director of terrorism studies at the Rand Corp. who teaches at Georgetown University and the U.S. Military Academy. "Al Qaeda is still alive and kicking. It's just changed its modus operandi. We've often painted a picture of Al Qaeda in retreat. I'm not sure it isn't Al Qaeda on the march."

When asked for his report card on the war on terrorism, Henry A. Crumpton, the State Department's top counterterrorism officer, paused and said: "It's uneven…. It's hard for me to give it an A or an F. It's a real mixed bag."

At first glance, the experts' gloom may seem odd. There haven't been any successful terrorist attacks inside the U.S. since Sept. 11, although law enforcement officials say there have been several close calls.

"It's been five years, and the U.S. homeland has not been hit," said Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown's security studies program. "I don't know any terrorism experts who called this…. We were all wrong."

As a result, he said: "My assessment is that we're doing reasonably well. If the test is reducing catastrophic violence that can change our lives, we're doing rather well. If it's reducing the overall climate of violence, we're doing fairly poorly. If 30 or 40 Americans die from terrorism each year, that's a tragedy, but it's different from losing 3,000 a year. It's a problem, but it's probably not a strategic problem."

Indeed, some national security experts — like John Mueller of Ohio State University — argue that the terrorist threat has been overblown and that a terrorist industry of consultants, government contractors and politicians is hyping the problem out of self-interest.

"For all the attention it evokes, terrorism, in reasonable context, actually causes rather little damage," Mueller said, noting that automobile accidents kill many more Americans than terrorists do. "The likelihood that any individual will become a victim in most places is microscopic."

But the consensus of government officials and nongovernmental experts is that the terrorist threat remains real, and the respite from violence is temporary.

"Why have we not suffered [another] attack?" asked Lee H. Hamilton, co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, which exhaustively studied the 2001 attacks. "The honest answer is: We don't know. We simply don't know. Because we don't know the minds of the terrorists."

Paul Pillar, a former top CIA analyst, said: "The line between an attack that occurs and one that doesn't can be very thin. It comes down to luck and circumstance with regard to any particular operation."

One theory on the lack of homegrown Islamic terrorism inside the U.S. — especially in contrast to Europe, where police have foiled several planned attacks — is that Muslims in this country are more assimilated and less alienated.

"There are a lot of possible explanations," Byman said. "But they're all conjecture."

In any case, most Bush administration officials have been careful to avoid taking credit for the fact that there has been no second Sept. 11 attack — because, they say, they still expect one.

"We have hurt Al Qaeda severely, I think, but they continue to work toward another 9/11 or something even more spectacular," Crumpton said.

Although there have been no other attacks inside the United States, terrorism as a worldwide phenomenon has not diminished since 2001.

The National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, which maintains an exhaustive database, reports that terrorism has killed more than 2,300 people every year since 2001.

Most of those fatalities resulted from domestic terrorism — attacks that stemmed from strife within a single country — rather than international attacks like Sept. 11. But the institute's research director, James O. Ellis III, notes that domestic terrorism often gives birth to the international kind.

The number of civilian deaths from terrorism in 2005, as defined by the institute, swelled to more than 8,000, mostly because of sectarian violence in Iraq. But even outside Iraq, 1,952 civilians died in terrorist attacks last year.

"In international terrorism, we've seen a decrease in the number of incidents but a rise in lethality; more people are dying," Ellis said. "In domestic terrorism, we've seen a rising number of incidents and rising lethality too."

Those numbers don't measure the likelihood of more attacks on the United States; they merely confirm that terrorism as a tactic for radical insurgent groups around the world is thriving.

The statistics are part of a broad debate on how best to gauge progress in the larger battle — a measure the Pentagon calls "metrics."

In October 2003, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote a memo to his closest aides, asking: "Are we winning or losing the global war on terror?"

"Today, we lack metrics to know," Rumsfeld complained. "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas [Islamic religious schools] and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"

He told his aides he wanted better measuring sticks and a clearer strategy.

Almost three years after Rumsfeld's memo, the Bush administration last week issued a long-range plan, the "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism," most of the details of which remain classified.

But the Pentagon concluded it just wasn't possible to keep accurate track of terrorist recruiting trends, as Rumsfeld had asked — especially as Al Qaeda evolved from a close-knit organization into an amorphous, radical movement.

"It's a hard thing to measure," said Stephen A. Cambone, the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, who oversees much of the Pentagon's counterterrorism effort. "It's … more difficult than an observer might think."

Said Raphael Perl of the Congressional Research Service, who has monitored the issue for lawmakers: "There are metrics we could use," but not all parts of the government can agree on them.

He listed some measurements, beginning with the size and strength of terrorist organizations, their levels of technology and weaponry, and their access to state sponsors or havens. "Is radical Islam growing or shrinking? We aren't measuring it," he said.

Some criteria, he added, are domestic: "Our ability to recover [from terrorist attacks]. Our ability to damage ourselves through overreaction."

Perl said an important gauge was how much money was being spent to combat potential terrorism.

"9/11 has cost the world economy more than a trillion dollars in added security spending," he said. "If you can tear down the global economy, people are going to be much more receptive to other ideologies."

Before Rumsfeld's 2003 memo, the Bush administration focused its efforts and its metrics on the campaign to destroy or dismantle the leadership of Al Qaeda and its allies. That campaign, which ranged from detective work to capture suspects to "targeted killing" strikes against terrorist leaders, was largely successful.

The Bush administration maintains that three-fourths of Al Qaeda's known leaders have been removed. Other experts have disputed the figure but agree that what was known as "Al Qaeda Central" — Al Qaeda in its 2001 form — at least was reduced in size and effectiveness.

But in response, the terrorist organization has changed, the State Department's Crumpton noted. "Al Qaeda and affiliates are learning organizations," he said. "They evolve. If we make changes in our efforts and we have success — and we have — then they will make changes and counter what we have done."

"The core group of people around Bin Laden are weaker. The angry young sympathizers are more numerous," Hoffman said.

Hoffman said the new mix would mean fewer complicated, large-scale attacks like the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000. "But you can still have something like the Madrid terrorist attacks," he said. "Is that progress?"

As homegrown anti-American terrorist groups have sprung up from Spain and Britain to Indonesia and Canada, the Bush administration has augmented its "kill and capture" strategy with a longer-term drive to spread democracy, stabilize Muslim societies and win hearts and minds around the globe.

The aim, officials say, isn't to persuade the world's Muslims to like the U.S. — the focus of the administration's unsuccessful early "public diplomacy" efforts.

"That turned out to be Mission: Impossible," one official said.

Instead, the main goal is to delegitimize terrorism — to convince Muslims that Bin Laden and his followers threaten Muslim communities as much as they threaten New York or Washington.

Bush calls this "the war of ideas," and compared it last week to the 20th century battle between communism and democracy in the Cold War.

The newest effort is still in its early stages. Some parts, officials acknowledge, have met with what one called "rough going": anti-American insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others have been painfully slow at best: encouraging democracy in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But some, officials say, have gone well: keeping countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines from turning into havens for terrorist groups.

One metric that administration officials don't like talking about involves how people in other countries view the U.S. The results of a multi-country poll sponsored this year by the Pew Charitable Trusts are sobering.

When people in largely Muslim nations were asked whether they approved of "U.S.-led efforts to fight terrorism," 82% in Egypt said no, as did 74% in Jordan, 77% in Turkey and 50% in Pakistan. Some European countries showed similar results: 76% of those surveyed in Spain and 57% in France said they did not approve.

"When the United States is that unpopular in countries we count on as our closest allies, we have a real uphill struggle," said Paul B. Stares of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded nonpartisan think tank.

One senior U.S. official, speaking on condition he not be identified so that he could speak more candidly, acknowledged that the unpopularity of the U.S. had made it harder for allied governments — like Pakistan and India — to cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

In response, the Bush administration has significantly increased the amount of money it is spending on "public diplomacy" to more than $1.4 billion this year, double the funding level before Sept. 11.

But improving the U.S. image abroad will be an uphill battle.

"There is a certain amount of anti-Americanism which exists just because we're the world superpower," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "But in addition to that, deserved or undeservedly, the American image of hubris and condescension is damaging to our efforts. We should be more humble; we should be more considerate."

Asked whether Bush had made that problem worse, McCain smiled.

"I think sometimes the president's passion is interpreted as hubris…. [But] I think he fully recognizes that we have a problem, and I think he's working at trying to help improve America's image."

The additional attention and money for nation-building and public relations is increasingly seen as a key to winning the war against Al Qaeda.

"It's not so much a question [of] whether you're able to … capture or kill or otherwise drive off" terrorists, said Cambone, the Pentagon intelligence chief. "That we know we can do. It's whether the confidence of those who stand in opposition [to terrorism] is going up … and that of the terrorists is going down.

"Then you're succeeding," he said. "And then the issue isn't how many successive terrorist cells you've undone. They will disband."