international analysis and commentary

Assessing the US response to 9/11 and Obama’s counterterrorism legacy


Almost ten years after 9/11, the leader of the organization behind the worst terrorist acts to have been perpetrated on US soil was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in a raid ordered by President Barack Obama. The killing of Osama bin Laden is indeed, as Obama himself acknowledged, “the most significant achievement” of his administration in the fight against terrorism. The event led to the virtual irrelevance of Al-Qaeda Central, the original Al-Qaeda organization — also referred to as the Al-Qaeda Senior Leadership or Al-Qaeda in Pakistan — no longer capable of conducting large-scale attacks of the likes of 9/11, although still capable of small-scale ones.

Nevertheless, Obama has often been excoriated when it comes to terrorism. According to conservative critics, Obama bears responsibility for the rise of the Islamic State, a terrorist organization — also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or by its arabic acronym Da’esh — that has seemingly replaced Al-Qaeda Central as the leader of the global jihadist movement. Obama’s critics argue that his early withdrawal from Iraq — initiated with the signing of the Status of Forces Agreement by the Bush administration in 2008 — allowed ISIS to seize territory in Iraq. They also blame his excessive caution and reticence to intervene during the first phase of the Syrian civil strife, which enabled the terrorist organization’s expansion into Syria. They believe that the organization has been downplayed by Obama right from the start, when he defined it a “JV (meaning junior varsity) team”, compared to Al-Qaeda.

Recently, the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump went a step further, accusing Obama and former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, of being the “founders of ISIS”. Trump, like most of the GOP, also blames Clinton for the attack against the State Department facility in Benghazi, Libya, that killed US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, one State Department officer and two CIA agents on the 11th anniversary of 9/11.

Yet the truth of the matter is that if a US president is to blame for the rise of ISIS, it is George W. Bush not Barack Obama.

ISIS was in fact born from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which is itself a product of the 2003 invasion of Iraq launched by then-President George W. Bush. As LSE Professor Fawaz A. Gerges writes in his new book “ISIS: A History”, “Under Hussein’s Baathist regime, Iraq was a hostile territory for radical religious activists”. The decision by the Bush administration to remove members of the Baath Party (who eventually joined ISIS) from the government and dismantle the Iraqi army created a security vacuum that was filled by ISIS. In addition, by disenfranchising the Sunnis, the US-backed government of Nouri al-Maliki exacerbated the Sunni-Shia divide, which is “the fuel that powers ISIS”, according to Gerges. The Iraq war also altered the already delicate regional equilibrium, making Shia Iran a more powerful and aggressive player, which alarmed Sunni Saudi Arabia, arguably reinforcing the sectarian clash and making the fight against ISIS diplomatically more problematic.

President Obama was elected with a mandate to withdraw US troops from Iraq and make military intervention a last resort. Learning from his predecessor’s mistakes, Obama does not believe in the use of military force to spread democracy. He believes that local communities need to move toward democracy by fighting for it themselves. The United States can assist them in their efforts but not be the driving force. Therefore, he has no intention of being drawn into another long and costly ground war in the Middle East. A large scale US military intervention in Syria would only play into the terrorists’ narrative that depicts America as at war with Islam. This is the reason Obama also refuses to use the term “Islamic terrorism”, fearing it could legitimize terrorist claims to a religious war.

Despite what his critics might think, Obama is by no means soft on terrorism. His strategy to destroy ISIS on the ground, which consists of providing military assistance to local forces through air support and special forces in an “advisory” role, is actually bearing fruit. As Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, recently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on “Global Efforts to Defeat ISIS”, the group “has lost 47% of its territory in Iraq, and 20% in Syria” including “nearly the entire border between Syria and Turkey”. By losing ground, ISIS is also losing the economic capacity to perpetrate attacks, as it largely derives its revenues from the territories it controls, as well as appeal to its fighters who are now paid less, if at all. This does not mean that the threat level on the ground has decreased as ISIS still controls territory in Iraq, Syria and also elsewhere (Libya), but it is certainly a major step in the right direction.

Unlike Bush, Obama acknowledges the importance of post-conflict stabilization. Two funds — the Funding Facility for Immediate Stabilization (FFIS) and the Funding Facility for Expanded Stabilization (FFES) — have been created to stabilize liberated areas and avoid recapture. As a result, in Iraq more than 775,000 people have safely returned to their homes, according to the global coalition’s official website. Until the Syrian government is removed from power and a political solution implemented, the same cannot be achieved in Syria.

On the other end of the spectrum, the ideological battle is still far from won. To divert attention from military losses, ISIS is making increased use of social platforms (especially Twitter) to radicalize young Muslims abroad and inspire them to conduct improvised terrorist attacks in their home countries. These are often individuals who have never even traveled to Iraq or Syria. They are radicalized entirely online and unaffiliated with any terrorist organization, which makes them extremely difficult to identify in advance. As such, these lone wolves represent the most serious threat to the United States and its European allies. Episodes like the San Bernardino and Orlando shootings, the Nice truck massacre and the Rouen church killing, only to mention a few, are a clear example.

Counterterrorism experts believe that winning the ideological battle will take time and requires addressing the root causes that create terrorism — bad governance, suppression of political and civil rights, marginalization, corruption and unsustainable socioeconomic and life conditions — and discrediting the terrorists’ narrative. The Obama administration is working tirelessly also in this respect, by engaging with Muslim communities at home and abroad and increasingly giving voice to former members of ISIS who have deserted and can provide a more realistic picture of the organization.

Counter-radicalization programs are indeed a step into the right direction, but they will likely take time to produce results. Something needs to be done in the short term as well. As episodes like San Bernardino and Orlando have shown, stricter gun control laws are now imperative. The fact that people on terror watch lists are allowed to purchase firearms is simply unacceptable. Obama and Clinton are strongly advocating action on gun legislation, including the reinstatement of an assault weapons ban that Congress allowed to expire in 2004. However, despite a rise in public support following the San Bernardino and Orlando shootings, most of the Republican-led Congress, as well as Trump, keep opposing tighter gun control on the basis that it would account to a violation of the Second Amendment.

In conclusion, the approach Obama has displayed in the war on terror is the right one. Not only will he be remembered as the President who delivered justice to bin Laden and defeated Al-Qaeda, but he is also leading a global coalition that is defeating ISIS on the ground and striving to contrast its ideology. More still needs to be done, especially in Syria, but overall Obama leaves his successor a much more positive legacy than the one he inherited from George W. Bush.