What should we do when the terrorists go quiet?

Western governments must wake up to the uncomfortable reality that when terrorists go quiet, they might be planning something big.
A hijacked commercial plane approaches the World Trade Center shortly before crashing into the landmark skyscraper on 11 September, 2001. Credit: SETH MCALLISTER/AFP via Getty Images
A hijacked commercial plane approaches the World Trade Center shortly before crashing into the landmark skyscraper on 11 September, 2001. Credit: SETH MCALLISTER/AFP via Getty Images
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Opinion is starkly divided on whether or not President Biden was right to decide to withdraw from Afghanistan in September this year, as it is on what are the best tactics (or would have been the best tactics) to deal with it. This debate is the best possible illustration that Afghanistan is not fixed. Nor are Iraq and Syria. The argument seems to be about both whether intervention is the best means to provide for Western security, and whether there even is an ongoing threat to Western security. At its heart is a question about whether Islamist terrorism is a temporary phenomenon, and what our posture should be when the tempo of attacks slows. How do we decide whether a reduction in the amount of visible terrorist activity means extremists have genuinely reduced that activity, or whether they are planning something big?

Islamist terrorism is a long-term, strategic issue too often dismissed as a short-term, tactical distraction. The last thirty years have demonstrated it is far more likely Western actors will undertake military engagements on counter-terrorist agendas than against a state. We have been shaped beyond recognition by 9/11. The attack was followed by unfathomable US and UK and NATO defence expenditure, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, failure to solve the war in Syria, significantly increased tensions within our own communities, changes in the way we behave towards one another, changes to our laws, suspicions and surveillance, changes to protective security when traveling or entering public buildings, and radicalisation of our youth. It all stemmed from 9/11 and our response to it. The decision on whether foreign policy should be about counter terrorism or state power rivalry should not be an either/or for Western governments to flip between. Both require constant, not episodic, engagement.

President Biden’s decision on the final US drawdown from Afghanistan (and therefore the end of a Western footprint in the country) is intended to presage US engagement ‘with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s’, as he said in his first foreign policy speech on 4 February. And yet, just because he does not want to talk about yesterday’s challenges doesn’t mean they have gone away.

The adversary has been remarkably consistent; the striking factor is continuity. In 1871 the-then Indian civil servant William Wilson Hunter published a book entitled The Indian Musalmans: are they bound in conscience to rebel against the Queen?  written at the time when the Imperial government in Delhi was trying to find a way to deal with the ‘Hindoostani Fanatics’ in the North-West Frontier. Imam Shamil led Jihadi resistance to Tsarist expansion in the Caucasus in the 1820s and 1830s. The Russians and Germans tried to raise Jihad against the British Empire during and immediately after the First World War. The UK and US have been the targets of, and had policies in the modern Middle East shaped by, Islamic terrorist organisations – motivated by a Venn diagram of nationalism and religious obligation – since at least 1952. 

The uncomfortable truth is that there have been no real changes to the underlying conditions that gave rise to the new wave of Islamist terrorism which started in the 1990s. In 1996 Usama Bin Ladin told the journalist Robert Fisk: ‘I believe that sooner or later the Americans will leave Saudi Arabia and that the war declared by America against the Saudi people means war against all Muslims everywhere. Resistance against America will spread in many, many places in Muslim countries.’  In the case of Islamist terrorism, there are now aligned movements, even if under different command and control, from Nigeria and Burkino Faso to Mozambique to Afghanistan, the Maldives, Indonesia and the Philippines. The once unimaginable physical caliphate lasted five years and has supporters around the world, many of whom have fought together or nurse grievances because they couldn’t. There are still more than 60,000 Daesh fighters and family in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq, including foreign nationals from at least sixty countries. Meanwhile al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Hurras Ad-Din, released a Zoom-style video in January encouraging lone actor attacks against the West. It is believed that at least half of its membership, estimated as up to 2,500, are foreigners, with a leadership of Egyptians and Tunisians. This is definitely not progress; these are circumstances substantially worse than they were before 9/11. In self-defence terms, this continues to pose a strategic challenge: how to ensure that one of these countries does not become the base for the next attack against the US or the West without having to engage with the entirety of the problem? This is the foreign policy challenge over time.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan, following on from withdrawals in Iraq and Syria fits into the ‘single narrative’ of US weakness and eventual Islamist victory already evident when Usama Bin Ladin issued his 1996 declaration of Jihad against America: ‘Your impotence and weakness were evident. The picture of you being defeated in the three Islamic cities (Beirut, Aden, and Mogadishu) pleased every Muslim and believer.’ To his litany of wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya have been added a series of new conflicts with the same patterns, enabling a spirit of defiance and resistance to endure. Usama Bin Ladin’s successors are more impatient and sometimes use different tactics, but there is little deviation in design and intent.  

If we accept this continuity, it follows that decisions on altering how we spend and what we prioritise should be taken carefully. But the planning cycle of the terrorist and the attention and resource cycles of Western governments are often totally at odds with each other.

Any graph that shows the pattern of Islamist terror attacks, particularly against the West, will show clear peaks and troughs of activity. In very broad summary, although the level was high throughout the 1990s globally, it was lower in the US and Europe, followed by 9/11, in turn followed by a period of relatively low numbers of attacks both in the world and in western Europe until it climbs suddenly with the declaration of the caliphate in 2014. In both cases it appears that the sharp rise of terrorism came after roughly a decade of relative quiescence. But it did not come out of nowhere.

The troughs of terrorist activity against the West from 1991-2001 and from 2007-2013 can be, and have been, interpreted in different ways. One reading is to show that the phenomenon of Islamist terror is an inconstant problem, which although has occasional spikes cannot be compared seriously with more enduring geo-strategic threats. This is taken to mean that a constantly high level of spending on counter terrorism is a distortion. But a more accurate reading is otherwise: the peaks at 9/11 and after the declaration of the caliphate were a result of a quiet period during which the terrorist groups were preparing for action.  

The critical fact is not that there had been no significant attacks during those ten years, but that the problem, when it came back, was in the same form and just as vigorous as it had been previously. A decline in attacks does not per se equal a reduction in the threat. It could just as easily, and more importantly, mean terrorists were keeping a low profile and getting ready to work. Their operational cycle is different to that of the Western governments’ response; they crank up activity at precisely the moment the West starts to relax. In practice, the threat is most dangerous before, not after, it materialises, so the risk may well be greatest before it is apparent. This requires us to think counter-cyclically, to resist the gravitational pull of the political and resource cycle, and to organise ourselves around the rhythm of the adversary rather than our own.  

The events of the later 1990s were, in retrospect, the real build up to 9/11. This was the time where al-Qaeda finessed operational techniques, exploited the networks they had constructed, used the ‘single-narrative’ of victimhood to create common purpose, and acquired the resources they needed. In other words, this was the most important phase in their operational planning cycle. In hindsight, the tempo of activity, and the specific pieces of evidence collected could, it has been argued, have enabled experts to spot 9/11 coming. We need to start thinking about what broader lessons we can draw from that decade. How much effort could, or should, have been expended looking for clues in remote corners of the world, at a time when the level of danger they presented could not properly have been imagined (even if some analysts were already convinced)? When resource is limited, do you devote it to the Philippines, say, on the off-chance you might find something critical, or allocate it to areas with more urgent need, more obvious foreign policy implications? How long can you justify allocating resources to something that may not be there? This balance between resource investment and need for manifest dividend is at the heart of the risk judgement.

In the same vein, the US drawdown from Iraq in 2011 and the false hope of the Arab Spring obscured the incremental growth of the Islamic State. The prison breaks and building up of strength in Mosul and the surrounding area (including through control of organised crime networks and local governance) had not gone unnoticed, but Western governments – possibly with an eye not on persuading their voters but on keeping them – had not felt this was sufficiently significant to act upon, and probably for good reason, since it was difficult to see what else they might do without further intervention in Iraq. It was also difficult to make the case, without sufficient evidence of the threat, that resources should be diverted to Iraq again. Policy-makers didn’t want to have to think about it, and this may have contributed to a subconscious downplaying of the risk: a mix of fatigue, distraction, prejudice against what was seen as a counter-terrorist lobby, and mistrust of anything perceived as advocacy for a cause with resource attached. Perhaps there was also a failure to see that a terrorist threat needed broader treatment as a foreign policy challenge.

Western governments in particular suffer from short attention spans, and tend to demand that a problem is identified, addressed, resolved or at least sufficiently resolved that the public (who are tired of it by now) can be assured that it is sufficiently resolved and resources devoted elsewhere. This is exacerbated in democracies by an electoral cycle that means there is a hunger for a narrative, one which enables governments to say they have achieved something: that whatever was wrong has been fixed. The need for a stop point mitigates against continuity. The danger – the risk – is that the desire for this leads to wrong decisions being taken since it rests on the assumption that a quiet time is when nothing happens. Politicians want it to mean the problem has gone away. Their civil servants want to be able to tell them that the problem has gone away. 

The tendency to fall into a recurring snooze – panic – snooze pattern seems to be built into the system, and we are stuck in that cycleThe real challenge for leaders is to be able to listen to and interpret the quiet times. How do we really know if nothing is happening? How do we know if it is actually quiet or whether an adversary is taking advantage of a lull to resupply and plan? And how do we make resource decisions if we can’t answer these questions?  

The only possible answer is constant, meticulous risk management; finding new ways to maintain a state of vigilance while accepting limitations on resource and reduction in vision. The real task for today’s policymakers is not about pivots and tilts but how to keep situation awareness and retain expertise so you’re agile enough to produce the right strategic response, ideally before the situation escalates. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, coupled with wider instability creates a serious practical problem of how to understand what is happening on the ground. It massively increases reliance on local partners who can be devious and mercurial, and risks governments being drawn into local conflicts and rivalries. As we see and understand less, it becomes harder to make good resource choices. This may require investment in parts of the world that do not seem to fit with strategic objectives. It will require effort to be devoted sometimes on the basis of incomplete evidence, and this may be difficult to justify. It will require proper maintenance of the comprehensive warning systems that have been built over the last twenty years. A warning system that no longer receives rich information, and which no-one wants to heed, is not really a warning system at all. And finally, when the indications are that a threat is escalating, governments need to be prepared to respond. There will be – at some point in the future – a shock attack, and we don’t want – yet again – to look like we didn’t see it coming.

Suzanne Raine

Suzanne Raine is an Affiliate Lecturer at the Centre for Geopolitics, Cambridge University, a Visiting Professor at King’s College London, and a Trustee at RUSI. Before that she worked in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, primarily on issues of national security and counter-terrorism.

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