The old adage goes, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” It’s not entirely clear what this means, but it can be interpreted that the ultimate way to defeat an enemy is to understand it even better than your allies. In order to triumph over those who threaten you, who may be out to destroy you, first you have to grasp who they are in essence. In the United States, we have let our friends grow disenchanted with us, and have failed to understand who are enemies are in this longest of wars, the War on Terror.
By Sebastian Torero
The United States is in a perpetual state of war. A War on Drugs, a War on Crime, a War on Poverty; whatever antagonist America seeks to overcome, it approaches the task with a militant mindset. Terrorism is no different, only this is real war, with prisoners taken and lives lost. Not only that, but counterterrorism has taken center stage in American security policy. This terror is the great menace of our day.
But if anything is clear from this election cycle, it is that many Americans, both in the public and in positions of leadership, are unaware of the reality of the threat. They have let the enemy slip from their hands and minds, as it has morphed and taken on unfamiliar forms that the country has failed to adapt to.
When the War on Terror began, even if it was a war on an idea, there was an incarnate of that idea. That was al Qaeda, the group that had plotted and carried out the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11th, 2001. The war effort was complicated by the fact that al Qaeda was a foreign non-state actor, and fighting such an organization was not something the United States was well equipped to do. So the war began in a conventional manner that did not coincide with the unique nature of the conflict. The United States and its NATO allies swiftly removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, banishing them to the mountainous tribal regions of that graveyard of empires and neighboring Pakistan. From there, they have survived to continue the fight for over a decade.
Following the devastating attacks of September 11th, the United States has not seen anything even relatively close to a terrorist act of that scale. That being said, terror attacks have occurred on American soil since that day in 2001. In 2009, 13 people were killed and 32 wounded when a U.S. army psychiatrist and major went on a shooting rampage on the military base Fort Hood in Texas. On April 15, 2013, three were killed and over 260 wounded when two pressure cooker bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. On December 2, 2015, a couple killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. On June 12, 2016, 49 patrons of a gay nightclub in Orlando were killed by a madman with an assault weapon. And most recently, on September 25, 2016, bombs exploded across New York City and New Jersey, killing none but injuring 29 innocent people.
What can we note about these attacks? Firstly, they were all tragedies. Human beings were murdered and maimed at the hands of evil attackers. This must be stated, and must be absorbed. These attacks were horrible events, and the fact that such attacks do happen is one of the reasons the existence of a national security apparatus is necessary.
The second thing to note about these attacks is that, in the span of 7 years, from 2009 to 2016, there are only five of them. This makes major terrorist attacks on American soil an extremely rare occurrence.
The third thing to note is that all of these attacks were carried out by so-called “homegrown jihadis”. Organizations and radical thinkers from afar may have inspired these attackers, but they gained access to the words and ideas of these organizations and thinkers in the comfort of their homes. They did not train in camps in the Middle East. Instead, they grew angry at the country they were living in, and found an outlet and a method to violently express this anger. Those up for election can talk for days about those coming in and threatening our country, but this does not reflect the reality of the threat.
What does this mean for America? It means that the war has come full circle; the enemy abroad has become the enemy at home. It also means the enemy is far less vicious than we assumed. Terrorism cannot hide its modus operandi. It’s clear from the name. The goal of terrorism is not to kill each and every American; it is to frighten us so much that we lose our heads, that we declare we are at war with radical Islam, that we call to ban Muslims, monitor their places of worship and neighborhoods, that we topple governments and occupy foreign nations, that we fire missiles from pilotless drones onto tribal villages, unaware and uncaring of the civilian death toll, that we go deeper down the rabbit hole of us versus them until we find ourselves alone, doomed, at the bottom, with little sense of how we got there in the first place.
When it comes to dealing with terrorism, for America, keeping our enemy close means, first and foremost, understanding who and what we are meant to keep close. We need to recognize the location of our enemy has changed from foreign to domestic, and that our enemy produces an ominous shadow that does not reflect its true size. Both these things must be understood in order for America to readjust its policies and its position on the world stage. If America cannot keep its enemies close, it’s friends will continue to drift further and further away.