The War That is Not: Countering Terrorism at Home

“Our faith in freedom does not rest on the foreseeable results in particular circumstances but on the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad.”
― Friedrich Hayek

After fifteen years, U.S.-led wars have likely expended what political capital the 9/11 attacks generated in the U.S. for launching major military adventures. As agonizing as the devolution of Syria has been to behold, it seems unlikely that American political leaders would ever propose an invasion of Syria or support a return to Iraq in the kinds of numbers seen in Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, the recent spate of terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe has renewed the popular desire to preempt threats at home and abroad.

The debate about how the U.S. should respond to violent extremism has retreated from the ambitions of reshaping totalitarian and failed states, but it has continued to focus on acting against the threats themselves be they organizations like the Islamic State or specific demographics seen as prone to radicalization. Relying upon preemptively identifying and striking at the attackers themselves, however, ignores the breadth of what sustains contemporary jihadism as a viable threat.

The nature of the jihadi violence that threatens the U.S. is predominantly societal rather than military. Such threats cannot be decisively confronted through complementary or symmetrical means. They can only be defeated by cultivating liberal society’s inherent strengths to deny extremists the succor that sustains them as a threat. American policymakers must understand and confront the domestic conditions that enable violent jihadist organizations to enlist citizens from the U.S. and its allies in their campaigns, and thereby achieve the strategic impact that they lack the material strength to accomplish by other means.

Terrorist violence perpetrated by individuals against their fellow countrymen are first a symptom of societal ills before they are product of indoctrination by any outside group, such as the Islamic State. If American policymakers hope to prevent them, they must develop a holistic understanding of the historical narrative and present societal context behind such attacks.[1]

Algerian nationalists gather before the Sétif and Guelma massacre, May 8, 1945. (Wikimedia)

First, American leaders must appreciate the modern antecedents that cultivated societies in the Greater Middle East into becoming wellsprings of hate and enmity. The consequences of colonial regimes from their origins through the last century are many, but one of the central consequences of colonial rule was that the imposition of Western authority aborted whatever political-social evolution was already occurring in the subject territory. The bloody evolutions in Algeria, from the 1945 Sétif revolt through the Algerian civil wars, are representative of the far-reaching consequences such disruption effected in the Islamic world.

In contrast, the relative continuity of the Moroccan monarchy has helped that kingdom to weather the tides of modernity much better than many of its counterparts. The political order that preceded colonization may not have been objectively better in all cases, but it was at least rationalized with the extant realities. The end of colonialism left behind states that matured as servants to the political, social, and market economies of the major powers who ceded their territorial claims but retained many of their structural advantages in the international system.[2]

The U.S. may not have been a principal colonizer, but it inherited the European-built system in 1945 under unusually propitious circumstances. With its territory untouched by the ravages of war and its industry flush with the investment of the war years, the U.S. found itself at the apex of the political, social, and market networks that began under Western imperialism and would ultimately shape the international system the world wrestles with today. The profound disparity between the affluence and stability of the privileged nations in the U.S.-led system and the relative poverty and dysfunction of newly independent states persisted through the remainder of the twentieth century, reinforcing American-held stereotypes and solidifying the conviction for generations of Muslim nationalists that the West is their oppressor.[3]

Bullet holes in the terrace windows of Cafe Bonne Biere in Paris, France, 15 Nov 2015. (Ian Langsdon | EPA)

Second, policymakers must come to a clearer understanding of the societal underpinnings behind the contemporary manifestation of violent extremism. American political leaders have cited the terror attacks in Europe to bolster their policy positions but their comments have evinced little understanding of the dynamics at work. In a fundamental way, it matters not what motivated the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris, Brussels, Ansbach, and elsewhere. Disrupting terror cells and individually turning around nascent jihadis are necessary to protecting the public, but they garner ephemeral gains at best. It is the structural and institutional elements that shape and drive individual ideations and behavior. Ameliorating the physical arrangement of demographic groups and the rule sets that determine the standing of those groups constitute the critical path to lasting success against jihadism at home.[4]

In Europe, setting Muslim communities apart has created vulnerabilities that groups like the Islamic State have exploited to great effect. European approaches to multiculturalism have bred a fractured society. The decades immediately following decolonization produced deeply resentful minority populations through structurally embedded discrimination. Many of these minorities were predominantly Muslim, and, as political Islam’s influence has grown since the 1970s, so has the vocal discontent of the Algerian banlieues in France, the Turkish ghettos in Germany, and other pockets of the marginalized. Through the whispers of radicalization messages, enclaves built under multiculturalism have become ready-made strongholds for extremist groups and inspirations for individual jihadis.[5]

The consequence of these strongholds extends beyond their natural constituency. Many of the radicalized in France have come from non-Muslim and politically secular Muslim families. So, not all jihadis are the direct products of dispossessed enclaves, but, in an age of mass media, such concentrations serve to make terror organizations and their messages relevant to the aggrieved and the paranoid. The viability of the jihadist phenomenon and the sophistication and responsiveness of indoctrination methods used by the Islamic State and its ilk creates a powerful resonance with the disaffected from across society.[6]

The nature of the violent jihadi threat means that hunting terrorists and establishing de-radicalization programs can only manage the symptoms instead of curing the disease. U.S. policy must concurrently compel, coerce, and persuade to comprehensively and effectively confront the jihadist threat and avoid recreating in the U.S. the very policies that have been conducive to rising jihadism in Europe. Policy should reflect that while security operations are necessary such operations are ultimately of limited value in dealing with terrorism over the long term.

A Yemeni boy in Sanaa walks past a mural depicting a U.S. drone. (Mohammed Huwais | AFP | Getty Images)

Drone strikes, special operations missions, and counter-terrorist dragnets can be useful for eroding the strength of jihadist organizations and disrupting their operations, but they become a liability when they constitute the sum total of the government’s response. In a contest of ideas, security responses define what governments are against, leaving a narrative void as to what they are for. Organizations like the Islamic State accrue strategic reach by exploiting that void and recruiting anyone that might be aggrieved by the status quo.

To address the essence of the threat, counter-terror policy must expand to address the rhetoric, physical structures, and procedural boundaries that confirm the violent jihadist narrative and victimize innocents caught between extremists, security agencies, and popular emotion. The only lasting solution to the problem of homeland terror attacks is creating a future where national identity is shared without differentiation in the legal and social standing of individuals as citizens. It is only through a commitment to building this kind of broad inclusion in civil society that neighborhoods can become vessels for antibodies rather than cultures for social pathogens to thrive and infect.

Turning back violent extremism will require courage and stamina to overcome the nihilistic hate that groups like the Islamic State cultivate. More attacks will come before lasting progress can be made, but answering horror with retribution ignores Western society’s past culpability for the status quo and strangles the political life of moderates in the minority community who genuinely desire inclusion.[7]

Robert Mihara is a U.S. Army Strategist and featured contributor at The Strategy Bridge. He earned his MA in U.S. History from Texas A&M University and previously served on the history faculty at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Statue of Liberty at Sunset from the Staten Island Ferry (Sérgio Valle Duarte | Wikimedia)


[1] Hanna Rosin, “How A Danish Town Helped Young Muslims Turn Away From ISIS,” NPR, July 15, 2016, [accessed July 20, 2016].

[2] Martin Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), 30-43.

[3] Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (New York: Random House, 2016), 363-70.

[4] William Mccants and Christopher Meserole, "The French Connection," Foreign Affairs (March 24, 2016): [accessed September 6, 2016].

[5] Kenan Malik, “The Failure of Multiculturalism: Community versus Society in Europe,” Foreign Affairs 94 (March/April 2015): 21-32.

[6] Dounia Bouzar, “La mutation du discours terroriste” (lecture, Institut des Hautes Etudes de Défense Nationale, Paris, January 26, 2015), [accessed September 3, 2015] and Barak Mendelsohn, “ISIS’ Lone-Wolf Strategy: And How the West Should Respond,” Foreign Affairs (August 25, 2016): [accessed September 4, 2016].

[7] Nicholas M. Gallagher, “Immigration and the Political Explosion of 2016,” American Interest, March 29, 2016, [accessed August 6, 2016].