What Have We Learned About Combating Terrorism after 9/11?

by Emile Nakhleh

As our country commemorates the fifteenth anniversary of the horrendous terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, let’s identify some important lessons and learn from them. Otherwise, as Osama bin Ladin predicted nearly two decades ago, the nation would be doomed to fighting a war that would be with us “till the end of days.”

Much has been written on such lessons since 9/11, and many intelligence briefings have been given to senior policymakers over the years on this topic. While in government service, I participated in many such briefings across the nation’s capital and elsewhere to sitting presidents and their cabinet members, presidential candidates, and of course members of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Our leaders over the years understood the briefings and internalized their key analytic judgments. Other than military responses, they unfortunately failed to pursue policies that would have undermined the allure of radicalism. Such an approach would have dried up the swamp that spawned extremist ideologies and addressed the environment that provided a space in the public arena for radicals and religious criminals to sow terror across the globe.

Although Americans rightly feel angry and violated by what happened 15 years ago, it is no too late for the next president to learn from the post-9/11 lessons and implement a strategic approach to this bloody struggle. Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama have said the right things in their response to terrorism and committed resources to defeat threatening terrorist groups. Rhetoric and military action though are only half the solution. What has been missing is a long-term strategy that requires knowledge, expertise, patience, courage, and willingness to nurture partners who share the values of this country and the determination to see this mission through.

Revisiting the lessons of 9/11 requires us to go back to basics—what drives terrorism and the international response to it. Our intelligence analysts and war fighters did a commendable job in identifying, tracking, and bringing some terrorist leaders and their supporters and benefactors to justice. But in the process our leadership has failed to address the context that gives rise to terrorism in the first place.

After 9/11, the US government embarked on a worthy effort to enhance its employees’ knowledge of Islamic extremism. As an example, the CIA created the Political Islam Strategic Program (PISAP) to nurture and deepen analysts’ and collectors’ expertise in this area. PISAP became the repository of expertise on Islamic activism globally—in economics, politics, leadership, theology, history, languages, cultures, political activism, and the general area of Islamization. PISAP analysts produced hundreds of briefings for the president and his senior policymakers. Yet, America, as a country and as a government, continues to struggle with, and suffer from, terrorism overseas and on our soil, which of course shows that military action alone is an imperfect tool to defeat terrorism. Here are a few lessons that could take us back to basics.

A Revised Mission

Such a national (and multinational) mission should be bipartisan and reflect a true partnership between the government and the public, including American Muslims. It cannot be subject to the vagaries of presidential or congressional politics or held hostage to disagreements among the government’s three branches. This mission is too important to become a political football in Washington.

My analysts and I frequently argued in briefings at the Department of Homeland Security and at the National Security Council that partnering with American Muslims, as equal citizens under the law, was critical if the US government wanted to establish enduring partnerships with mainstream Muslims across the world. We also maintained, based on public opinion polls in Muslim countries, that including American Muslims in the fight against extremism on the basis of mutual respect and equality under the law was essential for maintaining our government’s credibility in engaging Islamic communities abroad. Lastly, we argued that a counter-terrorism mission must be all-inclusive and comprehensive because terrorism does not occur in a vacuum.

Three factors have for the most part contributed to the rise of anti-American terrorism: a) radical Sunni, Salafi, Wahhabi ideology emanating mostly from Saudi Arabia, which Scott Shane recently detailed in The New York Times; b) domestic policies in many Muslim countries of repression, corruption, poverty, unemployment, underemployment, inadequate education, environmental degradation, and hopelessness (especially among the youth); and c) the perceived anti-Islamic policies of the U.S. government, including the drone war, Guantanamo, and the invasion of Muslim countries, especially Iraq.

Unless we revise our counter-terrorism mission to reflect these three drivers of terrorism, we could not possibly win this unprecedented, asymmetrical war.

Radical Religious Ideology

Over the years our policymakers have shied away from confronting the Saudi regime about what they teach in their middle and high school textbooks, especially pertaining to the narrow-minded, intolerant Salafi Wahhabi Sunni ideology. This extremist textual interpretation of Islam has spread throughout the Muslim world in the past half century, thanks to Saudi money and proselytization.

Frankly, had this ideology stayed in Saudi Arabia, as was the case for hundreds of years before oil money helped push it worldwide, the outside world would have cared very little. Consequently “jihadist” zealots flocked to embrace this radical doctrine through Saudi educational scholarships and support. The attacks on 9/11 were the culmination of this ideology.

Saudi leaders rejected our diplomatic entreaties over the years about their education on the grounds that we were telling them how to teach their religion. As a result of this pushback, our diplomats were scared off. The recent congressional legislation to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for what happened on 9/11 is just one example of the frustration that many Americans (and Muslims) feel about the “hijacking” of Islam by a minority of bloodthirsty assassins. The next president should engage the Saudis with an eye toward specific action.

Muslim Regimes’ Domestic Policies

American policymakers have refrained over the years from focusing on the horrendous human rights record of “US-friendly” regimes in the region because those regimes served American interests. For years, our leaders swallowed those regimes’ narrative hook, line, and sinker. The narrative simply stated that either the US supports autocratic, illiberal rule or we’ll have chaos on our hands. The Arab Spring showed the shallowness of this argument. For years American leaders described many of those regimes as “moderate,” which of course was a farce.

In one of my briefings years back, I argued there was nothing “moderate” about those regimes. They violated their peoples’ human and civil rights; they ruled with an iron fist; they tolerated and benefited from endemic corruption; they used religion and its ugly sectarianism to keep them in power; they discriminated against women and religious and ethnic minorities; and they offered lukewarm support, at best, for our counter-terrorism policies. We should be more honest, I argued then, and call them “friendly” regimes, not “moderate” regimes.

As the incoming administration attempts to reconcile American interests (“what we want”) with its values (“who we are”), Washington should call out these regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere for their despicable human rights records and repression of their peoples. American policymakers have argued over the years that they have had to treat some of those autocratic regimes with kid gloves because the United States needed them.

For example, many policymakers have defended coddling the Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi because of Egypt’s continued commitment to the peace agreement with Israel and navigation through the Suez Canal. Washington tolerated Al Khalifa’s brutal rule in Bahrain because the 5th Fleet is home-ported on that island. Similarly, American policymakers have maintained that Washington needed the Saudis because of American thirst for Saudi oil and because of Iran’s growing regional hegemony. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has been equally tolerated because of its commitment to the two-state solution and its close security cooperation with Israel, especially against Hamas. And so on.

The unpleasant fact is that these regimes have used these commitments to receive unbridled American support—politically, economically, and diplomatically. Egypt, for example, cannot possibly afford to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel or go to war against the Jewish state. Saudi Arabia cannot afford to scrap the nearly three-quarter-century special relationship with the United States. Similarly, the Palestinian regime would not sever its relations to the United States or to Israel.

The next president should quickly realize that the Middle East region is caught in a “clash of barbarisms,” as Gilbert Achcar argues in his book, Morbid Symptoms. Neither side serves American interests in the long run. Terrorism and its ugliest avatar, the Islamic State, should be defeated, and the regimes should be held to account. Disengagement from the region and global isolationism are not practical options for the world’s sole superpower. These should be the lessons that our people and the incoming president should take from the first massive terrorist attack on American soil.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Dr. Emile Nakhleh should be commended for a candid exposure of failed American policies of the Past, they need to be revised if ever any peaceful solution is to be brokered with these dictatorial regimes which nobody wants to publicly acknowledge as such. Unfortunately, this is a long road ahead, many will die in the process, terrorism will continue to be on the rise, only a persistent policy with a change of attitude as described in this article will produce any significant result for a permanent peaceful resolution. Let’s keep our fingers crossed,(because) we still have to find leaders in our midst, willing to go the extra mile without favoring (and bending over to) some counterproductive special interests.

Comments are closed.