The Islamist terrorists are winning and the U.S. government is helping them! Barack Obama just finished a three-day White House conference on countering "violent extremism" but did not want the event excessively focused on law enforcement. Meanwhile, after a masked man from al Shabab, Somalia’s al Qaeda affiliate, threatened the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Jeh Johnson, the president’s Secretary of Homeland Security, warned potential shoppers – only to have the White House walk back the warning, so as not to panic potential shoppers and tamp down commerce.
Although Republicans would criticize all of this incompetence as the Obama administration being "too soft" on terrorism, the opposite is true and has been true of the US government response since 9/11. So despite the hyperactive US government policy toward Islamist radicalism of attacking or invading seven Muslim countries, issuing repeated public warnings of impending terrorist attacks, making air travel a nightmare, and holding high profile conferences to deal with the problem, all of this only makes the problem worse.
A plausible argument might be made that the smartest thing the government should do about terrorists would probably be nothing. Say what?! Well, OK, arresting them and prosecuting them is not nothing so maybe we should amend that to say "do as little as the government can get away with."
That solution, of course, is very unsatisfying to the macho chairborne divisions of hawkish TV commentators on Fox News and even CNN and the broadcast networks. That recommendation also may be perplexing to the average citizen, who now expects his or her government to do something about every person’s problems from cradle to grave. And believe it or not, it would have been infuriating to this writer at a much younger age, with much more testosterone, working in the national security field.
However, I had a much smarter colleague back then tell me exactly that: doing nothing was actually doing something about terrorism. Of course, I fumed and resisted this policy prescription at the time. But as I have gotten older and hopefully wiser about terrorism and as my excessive testosterone attenuated, I have discovered that my older compatriot may have been more right than wrong.
Above all, terrorists thrive on publicity. And local and regional terror groups, such as the brutal group ISIS causing the latest terrorism craze in government, have found that fighting the American superpower gets them a lot more it—and also the accompanying recruiting and fundraising bonanza. Unlike the original al Qaeda, which decided that it could get more notoriety by attacking America primarily and regional US client states only secondarily, ISIS wanted to create a caliphate (Islamist governed territory) in the Persian Gulf now by fighting governments there ("the near enemy"). Only when the US military began bombing ISIS did they decide that much hay could be made out of attacking "the far enemy", just like al Qaeda had discovered early on. So ISIS retaliated for US attacks by filming spectacularly brutal beheadings designed to stoke up public revulsion in America. It worked, and heavier US bombing and the insertion of American ground forces back into Iraq ensued. Given ISIS’s success in ratcheting up the American and Western response, to get even more publicity in the world media, the group has now moved to the even more heinous practice of burning people alive in cages.
If the United States keeps elevating ISIS’s cause with free publicity, who knows what even more monstrous grandstanding for the cameras that ISIS will perpetrate. However, you say, the US government can’t censor the sensationalist American media. No, but even though the media in America are "free," they take their cues from the government. The media cover government actions and rely on government sources for most of the news, which prevents their coverage from getting too far askew from government desires. The media loves a good war to cover, and they love government warnings and hype about terrorism, even including high-profile White House conferences. And politicians and government officials love to put all of this stuff out there—to show that they are doing something about the problem.
And they are – they are making and have been making the US a greater target for Islamist terrorists. High profile U.S.-led wars against terrorists in the Middle East draw fighters and money to the war zones against the "infidel foreign occupier" of Muslim lands. The US nation-building war in Afghanistan destabilized Pakistan and led to the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban and the creation of the Pakistani Taliban, which then tried to attack Times Square in New York. George W. Bush’s needless invasion of Iraq created al Qaeda in Iraq (a regional group that had little to do with the original al Qaeda group) and its successor ISIS. As US and allied bombing ramped up, the number of ISIS fighters has grown, as foreign fighters have streamed in from around the world to fight the superpower. In Yemen, journalists have documented rapid increases in the number of fighters for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (again a regional group with only a loose association to the original al Qaeda) as the US drone war against the group ramped up, which also caused the group to retaliate by trying to down U.S.-bound airliners. Finally, in Somalia, George W. Bush created the al Shabab group now threatening (at least verbally) the Mall of America by encouraging and assisting the foreign invasion of Somalia by neighboring Ethiopia.
One might then reason, well OK, maybe the government is going overboard in fighting terrorism, but should it really do nothing about it? After all, the government is charged with keeping us all safe, even though it may seem to be doing the opposite.
In reality, if the government is fighting terrorists using bold public actions, military and otherwise, it is creating more terrorists than it is killing. First, the government needs to distinguish Islamist extremist groups attacking the United States from those that have more limited, regional designs, such as ISIS or al Shabab. Instead, as during the earlier part the Cold War when the government thought that communists were all alike, the government now treats Islamist extremists in the same way – yet some Islamist terrorists are a bigger threat to the United States than others. Why make needless enemies of those that have primarily regional aims? Second, the government needs to put quiet law enforcement to work to catch the criminals that are attacking the United States instead of implicitly glorifying them as warriors by being too quick to take military action against them. If law enforcement techniques are insufficient, then some occasional and congressionally limited CIA covert action, Special Operations military raids (like the one that killed Osama bin Laden), or surgical air or drone strikes in the shadows may be needed; publicizing these actions, however, will only attract more terrorist bugs to the light.
Ironically, this smarter, limited, and more effective strategy against terrorists is not followed much by American politicians, such as Obama and the younger Bush, because they, as do the terrorist groups, also crave publicity.