The "War on Terror" Fifteen Years Later: From New York to Orlando


June 2016 

On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a "War on Terror" in the aftermath of the Islamic extremist group, Al-Qaeda’s, September 11th attacks on the United States.  Interestingly, similar words were first used by the Reagan Administration in 1984 when it called for a “war against terrorism” in reaction to the bombing of the American and French barracks in Beirut which was linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran.  While the United States has had a history of homegrown violence with mass murderers, like Timothy McVeigh’s 1994 bombing in Oklahoma City, the 9-11 attack easily became the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil as nearly 3,000 died and more than 6,000 were injured.


After Barack Obama entered office as the United States President, in March 2009 the United States Defense Department shifted from using “Global War on Terror” to the obfuscated “Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO).”  In 2013, President Obama expounded on why the United States’ "War on Terror" was over.  He stated, “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘Global War on Terror’, but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”

Yet, what is not publically spoken by the current United States government is “who are the violent extremists” America is “targeting.”  Regardless of political posturing, America’s declared “War on Terror” was and continues to practically be against Islamic extremists who attack the United States.  Nonetheless, Obama has argued that the semantics of naming the terrorists as “radical Islamists” does not help eliminate the danger.  Instead, he contends that highlighting the terrorists’ religion only plays into their propaganda.

Despite this American policy change, Islamic extremist attacks have continued unabated throughout the world during Obama’s tenure.  During the last three years, some of the attacks that have garnered our attention—BostonParisIstanbulBrusselsNairobiSan BernardinoChibok, and Sinai—are only the tip of the terrorism iceberg since 9-11.

The Obama administration has correctly pointed out that this “War on Terror” is not a traditional war—nation versus nation or army versus army.  Rather, what we are witnessing today is increasingly a battle for hearts and minds.  We see in recent years that more Islamist attacks are happening because of local, individual initiatives inspired by global precedence.

Israel has also observed this phenomenon over the last two years as Palestinian youth and young adults, inspired by social media, have made up the core of the autonomous attackers of the “Silent Intifada”.  These amateur terrorists have often brandished crude knives and home-made weapons, like the Carl Gustav-like guns which were used in this month’s Tel Aviv restaurant attack that killed four.  In the United States where guns are more easily available to the greater populace, the recent Orlando attack against a gay club that killed 49 offers a terrible portent into the future.

Nearly 15 years after Bush’s declaration of “War on Terror,” most nations are still struggling to understand the threat that Islamic extremism poses, much less how to contain it.  What has become progressively clear is that governments cannot eliminate threats that originate from one or two individuals.  Today’s lone wolf Islamic extremist easily complements the stereotypical American mass murderer, whether as a disconnected ideologueunmedicated psychopath, or vengeful individual.  In a world where physical contact is shrinking while online associations are growing, we must grapple now more than ever with what it means to be a neighbor.