Has the war on terror already been won?
Or to put it another way: Is the killing of bin Laden a coup de grace rather than a turning point?
From the emergence of al Qaeda through 9/11, Islamic terrorist attacks against international targets grew steadily more complex and sophisticated: more personnel, more reach, more casualties.
From 9/11 onward, however, the trend ran in the opposite direction.
The Bali bombing of 2002 was less ambitious than 9/11, the 2004 Madrid train station attack less sophisticated than Bali, the London 7/7 bombings a big step down from Madrid. After 7/7, terror attacks outside the Middle East generally fail. The attempt on the German rail system in July 2006 fizzled when the bombs did not explode.
More often still, the plots are foiled before they can get off the ground, often because police have succeeded in penetrating the terror cell, as happened with the Canadian monuments plot of 2006 and the 2010 Portland Oregon plot.
Where terrorism is carried out successfully – as with Major Nidal Hassan’s Fort Hood rampage – it seems most often the work of a single self-motivated individual, and often one who is mentally disturbed.
Inside the Middle East, the terror groups that remain (Hamas and Hezbollah) look less like those autonomous “networks” that so worried analysts in the middle 2000s and much more like state actors (Hamas) or state proxies (Hezbollah). In both cases, terrorism has a “return address” and can be punished if not deterred. What’s happening in Afghanistan looks more like irregular warfare than terrorism. Iraq is evolving toward stability and security.
It’s too soon to pronounce any definitive conclusion. Security services are appropriately on watch for retaliation. But at risk of prematurity, I’d say: this is what success looks like.
In the wake of the success, some are arguing that terrorism must not have been much of a problem in the first place, certainly not an existential threat.
Defeated enemies always look weak. After the Cold War, it was the flaws in the Soviet system that looked more relevant than the strengths. But nothing is pre-ordained, and failure is always an option. It was possible, had the US reacted wrongly after 9/11, for al Qaeda to recruit more widely and strike again. It was possible that the US could have cracked down internally in ways that make the annoyances of the TSA seem in comparison (as indeed they are in reality) petty and trivial.
Power could have been seized in Saudi Arabia. (We see now how fragile these Mideast security states really are.) Or the Saudi state might have been penetrated by radical Islamism from within. (As has happened to a great extent in Pakistan.) We had reason in 2001 to fear that radical Islam might 10 years ought have gained money and nukes.
Instead, radical Islam was contained, marginalized, bypassed – and then shot above the eye by an American special forces team.
This victory cost more than it should have. American victories usually do: see Grant, Ulysses, campaigns of. This is often a wasteful country, one that dislikes anticipating security problems and that therefore often faces a steep learning curve when those problems materialize. But defeats are costlier still.