Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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CIA Director: We’re Winning the War on Terror, But It Will Never End

by Micah Zenko
April 8, 2015

CIA Director John Brennan speaks at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 7, 2015. (Ertl/Courtesy Reuters)


Last night, Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan participated in a question-and-answer session at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. The first thirty-seven minutes consisted of an unusually probing exchange between Brennan and Harvard professor Graham Allison (full disclosure: Graham is a former boss of mine). Most notably, between 19:07 and 29:25 in the video, Allison pressed Brennan repeatedly about whether the United States is winning the war on terrorism and why the number of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups has only increased since 9/11: “There seem to be more of them than when we started…How are we doing?”

Brennan replied:

If I look across the board in terms of since 9/11 at terrorist organizations, and if the United States in all of its various forms. In intelligence, military, homeland security, law enforcement, diplomacy. If we were not as engaged against the terrorists, I think we would be facing a horrendous, horrendous environment. Because they would have taken full advantage of the opportunities that they have had across the region…

We have worked collectively as a government but also with our international partners very hard to try and root many of them out. Might some of these actions be stimulants to others joining their ranks? Sure, that’s a possibility. I think, though it has taken off of the battlefield a lot more terrorists, than it has put on.

This statement is impossible to evaluate or measure because the U.S. government has consistently refused to state publicly which terrorist organizations are deemed combatants, and can therefore be “taken out on the battlefield.” However, relying upon the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism,the estimated strength of all al-Qaeda-affiliated groups has grown or stayed the same since President Obama came into office.  Of course, non-al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have arisen since 9/11, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which the Central Intelligence Agency estimated last September to contain up to 31,500 fighters, and Boko Haram, which has perhaps 10,000 committed members.

However, the most interesting question posed to Brennan came at the very end from a Harvard freshman who identified himself as Julian: “We’ve been fighting the war on terror since 2001. Is there an end in sight, or should we get used to this new state of existence?

Brennan replied:

It’s a long war, unfortunately. But it’s been a war that has been in existence for millennia, at the same time—the use of violence for political purposes against noncombatants by either a state actor or a subnational group.

Terrorism has taken many forms over the years. What is more challenging now is, again, the technology that is available to terrorists, the great devastation that can be created by even a handful of folks, and also mass communication that just proliferates all of this activity and incitement and encouragement. So you have an environment now that’s very conducive to that type of propaganda and recruitment efforts, as well as the ability to get materials that are going to kill people. And so this is going to be something, I think, that we’re always going to have to be vigilant about. There is evil in the world and some people just want to kill for the sake of killing…This is something that, whether it’s from this group right now or another group, I think the ability to cause damage and violence and kill will be with us for many years to come.

We just have to not kill our way out of this because that’s not going to address it. We need to stop those attacks that are in train but we also have to address some of those underlying factors and conditions. I’m not saying that poverty causes somebody to become a terrorist, or a lack of governance, but they certainly do allow these terrorist organizations to grow and they take full advantage of those opportunities.

To summarize, the war on terrorism is working, compared to inaction or other policies. But, the American people should expect it to continue for millennia, or as long as lethal technologies and mass communication remain available to evil people.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Samantha

    Director Brennan’s statement about the importance of development in combatting terrorism alludes to the need for practitioners who can navigate the space between development and US national security. It seems to me that these fields most often work separately. Defense policy could be more effective with greater engagement in development.

  • Posted by Adam

    Fascinating to observe how such a debate continues around the same misnomer: the “War on Terror”. You cannot make war on a strategy. More worryingly, you cannot make war if you aren’t honest about who the enemy is.

    The enemy is sunni islamic terrorist networks in so far as these threaten U.S. interests. Post-9/11 these movements have grown and nowhere more so than in Iraq. The 2003 invasion was the wrong call, and has set the U.S. back in so far as IS has become much more powerful than AQ ever was. So, the U.S. is not winning the war. Under Obama the U.S. is trying to get out of the ME and leave its allies to fight these wars with some U.S. support. Good for America? Maybe. Good for the allies? Not so much.

  • Posted by Jose

    After multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan I can say without a doubt that when we were there, there was progress. The people in these regions where insurgents/terrorist or what you would want to call them generally lived in fear. These “people,” aren’t the problem, the problem lies in the true believer and the power of violence. In addition, the financial portfolios of key groups gives them a key advantage as well as understanding the cultures in the area for continued growth. This is where the U.S. made a mistake in Iraq, withdrawing and leaving the country vulnerable and as such opportunist took advantage of an unstable geo-political environment.

  • Posted by ebeny

    Brennan says

    “There is evil in the world and some people just want to kill for the sake of killing.” “…the American people should expect it to continue for millennia or as long as lethal technologies and mass communication remains available to evil people.”

    Brennan recognizes that there is “evil” in the world and seems to suggest that the only way we could have Islamic evil attacks stopped is by ensuring that “lethal technologies and mass communication” are not “available to evil people”??? No.

    The source of evil and the real solution to it is summarized for us in John 10:10 in the Bible. Added to that is the stoppage of Allah-worship or -invocation by a section of Christendom (Exodus 23:13; 1 Corinthians 10:14). There are other measures but what I’ve referred to is basic. Take it serious.

  • Posted by atomicangel

    The real reason that the terrorists attack us and everyone else is because we are in their lands and supporting their enemy. Has anyone in the government ever thought that maybe if we pulled out of the middle east and let them do what they want there things would be different?

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