The Python Problem: Reflections on the War on Terror, 17 Years Later


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Policy Roundtable: 17 Years After September 11,” by our sister publication, the Texas National Security ReviewBe sure to check out the full roundtable.

There is great benefit in thinking about your own country’s struggles while listening to someone else’s, particularly at a conference inspired by the attacks on 9/11 and conducted annually since. At the annual International Counterterrorism conference held this past week at the IDC-Herzilya, we attended a panel titled: “Israel and Gaza: Hudna or Victory?” Hudna is an Arabic word meaning “cease fire,” but the Israelis at this conference understood it more as a “time-out.” The panel consisted of Israeli security officials and politicians debating whether it was a good idea to negotiate with their opponents in order to stop recent border clashes and the periodic rocket, mortar, and flaming kite attacks directed at civilian targets in Israel. Member of Knesset Ksenia Svetlova, from the Israeli center-left Zionist Union party, pithily summed up her perception of the government overtures in this way: “This is not an Israeli victory but a victory for radical Islam: Radical Islam – One, World – Zero.” The body language of the former military official on the panel, whose experience in Gaza led him to argue for the benefits of hudna, made it obvious that the politician’s sound bite had found a tender spot. After all, who wants to be associated with an effort seen by some to appease terrorists, especially from the left side of the political spectrum?

In a related observation, the outgoing U.S. commander of Afghanistan recently remarked that “it’s time for this war to end.” This might be interpreted in many ways, but it is difficult not to think that it reflects the universal angst over the failure of the United States and its partners to achieve conflict termination in the larger war against jihadist militants. The conference forced the three of us — faculty of the U.S. Naval War College — to borrow from naval theorist Mahan and ask questions of retrospection and prospection: How do we assess the evolution of our thinking and practice of counterterrorism since 9/11? What do those influences look like today in execution? How will the conflict be evaluated in ten years time?


Following the 9/11 attacks, successive U.S. administrations have promulgated three consistent objectives: First, to prevent additional mass casualty attacks on our homeland. Second, to find and punish those responsible. And third, to shatter the larger transnational terrorist movement’s capability and capacity to be a future threat. These reasonable objectives contrast with some of the associated rhetoric surrounding the “war on terror,” often obscuring these objectives and seeking more expansive ones including eliminating terrorism writ large, eliminating “state-sponsored” terrorism, democratizing large parts of the Islamic world, and the attainment of perfect security for Americans at home and abroad.

Ignoring the political rhetoric for the time being, and any corrosive effects it might have on clarity of purpose, we offer an objective evaluation of how the U.S. fared in achieving these three aims.

To stop another mass casualty terrorist attack, the United States has reorganized its internal security institutions and upgraded law enforcement and both domestic and international intelligence capabilities.  While these severely complicate jihadist efforts to carry out mass casualty attacks on the United States, there are economic and social costs for this increased surveillance and government infringements on liberty. In the pursuit of this quest, our political leaders have committed significant errors, such as invading Iraq, ostensibly to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to jihadist groups. Yet in a narrow but important sense, this concerted effort to prevent a large attack has been impressive and successful with a small residual risk.

The hunt for the perpetrators, off to a good start in 2002, took longer than expected but largely achieved the objective in the end when Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. However, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who leads al-Qaeda, remains at large. Jihadist replacement of leaders with effective replacements, and the rise of the scion of Bin Laden have undercut perceptions of this success. Furthermore, the use of torture to obtain information about terror attacks and the location of leaders has undermined future efforts.

The United States and its partners have not only failed to cripple the global jihadist movement, the problem is orders of magnitude worse since 9/11. Although America’s counter-terrorism campaign has restricted jihadist capability to conduct major attacks in the United States, the same cannot be said for Europe, where large terrorist attacks by Islamic State operatives have killed scores of people and injured hundreds. The split between al-Qaeda and Islamic State in 2013 has complicated the picture for intelligence collection, forcing analysts to look in too many directions. Leaders from both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State still exert control over their respective franchises, although in a degraded manner. The networks and affiliates are disaggregated, often focused on local sovereignty designs, and while nominally dedicated to global jihad are practically focused on influencing local Muslim populations. Worryingly, this metastasizing jihadist movement is proving to be an adaptive enemy, operating in a globalized age that has dispersed impressive and cheap technological means to help them in their fight against states.

Our evaluation of the attainment of these objectives fall in descending order, from mostly achieved for the first two to an insufficient grade for the last. Both the failure to manage the growth of the global jihadist movement, and the realization that even the destruction of the caliphate has not ended the campaign, inspires the frustration of politicians, practitioners, scholars, journalists, and voters. Worse, the passing scores on the first two objectives are only interim evaluations, not final ones. They require unending maintenance and attention. The resulting disillusionment, compounded by unforced errors that have made the conflict more expansive and expensive, is a serious issue that will continue to have profound consequences if unaddressed by our country’s leaders. To understand the source of this frustration, we present a metaphor to understand the challenges of combatting terrorism. Like analogies, there are many metaphors, and none are perfect, but this one is ours.

The Problem with Pythons

Florida has a bit of a Burmese python problem, as odd as that might seem. In an age of globalization, imported pet pythons somehow escaped into the Everglades, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They have expanded into an estimated population in the tens to hundreds of thousands — not exactly a small margin of error but a reflection of the difficulty in assessing the threat. Described as an apex predator, the python’s breeding habits and voracious diet has been linked to the extinction of marsh hares and the devastation of small mammal populations in the Everglades. The stated goal of the scientists and policymakers tasked with winning “the war” on pythons is to reduce the environmental impact to “a manageable level.” One scientist remarked that while there were other invasive species in Florida, Burmese pythons are “especially unnerving,” and “the idea that this giant snake that doesn’t belong here, is here, just really is in people’s hearts and minds.” All of these phrases should sound familiar for those who study counterinsurgency and terror.

Much like the futility of trying to stop the growth of the python population, our failure to reduce the scale of global jihadism is more obvious than ever, with each of the successive “waves” growing larger and larger since the late 1970s. A decade ago, the Islamic State of Iraq had a few thousand members. More recently, the Pentagon was claiming they had killed over 60,000 members. The Islamic State has new franchises all over the world and an end-strength measured in tens of thousands. Like the jihadist problem, the origin of the python problem might be interesting but it is not instructive in creating any solution. Burmese pythons have adapted to their new environment, are almost impossible to find, and while posing little direct threat to humans are in the process of drastically affecting a delicate ecosystem with unknown consequences. Efforts to open up hunting of pythons by politicians are making a laughably small impact on the problem. In essence, these dynamics are very similar to our current effort to reduce terrorism.

All analogies and metaphors have their weakness, and this one suffers from a significant one: unlike pythons, terrorists kill people in increasing numbers with worrisome trends. In an age characterized by the rapid transfer of technology, and despite exhortations by some that terrorism is a relatively insignificant problem, the risk of a large-scale terror attack is commensurately increasing. Our past failures are eroding resolve to face up to and try to prevent this future attack, and this is compounded by the looming deficit crisis — some of it fueled by these same costly failures — that will naturally limit our ability to act. The rise of other risks to international cooperation and norms (dare we say an international order) will further complicate and distract from the risk of terrorism. How will we get through the next decade without another massive loss of innocent life?

Prospect and the Future of Endless War

There are three factors that we think will determine the future trajectory of global efforts to reduce terror acts and associated loss of life and property. The first will center on whether a shared understanding and more realistic appraisal of the nature of the conflict can be attained. This failure is at the root of wasted effort, mistakes, and disillusionment. The second factor will depend on the management of scarce resources to continue prosecuting the war against jihadi actors in an era of multiplying threats. Finally, the outcome will be determined by the ability of policymakers to unify an international coalition to defeat members of the global jihadist movement, which while divided at the moment, still march to the beat of the same drum.

War on Terror, or War in Error?

The irony about a conference on terror in the 21st century is that you will rarely find the word “war” mentioned. In fact, most conventional definitions — including one long proposed by the conference organizer, Boaz Ganor — specifically exclude attacks on military targets as terrorism. Proponents of this definition desire increased cooperation among international actors and are fearful of delegitimizing what some might call freedom fighters rebelling against brutal oppression. This is the problem in Syria, where critics of groups fighting Assad’s criminal attacks on his own population deliberately elide them with jihadist opportunists, who have quite separate political objectives. As a consequence of this exclusion of attacks on military targets — which often includes police and government workers, even experts get confused about what is terrorism and what is not. Considering that insurgents always use terror in their campaigns to overtake the state, the line is always blurred.

The mistake of the Bush administration of terming the struggle as a “War on Terror” produced a distaste for thinking of the struggle as war, which in retrospect it has become — either due to our mistakes or because it was inevitable. Whichever the case, this is now a war, and describing it as such is a much better use of the word than the ubiquitous use of “hybrid war,” “political warfare,” “cyber war,” “economic war,” “the war on drugs,” and so on, when it is doubtful that anything related to war/warfare is happening in any of these constructs. The current effort to defeat the jihadis is a war in almost every sense, fought between military components with sizeable asymmetric power imbalances but nonetheless the power to control territory and populations and inflict violence on one another. It is common to think that the enemy’s strategy is to use terror to achieve their end state. The reality is not this simple. Instead, jihadists use terrorism against civilians and military targets as an integrated strategy of attrition/exhaustion/provocation. We refuse to accept this new reality and continue to misread our jihadi opponents, their objectives, and their relative success in achieving modest success to date. Any focus on the defeat of the caliphate, and not the shocking fact that one was created in the first place by tens of thousands of locals and global migrants, is a good example of this failure to understand.

Governments exist in large part to protect its citizens from harm. Failure to do this has large repercussions for politicians. Kori Schake, a member of Bush’s National Security Council, told a panel dissecting the motives behind the Iraq invasion this year that rational arguments against invading Iraq were overcome by a palpable fear of an even larger terrorist attack, one that politicians of both parties in both branches were eager to prevent. Accordingly, they overwhelmingly passed an authorization for the use of military force in 2002. Sixteen years later, we still cannot accept the reality of the war we are fighting, and three administrations have used this law to justify war against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. We are not executing a series of isolated military strikes with drones, but an extended and significant campaigns with no end in sight.

Crocodiles Closer to the Canoe?

Governments have to set priorities to protect their citizens, and efficiently allocate resources in order to protect its citizens and secure their welfare. The Trump administration’s new strategy directives reflect a desire to reshape a balance where the prosecution of the war against jihadist groups is sublimated in every sense to the need to counter a China increasingly acting in a “hegemonic” manner — not just regionally but also globally. This move has been applauded for realistically and belatedly addressing the rise China as a geopolitical threat to the United States’ position as unchallenged global leader. Fears that we are over-invested in the fight against jihadist groups, at the expense of attention to China or Russia, are valid and reasonable concerns addressed in the new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy.

That being said, it could be just as much a mistake to understand China as a threat to the United States, as opposed to a competitor for political and economic influence. While the competition for resources is always a zero-sum game, risk assessment is not. The probability of a Chinese threat to U.S. citizens, in an era of nuclear deterrence, is lower than the probability of a successful terror attack on U.S. soil, even if it would be much deadlier. Even if we were to decide to actively contest Chinese island building in the South China Sea, as well as influence efforts in South Asia and Africa, it is extremely unclear as to what we could actually do to stop what is a natural increase in influence due to their rising economic power. Furthermore, it is possible that China’s obtuse and clumsy efforts to use coercive tactics against South China Sea neighbors and political influence to manipulate internal political considerations in countries like Australia will inspire a natural and increasingly common backlash.

The dilemma of dealing with a rising China is an example the strategic planning concept former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld popularized of “known knowns,” etc. Despite indications of China’s growing power and new willingness to use it, there is little indication yet of how this will affect the current international order — one that has benefited China to a large degree and may continue to do so. This would function as a “known unknown.”

In contrast, the jihadist threat is a “known known,” with their intentions telegraphed and their determination to fulfill the establishment of the caliphate proven. Without discounting the importance of a new shared awareness that China could develop into a serious threat to stability and the U.S. position as an indispensable leader of the global community, we cannot fail to deal with the “known known.” Certainly, the lessons of chasing uncertain futures should be familiar enough to give us pause.

Coalitions of the Willing, and Able

The initial response to the establishment of the caliphate in 2014 was uncertain, dividing those who urged rollback from those who advised containment. Subsequent terrorist attacks around the world inspired a slow shift to rollback as the preferred option, and today the self-proclaimed caliphate is no more. Despite this achievement, there has been only limited commitment to the reconstruction necessary to prevent an Islamic State resurgence. States are still largely focused on perceived threats against their specific country, and retain a parochial attitude in approaching the jihadi groups that might be organizationally divided, but follow the same ideology. This well-articulated doctrine clearly defines the enemy, the strategy, and the acceptable tactics for engagement. Despite significant efforts by the United Nations Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate, this lack of unity of the targets of terrorism will likely increase thanks to a U.S. administration that embraces a go-it-alone approach and disdain for the benefits of international cooperation and unified action. The only thing preventing this to date are the efforts of individual diplomats and administration figures dedicated to reducing the threat of terrorism.

An important point that came up in the counterterrorism conference was a plea for countries to take responsibility for their citizens that committed terror acts in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Despite the new understanding of the dangers of allowing jihadists to build new networks around the world, countries have increased citizenship revocation for foreign terrorist fighters to avoid bringing them home. To avoid the hassles and risk of repatriating, prosecuting, detaining, rehabilitating, and reintegrating these individuals, countries are passing the buck and contributing to the building of the future fifth wave of global jihad. One United Nations representative at the conference admitted that Russia was taking the lead on repatriating the children of foreign terrorist fighters to grandparents in their country, in an ironic contrast to several liberal democracies. While countries are cooperating in this collective action problem, the absence of leadership from the United States is problematic.

We end this analysis by presenting a possible black swan related to the fight against jihadist foes. The United States and others have largely ignored Chinese actions concerning its Uighur population, Muslims who live in the Western province of Xinjiang. Reports that over a million Uighurs have been interned and subject to reeducation because of their religious beliefs could be the inspiration for the unity and support the jihadis have tried so hard to win, especially if the repression inspires an uprising. Anyone entertaining a bit of schadenfreude over these Chinese missteps has failed to learn the lessons of 9/11, and of life in our globalized and ever interconnected world. The Uighur issue might start as a Chinese problem, but it will not end as a strictly Chinese problem.


How do we think the scorecard on these three factors will look in a decade? It is too early to predict but we are not off to a good start. A lack of confidence in our own values due to past mistakes and shameful violations of our own values are fueling an inclination to reduce our efforts against groups that use terror because of a belief that we are the cause of this increase in terror. Just as the invasion of Iraq was an overreaction inspired by fear, our possible disengagement from the fight against violent extremists could end up as an overreaction to a failure to make an impact on the level of terror violence, and used by populist politicians to justify retrenchment. Western polities are divided and nonchalantly discuss possibilities of civil war, and focus on identity at the cost of unity.

Distaste for concepts like limited war against the jihadists, meaning limited objectives as well as limited resources, could force us to use illogical constructs like victory to judge success, much like the Israeli politician calling the negotiations with Hamas a defeat in the global war on terror. Until our politicians embrace these distinctions, or at least refrain from using them against their government opponents, we will never understand the war that we have been fighting, a war that will continue. This war plays out in fits and spurts, and the intensity of it ebbs and flows. The anniversary of 9/11 is a great time to conduct introspection; our governments owe us some real talk on what will continue to be a long struggle to reduce terror attacks around the world.


David A. Brown is the executive director of the Advanced Naval Strategist Program and co-director of the Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups. Tim Hoyt is the John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism, a professor of strategy and policy, and the acting director of the Advanced Strategist Program. Craig Whiteside is a professor of national security affairs. All three are faculty members of the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions are the views of the authors and do not reflect any official policy or view of the U.S. government.

Image: Elisebet Freeburg, Joint Sustainment Command – Afghanistan