America’s Goldilocks Moment in the Fight Against al Qaeda

America’s Goldilocks Moment in the Fight Against al Qaeda

It’s been a year since the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and more than a decade since our fight against al Qaeda began. With the al Qaeda chief dead and no major successful acts of foreign-based terrorism in the United States since 9/11, Americans are wondering if the fight is over.

It is not; al Qaeda and its affiliates remain a serious threat. In this paper, we offer guidance for addressing the current fight against terrorism to a nation weary of war and growing somewhat complacent about its domestic safety.

The central question relating to terrorism is the magnitude of America’s response. In the last two decades we have lurched from doing too little to trying to do too much. Now, we have finally achieved a “Goldilocks Moment” in the fight against al Qaeda—our actions are neither too big nor too small, but just about right.

At long last, the U.S. is using the right tools to permanently dismantle al Qaeda.

Pre-2001: Too Small

The May 2011 raid in Abbottabad was the result of careful intelligence work in unfriendly territory, partnerships with foreign countries, advanced special operations forces capabilities, and superior technical means. But many of these counterterrorism building blocks were not in place prior to 9/11.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Government was not organized to address the threat that terrorism would pose a decade later. Our national security apparatus was geared to fight nation-state conflicts, not small groups of extremists hiding in remote corners of the globe. The 9/11 Commission later concluded that fighting terrorism was “a second- or third-order priority” for Congress.1

The executive agencies charged with preventing terrorism were both under-resourced and unmoored from a common mission:

  • The CIA: After the Cold War, the Agency was still structured to fight the USSR and faced a declining budget due to the reduced threat from the Soviets.2 Its Counterterrorism Center was generally considered an organizational backwater, provided with few resources, and operated at the mercy of its traditional regional offices. Even developing and deploying the now-critical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology proved difficult for the Agency.3

In the decade after the Cold War, terrorism was just one of many threats facing our nation. And certainly not the most pressing issue.

  • The FBI: The Bureau had some success in capturing several terrorists throughout the 1990s, but, according to then-Director Freeh, it had not yet moved to thwarting attacks before they happened.4 In 2001, only 6% of the FBI’s personnel worked on counterterrorism issues.5
  • The Defense Department: The Pentagon viewed anything other than conflicts with nation states as outside of their core mission. Handling low-intensity conflicts was viewed as a distraction, and dealing with terrorist groups even more so.6 The military left the tracking of terrorist groups to the FBI inside the U.S. and to the intelligence community overseas.

In addition, the agencies divided up responsibilities and did not have ways of sharing information or addressing common threats. These patchwork efforts were insufficient to identify or stop the 9/11 attack. But an overreaction to the terror strike would prove to be just as problematic.

Post-9/11: Too Big

Immediately following 9/11, the White Houseacting with congressional approval for a vaguely worded Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)sent CIA and special operations forces into Afghanistan to combat al Qaeda and their Taliban protectors. While this initial thrust crushed al Qaeda’s Afghan safe havens, America then lost its way by making short-term choices that resulted in long-term problems. This included, among other things:

  • Detention: We did not know what to do with the hundreds of individuals captured in Afghanistan, so we opened an ad hoc detention facility at Guantánamo Bay and put them there under evolving, questionable legal rationales.7

The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001...

Text from the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) of 2001

  • Interrogation: The White House and the Justice Department authorized the CIA to use brutal interrogation techniques that the current Attorney General has since labeled as “torture."8 Even when the first memos were drafted, some Bush Administration officials, notably the Navy’s General Counsel, expressed the belief that certain interrogation techniques were “at a minimum cruel and unusual treatment and, at worst, torture."9
  • Surveillance: President Bush authorized warrantless electronic surveillance following the 9/11 attacks. After their existence was leaked to the press, the President subsequently defended the program as a necessary tool to fight terrorists. The Bush announcement prompted Congress to establish new guidelines and regulations for electronic surveillance that provided additional protections for U.S. Persons.10

Guantánamo…had become a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.

President George W. Bush, Decision Points, p.180

And of course, the invasion of Iraq was a huge distraction from the real fight—the one against those who attacked us on 9/11. The invasion of Iraq and the chaos that followed consumed so much American blood, treasure, time, and effort that it would take many years before U.S. policymakers could refocus squarely upon the actual terrorist threat. Al Qaeda and its allies took advantage of a distracted America to regroup and reengage in their terrorist activities.

The Iraq war was a large distraction from the fight against those who attacked us on 9/11.

Now: Just About Right

America has, after a decade of conflict, developed new capabilities and learned hard lessons about fighting al Qaeda. This has led to a much more effective effort to crush our foes and stop terrorist activities in its tracks.

The bin Laden raid is a textbook demonstration of this “just right” approach. America was able to find the al Qaeda chief because of the thousands of hours of work performed by the intelligence community, followed by a carefully-executed, limited military operation. The critical slivers of information that eventually led to the courier that America followed to bin Laden’s compound were gathered not by brutal methods approved in the wake of 9/11, but by two separate sources: 1) standard, noncoercive interrogations of prisoners and 2) intelligence provided by a foreign country.11

The bin Laden raid was the result of careful intelligence work, foreign partnerships, special operations forces and advanced technical capabilities.

But it has also made clear that the threat is still with us, and we must remain vigilant.

A Scalpel, Not a Sledgehammer

We’ve now develop-ed new capabilities and learned hard lessons about fighting al Qaeda.

We have come to learn the value of a lighter footprint using specially trained personnel operating in tough parts of the world. For example:

  • Afghanistan: U.S. forces are now able to establish indigenous teams of counterterrorism personnel that have effectively acted to root out terrorist and insurgent groups within the region.12
  • Yemen: The U.S. has brought new focus to tracking and neutralizing the threat from al Qaeda personnel in Yemen without too many American boots on the ground. The most notable recent success was the death of U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, who had been linked to a number of terrorist plots and attacks.13

Yemen map

  • Somalia: U.S. forces continue to deliver sharp blows to al Qaeda personnel in the Horn of Africa, including the 2009 elimination of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was responsible for the 1998 American Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania as well as other attacks in Africa.14
  • Drones: UAVs have not only provided critical breakthroughs in surveillance, but also have attacked hundreds of suspected al Qaeda personnel in northern Pakistan. This technology has profoundly disrupted their operations and has kept them on the run. Intelligence from Abbottabad showed that bin Laden was concerned with number of “brothers” that had died in the persistent UAV attacks.15

UAVs not only provide both critical surveillance capabilities, but also keep terrorists on the run—since few places are safe for them, for long.

Better Integrated Intelligence

The U.S. national security system is now marching effectively to destroy al Qaeda. We continue to develop the capability for precise intelligence, analysis, international cooperation, and technology, which are critical to foiling many of their terror plots.

For example:

  • In 2010, the Saudi government informed senior U.S. officials of an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) plot to place explosive-filled packages on U.S.-bound cargo planes. The planes were intercepted and grounded before they ever reached the United States.
  • In 2009, the FBI and the NYPD (with help from the CIA) stopped an al Qaeda plot to bomb the NYC subway. The CIA flagged Najibullah Zazi after he travelled to Pakistan to train at a terrorist camp, and the FBI then tracked him from Colorado to New York and back to Colorado before arresting him.16
  • In 2006, the U.S., British, and Pakistani governments broke up a significant plot to destroy several passenger planes midflight over the Atlantic (which led to the ban on liquids in carry-on luggage). Had this plot been successful, it could have killed thousands of people, cost billions of dollars, and severely damaged the global aviation system.

An Educated, Vigilant Public

Americans must understand that the threats remain real, and even the best intelligence and military efforts cannot thwart every extremist bent on attacking America and our citizens. An informed, alert public can help law enforcement thwart attacks here at home.

Regular Americans provide critical help in the fight against terrorism here at home.

  • A gun shop clerk’s tip in 2011 led authorities to stop Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo from reprising the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood, TX. When law enforcement officials arrested Pfc. Abdo, he had weapons and bomb-making devices in his possession.17
  • A T-shirt vendor helped thwart the 2010 bombing of NYC’s Times Square by alerting police to a suspicious SUV—law enforcement officials later determined that the vehicle carried a powerful explosive device.
  • Passengers and crew responded quickly and helped avert disaster on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009, when a suicide attacker tried to detonate a bomb in midair.

Assistance from Muslim-Americans

Authorities are also working with various Muslim communities to prevent attacks, and it is working—families and friends are turning dangerous people in:

  • According to the New America Foundation, “Over one-fifth of the post-9/11 Islamist terrorism cases originated with tips from Muslim community members or involved the cooperation of the families of alleged plotters."18
  • In 2010, the FBI thwarted an attempted bombing in Oregon after the alleged bomber’s friend and father contacted them.
  • Also in 2010, the FBI arrested a man plotting to bomb the Washington, D.C. Metro after a member of the local community contacted them.

Americans are all in this fight together; scapegoating one community will hurt our counterterrorism efforts.


This nation was overly complacent before 9/11 and had to build our counterterrorism ship as it sailed. That meant our conflict with al Qaeda cost this nation dearly, and the mistakes we made and the lessons we learned were hard ones. Many issues remain to be resolved, including the disposition of the Guantanamo Bay detainees. And of course, al Qaeda has shown a remarkable resiliency to bounce back in the face of major setbacks.

That said, we believe that we are now moving in the right direction. We must remind Americans that the threat remains and vigilance is required, but we can also assure them that after 10 years, we have finally gotten things just about right.

  • Defense Policy154
  • Foreign Relations123
  • Terrorism98


  1. United States, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (aka The 9/11Commission Report), U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., July 22, 2004, pp. 105-07, Print.

  2. United States, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, “Written Statement for the Record of the Director of Central Intelligence Before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States,” Statement by George Tenet, March 24, 2004. Accessed April 23, 2012. Available at:

  3. United States, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (aka The 9/11Commission Report), U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., July 22, 2004, p. 211, Print.

  4. United States, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (aka The 9/11Commission Report), U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., July 22, 2004, p. 76, Print.

  5. “9/11 commission staff statement #9,” MSNBC, April 13, 2004. Accessed April 24, 2012. Available at:

  6. Richard Shultz, Jr., “How Clinton Let Al-Qaeda Go,” The Weekly Standard, January 19, 2004. Accessed April 24, 2012. Available at:

  7. William Glaberson, “Guantánamo’s detention camp remains, but not its legal rationale,” The New York Times, June 13, 2008. Accessed April 23, 2012. Available at:; See also Michael John Garcia, Jennifer K. Elsea, R. Chuck Mason, and Edward C. Liu, “Closing the Guantanamo Detention Center: Legal Issues,” Report, R40139, Congressional Research Service, February 11, 2011, pp. 1-7. Accessed April 23, 2012. Available at:

  8. David Stout, “Holder Tells Senators Waterboarding Is Torture,” The New York Times, January 15, 2009. Accessed April 23, 2012. Available at:

  9. Alberto Mora, Interview in “Torturing Democracy,” The National Security Archive and Washington Media Associates, The George Washington University, September 17, 2007. Accessed April 23, 2012. Available at:

  10. Andrew M. Borene, “The U.S. Intelligence Community Law Sourcebook: 2011 Edition,” Selected Additional Provisions of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, American Bar Association, Chicago, IL, 2011, pp. 274-81, Print.

  11. John McCain, “Bin Laden’s Death and the Debate over Torture,” The Washington Post, May 11, 2011. Accessed April 25, 2012. Available at:

  12. Azmat Khan, “JSOC Using Captured Militants to Analyze Intel,” PBS Frontline, September 6, 2011. Accessed April 23, 2012. Available at:

  13. Greg Miller, “Strike on Aulaqi demonstrates collaboration between CIA and military,” The Washington Post, September 30, 2011. Accessed April 23, 2012. Available at:

  14. Jeffrey Gettleman and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Kills Top Qaeda Militant in Southern Somalia,” The New York Times, September 14, 2009. Accessed April 24, 2012. Available at:

  15. David Ignatius, “The bin Laden plot to kill President Obama,” The Washington Post, March 16, 2012. Accessed April 23, 2012. Available at:

  16. Catherine Tsai and P. Solomon Banda, “Najibullah Zazi Terror Probe: A Timeline Of Events,” Associated Press, September 21, 2009. Accessed April 24, 2012. Available at:

  17. Chris Vaughn, Alex Branch, and Darren Barbee, “AWOL soldier who plotted bombing in Fort Hood charged,” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 29, 2011. Accessed April 23, 2012. Available at:

  18. “Post-9/11 Jihadist Terrorism Cases Involving U.S. Citizens and Residents: An Overview,” The Homegrown Threat, New America Foundation and Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Policy. Accessed April 23, 2012. Available at: