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Heather Brandon-Smith is legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. 

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We Can Effectively Counter Terrorism Without War

by Heather Brandon-Smith 03-21-2024
Christians can help envision a different way toward peace.
The illustration shows a white peace dove sitting on a broken tank, on a red background.

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FOLLOWING THE HAMAS attacks on Israel last October, President Biden drew a parallel to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. He remarked that in the aftermath of 9/11 “we felt enraged” and “we made mistakes.” The U.S. response in 2001 serves both as a cautionary tale to Israel and a reminder of the failures of the military-first approach the U.S. has taken to international terrorism.

After 9/11, the U.S. responded with war. This choice was just that — a policy choice. The U.S. could have used effective models of international policing to bring Osama bin Laden’s transnational criminal network to justice — and many countries stood ready to help. Instead, ex-President Bush chose a military strategy against nonstate actors. Thus began the Global War on Terror. This choice employed a war-based framework that permitted killing people suspected of terrorism as a first resort; allowed for indefinite military detention; and trained foreign forces to respond to threats of terrorism with lethal force. In 2023, according to the Costs of War Project, the U.S. was conducting militarized counterterrorism operations in 78 countries.

Twenty-three years of this approach has not defeated terrorist groups. Instead, these groups are more dispersed and recruitment has increased. This policy choice has resulted in up to 432,000 civilian deaths and cost U.S. taxpayers more than $8 trillion. The post-9/11 period has seen a fourfold increase in terrorist groups and terrorist attacks have increased fivefold per year globally. Part of this growth relates to the high numbers of civilian casualties caused by U.S. military operations, including drone strikes, which groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda exploit to bolster recruitment.