That counterterrorism instruments often fail is no surprise—terrorists are tough targets, after all. At times, however, these instruments can actually backfire. Such “blowback” can take many forms and is difficult to measure and identify.
In today’s context, blowback is most commonly used to refer to the nasty consequences that result from the use of certain counterterrorism tools: angering masses of people and thus creating more sympathy for the terrorists and, presumably, increasing their fundraising and recruitment capabilities and making it easier for them to operate. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, led to a surge in anger among Muslims around the world and was cited as a reason for conducting terrorist attacks. Attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, radical American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston marathon bombing, all cited the U.S. war in Iraq as one of the motivations for their actions against the United States.
U.S. drone strikes, especially those in Pakistan, are criticized for outraging local populations and creating more sympathy for the terrorists. Retired U.S. Marine Corps General James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former adviser to President Obama, has argued: “We’re seeing that blowback…If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.” Following a particularly high-profile U.S. drone strike targeting Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Meshud, one newspaper reported that “Former cricket star Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, has built a massive following in denouncing the ongoing U.S. drone campaign in his native country.” Such U.S. actions that outrage the population allow the terrorists to portray themselves as Robin Hoods and make the people more willing to overlook their brutality, extreme ideology, and repeated attacks on fellow Muslims.
More subtly, attacking Al Qaeda or its estranged relatives like the Islamic State might lead to an increase in attacks on the United States. Al Qaeda has many enemies, and if the United States hits it hard, it might decide to shift its resources away from those other enemies and toward the United States. As the Al Qaeda core is already strongly anti-U.S., this argument has little resonance when it comes to Zawahiri and his closest followers, but it does apply to Al Qaeda’s affiliates and groups with similar ideologies that have no operational relationship, like Ansar-e Sharia in Libya. On the one hand, counterterrorism officials don’t want to stand idly by as these groups grow stronger and then suddenly find themselves confronted with a major threat. On the other hand, although these groups share Al Qaeda’s hatred of the United States, their energies are focused locally and regionally. Even Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the only Al Qaeda affiliate so far to have directly targeted the U.S. homeland, devotes the bulk of its resources to carrying out attacks in Yemen. This debate is particularly germane to the issue of U.S. attacks on the Islamic State: U.S. officials fear that this group might eventually focus on attacking the U.S. homeland, but they also worry that U.S. attacks on the group make this focus more likely. And the Islamic State’s fighters include many Westerners who could be sent back to carry out attacks at home.
Human rights activists and legal scholars contend that torture, extrajudicial killings, and indefinite detention subvert the U.S. image as a champion of the rule of law. With less legitimacy, the United States could lose the international cooperation that is so vital for disrupting Al Qaeda. However, this is unlikely: Al Qaeda opposes many regimes, and even those not on its enemies list usually oppose terrorism. A bigger challenge is that a decline in legitimacy makes it harder for allies to openly cooperate with the United States. High-profile actions like the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and reports of a U.S. drone strike mistakenly targeting a wedding party in Yemen make it more politically costly for U.S. allies.
The damage to the United States may be greater outside the counterterrorism realm. Former President Jimmy Carter wrote in a 2012 op-ed in The New York Times that because of the drone campaign, “our country can no longer speak with moral authority” on human rights issues. To the extent that U.S. leverage on human rights issues comes from perceptions that the United States adheres to international standards of behavior in its foreign policy, many counterterrorism programs undermine U.S. status.
It is easy to argue by anecdote one way or another, but assessing broader trends usually suffers from a lack of data. Terrorism scholars lack a general theory of recruitment—and if we don’t really know why people become terrorists in general, it is hard to judge how a controversial instrument affects radicalization and recruitment.
We can and do look at the individual statements of terrorists for why they join. Many cite a familiar litany of grievances, such as U.S. support for Israel or the U.S. military presence in the Muslim world. The problem is that the list is long, and it is hard to tell if one grievance would simply be replaced by another in the mind of an angry, idealistic, and excitable young volunteer. Instead of hating America or the West for ten reasons, they now hate the West for nine. This problem is particularly acute because conspiracy theories run amok in the Muslim world. In no Muslim country do more than 30 percent of the people think that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks. Many Muslims believe 9/11 was an inside job, either orchestrated by Jews to cement U.S. support for Israel against Muslims or by the Bush administration to justify the Iraq war (and, another personal favorite from former Iranian president Ahmadinejad—that the West is destroying Iran’s rain clouds). With such a conspiratorial mindset, even benign U.S. moves are seen as suspect. The U.S.-led intervention in Kosovo, which liberated many Muslims from the brutal Serb regime in Belgrade, was perceived by many to be a deliberate U.S. plan to allow the Serbs to kill many Muslims and, only when the butchery was done, pretend to act.
Nor are all terrorists created equal. Part of the logic of the drone program is that if leaders are removed or forced to stay on the run, the followers will be unable to function. So even if the death of a leader leads five more people to join the group in outrage, the group may remain weaker as the skilled individual is not easily replaced.
Although blowback is difficult to determine and measure, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist—and some things like torture are inherently wrong even if blowback is minimal. The United States and its allies should be on the lookout for signs of blowback, watching the discourse among jihadists from their testimonials as well as social media sites like Twitter to see which actions are particularly hated. Particularly important is judging how counterterrorism will affect the actions of different terrorist groups. Killing one Al Shabaab leader by drone, for example, would be counterproductive if it were to convince the group as a whole to shift its focus and begin aggressively targeting the United States. Such care is at the heart of thinking strategically about counterterrorism: the United States needs to ensure that the terrorist narrative is discredited as well as defeat individual terrorists.