20 years after 9/11, the War on Terror failed. Now the world needs a new version

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the past twenty years, it’s that the War on Terror largely failed: radicalisation is rampant and The Taliban control more of Afghanistan than in 2001. However, the war on terror also obscured the war we didn’t fight.

The struggle against jihadism – while well-intentioned – fostered a climate that rewarded sensationalism, suspicion, prejudice, and provoked an Islamophobic reaction that has increasingly empowered dangerous populists and destabilised democracies around the world.

A coinciding result has been the strengthening of the Far Right, which successfully hid behind the West’s determination to use ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ as rhetoric intrinsically linked specifically to jihadism and Muslims.

But now we are paying the price.

Now, instead of Islamists, the far-right is behind the majority of American terror plots and has been declared the greatest security challenge. Worse still, the far-right has gone global, with white supremacists and violent nationalists linking hands across borders. From Pennsylvania to Texas, from Norway to New Zealand, theirs is a bloody legacy.

This terror blind spot has morphed into a threat that’s just as dangerous as the Islamist one. But it’s one that’s been egregiously overlooked. Reports from New Zealand reveal that Wellington ignored far-right threats because its focus was effectively limited to jihadist threats, missing key opportunities to prevent attacks like the horrific Christchurch massacre. Add the ransacking of the American Capitol, which was discounted by security forces for months, and it’s clear the threat is significant–and significantly becoming more sinister.

When Kabul succumbed to the Taliban last month, far-right online communities across the globe expressed outright sympathy for the Taliban – a group they believe could serve as models for their own dreams to defeat liberal ideologies and topple Western governments.

Before this threat metastasises any further, it must be stopped.

Force is not, on its own, a sufficient solution – we cannot eradicate terror or ideologies through guns and bullets.

A War on Terror is still needed, more so than ever before. But after military options have failed and the era of US nation-building is well and truly over. We need a new and improved vision, one that matches a new post-war era.

For one, it must break from old practices that focused predominantly on one ideology and must evolve to recognise extremist threats in their many different forms. Importantly, we must accept from the bitter experience of the last twenty years that force is not, on its own, a sufficient solution – we cannot eradicate terror or ideologies through guns and bullets.

So, what if the West realised non-military solutions to their full potential? Defence systems have often seemed to take precedence – gobbling up resources while the actual matter of addressing the substance behind extremist ideologies played catch up.

No longer can counterterrorism be relegated behind military, law enforcement, and censorship options. This means governments and politicians must avoid the divisive reactionary measures that extremists thrive on. And it means there must be global collaboration on a scale unseen before that unites civil society leaders and governments across the world in tackling the different faces of the same pernicious extremist threat.

And it’s not like governments around the world lack the resources for this bold transition. If, for instance, the US had taken even a fraction of the $2 trillion funding it used on the Afghanistan war for initiatives to unite civil leaders and tackle the breeding ground of extremists, then the new war on terror could succeed.

In the work of Dr Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa, Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, he has learned time and again that one of the most effective weapons in fighting religious extremism is for the religious mainstream to mobilise its resources, summoning all its moral capital to make a strong, clear case against violence, and ensuring that the messages reach the most vulnerable.

The public sector must work to restrict extremist dissemination of dangerous content online. This one-two punch of prevention and persuasion is the right foundation for a long-term American, Western and global plan to fight the new terror threat.

And the time is now.

Unless governments and civil society support a shared vision for a new global effort to combat terror – one that takes place in the context of a post-US nation-building era, and that learns from costly previous mistakes, there could – sadly – be many more terror attack anniversaries to come.

Bjørn Ihler is a survivor of the 2011 far-right terrorist attack in Norway, which led him to work with other activists, policy makers, researchers, and former violent extremists to counter extremist influence. In 2016, Bjørn co-founded the Khalifa-Ihler Institute which promotes peace, human rights, and thriving communities. He is Chair of the International Advisory Committee of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), an NGO designed to prevent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms.