Editor’s Note: This piece draws heavily upon the author’s book, Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism.

In 2003 I was a special adviser in the Coalition Provisional Authority, working to recover evidence of atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. I had signed up believing that our intervention would symbolize the triumph of the rule of law and liberal democracy over tyranny. However, this narrative was soon drowned out by the scandal of detainee abuse in Abu Ghraib, which communicated a very different message to many in the Islamic world—that the United States might not, in fact, be any better than Saddam had been.

My experience in Iraq gave me a profound appreciation for the critical role that legitimacy plays in successful military operations—and this is especially true in the field of counterterrorism. In the twenty years since the 9/11 attacks, most of the military and security studies literature reflecting on the US-led post-9/11 wars has focused on battlefield tactics, the challenges of nation building, or major political inflection points. But there has been very little consideration of what one might call the “moral battlespace,” and the profoundly negative impact that far-reaching decisions to depart from established moral and legal standards early in the conflict had on the success of American arms in the field. Heavy-handed reactions in counterterrorism almost always prove to be counterproductive in the long run. This principle is true in the American experiences over the past twenty years, as operating counter to our avowed values undermined our legitimacy, drowned out our messaging, and weakened our partnerships with allies.

The Terrorist Trap: Provoking Overreaction to Legitimize a Cause

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States, angry and hurting, was willing to embrace what Vice President Dick Cheney memorably called the “dark side” of counterterrorism. In doing so, we fell right into the trap that had been laid for us by those who carried out the attacks. Al-Qaeda strategists like Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Bakr Naji made no secret of their hope that the 9/11 attacks would provoke the United States into overreacting in response. They expected that this would, in turn, radicalize a significant constituency within the Islamic faith to violence, expose the flaws and hypocrisies that they believed existed within democratic states, and saddle the United States with an asymmetric military and financial burden that it could not bear indefinitely. It is hard not to conclude, as we look at the state of affairs in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and within the United States, that they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Perhaps the most egregious human rights misstep made by the United States was the decision to authorize the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) at CIA black sites and military detention facilities, as well as to render suspected terrorists to less fastidious allies like Egypt and Syria where they could be tortured with impunity. Most of the EITs authorized by the Bush administration, such as the use of stress positions, walling, and sleep deprivation, amounted in international criminal jurisprudence (at the very least) to “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment, and America itself prosecuted Japanese waterboarding of US Air Force personnel during World War II. Credible, but invested, voices such as former CIA Directors Michael Hayden and John Brennan have claimed that some actionable intelligence was elicited by the use of these techniques, but they have consistently failed to produce a single well-documented case to back up their assertions. Two extremely thorough investigations by the Senate Armed Services and Select Intelligence Committees drew a similar blank. It seems safe to conclude that almost twenty years since the arrival of the first detainees at Guantánamo Bay, any tactical utility of EITs has been, at best, marginal.

The “Nonbiodegradable” Legacy of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo

The strategic damage done to America’s reputation by the use of these controversial practices has, to borrow the vivid phrasing used by General David Petraeus, proved “nonbiodegradable.” The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, was certainly quick to take advantage of the publicized abuse of US detainees in a communiqué by commenting: “I do not think that any intelligent person remains who believes in the monstrous lie of promised democracy after the revelations of Abu Ghraib and the joke of Guantánamo.” Indeed, General Stanley McChrystal would later recall: “In my experience, we found that nearly every first-time jihadist claimed Abu Ghraib had first jolted him to action.” Furthermore, these revelations alienated key allies, with the former director general of the British Security Service (MI5), Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, publicly acknowledging in 2007 that the United Kingdom had “greater inhibitions than we once did” in some aspects of sharing intelligence.

The military commissions process established by executive order in November 2001 proved equally counterproductive. The Bush administration adopted the process with the express intention of denying suspects brought before the commissions in Guantánamo Bay the full range of due process rights that they would have enjoyed on American soil. To date, the military commissions in Guantánamo have only convicted eight people, mostly through problematic plea deals. Furthermore, three of those convictions have subsequently been overturned on appeal. Both the 9/11 and USS Cole trials are still underway. I attended both arraignments at Camp Justice as an observer almost ten years ago. These trials are, by a considerable margin, already the longest criminal trials in US history—the previous record holder, the McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial in California, lasted a mere seven years. And there is still no end in sight. As a result, we still lack definitive probative accounts of the 9/11 and USS Cole attacks. Furthermore, the victims have still not seen even a small measure of justice done, the world has been treated to the unedifying spectacle of the United States hiding behind the state secrets privilege and tying itself in knots to keep details of its treatment of the defendants out of the legal record, and just this May a military commissions judge was prepared to allow the use of testimony obtained by torture in a legal proceeding for the first time in American history. Meanwhile, over the same period, federal courts have successfully convicted more than 450 individuals detained in the United States for terrorism-related offenses associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS, demonstrating that regular legal tools can both be effective and provide transparency.

The Trouble with Targeted Killing

Targeted killing—a term used here to refer to lethal strikes committed outside a defined theater of active armed conflict—is perhaps the one area where there is a less one-sided debate to be had. A favorite tactic during the Obama administration, drone strikes have unquestionably claimed the lives of top leadership figures in al-Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as plenty of mid-ranking cadres. These were significant tactical victories, and Osama bin Laden acknowledged the toll drone strikes were taking on al-Qaeda in internal documents recovered from his hideout in Abbottabad, but even the killing of bin Laden himself did not amount to a knockout blow. And if one applies former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s test of whether we are killing more terrorists than we are making, the picture becomes much more complicated. After all, as Bruce Hoffman noted recently, there are four times as many Islamist terrorist organizations active around the world today than there were in 2001.

We know from extensive research that experience of state violence, whether direct or indirect, is one of the primary drivers of terrorism. It is not so easy to kill one’s way to victory in a counterterrorism campaign. Terrorist groups are typically dynamic enterprises with fluctuating and elastic membership. Individuals join and leave the fight in response to a variety of internal and external factors, but the desire to avenge the loss of a loved is one of the most commonly cited motivations for taking up arms. When the injury is perceived as being unjust that effect is magnified. US drone strikes have not proved to be as surgical and precise as their proponents claim. At the most conservative credible independent estimate, at least 424 innocent civilians, including 172 children, were killed by strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2020—an approximate ratio of one civilian for every four alleged combatants killed. In truth, US drone strikes have become a powerful recruitment tool with the founding emir of the Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, once boasting, “Each drone strike brings me three or four more suicide bombers.”

Human Rights Observance as an Effective Counterterrorism Approach

On balance, there does not seem to be much evidence of clear strategic utility to having employed any of the controversial tools described above, and this should be explicitly acknowledged by military leaders. In fact, what is most striking is how their use plays directly into the strategic goals of our terrorist adversaries. Terrorists are typically prolific self-publicists, and group after group has published pamphlets, communiqués, and manuals explaining both what they are trying to achieve and how they are hoping to achieve it. Terrorist doctrine is sophisticated and well established, and groups all over the world adhere to the same basic strategic approach, key pillars of which are provoking states into overreaction, polarizing society to drown out moderate voices, and actively contesting the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of its stakeholders. Yet, we seem to have devised our response without even taking our enemy’s doctrine into account.

The twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks presents us with an opportunity to take a long, hard look back at the past two decades—the decisions that were taken, often in the heat of the moment, and the potential roads not taken. It seems obvious now that hard power alone is not enough. We can win every fight and still lose the war. In the moral battlespace, America used to be able to call upon tremendous reserves of soft power. In the 1990s, the United States became the world’s unipolar power not because of its military might but because the political system it espoused had triumphed unambiguously over its rivals. It has been fashionable in recent years to say that America should lead by the power of its example, not the example of its power—but to do that you have to live your values. Political spin cannot hide the contradictions between America’s self-image as a beacon of freedom and the stain left by practices such as enhanced interrogation and targeted killing. Hypocrisy is kryptonite to a nation’s reputation.

In truth, the only existential threat terrorism has ever posed to the United States is in the manner we have chosen to respond to it. We talk a lot in the counterterrorism community about the need to strengthen the resilience of critical systems and infrastructure, but not enough about the need to ensure the resilience of our core values, although these are equally essential to our success. Our deliberate decision to depart from the democratic values that built the post–World War II international system and forged the largest military alliance in history was, to paraphrase Napoleon Bonaparte’s wily minister of police, Joseph Fouché, worse than a crime, it was a blunder. We fell right into the trap that was laid for us, and this has left us weaker, not just in our struggle against terrorism, but also in the arena of great power competition. Until we face up fully to our past mistakes, recommit unswervingly to the values that made America the envy of the world, and stop playing the role the terrorists want us to play, we will surely be condemned to lose more small wars and insurgencies in the future.

Tom Parker is a former British Security Service (MI5) officer and the author of Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Sgt. Ben Brody, US Army