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America's War on Terror

The War on Terror (WoT) is a military campaign launched by the Bush Administration in response to the al Qaida 9/11 terrorist attacks. The President announced it on September 20, 2001, in this speech to Congress. "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda," he said,"but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 confronted Americans with the stark reality of a fanatical Islamist enemy obsessed with the goal of destroying their country's institutions, its people, and its civilization. An al Qaeda manifesto titled “Why We Fight America,” which was made public in June 2002, expresses radical Islam’s agenda with abundant clarity:

“What happened to America [on 9/11] is something natural, an expected event for a country that uses terror, arrogant policy, and suppression against the nations and the peoples ... America is the head of heresy in our modern world, and it leads an infidel democratic regime that is based upon separation of religion and state and on ruling the people by ... laws that contradict the way of Allah.... [Therefore], we have the right to kill 4 million Americans – 2 million of them children – and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons ...”

Such is the mindset underlying the terrorist war that has been declared against America.

Of course, 9/11 was by no means the first instance of actual or attempted Islamic terrorism perpetrated against U.S. interests:

  • On February 26, 1993, al Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center with a truck bomb that made a crater six stories deep, killed six people and injured more than a thousand. The planners’ intention had been to cause one tower to topple the other and kill tens of thousands of people in the process.
  • After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, unsuccessful attempts were made by al Qaeda groups to blow up the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and other populated targets, including a massive terrorist incident timed to coincide with the millennium celebrations of January 2000.
  • Another scheme to hijack multiple commercial airliners and use them as "bombs" (not unlike 9/11) was thwarted in the Philippines in 1995.
  • In 1996 a terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers, a U.S. military barracks in Saudia Arabia, killed 19 American soldiers.
  • In 1998, al Qaeda agents blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania -- killing 245 people and injuring 5,000.
  • On October 12, 2000, the warship USS Cole was bombed while re-fueling in Yemen; 17 American sailors were killed and 39 were injured.

While these were all acts of war committed during the Clinton administration, President Clinton and his cabinet refused to recognize them as such. Instead, they treated them as law-enforcement matters to be dealt with in criminal court. President George W. Bush broke this pattern and responded to 9/11 as though it were an act of war, not a criminal infraction. Thus began America's War on Terror.

The cornerstone of this War on Terror was the Patriot Act (enacted in October 2001), which removed several Clinton-era restrictions that had prevented intelligence officials and law-enforcement officials from sharing information and working together on investigations. The Patriot Act also gave the Treasury Department more leverage with which to disrupt terrorist financing networks and thereby stem the flow of terrorism's lifeblood.

On September 17, 2002, President Bush spelled out the guiding principles of America's War on Terror:

“Defending our Nation against its enemies is the first and fundamental commitment of the Federal Government.... Enemies in the past needed great armies and great industrial capabilities to endanger America. Now, shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank. Terrorists are organized to penetrate open societies and to turn the power of modern technologies against us.

“To defeat this threat we must make use of every tool in our arsenal—military power, better homeland defenses, law enforcement, intelligence, and vigorous efforts to cut off terrorist financing. The war against terrorists of global reach is a global enterprise of uncertain duration. America will help nations that need our assistance in combating terror. And America will hold to account nations that are compromised by terror, including those who harbor terrorists— because the allies of terror are the enemies of civilization.... [W]e will seek to deny them sanctuary at every turn.”

A number of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism measures were quickly undone by Barack Obama, who took over the presidency in January 2009. Obama's first act as U.S. President was to order the suspension of all military tribunals that had been established to adjudicate the cases of terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. This move was consistent with Obama's view that terrorism is not a matter of war, but rather criminal-justice issue to be resolved in civilian courts.

In March 2009 the Obama administration ordered an end to the use of the phrase "War on Terror," a label that had been adopted by the Bush administration shortly after the 9/11 attacks. In a memo sent from the Defense Department's office of security to Pentagon staffers, members were told: "This administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror.' Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.'"

In a similar spirit, Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, broke with the tradition of warning the American public about potential terrorist threats. Instead, Napolitano began referring to acts of terrorism as "man-caused disasters."

Also in 2009, Obama's "Terrorism Czar" John Brennan openly rejected the use of the term “War on Terrorism.” Elaborating, Brennan said the U.S. would not seek merely to defeat al Qaeda and its allies, but also to address ignorance, poverty, and repression, since terrorist attacks are often “the final murderous manifestation of a long process rooted in hopelessness, humiliation, and hatred.” Moreover, Brennan maintained that it was wrong to say the U.S. was fighting "jihadists," because “jihad” was “a legitimate term … meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal.”

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