Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and How Government Always Wins The War on Terror

How can the U.S. stop fighting when the threat is so dire, but we've almost won?


It's been one year since that strange evening in May 2011 when President Barack Obama reported that Al-Qaeda head Osama Bin Laden, so long mysteriously absent from the world stage, had been found and killed by U.S. forces. One year later and the U.S. government still refuses to release photos or video to prove Bin Laden really died in the way described, but the latest Time has the action-packed pages that relate just how the raid went down (for real this time!). No photos because the risk is too great that pictures of Bin Laden's body would incite violence. Even though Al-Qaeda is, according to senior U.S. officials, "essentially gone" and with lesser affiliates capable of doing only minor harm to U.S. interests.

Except that, according to recently-released documents found with Bin Laden in his Pakistan hideaway, Al-Qaeda was trying to make a come-back and had considered such bold schemes as assassinating President Barack Obama. So, which one is it? Have we won yet, or is the risk from terrorism still dire enough to justify more drone strikes in more countries, as well as the potential for the indefinite detainment of Americans?

It's been nearly 11 years since September 11 and the man responsible for the death of 3,000 Americans is gone at last, but we are still not safe enough. This vaguely-defined effort continues to be a perfect example of government power which exists only to sustain itself. There's always a threat which demands government action, be it drugs or financial collapse or the potential for 10 percent unemployment. The cost of not intervening is always presumed to be worse. How can you disprove it? And what's more serious than the safety of Americans?

This means that whatever the price of American empire, it must be worth it. You say the odds of an American dying in a terrorist attack are one in 80,000? Well, if the government weren't fighting them abroad, things would be worse at home. How many terrorist attacks might there have been if not for this fight against them? (Never mind how many there would be in a world without blow-back or intrusion into foreign affairs. Nor the FBI's recent, troubling habit of encouraging pathetic plots so much that it's hard to know if many of their touted anti-terrorists success would have gotten as far as they did without law enforcement encouragement.) 

A year after the reason for the invasion of Afghanistan was killed (in Pakistan), it's fair to ask: What has ten years, half a trillion dollars, 11,000 dead Afghan citizens and 1800 dead American troops given Americans? Hard to say yet, since there are still "long-term and acute challenges" for Allied forces which may stretch past the projected exit date of 2014. But it's better than before, right? Obama spoke in Kabul on Wednesday on how "the dark cloud of war" will soon be gone and that "there's a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices" the American troops have made. (Iraq's war is officially over, even if violence, a $750 million embassy of 16,000 personnel, and occasional drone patrols remain.) 

Perhaps that's progress. And after all, drone strikes are less terrible than an all-out war. But it may just be harder to stop a constant level of intrusion overseas than to stop a more traditional war. Most people now regret at least the war in Iraq. But unless economic doom finally forces American troops to go home, what are the chances that they'll really leave Afghanistan or Iraq (or Yemen, or Pakistan?) About as good as the chances that they will finally leave Japan or Germany or South Korea. 

And what of all those pinpricks into the legs of American life and liberty? The United States now maintains a $50 billion a year Department of Homeland Security. The National Security Agency conducts a program of spying on American citizens in the United States whose scale is still unknown. The Transportation Security Agency subjects Americans to the regular humiliations of full-body scanners and intrusive pat-downs. The U.S. government now claims the right to detain indefinitely or assassinate Americans who are found to have (loosely defined) ties with terrorism. These items are all part of the cost we pay, along with the illegal war in Libya as well as drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, which have killed more than 1400 people since 2009. But at least they're officially real now, those drone strikes.

The Osama-assassination victory-lap from the Obama administration closely coincides with the U.S. government's claiming the right to use "surgical strikes" against targets in Yemen and Pakistan whose names the government doesn't even know. And the U.S. still needs the ability to detain and kill American citizens who get tangled up in terror. 

Maybe it's just one more push and terrorists and dictators might really be gone. But if so, why did the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) base its claim for indefinite detainment on an official declaration that the battlefield can be "the homeland" at last? And though Obama swore he wouldn't abuse or use it, even his most doe-eyed fans should be worried when someone less lovable gets into office, still possessing such powers.

Allowing for indefinite detainment is such a George Bush-era signal that the war can never really be over. Why, after so many years, does the U.S. government refuse to pinpoint what an end to the war on terror might resemble, besides an end to that term? Because there's no reason to find an ending for such a marvelous excuse for state power.  

Lucy Steigerwald is an associate editor at Reason.

NEXT: Former Libertarian Presidential Candidate Ed Clark: "I think this year is like 1980"

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  1. I’m confident that Mitt Romney can make even assasination seem dull and lifeless.

    1. …”can make even assasination seem […] lifeless.”
      Yeah, well, assassinations tend to be that way.

  2. Yeah, if power were crack, the government would be the ultimate crack whore. The whole system eventually has to collapse under it’s own weight. It’s unsustainable.

    1. After seeing this comment I would like to apoligize to crack whores for comparing them to the government.

  3. We have always been at war with Terror.

  4. The war on terror is both a wave and a particle. It depends on the observer.

  5. I repeat my comment from yesterday posted in connection with the WOD: Every government program is an absolute, unalloyed success, but notwithstanding that absolute success, the evil that the program was intended to combat is somehow worse than ever, requiring that the program continue and be expanded.

    1. Every government program is an absolute, unalloyed success, although underfunded, but notwithstanding that absolute success, the evil that the program was intended to combat is somehow worse than ever, requiring that the program continue and be expanded.


      1. Mo money. Mo money. Mo money.

      2. My apologies for so glaring an error.

  6. We will always be at war with some undefined existential threat that justifies suspension of all rights.

    1. Cut that crap! Do you want the terrorists to win?

      Anyone remember the cold war?

      1. Well if the goal of terrorism is to turn the enemy unto scared, paranoid, whiney little pussies then I would say they already won. Of course we could reverse course and take the victory back. Rand Paul 2016.

  7. That the government’s plans to make war on terrorists have scant merit does not change that they are barbarous swine who should be pounded like cheap veal. I agree that we seem to be sliding toward Imperialism with the terrorists as an excuse, but I think that NOT going after terrorists militarily is likely to be as bad a mistake. Not that they have the ability to destroy us; that is a paranoid fantasy of the Right. What they do have is the capacity to enrage us to the point that the descent into Imperialism happens in a matter of months instead of years.

    Only two thoughts comfort me;

    1) In the early stages I, as a middle aged white guy with no history of Radical Chic associations, will; be able to live in relative peace and comfort while the economy benefits from the initial stages of the Imperialist fever. And, being middle aged, I am unlikely to be alive to be troubled by the later and more economically uncomfortable stages.

    2) Both the Islamic squirrel food and the Radical Chic Intellectuals who are going to get the first stages in the neck richly deserve what’s coming.

    1. I was still composing my post below when this was posted, but it is essentially the same point, perhaps more eloquently made.

      1. In the interest of clarity, “it” meaning your post – your post is essentially the same point, perhaps more eloquently made. I realized it kind of sounded like I was replying to let you know that I made the same point more eloquently than you did. That wasn’t the intended meaning. And even if it were, I wouldn’t be a big enough prick to actually say it 😀

        1. No, no. I parsed it as a compliment from the first, and it perked me right up. Thanks!

    2. You are literally making the same argument that good germans in the 1930s made against jews, and for the same reasons.

      You are what you pretend to oppose.

  8. While there have certainly been insane abuses of power and assaults on individual rights connected to the War on Terror, this piece is a little pollyannaish, as is the libertarian narrative on international diplomacy and defense in general. It’d almost be worth it just to kill the idiotic morality tale for the United States to be nuked off the map in a 200-nation multi-lateral attack to atone for 250 years of crimes against mankind, 1 single act of “blowback” to cleanse the collective national conscience. In its place we shall erect the pacifist libertarian Utopia that could have been, and when the same primitive theocratic fucktards still want to blow it off the face of the earth, perhaps apoplectic libertarians will finally be able to confront the fact that not every illiterate cave dwelling fuckwad in the world who couldn’t pick out their own country on a map hates the United States because of justifiable “blowback” for US imperialistic meddling that took place before their grandparents were born. That maybe there really are irrational people, married to violent political and religious ideologies who want to fuck other people up just because they don’t share the same delusions. Or maybe our libertarian Utopia will just commit collective seppuku under the weight of its continued self-loathing, still believing that the world hates it because it just wasn’t pacifistic enough.

    1. Call me and my anti-war views polyannish if you wish, but I think you’re wildly overstating the number of libertarians who are as anti-war as I am.

      Give me some of that pacifist libertarian Utopia, yeah. We’ll see how many people hate that country. And if they do and commit violence, maybe we’ll fight back without managing to murder people who had nothing to do with the squabble.

      Pacifism is self-loathing, huh? How exactly did you get there?

      1. “Pacifism is self-loathing, huh? How exactly did you get there?”

        Because the jew-, er, mooslims HATE HATE HATE HATE you and if you don’t want to kill every brown person on the planet to get rid of them, its because you hate yourself and want the mooslims to kill you.

      2. Ms. Steigerwald,

        Your piece here could be a white paper on the libertarian foreign policy position, it’s hardly unique. And it is absolutely pollyannaish – almost to the point of comedy the more you elucidate it.

        In addition to believing that there would be no international aggressors if the United States followed a strictly isolationist foreign policy (dubious at best based on history), you are seriously suggesting that it’s possible to conduct a retaliatory war (in the impossible event that there might just be people out there in the world who would attack and murder the denizens of your libertarian Utopia just because they are fucked in the head and not for any reasons you can justify as “blowback”) without collateral damage or civilian casualties? Like I said, I’d love to see it, if for no other reason than to smugly bask in your astonishment from my perch of cynicism like the Grinch watching Cyndi Lou Who discover there is no santa claus. It’s absolutely befuddling to me that an adult of your intelligence and political persuasion could possibly be so naive.

        1. Also, I didn’t mean to suggest that pacifism was self-loathing. Pacifism is pacifism. Self-loathing is self-loathing. Internalizing blame for the irrationally violent actions of others like a battered woman who stays with her abusive partner is the self-loathing behavior, not the pacifism. It’s completely possible to recognize that the government is a piece of shit without projecting victimhood onto murderous religious thugs and convincing yourself you deserved what you got.

        2. It’s possible to conduct a retaliatory war without civilian causalities or that charming term “collateral damage.” It’s just that good motivations or not, murder is murder when done by individuals, by states, or by terrorist groups. It’s all wrong. And to try to point to justified reasons for anger at the U.S. is not to justify terrorists’ murderous retaliation. Trying to understand does not excuse. And adjusting U.S. policy is not to lose some grand game of chicken if it’s both pragmatically justified and morally.

          My libertarian utopia wouldn’t be a utopia. There wouldn’t be a complete lack of attacks against the U.S. But I wonder what grounds you have to suggest that it would be more violent than what is wrought from current policies? Especially if (and this is not MY utopia) the U.S. continued to possess a very strong military and was a powerful nation. Why attack it? It’s easy to say crazy religious reasons, but why target the U.S. and not, say, Switzerland, for an all-out attack? Small instances of violence, creepy fatwas and things they might continue to be a problem. But if you want a moral high ground for the U.S., I believe that not having decades of precedent in intervening in other countries and bombing them would be a great start. (This, again, clearly doesn’t justify the murders of 3000 people on 9/11.)

          If it’s naive to try to formulate foreign policy around not murdering people in the middle of conflicts, well, there are worse things to be.

          1. If it’s possible to do what you suggest it’d be a historical first. We don’t yet have bombs that only kill baddies or bullets that sneak around human shields when assholes retreat into churches and residential neighborhoods, and we very likely never will. If such casualties in a legitimate retaliatory war constitute “murder”, it’d be a novel use of the term. Logical consistency would dictate that you oppose self-defensive killing and the death penalty then as well?

            I don’t suggest Libertopia would be MORE prone to attack by the usual suspects, only that it likely wouldn’t be all that much LESS prone to attack either, because the logical justifications that we in the Western world invent for terrorism and international aggression aren’t necessarily shared by the people who perpetrate it – at least not when they are among their non-English-speaking peers. I suppose that’s really my complaint. You’re projecting rational motivations onto people who, if you take the time to listen to the nutbar shit they actually say, really aren’t that terribly rational. That should probably go without saying since rational people generally don’t do things like blow themselves up over religious or political issues. It’s convenient to say “they don’t bomb Switzerland”, but the rest of Europe has hardly been immune to terrorism and violence. Switzerland may present a unique case for reasons other than its non-interference as well – its relatively closed non-EU immigration policy, for example.

          2. I certainly am not defending interventionist foreign policy, or even the particulars of US policy, but merely suggesting that isolationism likely wouldn’t be the cure-all you suggest it would be in terms of preventing animosity against the United States. I think you give psychopaths a lot more credit for reasoning than is deserved.

            1. I thank you for the discussion, by the way; most writers won’t take the time. My apologies if I’ve made a pest out of myself.

              1. I have the time! And really, I don’t this would be a cure-all, but I certainly think violence would be greatly lessened. And it’s also the moral thing to do, to not intervene in other countries, bomb them, or kill their citizens.

                And yes I oppose the death penalty. No, I don’t oppose one-on-one situations of self-defense. If I am defending myself (or even my husband) with deadly force from, say, an intruder by shooting them, that is entirely different than defending myself by having a shoot-out with my enemy down the block, with your house and a few other bystander homes in the middle, then saying it’s fine if there are a few casualties.

                It’s completely different than war. You have to see that it’s different.

                1. Thank you for the discussion as well.

    2. PM, your meds need adjusting. That made no sense whatsoever, and I’m not picking political nits. Also; try using paragraphs and punctuation to break up a rant where you’d take a breath.

      Seriously; what little I could wring from your post looked at least marginally interesting. Take three deep breaths and try again, more slowly.

    3. PM, on second reading, I owe you an apology for snark if not message. Seriously, large square blocks of text are hard to read.

      If I understand the drift of your position, I agree; the United States is no worse than any other country in history, and better than most.

      Not that there isn’t room for improvement; it’s just that when some European Intellectual Twit enamored of the EU’s moral superiority gets in my face I want to say “Read Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS and get back to me, Bozo.”

      If I thought we would be as good at Imperialism as the Victorian British, I would have no problem with the direction of our foreign policy. Sadly, what with out conflicting strains of bogus moral outrage (Westboro Bab-

      1. -tist and PETA to name two) I rather suspect that we will be more like the Victorian French.

        Don’t know why I got interrupted in the middle there. Sorry.

        1. My comment didn’t seem that long in the text box, so sorry about the formatting.

          You got the point exactly though. It’s the height of idiocy and hyperbole to suggest, essentially, that America gets its just desserts when primitive religious barbarians express their ideological disagreement by blowing shit up because we’re somehow more an aggressor or empire than the rest of the Western world.

    4. “That maybe there really are irrational people, married to violent political and religious ideologies who want to fuck other people up just because they don’t share the same delusions.”

      This is a very accurate description of you with regard to muslims.

      1. Riiiight, that’s why I blew up thousands of Muslim people while killing myself in the process because I hate their ideology.

        Grow up.

  9. drone trikes? We’ve got remote-controlled three-wheelers targeting suspected terrorists?

    1. My mom totally just emailed me about that typo, dang it!

      1. Still, you always have the best typos. My personal favorite is long-rage missiles. It’s like Dr. Seuss is in your subconscious and trying to make sense of the world.

  10. The U.S. government now claims the right to detain indefinitely or assassinate Americans who are found to have (loosely defined) ties with terrorism. http://www.nikewinkel.com/scho…..-c-36.html Perhaps that’s progress.

  11. Those guys ust do not seem to have a clue man, I mean like wow.


  12. I think that perhaps the least-explored area of serious libertarian thought may be approaches to the business of intelligence. From an initiation of force perspective, there is certainly a question as to the ethicality of clandestine intelligence collection.

    That having been said, it’s not clear that then-General Washington would have fared as well during the American Revolution had he not engaged in the practice. One could make the case that as oppressed people this fell into the realm of self-defense, but what about in peacetime? We know that, despite all of our handwringing (not to say it’s necessarily unjustified) about the U.S. intelligence apparatus, that other countries are far more cavalier about focusing their government sponsored capabilities at the U.S. for economic gain.

    In Libertopia, I suppose there would be no dearth of private information brokers, but it’s not clear to me what folks think collection would look like. What say you all?

  13. I’m still waiting for the evidence that Osama Bin Laden had anything to do with 9/11.

    Are we really supposed to believe he’s some elite ninja who hacked into the CIA in a scene right out of Mission Impossible, broke into the CIA’s secure computer systems, found a database named “al queda” which tracked mujahadeen fighters from the soviet afghan war, then snuck out and decided to create a worldwide terrorist organization and name it after that secret CIA database code name, as a way of bragging about how elite his skills are?

    Orwell was right – you can put things down the memory hole and people will forget. I haven’t’ forgotten. It was publicly stated in the media many times that the CIA was calling these people “al queda” after a database they had …. and then a few years later the media handlers decided to pretend like the actual name of this nonexistent organization was “al queda”.

    Other than clueless buffoons in subsequent years who decided to adopt the name, there is no evidence of a global terrorist organization called al queda prior to 2002.

    Since Osama Bin Laden was a CIA asset going all the way back to the 1980s it seems reasonable to believe he was one all along. Maybe he died from natural causes due to the kidney condition?

    The reason government is able to get away with this– and libertarians just don’t want to admit it– is very simple:

    People are really forking stupid.

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  15. what are the chances that they’ll really leave Afghanistan or Iraq (or Yemen, http://www.riemeninnl.com/riem…..-c-20.html or Pakistan?) About as good as the chances that they will finally leave Japan or Germany or South Korea.

  16. This article shows Al-Qaeda has a functioning non-metallic technology to create an aircraft explosion, and they intend to use it.

    I’m all for maximizing liberty, but there are preventative policies that have to be in place when there is a “clear and present danger” of taking out our airline industry again. Which will happen, at least temporarily if they pull this off. We (public and private experts) need to develop countermeasures constantly, like we do for cyber-attacks. You slugs in college, pick up a chem book and major in “counter-terrorist explosive chemistry” or something like that…we need it!


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