A few days after the terrorist attack on 11 September, US President George Bush used a phrase that would dominate military rhetoric for years to come. “Our war on terror… will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated,” he said.

While initially conceived as a response to al-Qaeda, this so-called ‘war on terror’ (also known as the ‘Global War on Terrorism’ and the ‘Long War’), would end up being used in all kinds of contexts. In broad terms, it described all the US-led efforts (and those of their allies) against regimes identified as terrorist. These included a number of disparate, and geographically dispersed, extremist groups. More than 16 years later, the term itself has largely fallen out of favour. However, many of the threats remain.

Although there have been no further attacks on the scale of 9/11, terrorism is still a problem, with jihadist ideologies as powerful a force as ever. If a war really is being waged on terror, it is very far from being won.

“I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but it never made sense to declare war on a tactic,” remarks Colin Clarke, a political scientist at the non-partisan RAND Corporation. “Terrorism isn’t an organisation, it isn’t a strategy – it seems very amorphous. Where does the war on terror start and where does it end?”

Creeping feeling

The war on terror, he feels, saw a degree of ‘mission creep’, with fighting al-Qaeda ultimately morphing into fighting the Taliban and others.

“The US is rightfully concerned with jihadis, but is it also concerned with Shi’ite terrorist groups?” he says.

“While the initial term reassured the US people that something was going to be done, the fact it was never clarified or narrowed beyond that was frustrating.”

Finally the West caught up and did a really good job in decimating al-Qaeda, but just as we had a good handle on that threat, the Islamic State began to emerge.

He adds there is always a lag effect between identifying the problem and doing something about it. Given the amount of bureaucracy involved, nation states are typically less nimble than non-state actors.

“The response was always one or two steps behind what the terrorists were doing,” he says. “Finally the West caught up and did a really good job in decimating al-Qaeda, but just as we had a good handle on that threat, the Islamic State began to emerge, and we’re now repeating the same cycle.”

With terrorist attacks still a dispiritingly regular occurrence, what has become of that war – how have the challenges, and the military response, shifted since 2001?

Terminology shift

According to some commentators, the phrase itself began to lose its clout as early as August 2005, when President Bush described Iraq as a “central front in the war on terror”. Given the controversy surrounding the conflict in Iraq, which many saw as the result of an illegal invasion, not everybody was happy about bracketing it with the campaign against al-Qaeda.

In 2006, the UK Government quietly initiated a ban on the phrase, which had long been the subject of criticism. Minister Hilary Benn went public with the ban a year later, remarking, “We can’t win by military means alone… this isn’t us against one organised enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives.”

Perhaps the pivotal moment came in 2009, when US defence officials sent an email to Pentagon staff. “This administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long war’ or ‘Global war on terror (Gwot)’. Please pass this on to your speechwriters,” said the memo. It requested they use the phrase ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’(OCO) instead.

President Barack Obama’s administration did not wish to usher in a complete change in objectives. In the president’s inaugural address, he stated, “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” and he always maintained a commitment to fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

What the rebrand did achieve was to link the campaign directly to its funding source. During the Bush administration, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had been funded by periodic supplemental requests to Congress. Obama wanted to consolidate this funding by way of a single annual request to the OCO fund.

Although the OCO existed under Bush, it grew dramatically under Obama. In 2015, the US spent $64 billion through the OCO, on top of its $496 billion Department of Defense base budget. If this account stood alone, it would be the fifth-largest defence budget in the world.

Unexpected threats

This shift in terminology, then, was less about strategy and more about budgetary transparency. It meant having a designated pool of funding for ‘contingencies’ – in other words, the unexpected threats that make stamping out terrorism so difficult.

As Clarke explains, the West’s counterterrorism efforts might be likened to a game of whack-a-mole, a well-worn phrase that nonetheless remains depressingly accurate.

“We’re chasing these guys around the globe to defeat them, only to have them pop up elsewhere,” he says. “Part of it speaks to the reactive nature of military planning, but the other part speaks to the unpredictable nature of the threats.”

As an example, he cites the recent terrorist attack in Egypt, which killed 235 people at a mosque.

“The Egyptians have a fairly capable military, but nevertheless the northern Sinai region has, over the years, become an area in which militant groups have been able to gain strength and launch attacks, not only against security forces, but also against civilian populations there,” he explains.

These kinds of attacks, he says, are difficult to predict – while you can gain a good idea of where terrorism might emerge, you can’t always work out when a group has reached critical mass in any given part of the globe. “A lot of the experts I talk to are under no illusion that the threat will be going away,” he says. “Extremist groups will be looking for new areas to regroup and reconstitute, whether that’s Libya, Afghanistan, South East Asia, Yemen – you pick the spot. These individuals and groups seek out failed states and ungoverned territories, where they attach themselves to local grievances and exploit those local narratives for their own ends.”

Clearly, the fight against terrorism will remain contingency-driven to a large degree. However, as a replacement term for the ‘war on terror’, ‘overseas contingency operations’ has never really taken off. This may be due to the fact the fund itself has come under flak.

“The OCO is just another way of allocating funds for what is a rather open-ended commitment,” says Clarke. “Some people have called it a slush fund for the global war on terrorism. I don’t know – ‘slush fund’ has always seemed like a pejorative term to me.”

The main issue is that the OCO budget, unlike the rest of the defence budget, is not subject to the Budget Control Act’s caps. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have seen some shuffling of funds, with around half of the OCO budget now being used for activities that the base budget shouldered in the past.

The 2017 budget request, for instance, includes $115 million for a new army barracks in Cuba, along with $60 million for supporting facilities at an airbase in Jordan. Although such construction work is important, it is hardly a contingency operation, and should not, in some people’s views, be allowed to circumvent the budget caps.

War of words – a threat with no single ideology

From a rhetorical standpoint, then, the most likely successor to the War on Terror is not the OCO but Countering Violent Extremism terrorist attack (CVE). Since 2011, the US Government has pushed resources towards CVE programmes, which aim to address the ‘root causes’ of violent extremism, rather than simply retaliating in the wake of an attack.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s website on CVE, “The threat posed by violent extremism is neither constrained by international borders nor limited to any single ideology.”

Extremist groups will be looking for new areas to regroup and reconstitute, whether that’s Libya, Afghanistan, South East Asia, Yemen – you pick the spot.

It points out that violent extremist threats come from a range of groups and individuals, including domestic terrorists and home-grown violent extremists, as well as international terrorist groups. Compared with the ‘war on terror’, then, the CVE programme is ‘softer’ and more civic-minded, with a humanitarian focus.

Unfortunately, the approach has been criticised as ambiguous, overly simplistic and too vague in its wording and goals. It has come under scrutiny from the left – with civil liberties group arguing that ideology does not clearly predict terrorism – and the right, which tends to spurn community outreach in favour of law enforcement.

Controversially, the Trump administration has proposed eliminating the CVE programme altogether, or retooling it to focus exclusively on Islamic extremism, rather than all extremist groups.

A new approach with local partnerships

Whatever happens with CVE in the future, Clarke feels that counterterrorist efforts have, by and large, shifted away from a ‘boots on the ground’ approach.

“The emphasis has shifted to working by, with and through local partners. So things like security cooperation and building partner capacity, training and equipping – we’re starting to see a lot more things like that, especially in places like Africa,” he says.

He thinks that, in the years to come, we are likely to see a further build-up of Western counterterrorism forces in Africa.“This applies not only in the Horn of Africa and places like Somalia, but also in western Africa; for instance, in Mali and Nigeria, where the US will be working with the French and others to counter the growing threat,” he says.

He adds that, while the numbers of returning jihadists may have been overstated, the fall of ISIS is likely to bring new threats to South East and Central Asia.

“As the caliphate continues to dissolve, there was this huge concern that foreign fighters would be flooding back into Western countries,” he says. “We haven’t seen the numbers that many expected, which leads me to believe that many of these folks were probably killed on the battlefield. However, beyond Western Europe, I’d be worried about places like the Philippines, where we could see returning jihadists link up with existing militant groups and provide some real trouble for local security forces in those areas.”

Evidently, the ‘war on terror’ is far from over, whether you use the term or not. Going by President Bush’s definition of success – that ‘every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated’ – that milestone may still be some way ahead.

As the threats continue to metastasise, the US and its allies will need to stay responsive to many individual challenges. This is an undeniably complex problem with multiple dimensions to it, rather than a dauntless struggle against a single, monolithic foe.