Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Update on the 'War on Terror': Facts and Fears

Event Recap

A 23-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine services, Glenn Carle retired in 2007 as the Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats. Having spoken at the Boisi Center about interrogation policy a year earlier, Carle returned on November 14 to discuss the current state of the “Global War on Terror,” or GWOT, to a packed room in Fulton Hall. He centered his talk on a discussion of two “fears” and four “facts.”

The first widespread fear, stoked by the government and media alike, Carle said, is that al Qaeda is a coherent global organization with operations in up to eighty countries, when in reality it is dangerous but only fully operational in six countries. The second fear driving the GWOT is nuclear terrorism, but Carle said the odds of terrorists stealing a major nuclear weapon or constructing one themselves is “infinitesimal.”

Four facts are key to understanding the current context, Carle noted. First, al Qaeda is a relatively small organization with goals quite distinct from Hamas, the Taliban and other terrorist organizations; and we know that it has been “decimated” by U.S. attacks in the last decade. “It’s hard to be a terrorist,” Carle told the audience. “The life expectancy is short and there aren’t a lot of places to go.” Second, the FBI has aggressively sought and prosecuted would-be terrorists in the U.S., even when the planning was not yet operational. Third, globalization and modernization are the root causes of Glenn Carle modern terrorism, so the long-term solution is not to “win” the GWOT but to help societies manage these structural transformations. Fourth, said Carle, the Obama administration has been ruthless in its use of drones but quite nuanced in its assessment of different terrorist organizations.

Carle closed by arguing that the idea of a unified GWOT was a fiction that is now properly put to rest. We are currently engaged in an aggressive counter-terrorism campaign that targets individual terrorist operatives, he said, but our long-term interests are best met by fostering economic and social opportunities for women and broad economic growth that makes particular populations less vulnerable to terrorist influences.