The nearly two decades since 9/11 have confirmed a simple truth: The greatest weapon against terrorism is freedom, which strikes at the root of terrorist violence by making it more difficult for extremists to win the battle for hearts and minds. Moreover, free countries enjoy a robust counterterrorism advantage over authoritarian states. The record of post-9/11 terrorist activity attacks suggests that states have a national-security stake in guaranteeing basic rights at home and promoting freedom abroad.
Since 2001, the world has experienced a sharp increase in Jihadi terrorism. My analysis reveals that in 2000, the world witnessed 255 identifiable Jihadi terrorist attacks; as of 2018, that number had risen to 3,243, a more than twelvefold increase. Meanwhile, the world has witnessed a striking recession in global levels of freedom: Democracy-watchdog Freedom House has documented fifteen consecutive years of decline in political freedom and civil liberties, across authoritarian and democratic regimes alike.
According to Freedom House data, countries that respect political rights and civil liberties experience very little terrorism in general when compared to those that do not. States with high political rights scores (1 or 2 on Freedom House’s seven-point scale, where 7 denotes the heaviest repression) witnessed on average only 7 percent of Jihadi terrorist attacks (0.06 attacks per year per million people). Countries with high levels of civil liberties witnessed a mere 2 percent (0.04 attacks per year per million people). States with intermediate (a score of 3 to 5) and low (6 or 7) levels of political rights, by contrast, experienced a yearly average of 0.35 and 0.72 terrorist attacks per million people, respectively. Similarly, countries with intermediate and low levels of civil liberties experienced a yearly average of 0.13 and 1.63 terrorist attacks per million people, respectively. Regardless of region, history, or development, there is a powerful relationship between levels of freedom and terrorist violence.
Strikingly, we observe the same pattern even within the subset of states in which Muslims are a majority or plurality of the population—which are themselves the worst victims of this type of terrorism. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia are some of the most democratic countries in the Muslim world. No jihadist civil war has taken place in the region since 1975. The two freest countries in Africa, Senegal and Sierra Leone (which together have an average combined political-rights score of 2.7 and civil-liberties score of 2.9 from 2001–18), have not suffered any identifiable Jihadi terrorist attacks, largely a result of the religious harmony in those countries. The countries most ravaged by terrorism—Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen—have average political-rights and civil-liberties scores of 5.65 and 5.72, respectively, making them among the most repressive in the Islamic world.
Restricting freedom in the Muslim world and beyond has fueled terrorism in two ways: by embittering minorities and by radicalizing majorities. First, repression breeds anti-state resentment among minority groups by generating religion-based grievances, exacerbating existing sectarian tensions. Second, when a state selectively restricts the activities of certain minorities within its borders, other groups may arrive at the reasonable conclusion that the authorities have given their tacit approval to discrimination, harassment, and even violence against those targeted.
Freedom, by contrast, levels the playing field among different religious groups in society. The freedom of thought and exchange of ideas intrinsic to democracy serve to empower liberal and moderate voices that challenge the claims made by religious extremists. Liberty removes one of the chief grievances that people of faith have against the state. When state policies respect rights, it is harder for religious militants to credibly claim that their faith is under attack by secular authorities and that violence is necessary.
Of course, free countries are not immune to terrorism. Over the past decade terrorists have attacked many Western, democratic cities, such as Berlin, Paris, and New York. Yet evidence indicates that when terrorism does occur in democracies, illiberal counterterrorism responses are least effective in preventing future attacks. When states treat all members of a religious group as terrorists, authorities waste effort monitoring whole communities instead of focusing on the small percentage who support violence. Such actions also inevitably undermine these groups’ support for the government, increase their sympathy for terrorism, lead them to turn to terrorist groups for protection against an oppressive status quo, and so end up creating more terrorists. Finally, illiberal policies against entire religious communities decrease the chance members will cooperate with police counterterrorism efforts. For instance, harsh tactics in France following the 2015 Paris attacks have further embittered a long-marginalized Muslim minority, making it prime recruiting ground for the Islamic State. And yet, the French government has only further embraced its counterproductive targeting of Islam in the wake of recent attacks.
By contrast, Japan responded to the 1995 Tokyo attacks conducted by the Aum Shinrikyo religious-extremist cult by aggressively pursuing those responsible within the boundaries of the law. The government did not target religious groups or ban Aum Shinrikyo, and the cult ultimately disintegrated on its own. Tokyo’s example shows that successful counterterrorism efforts separate terrorists from the wider populations they claim to represent. Terrorist organizations die when governments refuse to play into their hands by overreacting, when they are no longer able to appeal to new recruits, and when sympathizers in the wider population turn against them.
This reality calls for a gestalt shift in how policymakers think about freedom and terrorism. Unfortunately, the shapers of American foreign policy have by and large implicitly accepted the argument that stability and U.S. interests are best achieved by backing strongmen or illiberal policies. This wisdom is incorrect. Not only does it undermine the principles of popular consent and human dignity that the United States claim to champion, it also ensures the exact opposite outcome of that which is intended: diminished stability, extremism, terrorism and a tarnished reputation for those who support local repression.
American foreign policy has been particularly egregious in the Middle East and North Africa, where the same cycle of repression and violent resistance has been repeating itself for decades. Regimes repressive of liberty like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States, generate discontent among populations who view them as corrupt and illegitimate. In an effort to cling to power, these regimes become even more repressive over time and the opposition becomes more extreme as well. The polarized environment leaves little room for compromise, tolerance, and liberty. Often the resistance turns violent. Although terrorists and those on whose behalf they claim to speak have mostly local grievances, Washington’s support for the dictators of these countries puts the United States at risk as well.
The reality of anti-American transnational terrorism, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, confronted the United States with an opportunity to contemplate the structural causes behind such a breathtakingly audacious act of violence. Unfortunately, instead of critically examining how the United States’ own policies may have contributed to the most devastating terrorist attack in history, American leaders doubled down on their default strategy of giving foreign assistance to leaders of the very states from where this anti-American belligerence emanated.
The history of post-9/11 terrorism shows that countries which sacrifice liberty on the altar of national security gain neither. In the long run, the path to defeating terrorism runs through rejecting the stigmatization of Muslims and reaffirming a robust commitment to freedom for all. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it’s a lesson worth finally learning.