Ruby on Tankel, 'With Us and Against Us: How America's Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror'

Stephen Tankel
Keven Ruby

Stephen Tankel. With Us and Against Us: How America's Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror. Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 424 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-54734-5; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-16810-6.

Reviewed by Keven Ruby (University of Chicago) Published on H-Diplo (May, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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Nine days after 9/11, as the United States announced its plan for a war on terrorism that would span the globe, George W. Bush famously drew a line in the sand: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”[1] According to data compiled by Brown University’s Cost of War project, the US war on terrorism is truly global, with the United States “actively engaged in countering terrorism in 80 nations on six continents.”[2] Well beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, an impressive number of nations in one way or another have cooperated with the United States against the terrorists. What explains this?

It is clearly in the interest of the United States to shift the burden to other states in the war on terror. The United States cannot invade every country where these networks operate, nor does it want to. Yet relying on other states to accomplish US counterterrorism goals turns out to problematic, as the most vital are often frustratingly unreliable. Pakistan is an archetypal example of the problematic partner: an early ally after 9/11 against al-Qaeda and vital for supplying American and allied forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan but also providing sanctuary on Pakistani soil to the very same Taliban militants the United States is fighting to defeat.

In With Us or Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror, Stephen Tankel seeks to explain why US efforts to enlist the cooperation of states to share the burden of fighting terrorist groups have had mixed results. This is especially the case for states with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, groups that are posing a threat to the United States, operating on their soil. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, and Algeria—Tankel’s empirical cases—all fit into this category. Tankel calls these states “partners,” which is problematic because this label seems presumptive of the outcome the book is trying to explain (p. 6).

Tankel’s main argument is that states are most likely to cooperate with the United States against groups on their soil when these groups are a threat to the state and the state derives no utility from the group. “Other things being equal, countries are most willing to commit blood and treasure when a terrorist group threatens them directly” (p. 13). In other words, Tankel assumes that potential partners are rational actors that make decisions about cooperation based on a cost-benefit calculation in which the terrorist group, not religion or nationalism, features as the dominant factor. The problem facing the United States, Tankel argues, is that the countries it wants to enlist as partners do not always see the terrorist groups operating within their borders as a threat. Sometimes, much to the consternation of US policymakers, they even see these groups as useful. This is the case of Pakistan, which has long supported the Taliban to maintain influence in Afghanistan as a hedge against regional rivals. Each partner state has its own “security paradigm” that reflects a mix of local and regional interests and threats (p. 4). When a potential partner’s threat perceptions align with that of the United States, cooperation is more likely. When they do not, or a group is useful to the partner, Tankel argues, neither incentives nor coercive threats are likely to motivate serious action against a group, though they may work to induce more limited forms of cooperation.

The empirical heart of the book is the six case studies: Pakistan (chapter 4), Saudi Arabia (chapter 5), Yemen (chapter 6), Mali (chapter 7), and Egypt and Algeria (combined in chapter 8). For each case he traces the evolution of a partner’s threat perceptions over key periods and attempts to link them to the kind of cooperation the United States was able to gain—and what it could not get its partner to do. Tankel does not limit his effort to explain cooperation to its maximal variant, active domestic counterterrorism undertaken by the partner to defeat a specific group. He identifies four additional modes of cooperation: tactical cooperation, which includes sharing intelligence and granting US access to target groups, for example, with drones; participation in diplomatic and assistance efforts with other countries in the region; support for countering violent extremism (CVE), such as addressing individual and collective grievances to undercut support for groups and their causes; and efforts to secure US interests from attacks inside the partner’s borders (chapter 3).

Tankel’s case studies are accessible and comprehensive and succeed in highlighting the challenge of counterterrorism cooperation since 9/11. Pakistan militarily engaged al-Qaeda (which had no utility to Pakistan) and launched a domestic terrorism campaign against what Tankel calls the “bad TTP”—Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan militants focused on attacking Pakistan. At the same time, it refused US entreaties to go after the Afghan Taliban and “good TTP,” which threatened US forces in Afghanistan but posed little direct threat to Pakistan and served Pakistani interests (p. 148). Saudi Arabia provided intelligence support to the war on terrorism from the beginning but did not move to actively target al-Qaeda until the group began attacking targets there in 2003. But Saudi Arabia’s primary threat is not jihadis but regional rival Iran. And while Saudi Arabia has a renowned program for deradicalizing Saudi citizens, it has done little to stop the flow of Saudi foreign fighters to ISIS and other jihadist groups fighting governments in Syria and Iraq aligned with Iran. In Yemen, it has prioritized defeating the Iran-backed Houthi militia over al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

While the cases convincingly show that partners help and hinder the US war on terror, they also make it clear that a partner’s relationship to the group—Tankel’s main explanatory framework—does not reliably explain the observed level and nature of cooperation. For example, Tankel finds that a partner’s willingness to participate in regional counterterrorism is not just a function of threat but also a history of regional engagement. Similarly, Tankel finds that whether a partner addresses social and economic conditions as part of a comprehensive CVE program is explained by the risks of these policies to the government and power brokers, not the threat posed by the group. Even perceiving a group as a threat with no utility is not sufficient for cooperation, as Tankel shows in the case of Algeria, which pursued largely unilateral action against the al-Qaeda affiliate operating on its soil and on its own terms and timetable. The lack of US influence in Algeria, Tankel argues, is because Algeria already possessed a robust counterterrorism capability and the two countries have little prior history of security cooperation—two additional variables that add layers of complexity to the straightforward threat-utility logic.

This multiplicity of interacting variables may reflect the complexity of reality, but it has the effect of making it difficult to evaluate the explanatory power of the threat-utility argument in the cases he examines, let alone imagine how it might generalize to other cases of current and future partner cooperation. To be fair, the book is framed as an intervention into a specific policy issue, not a contribution to theoretical debates in International Relations about the nature and bounds of cooperation among states. While Tankel briefly draws on theories of alliances from the field of International Relations, he does not locate the book in the context of scholarly debates, either about security cooperation broadly or counterterrorism cooperation specifically. Tankel is explicit about this. Given the multiplicity of factors influencing partner country interests and threat perceptions, Tankel argues that “it is imprudent to propose a single, iron law for predicting counterterrorism cooperation” (p. 20).

Indeed, the main takeaway from the book seems to be that counterterrorism cooperation with the United States is complex. Tankel is explicit that his goal is to temper US policymakers’ expectations that their threat perceptions and priorities are sufficient to transform states into counterterrorism partners. Reasonable expectations require understanding the multiplicity of factors that shape a potential partner’s willingness to shoulder the burdens the United States is asking them to shoulder, which center on the relationship between the proposed partner and the targeted group. On its face this is a reasonable claim, though the large number of factors, outcomes, and contingency in the cases makes the fit hard to assess.

As the United States under President Donald Trump shifts US military priorities to countering traditional great power rivals China and Russia, the United States will need to rely on cooperation even more heavily in the fight against al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups that threaten the US homeland, allies, and interests abroad. That said, why the United States feels threatened by this myriad of non-state actors around the globe is a question the book takes for granted, but itself plays an important role in shaping the demand for partners in the first place. Of his several recommendations, the most important, in my estimation, is for US policymakers to “see the whole board”: the United States must understand the threat landscape as a first step to prioritizing the most important threats (p. 326). This requires knowing not only which partners are likely to be reliable but also which are necessary to achieve US counterterrorism objectives.


[1]. George W. Bush, “Address before a Joint Session of the Congress on the United States Response to the Terrorist Attacks of September 11,” The American Presidency Project, UC Santa Barbara, September 20, 2001,

[2]. Stephani Savell and 5W Infographics, “Where we Fight,” Cost of War Project, Watson Institute for International Affairs and Public Policy, Brown University, 2019, March 1, 2019).

Keven Ruby is research director and senior research associate at the University of Chicago Project on Security & Threats, where he conducts research on political violence, militant propaganda, recruiting, and insurgent strategy. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago and an MA from George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. His work has been published in the American Political Science Review, Journal of Conflict Resolution, and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.

Citation: Keven Ruby. Review of Tankel, Stephen, With Us and Against Us: How America's Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. May, 2019. URL:

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