How the Next President Can Uproot Terrorism

The White House has made too many mistakes.

Up until now, America’s 2016 presidential campaign season has been dominated by wrangling over Wall Street speaking fees on the Democratic side, and the Donald Trump show on the Republican side. But there is one inescapable reality that the eventual winner will need to confront: he or she will inherit the most acute global terrorism challenge since September 11, 2001.

The facts speak for themselves: Al Qaeda and similarly inspired groups and networks are currently killing more people in terrorist attacks than ever before seen in history (more than thirty thousand in 2015 alone); Islamic State (ISIS) continues to expand its reach outside of Syria and Iraq; Europe has become the center of a new wave of Islamist terrorism; and the United States, after years of withdrawal, has been drawn back into conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with new terror-related missions in dozens of other countries in the region and around the world.

How should the next administration approach this monumental challenge? First, it will need to separate fact from fiction about the nature and purpose of the global terrorist movements. Then it should look back upon the counterterrorism approaches adopted by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in order to glean key lessons. Finally, it should endeavor to build upon an already evolving foundation to develop a coherent and politically sound long-term American counterterrorism strategy.


Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Global Jihad

There has been much confusion lately, particularly emanating from the United States and other Western governments, over today’s militant Islamist movements. In one well-known example, President Obama initially downplayed ISIS as a lesser “junior varsity” version of Al Qaeda, telling the New Yorker in early 2014 (as the group swept across Syria and Iraq): “the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

Of course, just a few months later ISIS was in control of the strategic cities of Raqqa in northern Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq, along with territory across the two countries roughly the size of Belgium. Soon thereafter, ISIS began expanding outside the region, and now has formal branches in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen, as well as partnerships with militant Islamist groups in Mali, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Indonesia and Algeria. And, despite losing significant territory in recent months thanks to stepped-up American air (and some ground) attacks, ISIS has vastly increased its out-of-area operations: in the past year alone, ISIS and ISIS-inspired agents have killed over a thousand civilians outside of Iraq and Syria, including the recent attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels.

And while Obama certainly received his share of criticism for his ISIS “jayvee” comment, less noticed was the way he simultaneously elevated Al Qaeda to the superstar status of a Kobe Bryant, despite the fact that his administration in those days was insisting Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” If one line stands out from Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, it is “Osama bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda is on the run.”

So it should also be noted that far from being defeated, Al Qaeda itself has been regaining strength of late, having branched off into an elite “Khorasan Group,” which is working out of Syria with Al Qaeda’s formal affiliate there, the Nusra Front; and having recently opened a new affiliate in South Asia known as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. The Khorasan Group is a cause for specific concern, as many of its members come from the 9/11 era, are seasoned international terrorists and are believed to be plotting major attacks against the United States, possibly using weapons of mass destruction.

This dramatic expansion and reinvigoration of Al Qaeda and related groups did not happen in a vacuum. It happened because most Americans and most Europeans (i.e., most Westerners)—a full fifteen years after 9/11—still have little real understanding of the global jihadi movement: how it is organized, what makes it tick and, by extension, how to defeat it. To paraphrase the nineteenth-century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz: we do not yet properly “know our enemy.”

Organizationally, the movement was never just about bin Laden’s Al Qaeda core (or AQ 1.0), which was significantly degraded after 9/11. Since then—and as directed by bin Laden—the movement has become increasingly decentralized, proliferating into a network of formal affiliates (AQ 2.0), such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Shabab in East Africa and Jemaah Islamiya in Southeast Asia. More recently, the movement further proliferated as loose networks operating inside Western countries with connections to Al Qaeda core or affiliated groups (AQ 3.0)—examples include the 2009 Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan, who was connected to AQAP, and the 2004 Madrid railway bombers, linked to an Al Qaeda affiliate in Morocco. And now, most recently, it has further proliferated as unconnected self-radicalized individuals and small groups operating in the West (AQ 4.0)—such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers and the 2015 San Bernardino shooters.

Most problematic, these evolving organizational layers are not an either/or—they now all operate simultaneously. This is why the death of bin Laden meant little in terms of the overall capacity of the jihadi movement: its component parts remain eminently flexible and organizationally adaptable.