Fighting terrorism is one of the few foreign policy issues that unites Democrats and Republicans, though of course both are quick to point fingers at any perceived failures or lapses. Yet America’s and the world’s leaders often do not recognize that the jihadist movement today is in flux, and the threat it poses differs dramatically from the 9/11 era.
Consider Al Qaeda. US Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, and in 2015 Afghan intelligence revealed that his closest ally, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, had died in 2013. Many of Al Qaeda’s key lieutenants are dead or in prison, and most of the remainder are keeping their heads down, fearing a drone strike or more special operations forces swooping in to capture or kill them. Bin Laden’s number two Ayman al-Zawahiri now heads Al Qaeda, but his communiqués are few and far between, and the core organization has not conducted a significant terrorist attack in years.
Most of Al Qaeda’s remaining relevance comes from its affiliate organizations. As they’ve taken on the Al Qaeda name, their rhetoric has embraced Al Qaeda’s anti-U.S. and anti-Western focus. The Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) almost downed commercial and cargo airlines over the United States, and it trained one of the shooters who slaughtered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris in 2015. Yet, for the most part, these groups focus on local civil wars and expanding their regional influence. Al Qaeda’s most important franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, even claimed it was dedicated to fighting the Syria regime only and would not turn its guns against the West.
Al Qaeda’s decline, however, is balanced by the rapid ascent of the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s defense of slavery, atrocities against its enemies, and embrace of sectarianism and millenarianism make Al Qaeda seem sane and even tame by comparison. Indeed, the group split with Al Qaeda in February 2014: the two regularly condemn the other for straying from the true path, and in Syria thousands of fighters died when they turned their guns on each other. In addition to impressive military successes in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has captured the imagination of much of the radical community. It now claims “provinces” as far away as Afghanistan, Libya, and Nigeria. Tens of thousands of foreigners have flocked to its banners in Iraq and Syria, including over 3,000 from the United States, Europe, and Australia.
To many Americans and Westerners, the Islamic State’s brutality makes it seem like even more of a threat than Al Qaeda. Americans, understandably shy of more intervention in the Middle East after the 2003 Iraq imbroglio, even supported President Obama’s decision to bomb Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria and deploy military trainers as well. Indeed, most critics of the president claim he is not doing enough to fight the Islamic State and should be more aggressive.
Yet focusing on the Islamic State’s brutality can lead to neglect of the true threat it poses, as well as the lingering danger represented by the remaining Al Qaeda network. The good news is that the risk of a catastrophic attack inside the United States on the scale of 9/11 is low. The Al Qaeda core is too weak, and the network, in general, is under such pressure from the world’s security services that a multi-year operation involving operatives from around the world would be difficult for it to pull off. The Islamic State, while formidable, is focusing its energies on the Middle East, not the West. It too would have difficulty pulling off a complex operation outside its home region and for now at least it doesn’t seem to want to.
The Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliates do pose a danger to the West, but this threat is primarily to broader interests in the Middle East. The Islamic State has brought Iraq back to a state of massive civil war, and it is threatening to destabilize Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Maghreb, Somalia, and Yemen are exacerbating civil wars there and spreading instability throughout the region, generating massive refugee flows. Western policymakers are confronting a region in crisis, and the jihadist movement is at the core of many of the region’s problems.
The terrorism danger to the West is largely in the form of jihadist wannabes who act on their own – so-called “lone wolves.” They may read exhortations to kill and wreak mayhem in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s online Inspire magazine or follow Islamic State members on Twitter, but few are working in close coordination with the main organizations abroad. These jihadists can and will pick up a gun or manufacture a crude bomb and kill innocent people. From the security services’ point of view, they are exceptionally difficult to stop: often they do not show up on the radar screen until it is too late. Yet at the same time the scope and scale of their violence is likely to be more limited. They are usually untrained and often unskilled, and they are unlikely to kill large numbers of people or strike well-defended targets.
So our politicians’ concerns about terrorism are both well founded and off base. There is indeed a threat, but it is a different one than what has dominated our public discourse in the last 15 years. Their energies would be better spent educating the public on the true dangers and building up resilience so that when lone wolves pull off small-scale attacks, the public does not panic.
Featured Image: “Explosive ordnance disposal technicians conduct demolition operations.” by Official U.S. Navy Page. CC BY SA via Flickr.