The threat posed by al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups with existing or potential global reach is a multi-generational problem for the United States and its allies. It is a problem we have confronted since at least the late 1970s, as Iran sought to spread its Islamic revolution through Shi'a-based terrorist groups like Hizballah and its support for certain Sunni terrorist groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
At the time, we paid relatively less attention to the spread of a reactionary Sunni movement as it sought to challenge dominant power structures in Muslim countries across the Middle East. In some cases, elites in Sunni Arab states used such groups both to counter the spread of Shi'a revolution from Iran and expand their own influence. These Sunni groups gained legitimacy, support and valuable experience fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Then, in 1998, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri announced an alliance between the former’s al Qaeda and the latter’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad. They declared war against “crusaders and infidels” and formally gave birth to al-Qaeda, an organization with deep roots in radical Sunni Islamist thought. This is the group that attacked us on 9/11, was driven out of Afghanistan shortly thereafter, and finally took up residence in the tribal regions of Pakistan.
Over time, under heavy U.S. pressure, much of al-Qaeda’s core leadership has been killed or forced to move from its long-time hideouts in Pakistan. Recently, al-Qaeda moved cadre with an active desire to strike the American homeland—the so-called Khorasan Group—to Syria to take advantage of the chaos there. A range of other so-called franchises also evolved, the most dangerous to the U.S. homeland being al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which continues to gain strength from the ongoing chaos in Yemen.
We also confront a growing threat from a former al-Qaeda franchise that has reinvented itself as a rival to its parent. The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) today arguably forms the single greatest threat to American national security in the region. By wiping out the border between Iraq and Syria, ISIS has gained credibility and resources that have permitted it to attract thousands of recruits to its cause. These recruits are drawn to ISIS for a variety of reasons: religious ideology, dissatisfaction with Western materialism and secularism and with their lot in life generally, an opportunity to belong to a tight-knit group with a cause to fight for, and sometimes just for excitement and adventure. A constant stream of outreach and slick media materials that rival high-quality Western products helps fill the recruiting pipeline. So does a large social media presence, including multiple active feeds on Twitter and YouTube. More than 20,000 foreign fighters have joined the jihad in Syria, including more than 3,000 Westerners and more than 100 Americans.
Though it has sustained some tactical battlefield setbacks, ISIS is hardly on the run. It is a confident, expanding organization growing in territory, manpower, and wealth. In the past year alone, ISIS has announced new outlying “provinces” in at least seven countries and has claimed responsibility for attacks across the globe, including in Europe and the United States. And while its main force resides in what used to be the states of Syria and Iraq, ISIS represents a serious threat to the stability of Lebanon, Jordan, and prospectively the Arab Gulf states. No solution to the region’s massive political violence—itself driven by a range of factors, especially sectarian division and power politics—is imaginable without decisively dealing with ISIS.
The threat posed by al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups with existing or potential global reach is a multi-generational problem for the United States and its allies.
As a harbinger of things to come, the growth and expansion of ISIS and the increasing influence of al-Qaeda affiliates in the Syrian conflict has emboldened Iran and its Shi'a proxies. In Syria, Hizballah has directly intervened to support the regime, while in Iraq several Shi'a militias form the backbone of the government’s fight against ISIS, evolving from small commando-like squads into much larger, better armed, and more capable forces. Even worse, IRGC-Quds Force operatives roam Iraq at will, providing direct support to Iraqi forces and advertising their presence openly on social media. Lest one forget, Iranian Shi'a proxies have killed hundreds of Americans, from Hizballah in the 1980s to Khatib Hizballah’s and Asaib al-Haq use of Iranian-made weaponry to kill American and allied soldiers in Iraq in the 2000s.
Many today argue that the recent spread of terrorism across the Middle East has nothing to do with Islam. The truth, however, is that the ideology that motivates and inspires al-Qaeda and ISIS has deep roots in certain longstanding forms of radical Sunni Islamist theology going all the way back to Ibn Taymiyyah in the 13th century. The ideology that underpins the Iranian revolutionary state and its terrorist proxies likewise has roots in radical Shi'a theology. At a minimum, these extremist interpretations create a narrative for their adherents of unrelenting hostility between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West.
This is not to say that the majority of the world’s Muslims support these groups or follow these ideologies. They do not. Indeed, the vast majority rejects their radical visions and abhors their tactics. Nonetheless, the theologies that form their intellectual backbone—whether Wahhabism, Salafism, Shi'a martyrdom narratives, or other similar constructs—are long standing, widely known, and avidly studied strains of radical Islamist thought. And moderates in general, even when they form a large numerical majority, do not fare well under the polarized conditions of civil war, including in the ongoing sectarian version of civil war that currently spreads over increasingly many (and ever more faint) territorial boundaries across the region.
Violence of the sort that such radical theology engenders is by no means exclusive to Arabs or Muslims; historical examples can be drawn from every region of the earth over many centuries. In the West, not until the 17th century did Christendom transcend hundreds of years of strife over religious doctrines. In many ways, Enlightenment-era theological reform was a response to this long history of religious conflict, and the doctrine of separating the Church from the state was one tool by which reformers sought to limit the spread of doctrinal disputes into politics and war. With Enlightenment-era reforms breaking the bond between the coercive power of the state and the religious and moral narrative of the Church, the Church’s ability to drive world events was substantially limited.
Islam writ large has not achieved that separation. The theology that drives both Shi'a and Sunni radical groups constructs an artificial conflict between faith and modernity. It tells of a golden era when Islam’s influence and territory was dramatically expanding and constructs a narrative of a new, rising era of Islam in the modern day. And with the majority of the world’s Muslims living in countries that are impoverished, run by narrow elite groups, or where their religious practice is viewed as a threat to the stability of the state, this narrative can be extremely attractive to a tiny but hugely problematic subset of the population —mostly disaffected young men. They grab on to this narrative—and to its underlying religious ideology—often in an effort to give meaning to their lives. Troublingly, key parts of the religious ideology that undergirds this narrative are actually supported by the very states—or at least by elites within such states—that are now threatened by this trend.
In another way, there are parallels to America’s urban gang infestation in the 1970s and 1980s. The alienation felt by disenfranchised youth, and the meaning, opportunity, and excitement they found in joining the Bloods, Crips, and other violent street gangs, roughly parallels the path of thousands of young people travelling to join the jihad under banners of al Qaeda and ISIS. Just like joining a street gang, however, it matters which group you join. Vastly more Muslims who find themselves disenfranchised or dissatisfied choose a constructive path, seeking opportunities and achieving success in business and politics, and adhering to more moderate and traditional forms of faith. The problem today, of course, is the trend—within the small group of individuals who are attracted to radical ideologies—toward ever more extreme forms of radicalism and, in turn, the violence they engender. And while al-Qaeda was once the vanguard of this movement—with its promise of opportunities to attack the West—today ISIS is the leading attraction for the deeply disaffected, through its promises of land, wealth, and concubines to its recruits.
ISIS is hardly on the run. It is a confident, expanding organization growing in territory, manpower, and wealth.
One of the most challenging issues confronting the West is how to deal with this fight within Islam, a fight fundamentally over the nature and future of the faith. It would be arrogant for us to assume that we can solve this problem. We must accept that if Islam is to be rid of these extremist trends, it must come to this realization itself. And while we have powerful tools of statecraft at our disposal, the use of these tools can only inform, but not determine, the outcome of this great debate. If Islam is even to come close to the West’s Enlightenment answer—separating the sacred from the secular—we must accept that this will be a multi-generational process and that specifics of the “Christian solution” may not apply to this other great monotheism. We must also be prepared to confront the support for these destructive ideologies provided by some of our key allies and be prepared to demonstrate, in concrete terms, the very real threat that these extreme ideologies pose to their own stability.
In addressing the threat posed by these (and other) terrorist groups, we begin with a basic first principle: The United States has an absolute right (and responsibility) to defend itself against those who present a threat to its people or its vital national security interests. We have the right to take direct action to eliminate groups that present such threats, as well as to go after state entities that permit them to operate. This does not mean, however, that it is always wise to take direct action or to immediately remove regimes in all countries where radical terrorist groups operate. We must have a prudent and pragmatic foreign policy, one that does what is necessary to keep Americans safe and protect our core national security interests, while we also work to support our allies and patiently empower moderates.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush implemented a clear national policy on terrorist groups of global reach and the regimes that harbored them. From Afghanistan and Pakistan to East Africa and the Philippines, America took action to kill, capture, detain, and interrogate key terrorist suspects and to infiltrate their training, logistics, and communications networks. We acted alongside partners where possible, seeking to build on and leverage their capacity, but also took unilateral action when necessary.
These policies set the stage for more recent counterterrorism efforts, including the continued expansion of direct counterterrorism actions. Indeed, the most successful operations of this White House replicate, in significant respects, the intelligence and military efforts begun in the Bush Administration. Most importantly, the relative continuity across two administrations reflects a clear American policy consensus and affirmatively legitimizes the use of these tools going forward.
It is precisely because of the sustained pressure that these counterterrorism operations have brought to bear upon al-Qaeda and others that our country is less vulnerable today that it was on September 10, 2001. And yet this very success has allowed the 9/11 attacks to fade from consciousness, particularly among Washington policymakers. As a result, in recent years, U.S. counterterrorism policy has become significantly more constrained. For example, the Obama Administration has exhibited little tolerance for collateral damage, requiring a near virtual certainty that non-combatants will not be killed before we take direct action. Terrorists have learned this lesson and now intentionally hide among civilians. Moreover, President Obama has imposed limitations on when and where U.S. forces can strike and has significantly raised the bar on the threat required before U.S. forces can act, essentially taking a powerful capability off the table and easing the pressure on the enemy. Rather than actively pursuing these groups at every turn, as we once did, today we more often limit ourselves to acting only in rare circumstances on high value targets or in response to imminent threats.
Similarly, we have shifted (back) from a war footing toward a law enforcement posture. By taking long-term intelligence or military detentions off the table, the Obama Administration effectively decided to capture terrorists only when a Federal indictment is available. This has the perverse effect of requiring us to either let key targets go, hand them over to other states, or, more often than not, try to kill them. Of course, one cannot interrogate dead people, and the sharp decline in interrogations, a product of our lack of an appropriate capture-and-detention policy, has significantly limited our collection of timely terrorism intelligence.
This shift from intelligence-driven warfighting on the battlefield to evidence-based indictments in Federal court is likely to make it significantly harder to successfully prosecute this conflict. In particular, the shift is almost certain to result in lost intelligence and hence actionable opportunities. Indeed, in many ways, it represents a return to the failed law-enforcement strategy that our nation rejected in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Likewise, the decision by Congress—with explicit support from the White House—to cut back on intelligence collection authorities at a time when threats are increasing is shortsighted and creates increased risk for the nation.
From its public statements about the need to end wars, the possibility of repealing the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), and the constant drumbeat about closing Guantánamo Bay to the tactical constraints it has imposed upon itself, the Obama Administration has made clear to the American public, the world, and, perhaps most troublingly, to our enemies that it has tired of the fight.
The ideology that motivates and inspires al-Qaeda and ISIS has deep roots in certain longstanding forms of radical Sunni Islamist theology.
The Obama Administration has likewise muddled our national thinking because of its unwillingness to candidly discuss the threat we face from ISIS and al-Qaeda. While the President deserves credit for describing our conflict with al-Qaeda as a war, he does so while backing off from the full use of the tools of a belligerent. He has suggested, unconvincingly, that the conflict may be coming to an end. And the Administration’s actions often seem driven by a desire to be seen as doing something rather than by a determination to achieve actual success. More often than not, recent Administration efforts are trending toward minimizing American involvement while sticking to the narrative of ending global conflicts. As a result, even when action is taken, it tends to be hesitant and halting, and the size and durability of our commitments seem untethered from battlefield realities.
The fight with ISIS is indicative. The conflict began small in the summer of 2014, with the Administration repeatedly eschewing opportunities to stymie ISIS’s rise as it rolled across the Syria-Iraq border despite appeals from U.S. officials on the ground and U.S. partners in the region. When we did act, we initially limited our efforts to a small number of locations in Iraq, with the Administration’s own war powers notifications to Congress highlighting its preferred narrative of a short-term, highly limited engagement. Despite the expansion of conflict, the Administration has failed to conduct a robust campaign against ISIS, relying principally on a limited volley of airstrikes. This failure could have catastrophic consequences. With ISIS’s establishment of provinces around the world and the increase in attacks it is inspiring in the West, we are seeing the development of a capacity for global reach. When combined with its control over a significant swath of land, including its strategic position sitting atop historic trade routes and key natural resources, ISIS could become an even more serious threat to the United States at home.
Moreover, the failure to act when moderates still had a chance to play a significant role in the Syrian opposition permitted better-funded, better-armed, and better-trained forces, including Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, to dominate recruiting. This, in turn, filled the Syrian rebel force with committed jihadis from around the globe who—like the Afghan jihadis before them—will return home to wreak havoc there also.
U.S. inaction has likewise permitted Iran to be more influential in Baghdad and Damascus than ever before. It has allowed a terrorist proto-state to be established and flourish on the resource-rich lands between Iraq and Syria, and it has led our allies to question U.S. commitments and long-term resolve. The repeated lack of action by the U.S. government when allies are threatened, when terrorists capture significant territory, and when publicly declared redlines are crossed has cost us dearly in credibility and, ultimately, constitutes a core failure of global leadership for our nation.
The current situation, and our current approach to it, is thus a recipe for long-term disaster. The next President—of whatever political party—must enter the White House prepared on day one to reinvigorate our longstanding commitment to taking the fight to the enemy overseas, where they live and plot against the West.
In the face of these threats, we must be prepared to defend ourselves with all instruments of national power. We must combat this threat directly while also working to protect our key allies and interests around the world. A revised counterterrorism policy that takes this approach has ten key elements.
First, recognize and deal with the changed political geography of the Middle East. The states of Iraq and Syria are all but gone in their prior form. The same is likely true of Libya and Yemen, which are on the verge of becoming failed states. Likewise, Lebanon once again teeters, enflamed by renewed sectarian strife threatening its very viability as a state. These states were created with but modest attention to historical, tribal, commercial, ethnic, or religious realities, and were historically sustained by raw power. While the geopolitical contours of a future Middle East are difficult to discern—and beyond U.S. power to unilaterally determine—we should think long and hard before adopting any policy designed to “restore” old lines that were never more than frail symbols for these societies. A more realistic approach would grant more freedom of action for us to deal with the Kurds, and to address Baghdad’s Shi'a government, the remnants of Alawi power in Syria, and Iran's quest for regional hegemony, all the while frustrating the demands of al-Qaeda and ISIS to return the region to a medieval caliphate.
The United States has an absolute right (and responsibility) to defend itself against those who present a threat to its people or its vital national security interests.
Second, employ counterradicalization programs to reduce the attractiveness of jihadism. Many of our key partners in the global fight against terrorism, including the governments of Indonesia and Morocco, conduct significant counter radicalization programs with some success. While these programs are not without flaws—including recent increases in recidivism—they offer useful lessons in combating the attractiveness of jihadism. The longstanding idea that we can win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world through a public relations campaign is absurd. A better approach is to demonstrate to local populations the threat these groups pose to their own safety, security, and economic livelihoods. We can and should give locals the tools and capabilities to address these problems themselves. Such tools need not exclusively, or even primarily, be weapons. To the contrary, the best way to limit the long-term attractiveness of jihadism is to give people a stake in their own success and an investment in their own communities. Economic progress in underprivileged societies, the ability to obtain an education—one not in a radical madrassa—and the ability to establish and maintain strong family and personal ties, are all elements in a long-term strategy we must adopt if we are to succeed in limiting the growth and attractiveness of radical terrorist groups.
Third, keep up the pressure. A key to our relative safety since 9/11 has been keeping key terrorist groups on the run, constantly searching for new places to hide. Sustained counterterrorism pressure makes it hard to plot large-scale attacks. We must not permit broad swaths of land in key regions to remain ungoverned, or worse, be governed by groups like ISIS. This will mean, in real terms, restoring more flexible authorities to both our military and the intelligence community to identify, locate, and take action against groups that mean us harm, as well as to treat the ongoing conflict like the war it really is, not the smaller, more limited engagement some might wish it were.
Fourth, take unilateral direct action when necessary. A key part of keeping terrorists on the run is our willingness to take direct action when circumstances warrant it. Thus, in places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Mali, and Somalia, we must be willing to act not only against key terrorist leadership targets but also against the training sites and the support infrastructure of planners, facilitators, and funders that support the global jihadi force. We must double down on our willingness to use all direct action tools at our disposal, and not shy away from any of the tools of war, including the use of manned or unmanned aerial vehicles and deployed special operations forces, to set the conditions for direct action, and take it when appropriate.
Fifth, step up direct commitments and support to partners. Beyond resources and equipment, we must be willing to deploy U.S. forces as part of the fight we ask our partners to undertake. In the Iraq-Syria theater, this means not simply conducting a limited train-and-equip program that generates a handful of moderately capable fighters. It means committing fully to both our Iraqi and Kurdish partners (including direct shipment of equipment and ammunition to the Kurds) and requires us to actively edge out Iranian forces from their current lead role. It also requires us to be willing to deploy special forces teams into the field in both countries alongside our partners, whether moderate Syrian rebel forces, Kurdish peshmerga, or Iraqi security forces. Such deployments could provide a major morale boost to our allies and allow us to be a force multiplier for our partners, directing the more effective use of U.S. airpower (which must also be stepped up) and helping our partners employ more effective fighting tactics. These much closer partner ties on the ground must also be accompanied by much more robust intelligence sharing agreements, drawing from the lessons learned in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sixth, expand counterinsurgency efforts against key terrorist nodes worldwide. While we view the fight against al-Qaeda today as primarily focused on the Af-Pak border region and certain ungoverned parts of the Middle East and Africa, we must not forget the longstanding alliances and operational capabilities that al-Qaeda has generated globally. And while we currently view the ISIS fight to be localized to the Iraq-Syria border region, it is increasingly clear that the ISIS ideology is spreading beyond these bounds. We must therefore establish a U.S. presence alongside our partners in additional countries to take the fight to al-Qaeda and ISIS not just where they control territory or operate in ungoverned spaces, but also where they take root in local populations. In doing so, we must take advantage of lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan for conducting long-term counterinsurgency operations.
Seventh, redouble efforts to obtain counterterrorism intelligence. The lesson of 9/11 and our past 14 years of war is that consistent, timely, and solid intelligence collection and analysis, across all disciplines, remains critically important to successfully combatting terrorist groups. At the same time, incidents like the horrifically successful double-agent operation al-Qaeda ran against the CIA in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009 remind us that al-Qaeda and ISIS are improving their own intelligence capabilities. As a result, we must develop an even stronger collection posture against them, and must dedicate the additional resources necessary to this effort. We must also provide more flexible authorities and policy guidance to implement this collection, and we must develop a realistic counterterrorism capture policy. It is time to acknowledge that the current Administration’s policy of only capturing and detaining terrorists when we can bring Federal charges is seriously deficient. We must maintain a capacity—in addition to just a narrow law enforcement context—to capture, detain, and interrogate terrorist targets for sustained periods of time to obtain intelligence information.
The decision by Congress—with explicit support from the White House—to cut back on intelligence collection authorities at a time when threats are increasing is shortsighted and creates increased risk for the nation.
Eighth, re-establish ties with longstanding partners while also addressing issues with them. Longstanding U.S. partners in the Arab world today have little faith in our commitment to them; they doubt our word, and their confidence in our staying power suffers from our seeming indecision and hesitancy. They see us as exhorting them to take on an increasing share of the burden—as we are and they must—while providing little support to help them actually do so. We must reorient this policy by actively supporting efforts to re-establish the Yemeni government, by actively helping the Libyan government (such as it is) to establish effective control over key areas; and by supporting the Egyptian government’s efforts to roll back the jihadi infestation of the Sinai Peninsula. At the same time, we must acknowledge that Sunni terrorist groups receive support from institutions and individuals in allied states, that too often turn a blind eye to such support and provide haven to the radical clerics whose theology drives these groups. As a result, while we must expand our ties and double down on our security commitments to longstanding partners, the price of admission must be a major, sustained change in internal policy with respect to their direct and indirect support to terrorist groups and their networks.
Ninth, create a serious, near-term plan to defeat ISIS. While much effort since 9/11 has focused on addressing ungoverned spaces, today spaces actually governed by terrorist groups and their sympathizers represent a serious, growing problem. ISIS's success in gaining power and land in the Levant was aided by the premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the Obama Administration’s failure to support moderate forces in Syria. And while the Administration is taking action against particular ISIS targets and is haltingly working toward the creation of a small, moderate Syrian rebel force, this simply is not enough. Success will almost certainly demand the deployment of more U.S. forces to the region, even as we encourage an Arab ground force to take the lead. And even after such a force comes into existence, it will need extensive direct U.S. support in the form of command and control, intelligence, weaponry, logistics, and possibly manpower. While this is likely to spark controversy, it is important to realize that not making such a commitment now will almost certainly ensure that an even larger effort will be required down the road.
Tenth, account for the threat of a resurgent Iran. We cannot allow the expanding threat posed by al-Qaeda and ISIS—nor the desire to seal a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program—to distract from the fact that the explosion of conflicts in the region is, in significant part, stoked by the resurgent and growing destabilizing activities of the Iranian regime and its proxies. It is Iranian support for the Assad regime that has allowed the Syrian conflict to fester, creating the conditions for the rise of ISIS, and it is Iranian support for the Houthi rebels that helped push the Yemeni government out of power, increasing instability in a country that hosts the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate. We must directly confront Iran’s destabilizing actions and make clear to the regime in Tehran that we will not tolerate such activities.
In sum, we find ourselves in a challenging environment, one that our own actions—or lack thereof—have helped create. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, particularly AQAP, pose a significant threat to the homeland today. ISIS has established the beginnings of a terrorist superstate with control over significant territory and resources, and its message of jihad spreads worldwide. Our traditional allies question our commitment to them and our willingness to act. And our desire for a nuclear deal with Iran has led us to turn a relatively blind eye to its destabilizing activities and to its growing, outsized influence in places that matter.
Yet hope remains. Two U.S. Administrations into the global war on terrorism, we have established our position that America can and will take action to protect our nation at the times and places of our choosing. Our nation and its people—most importantly, our men and women in the military and the intelligence community—are prepared to do what it takes. What is now required is strong and resolute leadership in the White House to renew our longstanding commitment to countering these threats before they arrive on our shores by taking the fight to the enemy overseas.
(26) See Prepared Statement of Nicholas J. Rassmussen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Current Terrorist Threat to the United States, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (February 12, 2015).