It is almost seven years since unrest in Syria began and spiraled into a civil war that has killed perhaps 500,000 people and displaced millions more. The war and associated diplomacy offers us much to chew on, but the counterterrorism implications are particularly striking — for Syria is both a counterterrorism success and a counterterrorism failure. The Islamic State, one of the most vicious and powerful terrorist groups the world has ever seen, emerged out of the conflict. But the United States and its allies have also weakened the group and managed the terrorism threat. This mixed record offers us many lessons for counterterrorism.
1) Civil wars and terrorism go together.
Syria illustrates how jihadists thrive on civil wars in the Muslim world. Although much is made about why individuals join terrorist groups (Are they alienated from society? Lacking jobs? And so on), wars act as a “pull” factor. Europe, which produced thousands of fighters for the Islamic State, was not dramatically different before the Syrian war began than in 2014–15, when the number of volunteers peaked along with the conflict: The war itself excited European Muslims and led many to volunteer, often seeing themselves as would-be freedom fighters rather than clandestine terrorists.
Afghanistan, Algeria, Chechnya, Iraq, Lebanon Somalia, and Yemen are examples of other conflicts that have birthed new terrorist groups or allowed existing ones to get stronger. The wars provide a cause for recruiting, and they make the (surviving) members deadlier by giving them hard-won combat experience. Wars often allow groups considerable freedom of action. The Islamic State, for example, often took territory in areas where the Syrian regime was weak or nonexistent, using the void in governance to establish itself as an alternative. Not all civil wars in the Muslim world produce large jihadist movements, but the risk of a new war doing so is considerable.