Abstract: The United States has scored impressive successes against al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and other jihadi groups, decimating their leadership and limiting attacks on the U.S. homeland. At the same time, the jihadi cause has far more local and regional influence than it did in the years before 9/11; it is better able to inspire individuals in the West to act on its behalf; and groups have proven resilient despite the fierce U.S.-led onslaught against them. The movement as a whole is likely to persist, but the strongest groups will be limited operationally due to U.S. and allied counterterrorism efforts and probably will be caught up with the pressing demands of the civil wars in their countries and regions. The United States, Europe, and other stable regions will face continued but low-level attacks from inspired jihadis or those with some coordination from abroad, but the greatest dangers, and impact, will be felt on U.S. interests in the Muslim world.
Later this year, a U.S. service member is likely to be deployed to Afghanistan who was not yet born on September 11, 2001, when al-Qa`ida terrorists launched the most devastating terrorist attack in history and killed almost 3,000 people, mostly Americans. The years in between have seen wars in Iraq and Syria justified in the name of counterterrorism as well as more limited U.S. interventions against jihadi groups in Libya, Somalia, and other countries. Hundreds of thousands have died in these conflicts—some from terrorism, but most from combat and the associated ravages of war. Yet even as this body count soared, neither al-Qa`ida nor other jihadi groups have proven able to conduct a repeat of 9/11 or even anything close to it.a
Judging the threat that jihadi terrorism currently poses to the United States and, more broadly, the success of the U.S.-led struggle against various jihadi groups in the post-9/11 era depends on what interests are prioritized and which perspective one takes. Under three very different administrations, the United States has scored impressive successes against al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and other jihadi groups, decimating their leadership and limiting attacks on the U.S. homeland to a fraction of what Americans feared in the aftermath of 9/11. Yet, almost two decades after 9/11, the United States has still not put the nail in the coffin of jihadis. Indeed, although the operational freedom of jihadi groups is constricted by U.S. and allied counterterrorism efforts, the jihadi cause as a whole has far more local and regional influence than it did in the years before 9/11, it is better able to inspire individuals in the West to act on its behalf, and groups have proven resilient despite the fierce U.S.-led onslaught. Americans are wearying of grinding conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and other countries and favor, at most, limited efforts in far-flung theaters like Somalia or West Africa where jihadis are active.1 Efforts to pass the burden onto allies have met little success in most parts of the world, with a few important exceptions like the French counterterrorism campaign in Mali.
Before Americans celebrate or despair, however, it is useful to take stock of the problems facing the main jihadi organizations themselves. The al-Qa`ida core is weak and under siege, the once-triumphant Islamic State caliphate is now a memory, and the movement as a whole is plagued by infighting. Even in areas where jihadis groups are stronger in the post-9/11 era, they have largely failed to become sustained mass movements and otherwise exert influence beyond violence for a prolonged period, in contrast to less radical groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Nor are they likely to find a theater of jihad as favorable as Syria in the near and medium terms. The jihadis, however, can comfort themselves knowing that their overall sphere of activity has expanded, the enduring weakness of regimes in the Muslim world will give them considerable operational space, and problems with Muslim integration in Europe may present new opportunities.
The movement as a whole is likely to remain persistent, but the strongest regional groups, like Boko Haram and al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), will probably be caught up with the pressing demands of the civil wars in their countries and regions. The United States, Europe, and other stable regions will face continued but low-level attacks from inspired jihadis or those with some coordination from abroad, but the greatest dangers, and impact, will be felt on U.S. interests in the Muslim world.
This article has five parts. It first gives a brief status report on jihadi attacks in the United States and abroad and describes other factors, such as levels of public fear, that are important components when weighing the terrorism danger. Sections II and III then look at what has gone well for the United States with regard to counterterrorism and what has gone poorly. In Section IV, this article reverses its perspective, asking similar questions for the jihadi movement as a whole. Finally, Section V explores possible future directions of the movement and argues that the jihadi movement will continue to localize and regionalize.
- Snapshots of the Terrorism Threat
Judging how dangerous the jihadi terrorism threat is depends heavily on which factors are used in its evaluation. At the most basic level, the number of Americans killed on U.S. soil has been low since 9/11, and the pool of jihadis in the United States shallow and composed largely of untrained individuals with few direct connections to jihadi masterminds overseas.2At the end of 2018, jihadis had killed 104 Americans since 9/11, an average of six deaths a year. Only one American died in a jihadi attack on U.S. soil in 2018, which occurred when one teen murdered another at a sleepover, hardly a jihadi spectacular.3Almost half the deaths (49) occurred in one attack, when Omar Mateen shot up a Florida nightclub while declaring his allegiance to the Islamic State. Mateen was a troubled man who at different times had claimed to be a member of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian faction linked to al-Qa`ida, despite the fact that both are violent rivals of the Islamic State.4 From the jihadi terrorists’ perspective, he was hardly a worthy successor to Mohammad Atta, the steely-eyed 9/11 cell leader.
Using the deaths of Americans from jihadi attacks overseas as a criterion for the overall threat is trickier. Just over 140 Americans died between 2002 and 2016 in such attacks, excluding attacks in war zones—a significant number, but far fewer than died in the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, which claimed 190 Americans among the 270 overall victims.5 Yet the American death toll soars to almost 7,000 if soldiers killed in war zones in which jihadis are active—Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on—are counted.6 Many of these soldiers died in attacks by Iraqi nationalists or other actors, such as Shi`a radicals linked to Iran, who killed over 600 Americans fighting in Iraq.7 In addition, over 2,000 of these losses represent U.S. deaths in Afghanistan, primarily against the Afghan Taliban, which in the post-9/11 era is not directly linked to extra-regional terrorism despite being a deadly foe of the United States in its home country.8
Some Americans, however, take a broader view of the death toll. Attacks in Europe in particular are often considered part of the overall balance sheet on the war on terror. U.S. fears of terrorism spiked after the Islamic State killed 130 innocents in a series of attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. With high-profile bloody attacks in France, Spain, and the United Kingdom as well as many smaller strikes, jihadis have killed far more civilians in Europe than in the United States since 9/11. After a decline at the end of the last decade, attacks again increased when the Islamic State was at its peak from 2014-2016, but they have fallen again in recent years. The years 2018 and (so far) 2019 have seen lower levels of jihadi violence.9 Yet in Europe, the pre-9/11 picture was bleaker, when left-wing and ethnonationalist terrorism plagued Europe and when state sponsors like Libya wreaked havoc. The number of attacks peaked in 1979 when Europe suffered over 1,000 attacks, but attacks averaged around 10 a week during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Much of the violence was in the Basque region of Spain or in Northern Ireland. The average number of attacks fell after 1997.10
In addition, jihadi groups are active in bloody civil wars around the Muslim world. Deaths from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries may number over one million.11 As with the body counts of U.S. soldiers, such numbers are only partially linked to jihadi groups. There are many violent actors involved in addition to jihadis, and governments (some U.S.- or allied-backed) are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.12 Nevertheless, jihadis are contributing to human suffering on a mass scale. Indeed, the United Nations reports they are expanding the scale of their operations in the Sahel and West Africa.13 State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan Sales, noting the spread of al-Qa’ida to Africa, even goes so far as to claim that “what we see today is an al-Qaida that is as strong as it has ever been.”14
Terrorists, of course, seek to do far more than kill people, and much of their violence is aimed at instilling public fear. And here they are doing better than their body count would suggest. Polling shows that the number of Americans who are “very worried” that they or someone in their family would fall victim to a terrorist attack actually increased from November 2001 to June 2017, going from eight percent to 13 percent while the number who were “somewhat worried” also rose from 27 percent to 29 percent. So, as terrorism analyst Brian Michael Jenkins noted in these pages in 2016, despite the relatively low body count after 9/11, the fear factor is high.15
- What Has Gone Well?
Three mutually reinforcing efforts—denying havens, intelligence cooperation, and homeland defense—have played important roles in limiting the number of attacks on the U.S. homeland, and the first two efforts have also hindered jihadi attacks in other countries. Before 9/11, al-Qa`ida and other jihadi groups exploited the Taliban’s shelter and sanctuary, training perhaps 20,000 volunteers, building a mini army.16In addition, jihadis raised money, proselytized, and coordinated operations on a global scale with relatively little interference, including in the United States.17
After 9/11, the United States, backing local forces, ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan, killed much of the al-Qa`ida cadre there, and drove the scattered remnants to Pakistan and other countries.18 Since then, al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and other jihadi movements have enjoyed mini havens in Pakistan, Somalia, the Maghreb, Syria, and other countries. In each, however, the United States has worked with local allies, used drone strikes to target operatives, and otherwise tried to limit the scope and scale of the haven.19 The Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria was by far the most impressive jihadi success, but it proved short-lived, ground down by attacks from an array of Iraqi and Syrian forces, often backed by the United States.20 As a result, jihadi groups are under far more pressure when they operate than in the pre-9/11 era.
Complementing the attack on havens is a global intelligence campaign against the jihadi movement.21 Foreign intelligence relations are at the heart of U.S. counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida.22 After 9/11, U.S. partnerships expanded to over 100 countries,23 and they played a vital role in capturing and killing suspected terrorists.24 Paul Pillar, a leading terrorism analyst, points out liaison services can work with their countries’ police forces when they arrest terrorists and recruit sources.25
The United States seeks to enhance its allies’ capabilities, not duplicate them. It might help with technical assistance in particular, as many developing world governments fighting jihadis are weak in this area. The United States can also coordinate multiple intelligence services. When “Hambali,” an important al-Qa`ida operative and Jemaah Islamiyya official, was captured in 2003, the operation involved U.S. coordination of operations and information from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.26
Although much homeland defense spending is inefficient or wasted,27 efforts to track terrorist travel, to pool databases of suspects, and to otherwise tighten borders make it harder for terrorists to penetrate the United States, as they did before 9/11. The FBI has undertaken a far-reaching campaign to identify and disrupt potential terrorists on U.S. soil, resulting in numerous arrests of would-be jihadis—a campaign that continues unabated to this day.28 Many of these plots would have come to nothing, but at least a few might have reached fruition if not for government intervention.
Social media companies have also made progress in reducing terrorists’ online presence in recent years. When the Islamic State reemerged during the Syrian civil war and then electrified jihadi extremists around the world with its beheading videos, Twitter hashtag hijackings, and other social media successes, it seemed technology was on the terrorists’ side.29 Although jihadi groups still remain active on the internet, their presence on mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook is now far more risky. Internet companies are taking down their content, and governments are monitoring their accounts to identify followers and disrupt them. Indeed, would-be terrorists in the United States who are active on social media are more likely to be caught, not less.30
These combined efforts show up in the post-9/11 successes the United States has had against foreign fighters. Although foreign fighters are rightly billed as force multipliers for jihadi groups and were responsible for some of the deadliest jihadi attacks on the West, zero foreign fighters have perpetrated attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11. Part of this success is because the United States is now able to target and disrupt them at multiple stages: arresting them before they travel, detaining them when they go back and forth, killing them in a war zone, or arresting them on return. When they post information to recruit and travel on social media, they are more likely to be discovered. Although the United States has proven especially effective at stopping foreign fighters, Europe’s track record has also improved, especially in the aftermath of foreign fighter-linked attacks in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016.31
III. What Has Gone Poorly?
Yet the optimistic view, which this author usually shares, has several weaknesses and limits, and when judging the overall threat, much depends on which factors are considered.
Perhaps the most obvious limit is that the jihadi groups remain active despite 18 years of direct clashes with the United States, and they have spread their influence throughout the Muslim world. The list of countries in the Middle East with civil wars that feature jihadi groups now includes Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, with Egypt also suffering significant unrest. Most of the wars grew out of the 2011 “Arab Spring” and regimes’ responses to it, and there are many complex reasons for their breakout and persistence unrelated to jihadism.32 However, jihadis groups exploited this chaos, increasing their influence and the scale of their operations.
How dangerous the threat jihadi groups pose to U.S. interests depends heavily on how much the stability of the affected countries matters to the United States—a contested question. Libya, Mali, Somalia, and Yemen have never been important U.S. interests in and of themselves. Even countries that matter far more due to oil reserves or other strategic factors, like Algeria, Nigeria, and Pakistan, usually face violence contained to their periphery that is horrific for those affected but has not impacted oil flows or otherwise jeopardized traditional U.S. interests, narrowly defined. Spillover remains a constant risk, and indeed violence in Algeria, Libya, and Mali has spread to almost all of West Africa, but key regional countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey do not seem at risk of civil war.33
Although the risk to traditional interests has proven limited, the increasingly global presence of jihadi groups has led the United States to become enmeshed in a series of low-level but grinding, and seemingly endless, civil wars in the greater Muslim world. The United States has forces in 80 countries involved in the fight against terrorism.34 This has both a human and economic cost, but it is sustainable militarily, as it represents only a fraction of total U.S. forces, and the number of casualties is lower than when the United States had large numbers of troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, political support in the United States for military operations is far weaker. The surge of enthusiasm for aggressive counterterrorism after 9/11 steadily fell as the Iraq War became more deadly and costly. The leaders of both political parties are now skeptical of high levels of U.S. intervention abroad, suggesting the United States is becoming even less willing to do the slow, hard work of stabilizing weak countries and improving governance around the world.35 In a poll from 2018, over half of Americans believed that it was time to draw down or completely withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and in January 2019, the public was split on a similar question regarding the U.S. troop presence in Syria.36
Nor has the United States always been able to hand off counterterrorism responsibilities to local forces. Ideally, local forces would provide security to residents, administer justice, and uproot the jihadi infrastructure, backed by U.S. intelligence and standoff firepower. In reality, many U.S. train and equip programs have failed to move the needle, at times disastrously. When a small detachment of 1,500 Islamic State forces approached Mosul in June 2014, the approximately 30,000 Iraqi troops stationed there panicked and fled.37 The United States had lavished over $25 billion dollars on Iraqi forces with little payoff.38 In Syria, one program that cost $500 million and was intended to train 15,000 rebels there produced only a handful of actual fighters.39 The United States has been able to work with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, which proved highly effective in fighting the Islamic State. However, they represent one faction within a small Syrian minority group, and they are not politically acceptable to Turkey and to some local communities in Syria.40
Many U.S. allies are less than ideal partners.41 Bad governance, social divisions, and economic problems plague many U.S. counterterrorism partners and make insurgency more likely. Partner regime policies often perpetuate or exacerbate these problems.42 Many communities see the national army as dominated by one communal group, and when pressure grows, integrated units often defect or desert. Scholar Mara Karlin has found that U.S. efforts to build a stronger national army in Lebanon were hindered by deep divisions among the country’s communities.43 In the Arab world, only Tunisia has true democratic legitimacy, and weak legitimacy is a common problem for many countries in Africa where the Islamic State is active. In response to these many problems, rulers often politicize their militaries.44
Corruption is also common. In 2016, the Iraqi army had tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers”—troops who existed only on paper—which enabled their superiors to collect their salaries.45 In many cases, reducing corruption and increasing legitimacy require a dramatic change in who governs a country and how they do so. Not surprisingly, local powers try to resist pressure or co-opt it, and U.S. administrations have proven unable or unwilling to put sustained pressure on recalcitrant partners. Jihadi groups exploit these problems and try to portray themselves as able to deliver law and order more effectively and even to provide better social services than the government.46
The United States is not well-positioned to resolve these deep governance problems. The budgets of the State Department, USAID, and associated programs are increasingly a rounding error when compared with the overall defense budget. Putting its budget questions aside, the State Department is not bureaucratically committed to the governance mission and instead focuses on elite diplomacy.47
The counterterrorism mission has also led to significant opportunity costs. The United States and its key allies have devoted considerable time and resources to this challenge. In so doing, other problems, like a more bellicose Russia and the rise of China, received less attention.
- The Jihadis’ Perspective
Imagining how the world looks through the eyes of Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sheds additional light on what is going well and what is going poorly for U.S. counterterrorism.
Jihadis leaders could take comfort from much of what gives the United States pause: the spread of their ideas and movements around the Muslim world, the lack of legitimacy of many of their local enemies, and the growing fatigue of the U.S. public and leaders who rail against forever wars. After the Arab Spring began in 2011, al-Zawahiri recognized that the fall of traditional jihadis enemies like the Saleh regime in Yemen or the Qaddafi regime in Libya offered opportunities for jihadis.48
Indeed, the jihadis’ defiance in the face of the U.S.-led worldwide campaign is impressive. In his September 2018 message “How to Confront America,” al-Zawahiri calls for “hitting hard at America, bleeding it to death economically and militarily, until it departs from our lands defeated – with the permission of Allah – just as it had departed from Vietnam, Aden, Iraq and Somalia.”49 In a rare video in 2019, al-Baghdadi praised “brothers in Sri Lanka” for the Easter attacks there, which proved the Islamic State’s vitality after the loss of its caliphate, although it appears that the attack was not centrally directed by the Islamic State.50 Both groups have proven, repeatedly, that they can suffer considerable losses but still survive and return. They would probably expand their international terrorist efforts if pressure let up.51
Jihadis can also take comfort that their ideas are far more widespread and supported than ever before. When 9/11 occurred, the idea of taking on the “far enemy” of the United States was shared by only a minority of jihadis, most of whom focused on their local regime. By 2017, however, polls suggest that significant minorities in Nigeria, Turkey, and other countries had a positive view of groups like the Islamic State.52 Before 9/11, some jihadis even embraced the idea of a “covenant of security” for Europe—because European countries had opened their doors and protected them from oppression in the Muslim world, then jihadis who accepted a visa had an obligation to be peaceful in exchange for this sanctuary.53 The participation of some European states in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, angered the jihadis and proved, in their eyes, that Europe had broken the covenant of security. Al-Qa`ida in particular began to turn the networks developed to export foreign fighters from Europe to fight in wars in the Muslim world into operational nodes to attack Europe.
Europe’s failure to integrate its Muslim citizens made all this worse. Alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims is considerable in most countries, and there is little trust of the police and security services.54 As politics grow more contentious, some European states have adopted anti-Muslim measures, ranging from the French veil ban55 to Swiss efforts to ban the building of minarets56 on mosques to efforts to cut or end support for Muslim refugees. Right-wing violence, which often explicitly targets Muslims, also increases tension.
Jihadi operational doctrine reflects the worldwide influence of their ideology as well as the weakness of the various groups’ leaderships, moving more toward so-called “Lone Wolf” or bottom-up inspired attacks or at least ones that require less direct coordination. As the caliphate crumbled, al-Baghdadi called for attacks in the West, noting that one of them equaled 1,000 strikes in the Middle East.57 Although foreign fighters have been effectively disrupted, the United States and especially Europe have suffered through a plague of attacks inspired by the Islamic State or with limited direction from the group.58
Yet despite these wins, the loss side of the ledger is staggering. The defeat of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria is more than just the loss of an operational home for the world’s dominant jihadi group. Rather, the Islamic State had staked much of its prestige and mission on the continuation and expansion of the caliphate, and its brief success was a potent recruiting pitch.59 Its destruction, no matter how hard the group tries to rationalize this, is a devastating blow. This loss makes it more difficult for the Islamic State to attract new recruits. In addition, it has focused much of its energy on surviving and reviving rather than enduring and expanding. All this has made it harder for it to direct devastating attacks as it did in Paris in 2015.
Nor are the jihadis likely to find a theater of jihad as favorable as Syria in the near and medium term. The Syrian cause proved highly compelling, far more so than Somalia, Mali, and other conflicts that have arisen in the post-9/11 era. The United States also tried to avoid any intervention in Syria for several years and refused to work with the genocidal Syrian government, giving the Islamic State an unusual amount of space to grow and expand. In other theaters, direct and indirect U.S. military intervention limits the jihadis.
Indeed, the shift to emphasizing bottom-up inspired attacks by untrained individuals can be seen as a sign of weakness. When the Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’ was strong, the group urged volunteers to emigrate and fight to defend it. When al-Qa`ida was strong, it sought to train and direct recruits. As both groups weakened and their command and control came under siege, bottom-up attacks enabled them to stay active and strike their enemies, but if they had more freedom of action, they would probably prefer to train and direct volunteers to carry out terrorist attacks or work directly for the group as fighters or logisticians, among other roles.
The jihadi movement is divided over targeting, tactics, and ideology, and these divisions are deeper than they were on 9/11. Disagreements also extend to whether there should be a caliphate now and even whether to impose ‘Islamic’ law on areas they control or simply preach there and provide services to win over locals. More broadly, there are divisions over the killing of innocents.60 Bin Ladin himself warned fellow jihadis that many jihadi groups have lost popular support when they killed innocents, especially innocent Muslims, in their operations.61 When the Islamic State captured and murdered Western aid workers in Syria, for example, al-Qa`ida’s Jabhat al-Nusra decried this as “wrong under Islamic law” and “counter-productive.”62
Even though jihadis’ ideas are more popular than in the past, they are far from becoming a mass movement. This stands in contrast to groups like Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah, which have entered politics and directly or indirectly govern territory. Such groups exert tremendous influence on their societies, while jihadi organizations remain on the fringe because they have been neither able to compromise and enter politics nor hold territory for long periods of time.
- Future Directions
Al-Zawahiri still pushes the message that “behind all the conflicts involving Muslims one finds either the direct hand of the secular crusader West in the leadership of America, or its silent approval, connivance, collusion, or intrigues.”63Yet, in practice, most groups do not seem to share his perspective, and indeed one of the most striking features of the broader jihadi movement in the last decade is its localization. The movement as a whole, including al-Qa`ida, always had local and global ambitions, and this continues to this day, while the Islamic State still encourages attacks on the West, including in the United States. The Al-Qa`ida core, however, has not conducted a major attack on the West in over a decade, and in 2015, it reportedly instructed its Syrian affiliate to focus on Syria, not international terrorism.bThe bulk of the core Islamic State organization is focused on reviving its power in Iraq and Syria. The other most active groups such as AQAP, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and the Taliban, among others, all focus first and foremost on civil wars in their country and their region. This consumes the vast majority of their resources and the attention of their senior leadership. It also enables them to exploit local grievances for recruitment. In many of these countries, the groups control at least some territory, and they can fulfill their ideology by proselytizing and enforcing ‘Islamic’ law.
Part of the localization trend is simply opportunity combined with the greater difficulties in attacking the West due to more effective U.S. counterterrorism. Many governments in the Middle East are far weaker than they were 18 years ago; opportunities also abound in the Sahel, East and West Africa, and other parts of the world. For some groups, like the Taliban, U.S. forces are in their country, enabling them to strike the United States and local enemies simultaneously.
The fate and aspirations of the perhaps 30,000 or so surviving foreign fighters who fought for the Islamic State are also important factors that will determine the shape of the jihadi movement in future years.64 Scholar Petter Nesser finds that foreign fighters played an important role in many terrorist plots in Europe and veterans from previous conflicts served as recruiters and facilitators for subsequent waves of jihad.65 Governments, however, are far more focused on this danger than they were in the pre-9/11 era, and thus the counterterrorism response is more effective. The United States has not suffered an attack from foreign fighters since 9/11, and homegrown violent extremists have eclipsed foreign fighters in Europe as well in recent years, though the large number of European foreign fighters and the uneven quality of security services remain a concern. In addition, many European states give convicted foreign fighters only short stays in prison, which enables them to radicalize others yet be released quickly.66 Returning foreign fighters are likely to be a particular problem in Muslim countries with weak security services, seeding future terrorist groups and exacerbating civil wars.67
Potential U.S. troop withdrawals or further drawdowns in places like Afghanistan and Syria hinder efforts to target potential jihadi safe havens. Already, a U.S. government report found that the reduction of U.S. forces in Syria helped the Islamic State mount a limited comeback there.68 However, the United States still maintains a regional basing network and works with local partners, giving it direct and indirect means to pressure safe havens around the world. Moreover, in contrast to the pre-9/11 era, the United States is far more likely to act kinetically to disrupt any perceived threat. So a U.S. withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan does not mean the United States has no ability to target jihadis there, though it would be more difficult.
The United States must take a hard look at its interests when designing its counterterrorism strategy. The further destabilization of Yemen or West Africa, or terrorist attacks in parts of the world like Sri Lanka, is dangerous for those countries, but the impact on U.S. security is questionable and a massive U.S. commitment to these countries is not necessary. The U.S. mix of intelligence cooperation, putting pressure on havens, and better homeland security has kept America itself mostly safe and also helped limit the threat to Europe and other key areas. Jihadi terrorism, of course, will not go away, but the impact will mostly be felt in parts of the world where U.S. interests are limited. CTC
Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad (Oxford, 2019). The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent those of the U.S. Government. Follow @dbyman