At various points during the 16-plus years since 9/11, Americans have cheered the success of our armed forces in fighting terrorism. The first such moment was the rapid downfall of the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001, which led one American officer to crow that pitting the high-tech U.S. military against the primitive Taliban had been “the Flintstones meet the Jetsons.” Then, in the spring of 2003, came the equally sudden downfall of Saddam Hussein after the U.S. military’s “thunder run” into Baghdad, leading President George W. Bush to declare “Mission Accomplished.” The unexpected success of the surge in Iraq in 2007–8, after years of worsening violence, led to further cheering—but it was nothing compared with the cacophony of praise that greeted Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011. That feat alone practically guaranteed President Barack Obama’s reelection.
And now we have arrived at yet another joyous moment, with the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in sight. After a battle lasting longer than Stalingrad, ISIS was evicted from the Iraqi city of Mosul in July and then from the Syrian city of Raqqa in October. By that point, the caliphate, which had once controlled more than 40,000 square miles and instilled panic from Baghdad to Washington, was down to just 2,700 square miles, and falling. By the beginning of November, ISIS had lost its remaining urban redoubts in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zour and the Iraqi border town of Qaim.
President Trump has rushed to claim credit. “I totally changed rules of engagement,” he said in a radio interview. “I totally changed our military.… ISIS is now giving up…. Nobody has ever seen that before.” The truth is that this was a bipartisan triumph. While Trump committed slightly more U.S. forces to the fight and gave them slightly more permissive rules of engagement, his administration, by and large, followed the blueprint laid out by the Obama administration, of assisting indigenous forces to fight ISIS with advisers, air power, and even artillery rather than committing U.S. ground-combat forces. Much of the credit for routing ISIS belongs, in any case, not to politicians in Washington but to the fighters on the ground—the Iraqi security forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces—who did the fighting and suffered the casualties, and to the U.S. advisers, logisticians, pilots, and other personnel that were working side by side with them.
Taking pride in their achievement is perfectly proper; it is deeply satisfying to witness the setbacks inflicted on an organization as evil as ISIS. But let’s keep the champagne on ice. For there is every reason to doubt that the defeat of ISIS will produce a lasting victory in the war on terrorism—any more than did the fall of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, the success of the surge, or the death of Osama bin Laden. The sobering reality is that, although the United States and its allies have killed and captured many tens of thousands of terrorists since 2001, the total number of Islamist fighters has kept on growing. While the U.S. has had military success against some terrorist groups—we tend to focus on one group at a time, first al-Qaeda, then ISIS—they have shown a worrisome tendency to either make good their losses or else be superseded by other groups that may turn out to be even more vicious. Put another way, the pathologies of the Muslim world have proven stronger than our ability or will to overcome them. What, then, should we do in the future in what has been variously known as the “Global War on Terror,” the “Struggle Against Violent Extremism,” and now the war on “radical Islamic terrorism”? The answer to that question begins with an honest assessment of what has gone right—and wrong—to date.
Al-Qaeda survived the death of bin Laden. And although his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is not nearly as charismatic, the organization has a bigger global reach today than ever before, thanks to affiliates such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and Hayet Tahrir al-Sham in Syria. Al-Qaeda now controls more territory and has more fighters affiliated with it than it did on 9/11, even if it probably lacks the capacity to carry out another attack on that scale.
Of the al-Qaeda affiliates, the most important to date has been Yemen-based AQAP, which has plotted attacks on the American homeland. It has lost ground but survived a recent offensive by forces from the United Arab Emirates. “Hiding in mountain ranges as inaccessible as Afghanistan’s Tora Bora,” the Economist notes, “its leaders still manage over $100m in looted bank deposits, copious heavy weaponry ransacked from military bases, and multiple sleeper cells in cities which can be reactivated at any time.” In the future, Hayet Tahrir al-Sham—a Syrian group formed by the merger of the Al Nusra Front with smaller rebel groups—may loom even larger. Of all the Sunni insurgent groups in Syria, it is the one best positioned to take over territory vacated by ISIS. There is also Al Shabaab, the Somali group that claims al-Qaeda affiliation. Although it has been pushed back in recent years by Somali and African Union troops, it retains considerable sway in the countryside and the ability to strike anywhere in the country—as demonstrated by an October 14 truck bombing in Mogadishu that killed more than 350 people.
ISIS, for its part, is down in Syria and Iraq but hardly out. It still retains 6,000 to 10,000 fighters—far from its peak of 20,000 to 30,000, but a formidable force nonetheless. A report from the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point found that ISIS carried out 1,468 terrorist attacks in 16 cities in Iraq and Syria after they had been ostensibly liberated. This is a sign of the group’s resiliency, evident from the fact that its predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was all but defeated by 2010 only to become more powerful than ever within four years. Many counterterrorism analysts fear that, deprived of its territorial empire, ISIS will reemphasize terrorism not only in Iraq and Syria but also in the West.
Such fears only grew after an Uzbek immigrant used a truck to kill eight people in lower Manhattan on Halloween after having pledged loyalty to ISIS. He was using the same tactics as other ISIS-inspired terrorists such as the French-Tunisian man who on July 14, 2016, drove a truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 86 people. These types of low-tech terrorist attacks are easy to carry out and hard to prevent.
As with al-Qaeda, ISIS’s notoriety and resources have spawned international affiliates such as ISIL-Libya, ISIL-Khorasan (Afghanistan), and ISIL–Sinai Province (Egypt). Its Philippine affiliates, Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group, were only ousted in mid-October from the city of Marawi after a five-month siege by the Philippine military, and its African affiliate, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, has been blamed for the deaths of four U.S. Green Berets in Niger. Other well-established insurgent groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have also pledged allegiance to ISIS.
We should not become too obsessed, however, over which affiliation a particular set of terrorists may claim. These are often mere flags of convenience for organizations rooted in local grievances, and given that ISIS, originally known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was itself an outgrowth of al-Qaeda, it is quite possible that the two groups may merge in the future.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan alone there are 13 to 21 terrorist organizations, depending on how you count—groups such as the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistani Taliban). The most powerful of these is the Afghan Taliban, which has rebounded from an all-too-brief surge of U.S. forces under Obama. The Taliban now control or contest approximately one-third of Afghanistan’s population, meaning 10 million people—as many as ISIS controlled at its height.
So far, we have just been focusing on Sunni jihadist groups. But it’s important to remember the danger posed by Shiite militant organizations supported by Iran, which have been killing Americans since the early 1980s in Lebanon. These are groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon; the Badr Organization, Khataib Hezbollah, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq; and the Houthis in Yemen. Training, arms, and command-and-control for these organizations are provided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds force; its commander, General Qasem Soleimani, may be the most powerful man in Iraq or Syria. The Quds Force has assembled at least 25,000 Shiite militiamen from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight for the Assad regime in Syria. They are supported by Lebanese Hezbollah and several thousand Iranian troops who provide much the same function as U.S. advisers do in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The Russian air force, in turn, plays the same air-support function for the Assad-Iran coalition as the U.S. Air Force does for the Syrian Democratic Forces or the Iraqi Security Forces.
Iranian proxies are even better positioned than groups such as al-Qaeda to benefit from the decline of ISIS. Indeed in both Iraq and Syria, the Iranian-backed militias are rapidly expanding their control as ISIS’s grip is weakening. Soleimani himself was reputed to have been closely involved in the October 16 operation in which the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iranian-backed militia, marched, along with the Iraqi army, into the contested city of Kirkuk to expel the Kurdish Peshmerga.
While Sunni and Shiite extremists generally oppose one another, they are also capable of working together. Al-Qaeda cooperated to varying degrees with Iran and Hezbollah over the years, Assad and ISIS had a de facto nonaggression pact for a while, and Iran has been a consistent supporter of Hamas, a Sunni group based in the Gaza Strip. For all their differences, after all, both Shiite and Sunni fanatics are united by their hatred of the “Great Satan” and the “Little Satan”—the U.S. and Israel—even if their immediate concerns are usually more parochial.
This brief survey by no means suggests that the entire post-9/11 campaign against terrorism has been a failure or that we need to stop what we are presently doing. The biggest victory the U.S. has scored since 2001 is that there has not been “another 9/11.” The worst terrorist attack the U.S. has experienced since that time was Omar Mateen’s 2016 shooting rampage in an Orlando nightclub that left 49 people dead. Appalling, but still a far cry from the nearly 3,000 fatalities on 9/11. The U.S. has benefitted from improved domestic security and intelligence collection along with the serendipitous advantages of geography (we are far from the Middle East, with oceans as buffers) and demography (we do not have a large, unassimilated Muslim minority).
Other countries have not been so lucky. Muslim states have been particularly hard hit. According to the 2016 Global Index of Terrorism published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, 57 percent of all terrorism deaths between 2000 and 2015 occurred in four countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Syria has seen still more deaths, even though most of them have been the work of the state and thus do not meet the definition of terrorism used by the index (“the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation”). Among countries where Muslims are not a majority, Belgium, Britain, France, and Spain have been particularly hard hit because of the presence of their large and aggrieved Muslim communities. And of course Israel, despite its sophisticated defenses, continues to suffer losses from terrorists, now more often armed with vehicles or knives than guns. According to the Global Index of Terrorism, the number of civilians killed in terrorist attacks skyrocketed 550 percent from 2000 to 2015.
It is likely that if the U.S. and its allies were not actively fighting terrorism, the carnage would be many times greater. Indeed, after Obama pulled U.S. forces out of Iraq in 2011 and refused to get involved in the Syrian civil war, Islamic State embarked on a genocidal rampage of murder, rape, and looting that particularly targeted minority populations such as Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, and Shiites but that also took a heavy toll on Sunni Arabs who were viewed as threats to its oppressive rule. In Afghanistan, only the presence of U.S. troops prevents the takeover of Islamist fanatics who would ban kite flying, end the education of women, stone homosexuals—and provide sanctuary to international terror groups such as al-Qaeda. Pulling out our forces, as the most ardent isolationists desire, would be a recipe for disaster. The situation may be bad enough now, but it could get far worse if the U.S. were entirely absent.
Nevertheless it is dispiriting to note that for all of the efforts the U.S. and its allies have made since 9/11, terrorist groups appear to be stronger than ever. What accounts for the endurance and even expansion of Islamist extremism? Three phenomena are at play.
First, there is a compelling ideology—variously known as Salafism, jihadism, or Islamism—that can give meaning to alienated youths and lead them to sacrifice their lives in its name. This ideology can trace its roots back many decades, even centuries, but it only reached a critical mass in the Middle East circa 1979, catalyzed by events such as the Iranian revolution, the siege of Mecca, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Islamism is by no means the mainstream view of Islam, but even if its appeal is limited to just 1 percent of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, that is 18 million potential sympathizers.
Second, there is a large and growing number of young people in the Muslim world. In Europe, the median age is 42.7 years; in the United States, it’s 37.9 years. Consider, by contrast, the median age in some Muslim lands: Gaza Strip (16.9), Somalia (17.9), Nigeria (18.3), Afghanistan (18.6), Yemen (19.2), Iraq (19.9), and Egypt (23.8). According to the Brookings Institution, people under the age of 24 make up 50 to 60 percent of the population in the Middle East; those under 15 are 35 percent (compared with just 16 percent in Europe). This is a problem because armies and terrorist groups alike are made up of young men. Revolutions are also made by the young. A study by Population Action International found that “between 1970 and 1999, 80 percent of civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60 percent of the population or more were under the age of thirty.” Based on this metric alone, it’s obvious why so much of the Muslim world remains in turmoil.
The impact of the “youth bulge” is exacerbated by a third factor: the widespread state failure throughout the Muslim world. From West Africa to Central Asia, what is sometimes called the Muslim Crescent is full of states that barely function and cannot deliver on the most basic needs of the populace. Indeed, rulers throughout this region tend to see their peoples as subjects to be fleeced rather than as citizens to be served. Thanks to heavy-handed state mismanagement of the economy, in many countries there are no jobs and no opportunities for the rising cohort of youth. This is by no means a problem unique to Muslim states. Many non-Muslim states are just as dysfunctional, while some Muslim states (such as Senegal, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Morocco) are relatively stable and peaceful. But on the whole, the conclusions of the 2002 UN Human Development Report, written by Arab authors, still hold true. They wrote: “There is a substantial lag between Arab countries and other regions in terms of participatory governance. The wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s has barely reached the Arab States. This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development.” This freedom deficit was linked by the authors with other deficits, including a lack of female empowerment (“more than half of Arab women are still illiterate”), a lack of economic development (“growth continues to stagnate and to be overly vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices”), and a lack of education (“investment in research and development does not exceed 0.5 percent of gross national product, well below the world average”).
These manifold failures helped trigger the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010–12 but, save in tiny Tunisia, the revolutions that swept the Middle East did not result in more democratic governance. Rather, the Arab Spring led to a long winter of chaos and conflict. Syria and Libya were transformed—in the latter case with active assistance from the U.S. and NATO, in the former case with the West’s not-so-benign neglect—from sterile, oppressive dictatorships to ungoverned territories where all manner of militant groups can flourish. Democracy in Turkey has been crushed and an experiment with democracy in Egypt aborted. The greater Middle East has become even more unstable and dysfunctional since 2001—and thus it is no surprise that it has given rise to even more terrorism.
The dismaying trends are relatively easy to discern. It’s much harder to know what to do about them. One thing is clear: The primary U.S. focus since 2001, of killing and capturing terrorists, can only limit the problem; it cannot solve it. The U.S. military is engaged in what many officers call “mowing the lawn”: it has to be done, but the “grass,” i.e., the terrorists, will always grow back as long as they operate in terrain that is not controlled day and night by the U.S. or its allies. Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has not given sufficient attention to trying to change the conditions that give rise to terrorism. This would require a sustained commitment to “nation-building,” which remains so neuralgic a term in Washington that the U.S. does not even have an agency devoted to this crucial undertaking. (I have argued that USAID should be retooled into a nation-building agency.) One of the few things that unites Obama and Trump is their shared belief that “nation-building begins at home.”
But if the U.S. does not help build nations in the places where terrorism flourishes, they will remain failed states that will continue to breed militancy. The U.S. needs to do a much better job of fostering indigenous institutions—not only armed forces but also police forces, courts, penal institutions, and tax collection—so that moderate governments can prevent their territory from being used as a breeding ground for terrorism. Even more important than building formal institutions, it is imperative in heavily tribal societies to ensure that there is a balance between competing ethno-sectarian groups so that one group does not become so dominant and exploitative that it will lead the others into open rebellion. In Iraq, it is vital to strike a balance principally between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis; in Syria, between Alawites, Sunnis, and Kurds; in Afghanistan, between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras; and so on.
Obviously sectarian balance is not something that America can impose on foreign societies, the era of colonialism having passed, but the U.S. can act as a neutral arbiter to encourage peaceful resolution of disputes. In Iraq, the failure of a distracted and depleted State Department to play a more forceful role before and after a Kurdish independence referendum on September 25 has made a tense situation even worse, with a growing risk of a war between the Kurds, on one side, and the Iraqi army and Shiite militias on the other. This is but one of the sectarian fault lines that threatens the post-ISIS future of Iraq. If the U.S. wants to prevent ISIS 2.0 from emerging, it will need to work somehow to help Sunnis in Iraq and Syria protect themselves from Iranian-dominated Shiite regimes.
Even if it does not involve sending tens of thousands of troops (and it seldom will), nation-building, or, as it should more properly be called, “state-building,” is a hugely difficult, time-consuming, and thankless undertaking that even under the best of circumstances faces enormous obstacles. Witness all the tribulations the U.S. has endured during its attempts to build functioning democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is understandable that many will conclude that these efforts are doomed to fail and should not even be attempted. But if the U.S. makes no attempt at stabilization, the result is likely to look like Libya, Yemen, Somalia, or Syria.
Greater attention to state-building should be coupled with a renewed emphasis on a related discipline—political warfare. Groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, and the IRGC place great stock in spreading propaganda, political organizing, and subverting indigenous institutions. So, for that matter, does Russia, which has pioneered the use of “little green men” in its offensive into Ukraine and of social media and hacking in its operation to influence the 2016 U.S. election. The U.S. has little reply save anodyne “public diplomacy” designed to enhance the image of the United States. The U.S. should instead be focused on using information warfare to undermine repressive regimes such as Iran (or Russia, North Korea, and China) and to bolster moderate Muslims much in the way that the U.S. once helped dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. This is a discipline that, unfortunately, fell out of favor after the end of the Cold War. It needs to be revived today.[i]
Even if the U.S. becomes more committed to nation-building and political warfare, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that there will be any lasting victory against terrorism in the foreseeable future. The terrorism scholar David Rapoport has argued that since the 1880s the world has seen four great waves of terrorism—anarchist, anti-colonial, New Left, and religious. Each of the first three waves lasted roughly 40 years. The fourth wave, more properly called Islamism, has already lasted nearly that long if its start is dated from 1979, and it shows no sign of cresting any time soon.
But, if history is any guide, eventually the ideological furies of radical Islam will be exhausted. Just as the failures of Communist regimes from the Soviet Union to Cuba destroyed the allure of Marxism-Leninism, so too the failure of Islamist regimes such as the Taliban, Islamic State, and the Islamic Republic of Iran are disabusing many Muslims of their illusions about what this ideology can accomplish in practice. Someday the Muslim world will grow up, literally and figuratively.
The U.S. can help hasten the demise of Islamist extremism by actively combating not only its fighters but also their ideology and by helping to build more moderate and stable states in the lands where most militants dwell. But the best we can do is to contain and diminish the threat—and even that will require a lengthy commitment of military, diplomatic, intelligence, development, and other resources to far-flung battlefields from West Africa to Southeast Asia. “Destroying” radical Islamic terrorism, as promised by President Trump, is a worthy goal but not one that is achievable in the foreseeable future. Islamic State may vanish—stress the may—but Islamist terrorism isn’t going to disappear any time soon.
[i] For details on how this can be accomplished, see “Political Warfare,” a 2013 Council on Foreign Relations paper that I co-authored.