When the Biden administration unveils its first formal National Security Strategy in early 2022, the document will likely stress U.S. domestic renewal while shifting foreign priorities toward major competitors such as China and Russia. Counterterrorism will take something of a back seat, other than some reference to domestic extremist groups.
Such a shift is a product of success; the U.S. has made headway over 20 years in degrading international terrorist groups, for many years the key focus of U.S. national security. But as we rebalance our priorities, it is important to confront an uncomfortable and worrisome reality: After two long wars, and smaller-scale operations in dozens of other countries, extremists today have more favorable conditions — and more geographic locations — in which to recruit, plan and plot than they did before the 9/11 attacks. Having fought to eliminate safe havens for terrorists, the U.S. must face the fact is that there are now more safe havens than ever.
How did this happen? And what to do about it? It’s worth stepping back and gauging our progress against what I’ve always seen as three imperatives of successful counterterrorism: destroying terrorist leadership, denying terrorists’ safe havens and changing the conditions that give rise to the phenomenon.
Bin Laden and his lieutenants
We have been most successful at the first.
Since the 9/11 attacks, one of the world’s most perilous occupations has been the job of al-Qaeda operations chief: The U.S. has killed or captured most of them, one after the other, along with dozens of other al-Qaeda leaders — and of course Osama bin Laden himself fell in 2011. Leaders of the Islamic State have suffered a similar fate, most notably the demise of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a 2019 U.S. Special Forces raid.
Taking out leaders disrupts terrorist planning and operations temporarily, but the other two imperatives — denial of safe haven and altering the underlying causes — have far greater impact over the long term. On these fronts, we have not only come up short; the situation has grown worse over the last decade — against a backdrop of global trends that, left uninterrupted, will cause conditions to deteriorate further.
Safe Havens: The Sahel
“Safe haven” is a critical condition for terrorists’ regeneration and growth; the term was used often in the aftermath of 9/11, referring to any terrain where would-be terrorists might find comfort and safety. It was the claim made repeatedly for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — safe havens in those countries would be denied — and it has been the argument for smaller-scale missions in Somalia, Yemen, and many other countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Two decades later, safe havens have come roaring back.
Small terrorist cells can find safe haven deep inside urban areas, but in larger numbers they are most comfortable in territory that is essentially ungoverned — land where state sovereignty is absent or scarcely exercised — or in borderlands that are poorly patrolled and highly permeable, but where they can still find essential goods and raise money.
These conditions have multiplied dramatically since 9/11.
This means terrorism no longer has a center of gravity, as it did in bin Laden’s day. Back then, the nexus of terrorist activity was the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Iraq War was only the most obvious way in which events after 9/11 shattered that paradigm, opening terrain for terrorism to take root. The Arab Spring — the 2011 uprisings across much of the Middle East — also contributed; the various rebellions upended state control and created space for terrorists via the resulting civil war in Syria, the turmoil in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall, the civil war in Yemen and the Egyptian revolution, which led to a spike in terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula — where only 1.4 million of Egypt’s 102 million people live, scattered across a desert the size of West Virginia.
In all these places, terrorists now go largely unnoticed. They blend in or exploit conditions over large stretches of territory that are either in dispute, neglected by fragile governments or simply too large for such governments to monitor. This is the case with Libya — 90 percent of which is a vast desert — and neighboring Algeria; the border between the two countries is poorly monitored, as are their respective frontiers with Mali and Niger. It is no accident that the borderlands between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso (the Sahel region’s heartland) have become terrorist hotbeds, with attacks doubling every year since 2015. Three-hundred officials, community leaders and family members have been assassinated or abducted in the Sahel since 2018. This is also the area where ISIS’s West Africa affiliate claimed responsibility for a 2017 attack that killed four U.S. Special Forces soldiers.
The wide-open nature of the region was driven home to me in 2014. I was helping a Western energy company improve security, following the capture of its natural gas facility near the Libya-Algeria border and the resulting death of 37 hostages. The killers had been led by a breakaway al-Qaeda operative whose gang comprised a mini-U.N. of terrorism — they hailed from Algeria, Mali, Libya, Niger, Egypt, Canada, Mauritania and Tunisia. It is still that way today.
Safe Havens: The Middle and Near East
In Syria and Iraq, meanwhile, though U.S. and Russian operations broke up the territorial “caliphate” ISIS assembled beginning in 2014, the U.N. estimates the group still counts more than 10,000 fighters in those two countries. Most operate in small cells. I doubt anyone knows how much money the group still has from the huge war chest it amassed; in 2018, the RAND Corporation put the figure at around $400 million — vastly more than al-Qaeda ever raised. ISIS’s strategy is also more sophisticated and ambitious geographically than al-Qaeda’s, comprising three concentric circles (local, regional, global) with different objectives at each level.
And now — again — there is Afghanistan. This pre-9/11 safe haven may soon be a safe haven once more. In the wake of the 2021 U.S. and Allied withdrawal, Afghanistan is again a nation where the government’s writ barely extends beyond major urban settings. The Taliban considers the affiliate Islamic State Khorasan Province an enemy, but with the Taliban struggling merely to govern and feed the populace, its ability to fight ISIS-K is questionable. The prospect of widespread hunger has been added to an already volatile mix of trained fighters and widely available weapons — a clear recipe for radicalizations. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, remains in league with the Taliban, and one of al-Qaeda’s closest partners, Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Pakistan-based network of that name, is Interior minister in the new Taliban government. And the U.N. reported that in the months before the U.S. withdrawal, 8,000 to 10,000 jihadi fighters had streamed into Afghanistan from Central Asia, Russia’s Caucasus region, Pakistan and Xinjiang in western China.
Threat to the U.S.?
As these safe havens multiply, do we still have to worry about attacks on the homeland? In a word, yes. While our defenses are vastly improved, and terrorist groups seem oriented for the moment on indigenous targets or U.S. interests overseas, attacking Americans inside the U.S. remains the brass ring for many groups. According to the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, the intelligence community estimates that ISIS-K in Afghanistan, unless disrupted, will generate the capacity for external attacks, including in the U.S., within six to 12 months of the August 2021 withdrawal — in other words, now — and al-Qaeda will be able to do the same within one to two years of our departure. In my view, both groups will aim to do so.
We also know that smaller organizations such as Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban harbor similar ambitions. A reminder last year came in the form of the Justice Department’s indictment of an operative of the al-Shabaab group; he was allegedly seeking pilot lessons in the Philippines, with the intention of flying an aircraft into a building in the U.S.
The underlying cause
The third and last counterterrorism imperative — altering conditions that nourish the movement — may prove most challenging of all. This problem is best illustrated in the Sahel’s key countries of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad — all of which rank among the bottom 20 nations in the U.N.’s Human Development Report. The region is also home to some of the highest population growth rates in the world — about 7 percent annually. This combination — low economic growth, high unemployment and strained services — offers fertile recruiting grounds for extremism.
Equally worrisome, the Middle East remains home to the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. The population has grown by 70 million since the Arab Spring and is expected to increase by an additional 120 million by 2030, according to World Bank figures and U.N. forecasts. Jobs have not kept pace; youth unemployment has worsened over the past 10 years — increasing from 32.9 percent in 2012 to 36.5 percent in 2020, according to the International Labor Organization.
What to do about it
What can the U.S. and the rest of the world do about these trends? Striking the right balance between a return to high-profile counterterrorism and sounding the all clear will involve a complex mix of strategies and approaches.
On the tactical side, the most important step must be protecting, and perhaps increasing, intelligence resources for counterterrorism. By this I refer to absolutely essential eyes and ears in these many corners of the world where extremism and terror are thriving, at a moment when Pentagon attention and funding are shifting toward conventional competitors, mainly China and Russia. I have no quarrel with that shift, but it must not preclude attention to counterterrorism.
One very specific tactical matter: We must ensure that artificial intelligence and machine learning are fully integrated into counterterrorism analysis and operations. Success in these areas relies increasingly on data collection and fusion, which have become much harder as terrorists have burrowed into social media and other 21st century technologies — which themselves can provide a kind of safe haven unless aggressively exploited.
Strategically, the objective must be to make better use of international partnerships as force multipliers, as the Biden administration has emphasized in its diplomatic and defense strategies. For counterterrorism, this involves training and equipping intelligence and special operations forces in partner countries; they must serve as extensions of U.S. capability for both detecting and disrupting terrorist operations.
The strategic objective that will be more difficult — simply because of the magnitude and complexity of the problem — involves coordinating development and assistance policies internationally to improve governance, border controls, legal standards and other societal conditions in those areas with conditions conducive to extremism. In other words, a strategy to counter the economic circumstances that allow extremist groups to recruit and to prosper. This will require more persistence, patience and doggedness than the U.S. typically displays; it is the work of generations.
As always with terrorism, there are no panaceas. Despite our progress over the last two decades, it is almost certain that at some point, foreign terrorists will push a deadly operation past our strong defenses. To avoid overreaction if that moment comes, political leaders will need to give Americans a clear-eyed view of the problem and build a shared sense of resilience — something we did not have at the time of the 9/11 attacks.