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It’s long past time for a new approach to counterterrorism

AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad
U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers search for Islamic State militants in Hassakeh, Syria, on Jan. 29, 2022.

Little notice was given to the nature and timing of the U.S. Central Command’s confirmation of the Islamic State’s recent announcement concerning the death of yet another leader, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. American statements noted that Abu al-Hassan was killed in mid-October in Syria’s southern Daraa province by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel group that does not partner with the United States. The U.S. appears to have gained access to DNA from the terrorist leader’s remains indirectly from the FSA, through an unnamed interlocutor, comparing it against the U.S. intelligence community’s significant repository of biometric data for foreign terrorists and detainees.

Suffice it to say that it’s unlikely the FSA commanders who unknowingly killed the Islamic State amir thought to themselves, “Hey, let’s ask the Americans who this might be.” Rather, good intelligence must have led analysts to speculate who the rebels had unwittingly killed, and U.S. intelligence agencies collaborated with a regional partner to facilitate the rest — another positive showing for human intelligence operations.

The U.S. killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Islamic State amir Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi in 2022, and Abu Ibrahim’s successor is likewise dead. But rather than substantiating White House messaging that the U.S. is safer from terrorism, closer scrutiny suggests we might be more exposed by relying on a counterterrorism strategy that has remained essentially unchanged since 9/11, with only superficial tactical changes and a sharp reduction in resources. Washington might have moved on to great power competition, but the terrorist threat has not. In the meantime, the U.S. continues to rely on force in order to preempt future attacks — namely, terrorist leadership decapitation — while reducing American capacity to support this single-threaded solution.

The Biden White House justified America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and decreased counterterrorism resources, claiming the need to realign priorities to the more pressing threat of great power competition. The summary of a declassified intelligence assessment, prepared after Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing and released on Aug. 13, sought to make the case, depicting al Qaeda’s remaining Afghanistan presence as no longer capable of launching attacks against the U.S. or its interests abroad.

Leaving aside the fact that the Taliban — with which the Biden and Trump administrations negotiated a U.S. withdrawal predicated on the group’s suspension of cooperation with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, along with the pursuit of an inclusive political, rather than military, solution for peace in Afghanistan — was harboring Zawahiri, the assessment acknowledged that “al Qaeda has several affiliates it would call upon outside the region to drive potential plots.”  Indeed, al Qaeda’s external attack planning long has been developed by affiliates in Yemen, Syria and North Africa, with the remaining core leadership in Afghanistan and Iran offering strategic planning and endorsement. The part of the assessment that was released chose its wording carefully.

President Biden’s revised policy guidelines limiting counterterrorism drone strikes and raids outside of conventional war zones also imposed additional restraints without offsetting their potential impact by integrating alternative strategies and means to counter the still existing threat. The new presidential memorandum formalized the temporary limits imposed upon assuming office to tighten Trump-era rules and are consistent with the Obama administration’s May 22, 2013, Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) that arguably contributed to the ensuing ascent of al Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State.

In 2013, as appears to be the case today, the PPG was issued amidst momentum among policymakers who believed al Qaeda had been strategically defeated, and in a desire to move the U.S. and the CIA out of the covert killing business. But 2013 also was the year that the Islamic State had only begun to warrant U.S. attention. By June 2014, the Islamic State would sweep across Syria and Iraq. And by 2015, the Islamic State had launched centrally planned attacks in France and Belgium and directed or inspired a series of smaller-scale operations elsewhere, including the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. Separately, al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Syria were pursuing innovative explosive designs to overcome Western security measures, including person-borne, non-metallic explosive devices.

Like that 2013-2015 period, the terrorists planning future operations today operate where intelligence concerning their plans and locations is harder to come by, in areas where there is no, or limited, official U.S. on-the-ground presence. Ironically, perhaps, the most accessible terrorists are the most senior leaders whose responsibilities require them to have the highest profiles, such as Zawahiri and Abu Ibrahim. But terrorist chief operating officers no longer have the luxury to plan operations, nor might they even be aware of details concerning ongoing plots, making their operations less vulnerable to the senior leadership decapitation strategy the U.S. continues to apply.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have adapted by instilling redundant command and control and clear lines of succession, making leadership decapitation an endless mission. A 2018 Rand study noted al Qaeda’s resilience as a case in point, warning about “complacency in assuming the end of terrorist groups, especially when key leaders or assets are destroyed.” Before Zawahiri’s death, al Qaeda’s losses since 2016 included two of its deputy leaders and its chiefs for the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, South Asia, Afghanistan, along with some six successive leaders of its Syrian affiliate, Hurras al-Din. Another critical blow was the loss of its foremost explosives expert, Ibrahim al-Asiri, in Yemen.

Yet al Qaeda distributed responsibilities, as the Islamic State has done likewise in Africa and South Asia, adapted its ideology to appeal to local issues, and absorbed other terror groups, helping to insulate them from losses. A July 2022 United Nations report even judged that al Qaeda had sufficiently recovered such that it had surpassed the Islamic State as a more significant long-term threat. 

The Biden administration has emphasized “capacity building” in U.S. partners, so that they can shoulder more of the burden. But not all partners share America’s values or agenda. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan have questionable human rights records and abusive justice systems. And Pakistan, the Philippines and Kenya have histories of extrajudicial killings. 

FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed concern in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee this year over the potential for attacks on American soil owing to intelligence collection gaps that emerged after the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan. And Colin Kahl, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, had earlier told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISK) affiliate in Afghanistan could “potentially develop” the capability to launch external attacks within six months to a year, and al Qaeda within one or two years.

The answer might not be doing less about terrorism, but doing things differently, holistically addressing the areas where overlapping national security threats converge, rather than dealing with each issue in a vacuum. The conditions and grievances leveraged likewise by foreign terrorist leaders, international strategic competitors and even domestic hate groups are not inherently divisible. Social and political divisions within the U.S. have been stoked and exploited by Russia, China and Iran, often amplifying the perceived threat of immigrant groups and porous borders — fears that would be inflamed by terrorist attacks. In the meantime, our autocratic rivals deflect their own national difficulties on U.S. bullying and interference, leveraging nationalism and populism as extremist leaders attribute political, social and economic hardships to American imperialism.

The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the U.S.-led group that formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State, was arguably proof of an alternative concept. Apart from its military component, the coalition had in mind the synchronization of soft with hard power tools to strengthen the region’s political, economic, health and social circumstances — tools that turned out to be underused, as the prevailing conditions still reflect. But the U.S. built upon the model in Ukraine,

concurrently employing multiple instruments of power in collaboration with a coalition of the willing. The U.S. and its allies seized the narrative, secured the moral high ground, imposed stiff sanctions on Russia, and provided Ukraine economic relief and military materials while aiding Europe in compensating for lost Russian energy supplies.

The U.S. still needs a hammer, but relying on a single-threaded strategy for terrorism, only to reduce resources and impose further restrictions, risks placing the U.S. once again in a reactive posture. Smarter, holistic integration of soft and hard power tools, constructive outreach to the foreign communities we need to influence, and international partnerships to address the conditions that give rise to terrorism and strategic competition might mitigate against the need to choose dealing with one threat over another.

Douglas London is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” He teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for over 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia and Africa, including three assignments as a Chief of Station and as the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia. Follow him on Twitter @DouglasLondon5.

Tags Al Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri counterterrorism intelligence community ISIS Joe Biden

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