The counterterrorism dilemma

The counterterrorism dilemma
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On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, one question seems to be on everyone’s mind: Are we safer today than we were then? Until last month, the answer would have been “yes.” But given the recent events in Afghanistan that returned the Taliban to power and resurrected that country’s status as a terrorist haven, there is no longer an obvious answer.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. was at the apogee of its strength as the globe’s unrivaled remaining superpower. We faced the threat of one terrorist group — al Qaeda —essentially concentrated in one place — Afghanistan. How utterly different is the situation today. Al Qaeda maintains a global movement of at least six franchises and well over a dozen local affiliates in Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and South and South East Asia. In addition, today we are confronted with threats from two terrorist movements not one — that of the Islamic State with its eight official branches and more than two dozen networks — covering an almost identical geographical ambit, including the group — ISIS-K — responsible for the tragic bombing at Kabul’s international airport that killed 13 U.S. service personnel as well as nearly 200 Afghans.

In 2001, the U.S. also had the luxury of not being distracted by challenges from peer competitors like China, newly assertive powers like Russia and would-be nuclear powers like Iran, notwithstanding the daily preoccupation with preventing cyberattacks, mitigating climate change and managing the COVID-19 pandemic, as well a resurgent domestic terrorist threat. International counterterrorism once stood as the lone priority; that is no longer the case. 

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The late renowned historian, Walter Laqueur, once reflected how “Having spent some of my formative years in a particularly nasty and brutal dictatorship immunized me against a certain facile optimism frequently found in the United States.” That same “facile optimism” has characterized both the Trump and Biden administration’s credulous negotiations with the Taliban and the shameful handling of our withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It begins with a fundamental lack of understanding of the ideology that underpins the Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIS. They all share the same principles of resistance to Western influence and encroachment and the unstinting defense of Muslim lands most forcefully expounded four decades ago by the leading jihadi theorist and propagandist of his time, Abdullah Azzam. Azzam’s thesis that an aggressive war is being waged against Islam by its enemies long ago became a staple of the sustaining narrative embraced by each of these terrorist movements. 

The need for global jihad to defeat these enemies is thus an integral aspect of both al Qaeda’s and ISIS’s respective mindsets. The Taliban, admittedly, is more focused on governing Afghanistan and dissolving the perceived artificial border that separates that country from Pakistan. But for all, the establishment of an Islamic caliphate where fundamentalist Islam is the only accepted religion and where Sharia, the legal system based on Islamic religious precepts, is the only law — is an equally shared priority. 

There is, of course, no guarantee that the Taliban will provide al Qaeda with the freedom to conduct external operations — 9/11, after all, resulted in the Taliban losing power for 20 years. But the Taliban’s triumph is indicative of a bigger victory — having defeated the U.S. goliath, jihadists worldwide will strive for a global golden age. The U.S. thus finds itself in a situation not seen since the days before 9/11, with al Qaeda, and perhaps others, set to enjoy a terrorist safe haven requiring the interventions of geographically distant military assets

But the Afghanistan crisis is also emblematic of broader problems in the U.S. counterterrorism landscape. Those charged with protecting the American homeland from terrorism threats at home and abroad are dealing with two, mutually reinforcing crises: our resources are being spread thinner, while those resources themselves are dwindling.

Firstly, terrorism threats are proliferating. Although the Salafi-jihadist threat dominated much of the 21st century, it has, over the past half-decade, been eclipsed by far-right extremists inspired by white supremacist, neo-Nazi, or anti-government views. In the U.S., mass shootings at Charleston, Pittsburgh and El Paso targeted the most vulnerable segments of our society, while deadly mobs at Charlottesville and the U.S. Capitol showcased the movement’s strength-in-numbers. As Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes write, “Unfortunately, we are in a time of fractured threats. Our country would do well to recognize that reality and not vacillate too much between them depending on the news of the day.”

The Salafi-jihadist campaign, too, is growing more diffuse. Syria and Iraq remain hotbeds of violence and instability, as the Islamic State caliphate’s dying embers continue to enflame ongoing domestic insurgency and international terrorism. Groups in Yemen and Somalia continue plotting against the West, sometimes successfully. And both al Qaeda and ISIS franchises grow more emboldened in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. Western media barely registered ISIS’s ideological expansion to southern Africa and the mass murder of over 50 civilians in Mozambique last November. And the most imminent threat still comes from “homegrown” extremists — born and radicalized in the United States itself.

Afghanistan, then, offers an unwelcome addition to an already-stretched counterterrorism portfolio. And yet, as terrorist threats proliferate, counterterrorism is no longer a predominant concern among Washington, D.C.’s many analysts, eclipsed by an array of domestic and international threats. The de-prioritization of counterterrorism on the national security ladder may have been long overdue — terrorism simply does not claim that many American lives. But it should be approached with extreme caution. The relative security we enjoy in our homeland today is not because threats have dissipated. Instead, it is precisely because of our well-trained, well-resourced and well-executed counterterrorism capability that Americans so rarely lose their lives to acts of terrorism. Weakening that capability will have consequences. Whether we respond with the requisite patience and a longer-term perspective is another question. 

Terrorist groups strike and succeed when intent, capability and opportunity collide. In Afghanistan, intent never diminished; only capability did, and that will surely replenish as U.S. pressure eases. Now, they themselves will decide when the opportunity is right.

Bruce Hoffman is the senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University. Jacob Ware is a research associate for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations.