Why you should care
Because gains in multiple corners add up to a threat that’s harder to combat.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Today’s terrorism is far from what it looked like just 14 years ago in the wake of 9/11. It’s dangerous and powerful in new ways, and will prove seductive for much of the world mired in poverty and anger.
What’s happening? A confluence of land, money, recruiting tools and access to the West poses new dangers. Certainly, terrorists have had such advantages before, but we’ve never before seen them combined so powerfully or in this magnitude.
First, terrorists now possess vast swaths of land — and have done so for a worrisome amount of time.
Estimates differ on how much territory the Islamic State (IS) controls in Iraq and Syria, ranging from something the size of Belgium to the size of Jordan or Delaware; measured differently, the swath of territory has also been estimated to extend over 400 miles from Aleppo, Syria, to the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq. We can argue over the details: what land the IS militants actually control and govern versus what they are contesting or where they simply boast a presence.
The key point is that they have focused on the things that most matter — population centers, roads, public utilities and military installations, all of which give them more influence over the nearby populations than either the Syrian or Iraqi governments have.
The breakdown of government structures after the Arab Spring has ironically made it easier for terrorists to thrive.
Something similar is happening in Nigeria, where Boko Haram is now thought to hold sway in the northeast over about 20 percent of the country. Add to this the chaos in Yemen, where Sunni-Houthi sectarian conflict is creating large ungoverned spaces, much like broad stretches of North Africa that lie essentially outside government control — those areas are open for extremists to travel, train and plot in. And that latter area includes nearly all of Libya and much of southern Algeria, as well as large chunks of the Sahel and Somalia.
Second, terrorists, particularly the IS, now have money in excess of anything we’ve ever seen. It’s impossible to put a precise figure on it, but even lowball estimates put it in the hundreds of millions, and some scholars say the amount rose to as high as $2 billion after the IS took Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, with the money coming from a combination of bank takeovers, organized crime, wealthy donors and oil sales.
This is not enough to run a traditional “state” over the long term, but in the short term, it amounts to luxury for things like travel, weapons, safe houses and training. In other words, our era’s most dangerous terrorists now possess the infrastructure necessary to inflict violence on a large scale.
Third, all of this adds up to a powerful narrative, one far more appealing than terrorists have been able to project in the past. Al-Qaida in the years after 9/11 had few tangibles to offer potential recruits — a life on the run dodging capture or drones wasn’t exactly an alluring promise. But slick IS propaganda projects a “good life” in the new “caliphate,” with promises of homes, cars, families and luxurious services.
This strikes Western audiences as fantasy, but those who feel alienated in the West or poorly governed elsewhere can find it all attractive, especially if backed by powerful imagery such as IS leader al-Baghdadi’s sermon from a mosque in Mosul last summer.
Fourth, it’s now becoming clear — as a large number of plots under investigation in Europe have revealed — that terrorists have never before had such potentially easy access to Western targets. Western officials say at least 3,000 European citizens have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq — about 500 of them have returned to Europe. Security officials can’t track them all.
It’s probably just a matter of time before some of these jihadists with Western passports and no U.S. visa requirements show up on American soil, if they aren’t here already.
These times demand a strategy that looks for what strategist Carl von Clausewitz called the opponent’s “center of gravity.”
And there’s more: The breakdown of government structures after the Arab Spring has ironically made it easier for terrorists to thrive, because the old authoritarian regimes exerted tighter control over territory and extremists (although the “new” Egypt appears to be reverting to type). And the U.S. drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan deprive the U.S. of the close-in eyes and ears that allowed us to map threats for years.
All this complexity threatens to overwhelm the classic three-part counter-terrorism formula: Destroy the leadership, deny it safe haven, and change conditions that give rise to extremism. These times demand priorities and a strategy that looks for what the 19th-century Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz called the opponent’s “center of gravity” — the point where a decisive blow promises to do the most damage to the other side’s cause, balance or capability.
In this case, the closest starting point may be the terrorists’ hold on territory. That is what gives substance and credibility to their narrative, enables fundraising and provides a home for training and recruitment. Fighting this is probably the hardest thing to do. Which is why “strategic patience” is the mantra most frequently repeated by U.S. defense officials as they work with the Iraqis on retaking a major city such as Mosul sometime later this year.
But patience requires time — and it’s clear that we are dealing with opponents who won’t stand still. Which means time is not on our side.