Why you should care
Because the enemy has been upgrading — and we’d better, too.
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).
Friday marks the third anniversary since Osama bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The raid, conducted by U.S. Navy SEALs with remarkable precision and speed, led many worldwide to hope that the terrorist threat might be approaching an end or at least be set to diminish substantially. But the movement bin Laden inspired and led is far from defeated. It hasn’t receded, but transformed — and his legacy will continue to threaten American and allied targets for years to come.
The terrorist transformation, especially over the last three years, has many dimensions. Its leading edge, in terms of organization, persistence and leadership, is Yemen’s al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQ/AP) — a group still trying to attack the American homeland. But we can rarely know the full face of terrorism or confidently estimate the strength and plans of all its adherents. What we do know is that ambition spreads, and will continue to spread if other groups — from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, to Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra, to North Africa’s Ansar al-Sharia, to Nigeria’s Boko Haram, to Somalia’s al-Shabab — are able to consolidate and gain strength, as many of them appear to be doing.
Today’s terrorism is harder to track, harder to pin down and harder to root out.
Today, unlike in bin Laden’s day, terrorism has no center of gravity. When bin Laden flourished, the central anchor of terrorist activity was in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, groups of varying strength and sophistication are scattered across a wide region stretching from South Asia down through the Levant, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and North and East Africa.
So dramatic are terrorism’s tectonic shifts in last three years — from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Arab Spring to Syria — that today’s terrorism is harder to track, harder to pin down and harder to root out.
Changes in Iraq and Afghanistan
As America’s presence declines in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorists’ freedom to maneuver is restored in large areas once minutely monitored by American power.
U.S. troops have now been out of Iraq for three years and violence has risen to the highest level since the sectarian battles of 2006–07. Iraq’s largest province, al-Anbar, is once again dominated by Sunni extremists, who had been largely tamed or co-opted three years ago. They reject Iraqi governmental authority and identify more closely with their Sunni brethren — Sunnis who are fighting Bashar al-Assad just across the border in Syria. And al-Anbar’s border with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is increasingly porous, which eases the ability of extremists to filter in and out of these countries.
Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is yet able to successfully combat terrorists who want to plot, train and operate on their home turf.
Meanwhile, under the current American and allied drawdown in Afghanistan, Western forces now number below 50,000 — from a peak of about 140,000 in 2011. Security control of all Afghan provinces now belongs to Afghan forces. Unless the new president emerging from the current round of elections approves a bilateral security agreement (BSA) between Kabul and Washington, all Western forces will be gone by the end of this year. (Even with a BSA, the numbers of forces are likely to fall only in the 6–10,000 range.)
Desirable as it may be to end the American participation, spending, and sacrifices in these wars, the reality remains that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is yet able to successfully combat terrorists who want to plot, train and operate on their home turf.
The Arab Spring
A second trend stoking terrorism anew is the turmoil that has flowed from the Arab Spring and its aftermath. In December 2010, just a few months before bin Laden’s death, protests began shaking the Arab world and recategorized (rebooted?) each nation into essentially one of three types. There are those trying to regain balance after societal upheavals (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen). There are those mired in sectarian war (Syria, Iraq). And lastly, there are the nations trying to ride out the storm and stave off the chaos that their neighbors have experienced (Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and many of its Persian Gulf neighbors).
New leaders must define and defend their status in transitioning societies. This distraction gives terrorists more freedom from surveillance and pressure.
Some of these countries still worry about terrorism — but that’s a secondary concern compared to herculean tasks such as establishing new constitutional orders, supplanting tribal differences with a semblance of central authority, and balancing contentious secular and religious forces.
Meanwhile, American intelligence agencies, who need help from counterparts in the area, are dealing with a different cast of characters. Many of the old intelligence leaders have either died or been driven out in the course of revolutionary change. While the societies they served may have been regrettably undemocratic, these officials at least had a granular understanding of what was going on throughout their countries, including the magnitude of the terrorist threat. New leaders may be developing that, but they must also now define and defend their status in transitioning societies where priorities are really up for grabs. The distraction this involves inevitably gives terrorists more freedom from surveillance and pressure.
For the future of terrorism, no problem looms larger than Syria — now the world’s most powerful training ground (yes) for Islamic extremist fighters from around the globe. If and when the conflict ends, these fighters will carry their new skills back to their home societies, many of which are now in turmoil and laced with extremists. The Syria-trained fighters will be more skilled than any previous generation of terrorists in urban warfare, ambush, weaponry, bomb-making and even more complex fighting tactics.
Foreign terrorists now have a larger area for safe haven and operational base than they have had in more than a decade.
The most effective of these extremist groups, the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, is rapidly consolidating territory in Syria’s northeast — clearly with plans for using the area as a platform to launch further attacks in the region and beyond.
In North and East Africa, societal turmoil over the last three years has left so much territory ungoverned and unpatrolled that terrorist groups can find new swaths of land to plot, train and regroup with little interference from authorities. The attacks we have seen in Benghazi, Libya; Amenas, Algeria; Nairobi, Kenya; and the fighting we have witnessed northern Nigeria — all these seem, horrifically, to be the “new normal” in these regions.
The bottom line: Foreign terrorists now have a larger area for safe haven and operational base than they have had in more than a decade, mostly due to the shifting control of land, governance and power in the regions where they formerly faced more organized and focused opposition.
The Campaign for Hearts and Minds
Perhaps more subtle and worrisome of all is a final trend that sees Islamic extremists finally beginning to learn from the mistakes they made in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They are slowly beginning to change their harsh treatment of surrounding populations, having learned that an iron-fist approach drove people to oppose them. Where they now hold territory — in Syria, for instance — they are beginning to provide social services, from food aid to trash collection, and gradually learning to treat people more humanely.
This appears to be a conscious strategy not just in Syria, but also in North Africa, as we know from terrorist documents recovered in Mali last year, after the French operation against extremists. And this is a campaign that will surely increase extremists’ staying power, making them harder to combat and root out.
Terrorists, perhaps more than any other group that the modern security apparatus faces, are adaptable. When attacked, they tend to change and adjust, rather than collapse. And in three years, they have shape-shifted into a whole new kind of enemy.
Bin Laden may be history, but history may only be beginning for those he inspired.