Why you should care
Tragic instances of domestic terror and concerns about Russian meddling may push foreign terrorism, dangerously, to the back of the line.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
With all of us rightly worried about domestic terrorism in the wake of the recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, international terrorism has slipped into the background of concerns. Moreover, many experts are calling for assigning a higher priority to combat domestic terrorism, in much the same way that we focused intensely on foreign terrorists after 9/11. Earlier, in fact, official U.S. documents such as the 2018 National Defense Strategy took note of global terrorism but moved to center stage the challenges coming from big competitors such as Russia and China. While it does make sense now to re-prioritize resources, including more for domestic threats, we still must be careful to not neglect the continuing danger posed by terrorism from abroad.
One thing that has dampened concern on the international front is the very visible success we’ve had against major terrorist groups. Key milestones are, of course, the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden (and more recently the reported demise of his son and heir apparent) and last year’s destruction of the Islamic State’s so-called territorial caliphate (which, at its height, comprised almost a third of Syria and Iraq). This leaves the impression that the two groups are staggering and on the run.
This is only partially true. To be sure, the U.S. is much more effectively hardened against a major 9/11-style attack. That said, we must not make the mistake of “fighting the last war” or expecting that the next threat will look exactly like the last. Terrorists have the huge advantage of playing by no rules — they are inventive and, despite our impressive successes since 9/11, have surprised us several times with attempted attacks we averted through luck or last-minute tip-offs.
Al-Qaida is still able to find sanctuary in Pakistan and has a number of robust affiliates …
Al-Qaida is still able to find sanctuary in Pakistan and has a number of robust affiliates, a budding offshoot in Syria and hopes of a peace agreement in Afghanistan that would grant a degree of power to its old ally, the Taliban. Its most powerful affiliate, the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, still has 6,000–8,000 members by Yemeni and U.N. estimates, and is benefiting from the chaos there as the proxy war rages between government forces supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and rebels supported by Iran.
This affiliate has consistently surprised us with its attacks (the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris) and its as-yet unsuccessful efforts to hit the United States (the 2009 effort to blow up a plane over Detroit; the 2010 attempt to plant bombs as printer cartridges on U.S.-bound aircraft). A U.S. attack reportedly killed its chief bomb-maker a year ago, but these groups typically regenerate that kind of expertise rapidly. And when the dust eventually settles from the Yemen war, this group will likely be strong enough to reenergize its efforts against the United States.
Al-Qaida’s situation in Syria is complicated, but its adherents have held on in the northwestern province that remains the last holdout against the Bashar Assad regime. U.S. missiles struck the al-Qaida–related group there last month, with our commanders saying that those targeted were planning attacks in the West (the original al-Qaida operatives the leadership sent there in 2014 had that explicit mission).
As for the Islamic State, Pentagon and U.N. estimations put the number of surviving fighters scattered in Syria and Iraq following the destruction of the caliphate at roughly 20,000–30,000. They pose a serious threat locally and abroad. In Iraq, they are seldom in evidence during the day, but they still carry out operations and assassinations at night. One U.S. embassy official in Baghdad earlier this year cautioned that they almost certainly still have “sleeper cells” and financial networks in Iraq. Moreover, the Islamic State during its heyday developed a more extensive global network than al-Qaida ever had, based on an explicit concentric-ring geographic strategy geared toward influence beyond the Middle East.
Many other factors caution against overconfidence in estimating the terrorist threat. Chief among these is the “ungoverned” space now available to jihadists, which is much more extensive than al-Qaida had at the time of 9/11 and in the decade or so after. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings left in their wake many areas either in dispute, as in Libya, or harder to monitor, as in the Egyptian Sinai and of course throughout Syria. Meanwhile, sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the Sahel — the flat and semi-arid region south of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco — is also hard to monitor, has highly permeable borders and is honeycombed with areas where terrorists can gather, share capabilities, plan operations and earn money through smuggling and kidnapping. The most recent marker for this was the late 2017 ambush killing of four U.S. Special Forces troops in Niger by an offshoot of the Islamic State.
If I learned anything in my intelligence career it is that you can work as hard as humanly possible to avoid surprises — and still, they can creep up on you. This is especially true with terrorism, both domestic and international. So, yes, we do need to disrupt the White supremacist evildoers among us and pay closer attention to big nation-state competitors, but when it comes to international terrorism, it is not yet time to lower our guard.