By Katherine Zimmerman
Neither al Qaeda nor the Islamic State threaten the U.S. homeland directly. Nor can their various affiliates strike the United States. A near-decade-long trend of localizing jihad has continued, ensuring that the Salafi-jihadi terrorism threat remains regional if present at all. Most al Qaeda and Islamic State groups are embroiled in local conflicts, many have not even attempted to target Americans, and those that have set their sights closer on U.S. diplomats or soldiers posted abroad. Yet even with rising threats to U.S. interests from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, to name a few, the United States can’t simply walk away from the fight against al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Counterterrorism operations have decimated al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s senior leadership cadre. In the past year alone, the Islamic State has replaced its leader twice and dealt with significant losses among the top deputies. So much so that U.S. officials have noted rising leaders are “not from the original team.” Al Qaeda suffered, too. A U.S. drone strike killed Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, in August 2022. Al Qaeda has not named Zawahiri’s replacement, raising questions as to the future of the transnational organization.
But weakness at the top has not translated into setbacks for the regional affiliates. Instead, al Qaeda and Islamic State groups are on upward trajectories: a growing number of fighters, improving capabilities, and expanding sanctuaries. Those trend lines will continue uninterrupted, especially as the United States and other partners, such as the French, draw down counterterrorism commitments. This right-sizing of resources away from addressing the transnational terrorism threat toward geostrategic competition aims to correct the past two decades’ overemphasis on counterterrorism, particularly given the absence of any repeat of a 9/11-style attack.
But it rests on assumptions that al Qaeda and the Islamic State will do more of the same over the coming years and that counterterrorism does not play much of a role in geostrategic competition.
Though the pursuit of global jihad has taken a back seat to local efforts, it is not dead. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—what used to be al Qaeda’s most virulent franchise—remains committed to attacking the West. U.S. intelligence analysts missed the first time the group decided to strike, the so-called underwear bomb attack in December 2009, and could again miss an attack from one of the most innovative groups. Al Shabaab, in Somalia, has recently demonstrated its intent to carry through on attacks in the West. A cell was disrupted a few years ago planning another 9/11-style attack, only stopped because the United States “stumbled” on information about the plot.
Meanwhile, the risk the U.S. intelligence community will fail to connect the dots of an unfolding terror attack is rising. The U.S. military retreat from counterterrorism theaters directly affects the quality of the intelligence picture. True, the United States tracked Zawahiri down and killed him in Afghanistan’s capital. But Zawahiri’s apparent ease in frequenting his Kabul balcony may have made targeting him easier. More security-conscious operatives will mask their whereabouts and activities, making it harder to know what they are doing and where. Moreover, unraveling a terrorist plot requires more information than where a given target is at a given time—information gleaned from human networks, cell phone and messaging intercepts, and other types of intelligence. The new “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism posture seems much better suited to targeting known individuals and threats than identifying new ones.
In short: while the counterterrorism problem seems managed, it could morph rapidly without the United States detecting change. Such is the persistent threat from al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Under-resourcing counterterrorism operations increases the risk of a transnational terrorism attack that could prove once again to be a strategic distraction for the United States.
Moreover, counterterrorism has been—for better or worse—a crucial component of U.S. engagements with African and Arab states. Among the top demands from U.S. partners is defense or security assistance, usually driven by the presence of local al Qaeda or Islamic State groups. Scaling back counterterrorism assistance when partners are willing and able to do more and actively requesting it weakens the U.S. relationship with those partners. Partners will be less likely to grant some of the asks that the United States has made on partners, leveraging the relationship built through assistance programs, such as overflight agreements or even work on rule-of-law or human rights issues. They will also be challenged to weaken or even contain al Qaeda or Islamic State groups within their borders, contributing to the rising instability threatening the coastal states in West Africa.
In terms of geostrategic competition, Russia benefits from insecurity alongside al Qaeda and the Islamic State, while the United States (and China) operates better in secure environments. A growing gap in counterterrorism assistance or the perception that U.S. assistance is insufficient creates space for Russia to pitch competing offers that eventually squeeze the United States and its partners out of countries. Russian elements have used the guise of counterterrorism or security assistance to entrench themselves in countries threatened by terrorist groups. Such is the case in Mali and perhaps soon in Burkina Faso, where a recent military coup precludes the continuation of assistance. The United States needs a presence to compete for influence, and convergent counterterrorism or security interests with local partners is often the way to do so.
While the United States must prioritize its resources, and counterterrorism falls far from the top of the list, the United States must still dedicate sufficient resources to countering terrorism and supporting partners in their fight against al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Such investments build and preserve U.S. influence with partners and reduces the risk of the terrorism threat surfacing in a way that would distract from America’s strategic priorities.
- Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and advises AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter @KatieZimmerman.