Imagine it’s 15 years ago, immediately after the 9/11 attacks. You are told that in September 2016, a couple of major counterterrorism victories would be just around the corner. These impending victories are that a coalition of countries, including the U.S., are on the verge of retaking the Iraqi city of Mosul and Syrian city of Raqqa from jihadists.
To put it mildly, it would be obvious that something had gone horribly wrong in the U.S.’s fight against Al Qaeda and associated movements.
This observation, made recently by Brian Fishman, author of the book about jihadist strategy “The Master Plan,” neatly encapsulates the U.S.’s backward momentum in its fight against transnational jihadist groups. (In fact, the observation is somewhat too bullish on the U.S.’s position, as the Turkish-Arab infighting engendered by Turkey’s intervention into Syria will set back the push to retake Raqqa.)
This fight does, of course, have its successes. Most notable are the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the lack of another major, 9/11-style attack on American soil.
But if we look beyond how much damage jihadist groups have inflicted in our country, our efforts must be judged a strategic failure. A decade and a half ago, we were worried about one major jihadist safe haven, in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and the first American military response to the 9/11 attacks was, quite reasonably, to dislodge the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Today, as the U.S. draws down its troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban is poised to reemerge as the country’s most powerful military force. All available evidence, including the discovery of a 30-square-mile Al Qaeda training facility near Kandahar, suggests that the Taliban has not severed its ties to Al Qaeda.
But it is beyond Afghanistan that the depth of the problem — and our counterterrorism failures — becomes clearest.
Though the Islamic State’s (ISIS) caliphate is crumbling, in terms of territory held, it still controls Mosul, Raqqa and a half dozen other major cities beyond these two well-known holdings. And the group’s territorial losses did not stop its external operations network, the Amn al-Kharji, from working to launch a bloody Ramadan offensive coordinated across multiple countries.
Beyond ISIS, Al Qaeda now controls hundreds of miles of Yemen’s coastline. The group’s Syrian branch, Jabhat Fath al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front), is one of that country’s most potent fighting forces. Though that group allegedly disaffiliated from Al Qaeda recently, the move seems to be deceptive, a return to Al Qaeda’s preference for using front groups in Syria.
There are further areas where jihadists have gained ground. From Al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab’s growing control over rural areas of Somalia, to raging insurgencies in Northern Mali and Egypt’s Sinai, to the broken Libyan state where militants thrive, the enemy has never before had such significant operating space.
Why has strategic success proven elusive? An interesting academic article by Ivan Arreguín-Toft published in International Security just before the 9/11 attacks analogizes wars like the one we have been fighting to the famous “rumble in the jungle” boxing match that Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1974. Foreman was heavily favored, as he was “the strongest, hardest hitting boxer of his generation.”
The more powerful Foreman’s preparation did not ready him for Ali’s strategy. In the second round, Ali began to cower against the ropes. Arreguín-Toft writes that Foreman’s “punches became a furious blur,” and to the crowd, which was “unaware that the elastic ring ropes were absorbing much of the force of Foreman’s blows, it looked as if Ali would surely fall.” But Foreman tired himself out. His strength became a weapon against him. Ali knocked out an exhausted Foreman in the eighth round.
Similarly, when weak powers confront a superpower like America (and for all its recent success, the jihadist movement remains relatively weak), their most potent tool is turning the enemy’s strength into a weapon against it. The U.S.’s various policy blunders have not just been windfalls for jihadist groups. They have in fact been a central part of how the campaign against America is conceived.
We are up against an enemy that wants to force us to err, and too often our own misapprehensions — about the jihadist movement or the broader strategic environment — have produced serious mistakes that played into the enemy’s hands.
The most publicly notorious example is the Iraq War — in which the key casus belli was the mistaken belief that longstanding Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had restarted his program to produce weapons of mass destruction — but serious errors have spanned both the Bush and Obama administrations.
The Iraq War was, of course, very costly to America in blood and treasure. The U.S. invasion enabled a powerful jihadist resistance in a country that had previously suppressed the movement. ISIS was one ripple effect of the U.S. invasion.
The costliness of that war to U.S. interests is by now well known. Less widely appreciated but just as clear is the manner in which the Obama administration mishandled the Arab Uprisings — the revolutions that broke out in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.
The uprisings were widely misunderstood by analysts as devastating to the jihadist movement. In his memoir “The Great War of Our Time,” former CIA deputy director Michael Morell regretfully recalled that his agency “thought and told policy-makers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage Al Qaeda by undermining the group’s narrative. Our analysts figured that the protests would send a signal throughout the region that political change was possible without Al Qaeda’s leading the way and without the violence that Al Qaeda said was necessary.” Outside of government, expert writings in the public sphere overwhelmingly shared this assessment.
In turn, the idea that upheaval in the region would harm jihadists and help U.S. interests — which now appears so quixotic — likely helped nudge the administration toward military action in Libya.
To be sure, the idea of revolutions undermining Al Qaeda’s appeal was not the only factor, nor even the most powerful one. Libyan dictator Muammar Khadafy put himself in the crosshairs internationally through outlandish statements exhorting his followers to cleanse the streets of “the greasy rats” who opposed him, and referring glowingly to China’s Tiananmen Square massacre. Further, in the words of RAND Corporation political scientist Christopher Chivvis, the Obama administration wanted to “deter other regional leaders from crushing legitimate civilian protests by force.”
But given the lack of other U.S. strategic interests in Libya, the mistaken belief that speeding up the uprisings would hasten Al Qaeda’s demise provides some indication of what the administration thought America might gain from an intervention.
The Libyan war was another foreign policy disaster. That intervention directly contributed to the takeover of Northern Mali by a collection of Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in 2012. After Khadafy’s fall, Libya remained a fractured state where jihadists could find refuge. This harmed the security of Libya’s neighbors on either side. Both of the major attacks against Tunisia’s tourists in 2015 (the January Bardo Museum attack and the June beach massacre in Sousse) used Libyan soil for planning and preparation.
The Obama administration has never managed a coherent response to the conflict that has most fueled the jihadist movement over the past five years, the bloody civil war in Syria. The administration’s obvious policy gyrations have confused friend and foe alike, as senior officials have fluctuated between comparing Bashar Assad to Hitler and suggesting that the Syrian dictator could remain in power.
The administration went from describing Assad’s use of chemical weapons as a red line that his regime should not cross to promising that the coming strikes against the regime would be “unbelievably small” to ultimately taking no retaliatory measures. U.S.-backed militant groups have fought each other in Syria. American-backed rebels have even, on multiple occasions, used U.S. arms to help Al Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield.
In short, it has been impossible to overstate the Obama administration’s policy incoherence at a time when perhaps half a million people were dying in the bloody Syria war. This incoherence has helped jihadists to portray themselves as the true protector of the Syrian people and thoroughly embed themselves within the opposition.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has masterfully contrasted itself with ISIS, portraying itself as the “good” jihadists, in contrast to the psychopaths of the Islamic State. In normal times, such a gambit might not work, but these are not normal times. The fierce competition between Iran and the Sunni states of the Gulf Cooperation Council has given Al Qaeda a way to find greater operating space than ever before.
Al Qaeda has been receiving state support that empowers its advances in Syria. Leading Al Qaeda theologians are out of prison, and able to operate openly in the region. Al Qaeda controls territory in Syria and Yemen, is a major force in Libya, and is at the center of burgeoning insurgencies in Somalia and Mali.
The fact that all these advances generate little alarm in the West, and consequently draw few counterterrorism resources to oppose them, shows how successful Al Qaeda has been at undertaking relatively low-key growth while using ISIS as its foil.
Al Qaeda’s resurgence as international efforts focused myopically on ISIS was utterly foreseeable, yet was largely not foreseen. Instead, for years conventional wisdom in the field held that ISIS had definitively usurped Al Qaeda, which was desperately bidding for relevance and perhaps even its own survival. Yet it is increasingly clear that Al Qaeda’s strategy — which favored making local allies, tempering the amount of bloodshed attributed to it, and expanding relatively slowly and deliberately — is working better than ISIS’s plan to fight wars on all fronts.
Neither presidential candidate offers a clear path out of this morass. Hillary Clinton’s appeal is that she is at least unlikely to make things much worse. The same cannot be said of Donald Trump, whose erraticism and bloviating leads him to truly disturbing places, like his recent suggestion that the U.S. should have stolen Iraq’s oil after invading the country. Such rhetoric from a major-party presidential candidate, along with the broad brush with which Trump is prone to paint Muslim citizens, feeds into jihadist narratives of grievance and a broader clash of civilizations.
Each American error is costly. A mistaken understanding of the world can cause the U.S. to lurch into places it never should have gone, and miss opportunities to counter the enemy’s moves.
Unfortunately, a look at the intersection of analytic error and policy failure leaves us in the same place where we were 15 years ago. The United States does not understand the enemy well enough, and this impedes our ability to craft effective policy.
Good policy can only emerge from a solid understanding of the adversary. We still do not have that.