America’s global war on terror, with massive troop deployments, clandestine Special Forces operations and futuristic drone strikes, has killed high-profile jihadi terrorist operatives in countries across the Middle East and succeeded in hunting down much of the core leadership of al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
But 20 years after the campaign began in response to the horrific suicide hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, Islamist radical extremism is putting down fresh roots around the world — from Southeast Asia to Central Africa — and continues to evolve, posing perhaps as great a threat to global stability today as it did on that autumn morning two decades ago.
Without question, America’s response has evolved as well. Counterterrorism officials and analysts say the U.S. approach to anti-terror campaigns and the American public’s tolerance for major combat missions in the Middle East and the casualties and federal budgetary debts that come with them have shifted dramatically.
The new bipartisan pitch, under President Trump and now President Biden, has Washington focusing its resources on containing terrorist threats to the homeland and to its allies and assets abroad, rather than pursuing regime change or massive deployments to rebuild entire societies and governments in historically complex nations.
“We’re not interested anymore in trying to influence the conditions in other countries. We’re just interested in managing the threats they produce,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies global terrorism.
That change, successive administrations of both parties have argued, will allow the U.S. to devote more time, money and energy to other new and vexing aspects of the post-Cold War geopolitical dynamics in the world — most notably toward the Pacific, where a rising China has mounted a bid to supplant America as the world’s leading superpower in the 21st century.
Nowhere is the new dynamic more evident than in Afghanistan, where the war on terror officially began in October 2001, just weeks after 19 al Qaeda operatives seized control of four commercial airliners, slamming two into the World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon, while a fourth crashed in a Pennsylvania field after heroic passengers fought to overtake the terrorist hijackers.
It was from a sanctuary inside Afghanistan provided by the country’s Taliban leadership that the 9/11 attacks were conceived and refined.
Twenty years later, the same Taliban movement that harbored al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, is back in power in Kabul after the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government last month.
Some key al Qaeda figures have already made triumphant returns to Afghanistan, raising troubling questions about whether history is poised to repeat itself and the nation set to once again become the global epicenter for Islamist extremism — an outcome that could keep the U.S. chained to counterterrorism missions in the region no matter how hard it tries to turn its gaze to China and other threats.
“The Taliban have made clear that they intend to govern Afghanistan as a terror state,” said Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator under Mr. Trump.
“Half of the senior officials they announced … are subject to U.S. or U.N. terrorism sanctions, including the new interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has a multimillion-dollar FBI bounty on his head,” Mr. Sales told The Washington Times. “The new Taliban, unfortunately, is the same as the old Taliban.”
Mr. Haqqani is wanted by the FBI for his role in planning a 2008 attack on a Kabul hotel that killed six people, including an American citizen.
New wave of threats
That the Taliban government would retake power in Afghanistan after the longest conflict in U.S. history would have seemed unthinkable in the first years when the George W. Bush administration mobilized to confront the security threat.
Within a month of the 9/11 attacks, a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban government and began waging war on al Qaeda, though bin Laden initially escaped America’s grasp. He was killed by U.S. Special Forces during a raid at his Pakistani compound in 2011.
But the laser focus of that initial anti-terror campaign, critics have argued, was badly blurred when Mr. Bush authorized an invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Mr. Bush contended that toppling dictator Saddam Hussein was a logical next step in the drive to crush the terror threat.
Despite a major U.S. military presence in Iraq for a decade, the Islamic State — an internet-savvy Salafi jihadi group that built a reputation on shocking violence and brutality — emerged. By 2014, it had captured a huge swath of territory across the country and neighboring Syria, setting up a “caliphate” that drew thousands of extremist fighters from around the world to join its cause.
The rise of al Qaeda in the late 1990s in Afghanistan and the birth of the Islamic State nearly a decade ago have many similarities. In both instances, the organization remained largely under the radar until its existence and its ability to carry out attacks sparked a major military response from the West, which reduced both groups from legitimate land forces to covert, largely underground terrorist networks.
Despite those successes, analysts generally agree that one of the most sobering realities of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is a dark and lingering uncertainty over the future nature of the global jihadi threat.
Concerns are running high that the Islamic State has metastasized, with affiliate groups of varying strength and sophistication continuing to operate in several corners of the world, including Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence continues to track a network of ISIS affiliates in South and Southeast Asia. The group’s tentacles have found their way into a range of local conflicts in those regions.
The coordinated Easter 2019 suicide bombings that killed 267 people at luxury hotels and Christian churches in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, for instance, were carried out by terrorists who drew their inspiration from ISIS and connected with others in the group via digital communications.
On another front, Philippine special forces have waged a yearslong battle against local jihadi groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIS in that Southeast Asian nation’s southern reaches. National security sources also warn that local jihadi movements from Malaysia to Indonesia have been susceptible to ISIS propaganda.
War continues to rage against extremists thousands of miles away in Africa.
“ISIS formally recognized a number of new branches and networks [in Africa] in 2019,” according to the State Department’s most recent survey of global terrorist threats.
Northern Nigeria’s brutal Boko Haram movement offered its allegiance to ISIS in 2015. A rival Islamic State West Africa Province also has emerged in recent years.
The State Department’s country reports have pointed also to the increasing threat posed in several regions of the world by groups aligned with bin Laden’s original al Qaeda network, including the Somalia-based terrorist outfit al-Shabab and the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The ISIS-K, or Islamic State-Khorasan, group that has emerged in Afghanistan in recent years claimed global attention with last month’s suicide bombing that killed civilians and 13 American troops at the Kabul airport.
‘Vital national interest’
With a new defense strategy blueprint focused heavily on great-power threats from China and other rivals, the Pentagon argues it can keep a lid on fractured terrorist networks using special operations forces, intelligence assets and “over-the-horizon” drone strikes. Those assurances form a key piece of the argument for withdrawal from Afghanistan, made first by Mr. Trump and then by Mr. Biden.
“To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask: What is the vital national interest?” Mr. Biden said Aug. 31, the day the final U.S. troops left Afghanistan. “In my view, we only have one: to make sure Afghanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland.”
Given today’s political reality, the prospect of another Afghanistan-style invasion, or even the deployment of a significant U.S. ground combat force to places like Syria and Iraq to battle a group such as ISIS, appears unlikely in the near term.
Instead, the U.S. continues to conduct counterterrorism operations across the Middle East and beyond without a major ground combat presence. That approach has often proved effective. In 2019, U.S. Special Forces carried out a raid in Syria that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who replaced bin Laden as the world’s most wanted terrorist leader.
Al-Shabab leaders also have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Somalia, as have other terrorist figures in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.
But as the U.S. approach has changed in the two decades since 9/11, so too has the nature of the terrorist threat. A more technologically proficient brand of Islamist terrorism has emerged, with ISIS and other groups relying on social media to attract fighters and amplify their jihadi ideology.
Countries may no longer be formal headquarters for terrorist organizations in the way Afghanistan was for al Qaeda in the late 1990s or as parts of Iraq and Syria were for the Islamic State. But the reach of those groups has spread, creating a major logistical challenge for the U.S. and its allies.
“Fundamentally, what we’re looking at is that terrorist networks are much more developed than they were 20 years ago by virtue of the passage of time and the globalization of the movement,” said Ms. Zimmerman, the American Enterprise Institute analyst. “We have much better-connected terror networks in addition to technologies … that can rapidly be turned against us.”
A key question, then, is how much of a threat those groups actually pose to Westerners. As spectacular as the 9/11 attacks were, terrorist groups have yet to carry out an attack on a remotely comparable scale inside the U.S. since then, as security protocols have hardened and information-sharing amid security organizations has exploded.
Ms. Zimmerman and other analysts say it’s not clear whether a group such as al Qaeda, having watched the U.S. leave Afghanistan and a friendly Taliban once again assume power, may be less motivated to target the U.S. homeland and risk military retaliation.
For Americans specifically, some specialists say, the danger appears relatively low.
“The severity of the threat posed by jihadi groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS depends on where you are,” Daniel Byman, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a piece this week for Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Byman cited data that shows 107 Americans have died in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, including the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, and those in a 2019 attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola, in which a Saudi air force officer with ties to al Qaeda‘s Yemeni offshoot fatally shot three people.
“Europe, by contrast, has suffered far more such violence,” Mr. Byman wrote, citing as an example a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 that killed 130 people.
Mr. Byman relied on data compiled by the Washington-based New America think tank. In an analysis on its website, the group says the total death toll from jihadi attacks in the United States since 9/11 is “similar to that from far-right terrorism (consisting of anti-government, militia, white supremacist, and anti-abortion violence), which has killed 114 people.”