A Smarter Counterterrorism Approach Is Now Within Reach

Co-authored by Daniel Benjamin

Among the many bitter ironies of the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, few are as painful as the prospect of a resurgence of al Qaeda and other jihadi groups in the country where so much American blood and treasure was spilled. After 20 years of war that cost more than 6,000 U.S. service members and contractors their lives and the American public $2 trillion, a revival of the organization that triggered it all is difficult to stomach.

That possibility has come as a surprise to many. In the foreign policy establishment, the global “war on terror” ended in 2018, when U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a National Defense Strategy that identified China and Russia, America’s great-power rivals, as the biggest threats to U.S. security. For the broader public, the end came even earlier, when major print and broadcast media outlets reassigned many reporters from the terrorism beat to cover President Donald Trump, his shady relationship with Russia, and the subsequent raft of scandals. Even the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 by a foreign national—a Saudi air force officer who killed three sailors and wounded 13 others in Pensacola, Florida, in 2019—did nothing to distract the public from the Trump imbroglios. The sense that the jihadi violence had receded carried over into the Biden administration, which turned its attention to right-wing white supremacist terror and made little mention of jihadi violence before the nightmare in Kabul.

Now, Americans are once again focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism, partly thanks to the kind of fear-mongering that characterized pre-Trump discussions of jihadi terror. Nathan Sales, who served as coordinator for counterterrorism in Trump’s State Department, told The New York Times with apodictic certainty that “the terrorism risk to the United States is going to get dramatically worse” and that “it is virtually certain that al Qaeda will reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan and use it to plot terrorism against the United States and others.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, declared on television that “the chance of another 9/11 just went through the roof.”

Alive and well

The sudden prospect of a jihadi resurgence in Afghanistan might have come as a shock to many, but Islamist terrorism never disappeared. Although attacks against Americans and Europeans have grown less frequent, global levels of terrorism have remained relatively high. The failure of the Arab Spring, the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), and the Syrian civil war all rechanneled Islamist energies inward on the Muslim world. As a result, jihadi groups have “relocalized,” focusing more effort on Muslim or heterogeneous societies in the developing world and less on the Western nations they blame for supporting “apostate” and frequently authoritarian regimes. The Sahel and West Africa are currently the most active fields of jihad, and violent groups in these regions often affiliate with al Qaeda or ISIS as a branding strategy.

Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.