A boy carries water in a can that once held food aid at the Boudouri site for displaced persons outside the town of Diffa in southeastern Niger June 17, 2016. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

October 26, 2020

Fragility and failure: A better foreign policy to counter new threats

Originally published in American Enterprise Institute

Key Points

  • The US can no longer afford to prioritize counterterrorism at the cost of competing with global powers such as China and Russia.
  • Instead, the US must transform its approach to countering al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other like-minded groups by focusing on the environment that enables both Salafi-jihadis and adversaries such as China and Russia to expand their influence.
  • Transforming the approach requires the US to improve how it operates in complex and fragile environments. The Global Fragility Act (GFA) is an opportunity to drive the necessary change throughout the interagency to succeed in these spaces. But its implementation has fallen short.
  • Senior administration officials should use the GFA to develop and implement a strategic-level approach that underscores conflict prevention, stabilization, and peace building. This means using foreign assistance effectively to advance American interests and contest territory that will otherwise fall to Salafi-jihadis or to Beijing or Moscow.

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The US is no closer today to defeating al Qaeda and like-minded groups than it was on 9/11. The American home front may be safe for now and better defended against known threats due in no small part to the vigilance of US intelligence, military, and law enforcement personnel. But the Salafi-jihadi enemy has strengthened globally and adapts and innovates to achieve its aims.

As they have done before, Salafi-jihadi groups that have been defeated or near defeat can reconstitute or build the conditions to do so, creating a risk that the resources expended against them will have been wasted. The Islamic State’s rise in Iraq erased hard-won US and Iraqi gains. Al Qaeda in Yemen recovered from setbacks after Emirati counterterrorism operations in 2018.1 And the Taliban and al Qaeda are set to come back in Afghanistan, where the Trump administration negotiated the withdrawal of US troops based on the assumption that the Taliban breaks a multi-decade relationship with al Qaeda.2 In the Sahel and Somalia, trends strongly favor Salafi-jihadis.3 Any perceived successes against these groups will probably be lost because counterterrorism alone will not deliver a lasting victory.

The US is in a period of rebalancing its resources against strategic priorities. For nearly two decades, the US has resourced counterterrorism operations at the expense of other interests, assuming risks in conventional military readiness and other areas. Addressing the rising competition from other global powers—China and Russia, namely—to protect American interests and influence abroad will reshape the US military and diplomatic posture globally.

Reducing the US government’s counterterrorism bloat will better enable the US to advance its varied strategic interests and is necessary, especially in light of global power competition and in responding to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, it should also call into question whether the US is prepared to carry the cost of counterterrorism—particularly against such transnational Salafi-jihadi groups as al Qaeda and the Islamic State—indefinitely as they persist despite significant US pressure against them. Transforming the approach to combat these groups could aid in securing American interests against Chinese or Russian encroachments while permanently defeating the Salafi-jihadi threat.

Recent initiatives in the US government should inform components of the new approach. Over the past few years, the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of State (State), and US Agency for International Development (USAID) have sought to reform how they engage in fragile and complex environments—where Salafi-jihadi groups also frequently operate—to take a more evidence-based and better-coordinated approach.

These initiatives include the Stabilization Assistance Review, the Strategic Prevention Project, and support of the United States Institute of Peace’s congressionally mandated Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. Congress codified and expanded some of the recommendations generated by these initiatives into the Global Fragility Act (GFA), which passed into law in December 2019.4 Successful implementation of the GFA will improve America’s ability to advance its interests in complex environments as it counters the advance of the Salafi-jihadi movement and other competitors.

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1. US Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Yemen,” June 24, 2020, https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/yemen/.

2. US Department of State, “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Which Is Not Recognized by the United States as a State and Is Known as the Taliban and the United States of America,” February 29, 2020, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-Bringing-Peace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf.

3. Katherine Zimmerman, “Salafi-Jihadi Ecosystem in the Sahel,” American Enterprise Institute, April 22, 2020, https://

4. For the full text of the Global Fragility Act, see Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, H.R. 1865, 116th Cong., § 501–11, https://rules.house.gov/sites/democrats.rules.house.gov/files/BILLS-116HR1865SA-RCP116-44.PDF.

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