President Barack Obama delivers a live televised address to the nation on his plans for military action against the Islamic State, September 10, 2014. (Reuters)

September 11, 2014

Obama's Counterterrorism Strategy Is Already Failing

Originally published in U.S. News and World Report

On Wednesday night, President Obama announced his strategy against the Islamic State. It's based on what the U.S. is doing in Yemen, combining targeted airstrikes with support for a local partner, a counterterrorism strategy which Obama claims has been successful and has made the U.S. safer. Unfortunately, those claims are not accurate. The strategy in Yemen is failing, and it is unlikely to succeed in the more dire circumstances of Iraq and Syria. More importantly, the administration's overall counterterrorism strategy has allowed al-Qaida affiliates to grow and expand to an unprecedented degree, likely spelling immense danger for the U.S. today and in the future.

The Islamic State, the president has said, is unique in its brutality and poses a threat to Americans in the broader Middle East. It has evolved beyond a terrorist organization, now fielding a conventional army and running a "state," carved off from Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State is behind mass killings in both countries and the barbaric, public murder of two Americans, Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff. The extremist group has eliminated the border between Iraq and Syria and challenges the established international state system. The president’s insistence that a counterterrorism strategy is the optimal response to the threat posed by a group that has moved beyond being a simple terrorist organization is bizarre.

Yet the Islamic State is not the only threat to American interests. The global jihadist movement, of which both the Islamic State and al-Qaida are members,  is on the rise despite the supposed success of the president’s strategies to date. Al-Qaida, from which the Islamic State splintered, is much stronger than the president implied and significantly stronger than it was in 2009 or 2001. Yes, there have been military successes against al-Qaida’s affiliates in Yemen and Somalia. Both have lost key leaders; A U.S. airstrike just killed the Somalia-based affiliate al-Shabab’s leader. But these successes are not adding up in a way that will yield a long-term victory; al-Qaida groups have adapted, evolved and actually expanded over recent years.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, continues to threaten American interests. U.S. Embassy Sanaa closed for nearly a month in May 2014 because of a threat from that group. Intelligence officials reported that that group and al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, might be teaming up for an attack on U.S. airlines, first reported earlier this year with airline security changes discussed at the beginning of the summer. The leader of the regional al-Qaida outpost, and al-Qaida’s general manager, Nasser al Wahayshi made a brazen, public appearance this spring, seemingly unconcerned for his safety. And the group seems to be in the midst of an effort to consolidate control in Yemen’s east. It is hard to see in these developments evidence of a resounding counterterrorism success in Yemen.

Al-Qaida has also proven resilient in Somalia and Mali, even after major interventions in each country, in 2011 and in 2013, respectively. Al-Shabab used to control most of south-central Somalia. Nearly 20,000 African Union forces with a small amount of U.S. help deprived it of that control, but the group changedits focus to develop its terrorist capabilities in the region and now operates throughout East Africa. Its first international attack in 2010 was dismissed as a one-off, until the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi last September, followed by the attack in Djibouti on May 24. The terror threat from al-Shabaab has not been defeated. The al-Qaida-linked groups in north Mali are also beginning to re-emerge there as French troops draw down. U.S. interests remain limited in West Africa, but an attack killed seven Americans in January 2013. The French discovered that plans for an immediate withdrawal of their forces were unworkable and have been drawn into a longer engagement while attacks in Mali are still on the rise.

The threat to Americans is not limited to areas where there are active al-Qaida affiliates but also includes new, militant Islamist groups. Libya is the standout example here. American airpower and a “lead-from-behind” strategy overthrew Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, but the legacy is a losing one. Local forces that were once partnered against the regime are battling today for control of the country, or parts of it. The security situation in Tripoli is dire. The U.S. embassy there evacuated personnel at the end of July as street battles raged. Islamist militias, including those reportedly behind the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, remain active in the east. It is noteworthy that the president said nothing about Libya, which used to be the “model” the administration pointed to as the way to deal with interventions.

Left unchecked, as the president noted yesterday, such terrorist threats, especially from the Islamic State and al-Qaida, could expand to the United States. The current strategy in place to fight these groups has not had lasting success. The targeted groups – al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabab and other al-Qaida affiliates – are more resilient today than before. They have learned from each other and also shared unsolicited advice. The crucial lesson they have learned has been the importance of maintaining support within the population not just support through fear. Each group has also fielded an insurgent component within the group itself, bringing even more sharply into question whether a pure counterterrorism strategy is appropriate.

What is needed is a strategy designed to both address the immediate terrorist threat and also to counter the groups’ insurgent factions. Dogged pursuit of a counterterrorism strategy that has been unsuccessful against groups less lethal and capable than the Islamic State will fail. We must develop a strategy that addresses all components of the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and then, Americans home and abroad will be safe.