Abstract: Although the Islamic State poses the most serious, imminent terrorist threat today, al-Qa`ida has been quietly rebuilding and marshaling its resources to reinvigorate the war against the United States declared 20 years ago by its founder and leader, Usama bin Ladin. The result is that both groups have enmeshed the United States and the West in a debilitating war of attrition, with all its deleterious consequences. The Islamic State has built an external operations capability that will likely survive its loss of territory in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Meanwhile, the threat from al-Qa`ida persists and may become more serious as it attempts to capitalize on the Islamic State’s falling star alongside the enhancement of its own terrorist strike capabilities.

“Light up the fire on the flowing crowd, pour grenades on the crusader’s head. Don’t have mercy until he’s broken.” This was the encrypted message that a Moroccan-born Islamic State operative in Italy received from his commanders in the Middle East via WhatsApp last April. Although Italian authorities were able to thwart the series of attacks planned for that country,1 their French, Belgian, and Turkish counterparts were not successful in preventing the succession of Islamic State-inspired or -directed incidents that convulsed Paris in November 2015, Istanbul and Brussels the following March, Istanbul’s international airport in June, and Nice last July.2 Indeed, according to one compilation, the Islamic State to date has carried out nearly 150 attacks in over two dozen countries that, excluding the ongoing carnage in Syria and Iraq, have claimed the lives of more than 2,000 persons.3 This article assesses the scope and nature of the terrorist threat today, its likely future trajectory, and the counterterrorism strategy needed to counter it.

There was a time not so long ago when the conventional wisdom was that the Islamic State’s violence would somehow remain confined to the perennially volatile and sanguinary Levant and Iraq and that the only threat to the West was in the form of random, isolated attacks by “lone wolves” striking independently of any organizational imperative or direction.4 That wishful thinking was dramatically swept aside on November 13, 2015, by the biggest terrorist attack on a Western city in over a decade, which occurred with no advance warning and in defiance of the prevailing analytical assumption that the Islamic State was not even interested in mounting external attacks and moreover lacked the capability to do so. The fact that the operation’s ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was able to travel undetected from Belgium to Syria and then back again despite being among the most wanted men in Europe5 should make us very circumspect about any conception we may have of fully understanding the Islamic State’s capabilities and intentions—much less the threat that it will continue to pose after Mosul falls and its caliphate constricts and eventually collapses. In this context, it is worth recalling, too, that just two weeks before the Paris attacks, the Islamic State was able to perpetrate the single most significant attack against commercial aviation in over a decade. Over 200 persons perished when a bomb exploded shortly after takeoff aboard a Russian passenger jet in Egypt.

The Trump administration, accordingly, will be confronted with arguably the most parlous international security environment since the period immediately following the September 11, 2001, attacks—with serious threats emanating from not one but two terrorist movements and a counterterrorism strategy and approach that has failed.

The Islamic State Post-Caliphate: A Continuing International Terrorist Threat 
The Islamic State, alas, is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. However much the world may hope for its complete demise after the fall of Sirte, loss of Dabiq, impending collapse of its reign over Mosul, and hoped-for eventual defeat in Raqqa, it will continue to pose an international terrorist threat.

The Islamic State built an external operations network in Europe that completely escaped notice at least two years prior to the Paris attacks. The secretive Islamic State unit that serves as the external operations arm is known as Amn al-Kharji,6 which is overseen by the amniyat, the Islamic State’s “security” service that is also responsible for internal security.a It appears to function somewhat independently of the group’s waning military and territorial fortunes. According to U.S. intelligence and defense officials quoted by Rukmini Callimachi in her revealing August 2016 New York Times article, the Islamic State has already deployed “hundreds of operatives” into the European Union with “hundreds more” having been dispatched to Turkey as well. This investment of operational personnel thus ensures that the Islamic State will retain an effective international terrorist strike capability irrespective of its battlefield reverses in Iraq and Syria for two reasons.7 First is the obvious point that following its expulsion from Afghanistan, al-Qa`ida required very little territory between 2004 and 2014 to support its external operations from its comparatively modest bases in Waziristan and the North West Frontier Province (where a succession of British al-Qa`ida operatives were trained and deployed back to the U.K. to carry out terrorist attacks).8 And second, the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has already instructed9 potential foreign fighters who are unable to travel to the caliphate to emigrate to other wilayats (where other Islamic State branches are located).This suggests that these other branches could develop their own external operations capabilities independent of the parent organization.

Moreover, in addition to the presumed sleeper cells that the Islamic State has already successfully seeded across Europe, there is the further problem of at least some of the thousands of European foreign fightersb serving in the Islamic State eventually returning home. They are only a fraction of the nearly 40,000 persons10 from over 100 countries11 who came to Syria and Iraq and, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently warned, “might potentially leverage skills and experience to plan and execute attacks in the West.” Citing the November 2015 Paris attacks as an example, he also warned “involvement of returned foreign fighters in terrorist plotting increases the effectiveness and lethality of terrorist attacks.12

What this means is that in approximately four years, the Islamic State’s international cadre has surpassed even the most lavish estimates of the number of foreign fighters that the U.S. Intelligence Community believes journeyed to Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s.c In other words, far more foreign nationals have been trained by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq than were by al-Qa`ida in the years preceding the 9/11 attacks.d This cadre of trained fighters thus recreates the same constellation of organizational capabilities and trained operatives that made al-Qa`ida so dangerous 15 years ago. The 9/11 Commission’s assessment of al-Qa`ida’s capability in this respect is particularly noteworthy. “Thousands flowed through” bin Ladin’s camps before the September 11th attacks, its report states, but “no more than a few hundred seem to have become al Qaeda members.” This small number, hand-picked from the larger crop, were subsequently screened, vetted, and then provided with specialized terrorist training.13 As Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger argue in their book, ISIS: The State of Terror, “the soaring numbers of foreign fighters in Syria generally, and in ISIS specifically, point … to an increased risk of terrorism that could linger for years.”14 And, unlike the comparatively narrow geographical demographics of the al-Qa`ida recruits two decades ago, both the Islamic State’s and al-Qa`ida’s current foreign fighters cadre includes hitherto unrepresented nationalities, such as hundreds of Latin Americans along with citizens from Mali, Benin, and Bangladesh, among other traditionally atypical jihadist recruiting grounds.15

Meanwhile, the danger from so-called lone wolf attacks remains. In September 2014, the late Islamic State commander Abu Muhammad al-Adnani famously called on the group’s far-flung adherents, active followers, and wannabes to commit random, independent acts of violence on the group’s behalf.16 According to the previously cited compilation of international Islamic State attacks, al-Adnani’s summons has proven far more effective than al-Qa`ida’s longstanding efforts similarly to animate, motivate, and inspire individuals across the globe to engage in violence in support of its aims.17

Al-Qa`ida Über Alles
While the Islamic State has dominated the headlines and preoccupied the United States’ attention for the past four years, al-Qa`ida has been quietly rebuilding and marshaling its resources for the continuation of its 20-year-long struggle against the United States. Indeed, its presence in Syria should be regarded as just as dangerous as and even more pernicious than that of the Islamic State.18

“The territory in the Middle East that al-Qaeda covets most is of course Saudi Arabia,” the former radical Islamist Ed Husain explains, “but Syria is next on the list.”19 Syria or “al-Sham” is revered by al-Qa`ida as sacred land, cited in early Muslim scripture and history and referred to by the group in enormously evocative “end times” prophetic overtones. It also was once ruled under Islamic law as a single, unitary administrative entity encompassing present-day Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine as well as Syria. Within this geographical ambit is where the al-Haram al-Sharif – the Holy Precinct of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock (from which the Prophet is reputed to have ascended to Heaven), and the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, are located. Moreover, some seven centuries ago, Ibn Taymiyah, among the jihadis’ most venerated theologians, specifically commanded his Sunni followers to battle the reviled “Nusayris”—the Shi`a minority sect today known as Alawites, to which Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s ruling clique belongs.20 “For Sunni jihadist fighters,” Husain notes, “the conflict in Syria is religiously underwritten by their most important teacher.” And, unlike al-Qa`ida’s longstanding South Asian base in Afghanistan, which, though part of the ummah is distant from Arab lands, Syria provides the group with a geographically central operational platform from which power, influence, and external attacks can be usefully projected in multiple directions.21 Syria’s proximity to both neighboring Jordan and Israel also realizes an al-Qa`ida dream: bringing it to the borders of precisely the pro-Western, apostate monarchies that the organization has long despised as well as to the very gates of its hated Zionist enemy.22

Hence, al-Qa`ida’s attraction to Syria is nothing less than irresistible. After the group failed to intervene or assert itself in the seismic events that initiated the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, and saw itself initially relegated to only a supporting role in Libya, al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership seized on the Syrian civil war as a golden opportunity with which to demonstrate the group’s relevance and reestablish itself at the forefront of the jihadist movement. The priority that it attached to Syria may be seen in the special messages conveyed in February and June 2012 respectively by al-Zawahiri and the late Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan bin Ladin confidant, in support of the uprising against the Assad regime, which called on Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon to do everything within their power to assist in the overthrow of the Alawites.23 Al-Qa`ida’s spear-carrier in Syria was initially its Iraqi franchise, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.24 But in April 2013, al-Baghdadi unilaterally absorbed Jabhat al-Nusra (which, despite the anodyne-sounding “Support Front” moniker, was al-Qa`ida’s Syrian franchise) into his Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Al-Baghdadi also announced that he was changing the name of the newly amalgamated organization to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.25 Jabhat al-Nusra rejected the merger and appealed to al-Zawahiri to intervene and order its reversal.26 The conflict intensified as al-Zawahiri’s efforts to mediate the dispute collapsed. The former ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra now found themselves locked in a bitter internecine struggle, prompting al-Zawahiri to formally expel ISI from the al-Qa`ida network.27 A predictably febrile rivalry followed, which al-Qa`ida effectively exploited to endow itself with an image of comparative moderation—at least in contrast to the wanton bloodshed and unmitigated violence favored by the Islamic State.

In a bid to further insulate Jabhat al-Nusra from the negative consequences of its intimate association with al-Qa`ida, in July 2016 the group announced that it was severing “external ties”—as distinct from a complete break—with al-Qa`ida and re-branding itself, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“The Front for the Conquest of the Levant”).28 This is, in fact, nothing more than a well-established al-Qa`ida gambit to portray its satraps as more independent than they are and thereby avoid the pejorative implications that a more blatant relationship raises.29 Al-Qa`ida has repeatedly, and successfully, used this ploy in the past to mask its continued close relations with groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Afghan Taliban, al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Din, and the variety of Ansar al-Shariah entities that emerged following the Arab Spring. The fact that Jabhat al-Nusra, regardless of what it calls itself, is even more capable than the Islamic State and a more dangerous long-term threat seems completely immaterial to those across the region who not only support and assist it, but actively seek to partner with what they perversely regard as a more moderate and reasonable rival to the Islamic State.30

US troops from the 101st Airborne Divisi
U.S. troops from the 101st Airborne Division train at an air assault school at an airbase in Camp Qayyara, 35 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq, on October 4, 2003. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

These deliberate obfuscations, both to eschew the al-Qa`ida name and to portray its most important franchise in a more benign light than the Islamic State, is a reflection of a calculated strategic choice taken by al-Zawahiri at a pivotal moment in al-Qa`ida’s history. In 2013, he specifically instructed the movement’s fighters to avoid mass-casualty operations in order not to cause the death of Muslim civilians and innocent women and children.31 The legacy of this edict is evident in a tweet from a Dutch Jabhat al-Nusra fighter who eagerly reminded his followers that, unlike the Islamic State, “Al Qaeda focuses mostly on political & military targets instead of civilians.” This development may be seen as fitting neatly into al-Zawahiri’s apparent broader strategy of letting the Islamic State take all the heat and absorb all the blows from the coalition arrayed against it while al-Qa`ida quietly rebuilds its military strength and basks in its ironic cachet as “moderate extremists.”32 Anyone inclined to be taken in by this ruse would do well to heed the admonition of Theo Padnos (Peter Theo Curtis), the American journalist who spent two years in Syria as a hostage of Jabhat al-Nusra. Padnos relates how “the Nusra Front higher-ups were inviting Westerners to the jihad in Syria not so much because they needed more foot soldiers—they didn’t—but because they want to teach the Westerners to take the struggle into every neighborhood and subway back home.”33

Finally, the importance of Syria to al-Qa`ida’s plans may be seen in the roster of senior commanders deployed to this critical theater. Among them was Muhsin al-Fadhli, another bin Ladin intimate who, until his death from a U.S. airstrike in 2015, had commanded the Khorasan Group. This elite, forward-based al-Qa`ida operational arm in Syria is well-positioned to act either on its own or on Core al-Qa`ida’s orders to strike in the Levant, across the Middle East, and potentially in Europe as well.34 Even before the Khorasan Group had insinuated itself into the Levant, Haydar Kirkan, a Turkish national and longstanding al-Qa`ida operative, had been ordered in 2010 to return to his homeland—presumably by bin Ladin himself. Kirkan’s mission was to facilitate the movement of key personnel hiding in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas to the Middle East so that they could escape the escalating American drone attack campaign.35 Described by Pentagon officials as “a senior external terror attack planner in Syria,” Kirkan was killed just weeks ago in a U.S. bombing raid in Idlib, Syria.36 And in late 2015, al-Zawahiri reportedly dispatched Saif al-`Adl, al-Qa`ida’s most experienced and battle-hardened senior commander, to Syria after his release from detention in Iran.37 With this senior command structure in place in Syria, al-Qa`ida is thus well positioned to exploit the Islamic State’s weakening military position and territorial losses. The Islamic State, in any event, can no longer compete with al-Qa`ida, whether in leadership depth, influence, reach, manpower, or cohesion. In only one domain is the Islamic State arguably stronger than its rival: the ability to mount spectacular terrorist strikes in Europe. And this is only because al-Qa`ida appears to have decided to suspend these operations for the time being. The leader of the group’s wing in Syria, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, in an interview with Al Jazeera in May 2015 revealed al-Zawahiri had instructed him for the time being not to use Syria as a launching pad for attacks in the West.38 And other al-Qa`ida affiliates have not attempted or plotted attacks in the West for the past three years, at least as far as has been publicly disclosed. Even the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in Paris that was ordered by AQAP dates back to plans apparently hatched in 2011.39

Jihadi Super Group? 
Looking to the future, the Islamic State’s continuing setbacks and serial weakening are creating conditions where some type of reconciliation and re-amalgamation with al-Qa`ida might yet be effected.40 Indeed, efforts to reunite have been continuous from both sides virtually from the time of the Islamic State’s expulsion from al-Qa`ida. Al-Zawahiri himself recently called for unity and an end to the divisiveness that has afflicted the jihadist movement these past couple of years, even while he continued to deride al-Baghdadi and criticize what he derisively termed “an innovated caliphate.” This, however, further underscores the profound personal enmity between these two men.41

For its part, Islamic State propaganda has often been respectful of al-Qa`ida, referring to its soldiers, emirs, and sheikhs in a positive manner and glorifying bin Ladin’s and Anwar al-Awlaki’s accomplishments. And even while profoundly critical of al-Zawahiri and some al-Qa`ida affiliates, the Islamic State still appears to have continually kept alive the possibility of some reconciliation, albeit alongside the ongoing invective and vituperation.

Despite the acknowledged differences in ideological emphases, tone, and style between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida, the main impediment to reconciliation is the intense personal enmity between al-Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri. Al-Baghdadi’s death would doubtless pave the way for a rapprochement, producing a combined terrorist force of perhaps epic proportions. A continually weakened Islamic State might also splinter, with a rump faction either voluntarily merging with or else being forcibly absorbed by al-Qa`ida. Regardless of how such a modus vivendi or merger might occur, any kind of reconciliation between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida or re-amalgamation would profoundly change the current conflict and result in a significantly escalated threat of foreign fighter terrorist operations in the West. It would certainly enhance al-Qa`ida’s international reach and endow it with a robust additional attack capability. Regardless of whether any such modus vivendi or hostile takeover ever comes to pass, it is indisputable that increased pressure on the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria will likely not result in the thousands of foreign fighters there simply laying down their arms. Rather if, as FBI Director James Comey argues, the 1990s Afghan exemplar provides any kind of a template for today,42 there will be a surfeit of trained warriors drifting around the Middle East and North Africa either looking for new conflicts to embed themselves, new safe havens or sanctuaries in which to rest and regroup, or billing themselves as “guns for hire” and offering their services to a variety of eager patrons.

The U.S.-led war on terrorism has now lasted longer than our participation in both world wars. It has surpassed even our active military involvement in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. And, like the Viet Cong guerrillas and People’s Army of Vietnam main force units, our jihadist enemies have locked us into an enervating war of attrition—the preferred strategy of terrorists and guerrillas the world over from time immemorial. They hope to undermine national political will, corrode internal popular support, and demoralize us and our regional partners through a prolonged, generally intensifying and increasingly geographical diffuse campaign of terrorism and violence. In his last publicly released, videotaped statement a dozen years ago, bin Ladin described this strategy on the eve of another presidential election. “So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America,” he declared.

“Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah. . . . This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.”43

Decisively breaking this stasis in the war on terrorism must therefore be among the new presidential administration’s highest priorities. Our current counterterrorism strategy, however, has clearly failed to do this. The most recent elucidation of our approach is the 2015 National Security Strategy document. It explains how the U.S.:

“shifted away from a model of fighting costly, large-scale ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the United States—particularly our military—bore an enormous burden. Instead, we are now pursuing a more sustainable approach that prioritizes targeted counterterrorism operations, collective action with responsible partners, and increased efforts to prevent the growth of violent extremism and radicalization that drives increased threats.”44

Yet, according to the National Counterterrorism Center, a year before the United States launched the ongoing effort to defeat the Islamic State, the group had a presence in only seven countries around the world. By 2015, the same year that the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy was enunciated, that number had nearly doubled. And as recently as this past August, the NCTC reported that the Islamic State was “fully operational” in 18 countries.45 Meanwhile, al-Qa`ida is also present in more countries today (nearly two dozen by the author’s count) than it was in 2001—and in three times as many as when the Obama administration began in 2009. Today, a dangerous surfeit of foreign volunteers is fighting in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Mali as well as in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, the three pillars upon which this strategy is based—leadership attrition, training of local forces, and countering violent extremism—have thus far failed to deliver a crushing blow to these terrorist groups.

Indeed, until the recent gains against the Islamic State, in particular in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, a depressing pattern established itself where the United States killed terrorist leaders while they nonetheless seized more territory. Where we downsized our military, while the flow of recruits into their ranks continued. Where our intelligence collection capabilities diminished while they more effectively encrypted their communications to plan and implement attacks and exploited digital and social media for propaganda and recruitment. Given this litany of emerging and expanding challenges, the most critical question today is whether the United States can continue to build on these latest gains to ensure sustained, long-term progress.

A quarter of a century ago, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher described publicity as the oxygen of terrorism. Today, however, it is access to sanctuary and safe haven that sustains and nourishes terrorism. Accordingly, simply killing a small number of leaders in terrorist groups, whose ranks in any event are continually replenished, will not end the threats posed by the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida nor dislodge them from their bases of operation in the Levant and Iraq, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and South Asia. The slow and fractured process of training indigenous government security forces in those regions will not do so either. The inadequacy of these training activities and efforts to build partner capacity are evidenced by the mostly unimpeded escalation of terrorist activities in all those places. Whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, or Somalia, our efforts to build partner capacity have all foundered. In each, Islamist terrorist numbers grew faster than we were able to train indigenous security forces effectively; terrorist control over territory and the creation of new sanctuaries and safe havens expanded while governmental sovereignty contracted; and the terrorists’ operational effectiveness appreciably outpaced that of their government opponents. While there has been some recent progress in Mali, Nigeria, Syria, and Iraq, it is not clear whether the past problems that undermined the performance of indigenous military units have been adequately addressed and reversed. The fact that Iraqi security forces remain incapable of retaking Mosul without the ground support of non-state militias such as the Kurdish peshmerga and Shi`a Popular Mobilization Forces; that the Afghan National Army remains dependent on American intelligence and air support and is effectively unable to contest the resurgence of Taliban, al-Qa`ida, and Islamic State violence in that country; and that the resurgence of al-Shabaab in Somalia despite nearly a decade of training of AMISOM’s training of Somali security forces raises uncomfortable questions about the effectiveness of our host-nation training efforts. Mali, for instance, was a model of U.S. partner training from 2002-2012, and President Obama once specifically cited the training of Yemen’s security forces as proof of the success of this leg of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy.46

Accordingly, the new administration should first conduct a complete reevaluation and systemic overhaul of our training and resourcing of foreign partners if we are to prevent the further spread of the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida branches and counter their entrenchment across the multiple regions in which they have already embedded themselves. A thoroughly new approach is needed to the current piecemeal training and uneven enhancement of host-nation counterterrorism capabilities. While increased U.S. combat air support is also required—especially in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and in support of French forces in Mali—that alone is not the answer. American and allied air strikes in coordination with local ground forces have not brought any of these counterterrorist campaigns to rapid conclusion. Therefore, in tandem with both the continued use of air power and deployment of supporting American special operations forces personnel, division-size conventional U.S. military forces might be usefully deployed on a strict 90-day rotation into violence-plagued rural areas and urban trouble spots. They have the necessary combat experience and skill-sets to sequentially eliminate terrorist strength in each of these areas and thereby enable indigenous security forces to follow in their wake to stabilize and police newly liberated places. By providing more effective governance and core services—with sustained U.S. and European support—host nations could thus better prevent the recurrence of terrorism and return of terrorist forces.

The current threat environment posed by the emergence and spread of the Islamic State and the stubborn resilience and long-game approach of al-Qa`ida makes a new strategy and new organizational and institutional behaviors necessary. The non-traditional challenges to U.S. national security and foreign policy imperatives posed by elusive and deadly irregular adversaries emphasizes the need to anchor changes that will more effectively close the gap between detecting irregular adversarial activity and rapidly defeating it. The effectiveness of this strategy will be based on our capacity to think like a networked enemy, in anticipation of how they may act in a variety of situations, aided by different resources. This goal requires that the U.S. national security structure organize itself for maximum efficiency, information sharing, and the ability to function quickly and effectively under new operational definitions. With this understanding in mind, we need to craft an approach that specifically takes into account the following key factors:

1. Separating the enemy from the populace that provides support and sustenance. This, in turn, entails three basic missions:

a. Denial of enemy sanctuary and safe haven

b. Elimination of enemy freedom of movement

c. Denial of enemy resources and support;

2. Identification and neutralization of the enemy;

3. Creation of a secure environment—progressing from local to regional to global;

4. Ongoing and effective neutralization of enemy propaganda and information operations through the planning and execution of a comprehensive and integrated information operations and holistic civil affairs campaign in harmony with the first four tasks;

5. Interagency efforts to build effective and responsible civil governance mechanisms that eliminate the fundamental causes of terrorism and insurgency.

In sum, the adversaries we face today in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere are much too resilient and the threats they pose too complicated to be vanquished by mere leadership decapitation. What is required to ensure success is a more integrated approach to a complex problem that is at once operationally durable, evolutionary, and elusive in character. We will therefore need to adjust and adapt our strategy, resources, and tactics to formidable opponents that, as we have seen, are variegated, dispersed, mobile, resilient, and highly adaptive. A truly effective campaign will ineluctably be predicated upon a strategy that effectively combines the tactical elements of systematically weakening and destroying enemy capabilities alongside the equally critical, broader strategic imperative of breaking the cycle of terrorist and insurgent recruitment and replenishment, which have respectively sustained al-Qa`ida and fueled the Islamic State’s emergence and rapid numerical and geographical expansion. The vast numerical proliferation and geographical expansion of foreign fighters joining both the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida in recent years underscores the failure of the current strategy’s counter-messaging efforts.

The key to success will thus be in harnessing the overwhelming kinetic force of the U.S. military as part of a comprehensive vision to transform capabilities in order to deal with irregular and unconventional threats. A successful strategy will therefore also be one that thinks and plans ahead with a view toward addressing the threats likely to be posed by terrorist and insurgent generations beyond the current one.

Bruce Hoffman is a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service where he directs the Center of Security Studies and the Security Studies Masters of Arts degree program. He is also the George H. Gilmore Senior Fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Substantive Notes
[a] The Amniyat “security” service is also known simply as Enmi (the Turkish rendering of the term) or Amni (in Arabic).

[b] Nearly 7,000 European foreign fighters are believed to have traveled to Syria. Many, if not most of them are believed to have joined the Islamic State. See John Gatt-Rutter, director of counterterrorism division, European External Action Service (EEAS) quoted in Martin Banks, “Returning foreign fighters are biggest threat to EU, Parliament warned,” The Parliament: Politics, Policy And People Magazine, October 12, 2016.

[c] “Estimates of the number of non-Afghan volunteers range from 4,000 to 25,000, with Arab fighters making up the majority.” Gina Bennett, “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous,” Weekend Edition: United States Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research, August 21-22, 1993, pp. 1-2.

[d] “U.S. intelligence estimates the total number of fighters who underwent instruction in Bin Laden-supported camps in Afghanistan from 1996 through 9/11 at 10,000 to 20,000.” National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States: Authorized Version (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), p. 67.

[1] Sam Schechner and Benoit Faucon, “New Tricks Make ISIS, Once Easily Tracked, a Sophisticated Opponent,” Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2016.

[2] Tim Lister, Ray Sanchez, Mark Bixler, Sean O’Key, Michael Hogenmiller, and Mohammed Tawfeeq, “ISIS goes global: 143 attacks in 29 countries have killed 2,043,” CNN, September 1, 2016.

[3] Lister et al.

[4] See Rukmini Callimachi, “How ISIS Build the Machinery of Terror Under Europe’s Gaze,” New York Times, March 29, 2016, and “How a Secretive Branch of ISIS Built a Global Network of Killers,” New York Times, August 3, 2016.

[5] Jim Brunsden, Michael Stothard, and Guy Chazen, “Paris attacks: Investigators trying to identify third body,” Financial Times, November 20, 2015; Raphael Satter and John-Thor Dahlburg, “Paris attacks; Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud identified as presumed mastermind,” CBC News, November 16, 2015.

[6] Scott Bronstein, Nicole Gaouette, Laura Koran, and Clarissa Ward, “ISIS planned for more operatives, targets during Paris attacks,” CNN, September 5, 2016.

[7] See Callimachi, “How a Secretive Branch of ISIS Built a Global Network of Killers;” and Jean-Charles Brisard and Kévin Jackson, “The Islamic State’s External Operations And The French-Belgian Nexus,” CTC Sentinel 9:11 (2016).

[8] See, for example, the chapters by Paul Cruickshank, Bruce Hoffman and Peter Neumann, and Ryan Evans in Bruce Hoffman and Fernando Reinares eds., The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), pp. 61-80, 192-272.

[9] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “This is what Allah and His Messenger had Promised Us,” Islamic State Furqan Media Foundation, November 2, 2016.

[10] James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, “Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” Senate Armed Services Committee, February 9, 2016, pp. 4-6; U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2015: Special Briefing by Justin Siberell, Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism,” June 2, 2016.

[11] Clapper, p. 4; Matt Bradley, “Rift Grows in Islamic State Between Foreign, Local Fighters,” Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2016.

[12] Clapper, pp. 4-5.

[13] The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 67.

[14] Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), p. 99.

[15] I am indebted to Professor Jytte Klausen of Brandeis University, who shared her research and knowledge on this subject with me. E-mail correspondence, October 21, 2016. See also Brian Dodwell, Daniel Milton, and Don Rassler, The Caliphate’s Global Workforce: An Inside Look at the Islamic State’s Foreign Fighter Paper Trail (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, April 2016), p. 9.

[16] Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State spokesman again threatens West in new speech,” Threat Matrix: A Blog Of the Long War Journal, September 21, 2014.

[17] Stern and Berger, pp. 94, 97.

[18] See, for example, David Gartenstein-Ross, “Underestimating al Qaeda,” The Cipher Brief, October 13, 2016, and Charles Lister, “The Dawn Of Mass Jihad: Success In Syria Fules Al-Qa`ida’s Evolution,” CTC Sentinel 9:9 (2016).

[19] Ed Husain, “Syria; Why al Qa`ida Is Winning,” National Review, August 23, 2012.

[20] See Shaykh ul-Islaam Taqi-ud-Deen Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, The Religious and Moral Doctrine of Jihad (Birmingham, U.K.: Maktabah al Ansaar Publications, 2001).

[21] Husain.

[22] See Husain; Eric Schmitt, “Sunni Extremists May Be Aiding al Qa`ida’s Ambitions in Syria, Analysts Say,” New York Times, February 15, 2012; and Dina Temple-Raston, “Al-Qaida Eyes Opportunities in Syria,” All Things Considered—National Public Radio, March 12, 2012.

[23] “Zawahiri Issues Video in Support of Syrian Uprising,” February 11, 2012; “Libi Speaks on the Plight of Syrians in New Video,” June 12, 2012, text and translation provided by SITE Monitoring Service—Jihadist Threat. See also “Syria Uprising: al Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri lends support,” BBC News—Middle East, February 12, 2012.

[24] See, for example, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s statement quoted by the Associated Press: “Iraq says al-Qaida fighters flowing into Syria, dangerous new element in fight against Assad,” Washington Post, July 5, 2012; Rod Nordland, “Al Qaeda Taking Deadly New Role in Syria Conflict, New York Times, July 24, 2012.

[25] Aaron Zelin, “Al-Qaeda Announces an Islamic State in Syria,” Washington Institute, April 2013.

[26] Stern and Berger, p. 42.

[27] Ibid., p. 43.

[28] Lisa Barrington and Suleiman Al-Khalidid, “Al Qaeda offered to break ties with its branch in Syria as a ‘sacrifice’ to preserve its unity,” Business Insider, July 28, 2016; Dania Akkad, “Nusra Confirms split with al-Qaeda ‘to protect Syrian revolution’,” Middle East Eye, July 28, 2016; Sarah El Deeb, “Syria Nusra Front leader claims to cut ties with al-Qa’ida,” Washington Post, July 28, 2016; “Syrian Nusra Front announces split from al-Qaeda,” BBC News, July 29, 2016.

[29] See Pamela Engel, “A rebel group’s split with Al Qaeda could put it one step closer to achieving its ultimate goal in Syria,” Business Insider, August 21, 2016, and Katherine Zimmerman and Jennifer Cafarella, “Warning Update: al Qaeda’s Global Attack Campaign,” AEI Critical Threats, November 6, 2016.

[30] See Ryan Browne, “Report: Syria’s al-Nusra ‘more dangerous’ than ISIS,” CNN Politics, January 26, 2016; “Why the most dangerous group in Syria isn’t ISIS,” CNN Opinion, February 26, 2016; and Colin Clarke and Barak Mendelsohn, “Al Qaeda’s Ruthless Pragmatism Makes It More Dangerous Than the Islamic State,” The RAND Blog, October 27, 2016.

[31] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “General Guidelines for Jihad,” al-Sahab Media, September 14, 2013.

[32] Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, “As U.S. Focuses on ISIS and the Taliban, Al Qaeda Re-emerges,” New York Times, December 29, 2015; Bruce Hoffman, “Al-Qaeda’s Master Plan,” The Cipher Brief, November 18, 2016.

[33] Theo Padnos, “My Captivity,” New York Times Magazine, October 29, 2014.

[34] Mark Mazzetti et al., “U.S. Suspects More Direct Threats Beyond ISIS,” New York Times, September 2014.

[35] See the documents at both http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ubl2016/english/Our%20respected%20Shaykh.pdf and http://www.longwarjournal.org/app/uploads/2015/03/EXHIBIT-421-ENG-TRANS-EX-420-76C5764D-1.pdf.

[36] Cheryl Pellerin, “Transregional Strikes Hit al-Qaida Leaders in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan,” DoD News, Defense Media Activity, November 2, 2016.

[37] “Al-Quds Al-Arabi: Senior Al-Qaeda Operative Saif Al-‘Adl Arrived In Syria To Mediate Between ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra,” MEMRI Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor, November 5, 2015.

[38] See “Nusra leader: Our mission is to defeat Syrian regime,” Al Jazeera, May 28, 2015, and Ryan Browne, “Report: Syria’s al-Nusra ‘more dangerous’ than ISIS,” CNN Politics, January 26, 2016.

[39] Presentation by Paul Cruikshank on the panel, “Global Jihad Divided: Al-Qaeda vs. ‘the Islamic State’—ICT16” at the annual International Institute for Counter-Terrorism Conference, September 13, 2016.

[40] For a more detailed discussion and substantiation of this argument, see Bruce Hoffman, “The Coming ISIS-al Qaeda Merger: It’s Time to Take the Threat Seriously,” Foreign Affairs—Snapshot, March 29, 2016.

[41] “Zawahiri Calls Fighter to Unite, Attacks IS for creating and Maintaining Division,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 29, 2016.

[42] Sari Horwitz and Adam Goldman, “FBI Director: Number of Americans traveling to fight in Syria increasing,” Washington Post, May 2, 2014.

[43] “Full transcript of bin Laden’s speech,” Al Jazeera, November 1, 2004.

[44] National Security Strategy, February 2015, p. 9.

[45] William Arkin et al., “New Counterterrorism ‘Heat Map’ Shows ISIS Branches Spreading Worldwide,” NBC News, August 23, 2016.

[46] See, for instance, Stephen Collinson, “Obama’s anti-terror strategic suffers setback in Yemen,” CNN Politics, March 26, 2015; Editorial Board, “Yemen’s turmoil exposes Mr. Obama’s crumbling ‘partners’ strategy,” Washington Post, January 22, 2015; and Eric Schmitt and Tim Arango, “Billions From U.S. fail to Sustain Foreign Forces,” New York Times, October 3, 2015.

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