Rethinking the Global War on Terror
The nature of the terrorist threat has changed dramatically since Bin Laden. How can we readjust to better address the new reality?
Almost 17 years after the events of September 11, 2001, the War on Terror is still in full swing with no signs of slowing down. However, the internal dynamics of the Salafist jihadist organizations have been reorganized, and the balance of power in the Middle East region has shifted. The days of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda are long gone. The composition, motivations, and priorities of modern jihadist groups are different from those of Al Qaeda in the lead up to and aftermath of 9/11. How are those different and how must we adapt accordingly?
First, the rank and file of jihadist groups has changed in nature, particularly since the Iraq War and the start of the Syrian Civil War. Sectarian oppression and economic strife drove many Iraqi Sunnis to al-Zarqawi's brand of anti-Shia jihad. Newly unemployed soldiers and Ba'ath party members, including much of the military leadership, helped found the organization that would become ISIS. Meanwhile, American military prisons would serve to congregate terrorists and forge the jihadist networks that would eventually thrive. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sunni Iraqi Arab membership in Al Qaeda affiliates would skyrocket.
Assad's Syria facilitated the travel of Sunni jihadists across the border into Iraq, intensifying the chaos for American and Iraqi security forces. This process would eventually reverse itself at the outset of the Syrian Civil War with thousands returning to Syria in order to turn the tide of the war. The descendant of Zarqawi's network, the Islamic State of Iraq, would take advantage of the chaos in neighbouring Syria and take vast swathes in the Eastern desert regions. Local Syrians would be recruited, including pledges of allegiance from smaller Islamist rebel factions. Large portions of Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat an-Nusra, defected to join the caliphate declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Other Syrian Islamist militant groups remained independent while Jabhat an-Nusra still thrived.
The national makeup of the global jihad had taken on a decidedly Iraqi and Syrian tinge. But after the caliphate was declared, ISIS found itself attracting young Muslims from around the world. Just as the FSA and Jabhat an-Nusra had done before, the group was taking in thousands of foreign fighters wanting to be a part of the new jihadist homeland. While the majority were from other Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tunisia, a significant number were coming from Europe, Russia, and North America. The new centre of Sunni jihad was a far cry from Bin Laden's underground terror network a decade earlier.
The motivations of the new masses of jihadists contrasted enormously with those of the 9/11 hijackers. While the attacks were motivated by American policy in the Middle East and the Islamic world, the young men joining ISIS in Iraq were living in a war zone where they perceived active oppression from the new ruling Shia majority. Americans, Israelis, Christians, and Jews were far from the primary target for the new jihadist. It was the Shia. A takfiri brand of Salafi jihadism prevailed over Bin Laden's old ideology, and Shia targets of all kind became the priority. The same conditions arose in Syria when it became clear that the uprising was becoming a war between Sunnis and the ruling class.
The solution to our problem is not the current strategy. The tactic-driven strategy currently undertaken by American-led forces in the Middle East has only served to embolden Iran and its allies' positions across the region. Any Western policy in Iraq and Syria must prioritize containment of Iranian-backed militias as much as it prioritizes the defeat of ISIS. If the Shia are allowed to persecute the remaining Sunnis as they retake land from ISIS, the Sunni insurgency problem will not end in Iraq. If the Assad regime is allowed to commit atrocities against the Sunni opposition, Western values, leadership, and integrity will have been assaulted and shamed on the international stage.
As for Afghanistan, the stated American policy is extremely unfortunate. The deployment of additional troops to prolong the ground war is not advisable under the current conditions, and the state of American counter-terrorism efforts is nakedly disgraced. Trump's declaration that they "will not be nation-building again," and only "killing terrorists" demonstrates a poor understanding of the process by which the Taliban sustains itself. The legacy of the War in Afghanistan should have been a lesson in history, but unfortunately American policy under the Trump administration does not reflect that.