Events over the past month in North Africa—the sudden French military intervention against advancing Islamist militants in Mali and the bloody end to the hostage crisis in Algeria—have illustrated two basic facts. First, despite the success the United States has achieved over the past four years in destroying the core Al Qaeda organization that attacked us on 9/11, violent Islamist extremist groups will remain a security threat in many regions of the world. Second, the tactic of terrorism will unfortunately remain a tool for violent extremists of varying and diverse ideological persuasions for the foreseeable future. Both these facts argue that the United States should formulate a broader-based and sustainable counterterrorism strategy that looks beyond the demise of Al Qaeda central and the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, in order to better use the full range of tools the United States possesses to combat an increasingly fragmented but dangerous menace.
The fact that violent Islamist extremism in various forms continues to exist despite recent successes against the core Al Qaeda organization currently hiding out in Pakistan does not argue for the continuation of an amorphous “war on terror” as conservative pundits seem to think. The Obama administration rightly shifted from the Bush administration’s ideological construct of a “war on terror” to a more narrow focus on groups that directly target the U.S. homeland—Al Qaeda central and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While other violent Islamist extremists—such as those currently wreaking havoc in Mali and Algeria—share the same ideological motives and goals as Al Qaeda central, they have generally focused and cooperated—as in Mali—on local or regional concerns.
The fact that these violent Islamist extremist groups do not directly target the U.S. homeland—whatever their rhetorical aspirations—does not mean they are not worth the bother. In addition to grossly violating human rights, these groups often destabilize the regions in which they operate, as the fighting in Mali dramatically demonstrates, and can by extension threaten key U.S. interests. These groups can also target American diplomatic or military facilities abroad, such as the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens last September—an attack that Algerian officials claim involved Egyptian militants who also participated in the hostage crisis in Algeria, or target American civilians traveling abroad. What’s more, these extremists can target U.S. allies and partners just as militants in Mali have threatened to do in retaliation for France’s intervention there and as Algerian terrorists attempted during that country’s civil war in the 1990s.
While Al Qaeda central may be well along the road to its demise, the problem of violent Islamist extremism will continue to plague the world. It would be a mistake, however, to treat the various groups that espouse Al Qaeda-style ideology as interchangeable or one and the same. Each group represents a distinct challenge in whatever context it operates, which in turn will necessitate a distinct policy response from the United States and its allies and partners. Sending in U.S. forces or drones wherever violent Islamist extremists threaten regional stability or American interests may not be the wisest course of action in every situation, particularly if longstanding U.S. allies and local partners are able and willing to take responsibility. Mali is again instructive: The extremist groups operating there likely represent a greater threat to France and French interests than to the United States and its interests. Consequently, France has taken primary responsibility for beating these extremist groups back to allow U.S.-trained regional forces to take the lead.
Following the devastating blows it has inflicted on Al Qaeda’s core, the United States should commit to opposing violent Islamist extremism on a case-by-case basis. It should avoid subscribing to the unified field theory of violent Islamist extremism propounded by the Bush administration and many conservatives today who see each local eruption as a manifestation of a broader war between the United States and an abstract ideology. Rather, the United States should view specific groups espousing violent Islamist extremism as threats to its national interests, the security of its allies and partners, and human rights in the local and regional contexts in which they arise. Doing so will open up a greater range of options in collaboration with allies and partners than afforded under the old “war on terror” approach.
The multifaceted threat of violent Islamist extremism also shows that terrorism itself should properly be considered a tactic that should be guarded against, whatever its source. Historically, terrorism has been used by a plethora of groups with wildly divergent ideological goals—Russian anarchists, Northern Irish nationalists, German communists, American far-rightists, and violent Islamist extremists have all used terrorism as a tactic to further their political agendas. Even if all violent Islamist extremism were to magically cease, it’s likely that some other group driven by a different ideology would resort to terrorist tactics at some point in the future.
Terrorism will be with us in some form or another for the foreseeable future. And it’s just as likely that given changing dynamics and realities that the drone strikes that have apparently proven effective against Al Qaeda central will have limited utility going forward. The confluence of circumstances that allows drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan—groups that have directly targeted the United States from active conflict zones over which nominal governments have little authority and allow drone strikes—are unlikely to recur in the future. While the possibility that these circumstances may occur again cannot be definitively ruled out, they suggest it would be appropriate to adopt a high threshold when considering the use of drone strikes as a counterterrorism tool.
By contrast with Al Qaeda central and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the extremists threatening Mali have not directly targeted the United States, and longstanding U.S. ally France has taken responsibility in working with the Malian government to turn them back. What’s more, the United States is working to train the troops of various African nations to step into the situation as well. No matter how brutal they may otherwise be, not every terrorist group will directly target the U.S. homeland, and those that do may not have the opportunity to hide in legally distinct areas such as Pakistan’s tribal areas where foreign government security forces do not operate. Other governments may or may not prove as cooperative in allowing drone strikes as those of Pakistan and Yemen, preferring other approaches or types of U.S. assistance.
In other words, drones will probably outlive their usefulness as a counterterrorism tool when Al Qaeda central is judged to be on a permanent path to defeat. This is not to say that drones will not have utility in certain conflicts involving terrorist groups, but rather that the current framework for their use is based on the unique circumstances of the conflict between the United States and Al Qaeda. Other places drones have been used—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, for example—fall more clearly under policy and legal frameworks of conventional war. Policymakers should not assume that this framework is easily transferable to the problems posed by other violent Islamist extremist groups and non-Islamist terrorist organizations in other parts of the world.
Looking forward, a broader-based and more sustainable counterterrorism policy that can both adapt to post-Al Qaeda terrorist threats—including other violent Islamist extremists—wherever they arise and is not based on the exigencies of the fight against Al Qaeda central will be needed. Interestingly, the Obama administration appears to have taken some steps forward on this front. The recent development of a counterterrorism “playbook” reportedly setting clear rules for lethal CIA strikes—exempting Pakistan for one to two years—shows how far the administration is going to rationalize its counterterrorism policies. And the work the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism has done to promote counterterrorism cooperation and capacity building across U.S. allies and partners—such as the launch of the Global Counterterrorism Forum in 2011, as well as various regional cooperation initiatives— provides a foundation for the future.
But as outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has acknowledged, drones are “not something we’re going to have to use forever.” While the development of the counterterrorism “playbook” is a step forward, it too will lose its utility once Al Qaeda, including those in the Arabian Peninsula, meet their eventual demise. The Obama administration should begin thinking about a post-Al Qaeda counterterrorism framework that presumes the expiration of the 2001 authorization for use of military force against Al Qaeda and its close allies. That is, a counterterrorism framework in which the logic of “armed conflict” no longer applies because Al Qaeda has been effectively defeated.
Developing this framework will not be easy. As noted, violent Islamist extremists subscribing to Al Qaeda-style ideologies remain destabilizing forces in many parts of the world. Terrorism as a tactic will remain available to any group that chooses to use it. The status of those held in Guantanamo Bay remains uncertain and politically intractable. Conservatives and others will try to cling to the “war on terror” framework laid out by the Bush administration. But successfully concluding the war against Al Qaeda and moving on to a more sustainable counterterrorism framework will allow the United States to finally and definitively move beyond the post-9/11 era in foreign policy.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.