Fourteen Years and Counting: The Evolving Terrorist Threat
September 11, 2015
Abstract: Fourteen years after 9/11, there has been a reduction of the threat from the original al-Qa`ida organization, but there is growing concern about al-Qa`ida’s affiliates in Yemen and Syria. The threat posed by the Islamic State to the West is wide-ranging and it is safe to say Islamic extremism is likely to be with us for generations. There has been a reduction in the threat of large, spectacular attacks, but a sharp rise in the threat of small-scale attacks. The United States must maintain pressure on terrorist groups to stop them bouncing back, but let other countries take the lead when they have the capabilities.
Fourteen years ago this month, the United States suffered the single worst attack in its history. In just over an hour, 19 terrorists took control of four airliners, crashed three of them into buildings and one into a field, killing nearly 3,000 people. Two weeks later, the United States was at war both with the group responsible—Usama bin Ladin’s terrorist organization, al-Qa`ida—and with the government of Afghanistan, which had harbored al-Qa`ida.
This war continues today, against the remnants of Bin Ladin’s original group in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and against a variety of similarly motivated extremist groups elsewhere in the world. So, where are we after 14 years? The key questions are: What is the threat we face as a nation today? How is the threat developing? And, what should we do about it?
It is important to start with an overarching point. In the post-9/11 fight against these terrorists, the United States has scored a great victory, but so have the extremists. Our great victory has been the severe degradation of the al-Qai`da senior leadership in South Asia—the group responsible for 9/11. The United States—along with Afghan and Pakistani partners—has achieved this through aggressive counterterrorism operations.
Al-Qa`ida’s great victory has been the spread of its ideology across a large geographic area. It runs from northern Nigeria into the Sahel, primarily in northern Mali, and across North Africa from Morocco through Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya to Egypt. It also includes parts of East Africa, primarily in Somalia but also in Kenya, and stretches across the Gulf of Aden into Yemen and up to Iraq and Syria. Al-Qa`ida, of course, remains active in South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh), and in some parts of Southeast Asia. All told, some 20 countries now have terrorist groups within their borders espousing the jihadist ideology.
This spread began because of Bin Ladin’s successes in East Africa, Yemen, and the United States (the embassy bombings in 1998, the USS Cole bombing in 2000, and the 9/11 attacks). These al-Qa`ida victories created a following for Bin Ladin. He became a role model. The spread was given a boost by the operatives who fled South Asia after 9/11 and by Muslim opposition to the Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan—just as Bin Ladin had hoped. But the spread of al-Qa`ida’s ideology has been given perhaps its most signiﬁcant lift by the Arab Spring, which created safe havens where the movement could operate and which provided the franchises with much-needed recruits, money, and weapons.
These two victories have significantly altered the threat landscape. The change is characterized by a reduction of the threat from the original al-Qa`ida organization, but a significant expansion of the threat from emerging groups. There has also been a reduction in the threat of large, spectacular attacks, but a skyrocketing rise in the threat of small-scale attacks. This is playing out: 2014 was the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years since such data has been compiled.
This is the threat from a broad perspective. What about the threat from specific groups?
The Islamic State
The Islamic State—an organization that for ten years was commonly known as al-Qa`ida in Iraq—has grown faster than any terrorist group I can remember. The threat it poses to the West is as wide-ranging as any we have seen.
The Islamic State poses three terrorist threats to the United States (although, its most significant threat is not terrorism but rather the threat it poses to the stability of the entire Middle East). First, the Islamic State’s success on the battlefield and its Madison Avenue–quality messaging is attracting young men and women to join its cause. At least 25,000 foreign nationals from roughly 100 countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight. Most have joined the Islamic State. These foreign nationals are getting experience on the battlefield, and they are becoming increasingly radicalized.
There is a particular subset of these fighters that the West should worry about. Some 5,000 individuals have traveled to Syria and Iraq from Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States. They all have easy access to the U.S. homeland.
There are two possibilities to worry about—that these fighters leave the Middle East and either conduct an attack on their own or do so at the direction of the Islamic State leadership. The former has already happened in Europe but not yet in the United States, though it will. In spring 2014, a young Frenchman, Mehdi Nemmouche, who had fought in Syria, returned to Europe and shot four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels.
The latter—an Islamic State-directed attack—has not yet occurred either, but it will. Today, such an attack would be relatively unsophisticated and small scale, but over time the Islamic State’s capability to conduct a more complex attack will grow. This is what long-term safe haven in Iraq and Syria would give the Islamic State, and it is exactly what the group is aiming for.
Second, the Islamic State is building a following among other extremist groups around the world—at a more rapid pace than al-Qa`ida ever enjoyed. This has now occurred in ten countries, including Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, Egypt, Yemen, and Afghanistan. More will follow. This makes these groups even more dangerous because they will increasingly target the Islamic State’s enemies (including the United States), and they will increasingly adopt the Islamic State’s brutality.
We saw the targeting of Westerners play out in early 2015 when an Islamic State-associated group in Libya killed an American in an attack on a hotel in Tripoli frequented by diplomats and international businessmen.[a] We saw the new brutality of these groups again just a few weeks later when another Islamic State–affiliated group in Libya beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.
It is even possible that we could see one or more of these Islamic State–associated groups take over significant territory in the countries in which they operate. In fact, this is already starting to occur: in March 2015, the Islamic State took control of the important Libyan port city of Sirte.
And, third, the Islamic State’s message is radicalizing young men and women in the United States who have never traveled to Syria or Iraq but who want to commit an attack to demonstrate their solidarity with the Islamic State. At least two such attacks have already occurred in the United States—an individual with sympathies for the Islamic State attacked two New York City police officers with a hatchet and two Islamic State-inspired individuals attacked an anti-Islamic gathering near Dallas, Texas. Both attacks were unsuccessful, but we can expect more. Dozens of other Americans have been arrested for plotting attacks in the United States on behalf of the Islamic State.
Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
Al-Qa`ida in Yemen—the group most tightly aligned to the al-Qa`ida leadership in Pakistan—poses an even greater threat to the U.S. homeland than does the Islamic State, at least for now. The last three attempted attacks by an al-Qa`ida group against the United States—attempts to bring down airliners in 2009, 2010, and 2012—were all AQAP plots. Two of these came close to being great successes for al-Qa`ida.
One AQAP senior leader is more dangerous than the rest—Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi by birth and AQAP’s chief bomb-maker. Al-Asiri is the mastermind behind new explosive devices designed to evade security checks. He is smart and creative, and he is training a new generation of AQAP bomb-makers. Al-Asiri may well be the most dangerous terrorist alive today. He is a master at his craft.
Al-Asiri built a rectum bomb and recruited his younger brother Abdullah to use it in an attempt to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s most senior security official, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the country’s minister of the interior and now crown prince. Abdullah pretended to be a repentant terrorist, and in a meeting with Prince Muhammad designed to symbolize the sincerity of his change of heart, he detonated the device. The two were sitting on pillows on the floor, shoulder to shoulder, when Abdullah hit a button on a cell phone, detonating the explosives. Abdullah was killed instantly—pieces of him were scattered all over the room, including the ceiling—but Prince Muhammad, sitting just inches away, survived with only minor injuries.
Al-Asiri’s bombs were also used in the three attempted attacks against the United States mentioned earlier. Al-Asiri was the mastermind behind Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear bomb, which nearly brought down an airliner flying from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009. Al-Asiri also built a bomb hidden in a printer cartridge that was nearly impossible to detect. The goal was to bring down multiple cargo planes flying to the United States in 2010. The printer cartridge bomb could not be detected by either traditional airport scanners or dogs trained to locate explosives. He also built a non-metallic suicide vest, again designed to bring down airliners, and he has experimented with surgically implanting explosive devices inside people.
AQAP’s capabilities were on full display in Paris in January 2015, when two brothers attacked the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo over its lampooning of the Prophet Muhammad. The assault on Charlie Hebdo was the largest terrorist attack in France since 1961 and claimed the lives of 12 people. It was methodical and demonstrated planning, organization, and precision. The brothers, who had initially escaped the scene, were found two days later, 20 miles northeast of Paris but took hostages before they were finally gunned down by police after a nine-hour standoff. At the same time the siege was underway, a third individual conducted a sympathy attack, taking and killing four hostages at a kosher market in Paris, before the police killed him as well.
One of the brothers involved in the Charlie Hebdo attack had traveled to Yemen in 2011, where he attended a terrorist training camp run by AQAP. He met with a leading operative of the group, an American named Anwar al-Awlaki, who was intent on conducting attacks in the United States and Western Europe. During the operation in Paris, the brothers announced their allegiance to AQAP, and subsequently AQAP claimed to have directed the brothers to attack Charlie Hebdo and to have provided them with funding. If AQAP’s claims are true, this would represent its first successful attack in the West and the largest al-Qa`ida attack in Western Europe since the London bombings ten years earlier.
And despite losing a number of senior operatives—including the group’s senior leader—to U.S. counterterrorism operations in the last few months, the group has grown in strength as a result of the Yemeni civil war. The number of fighters is now greater than ever, it is holding territory again, and it has more money and heavy weapons than ever before. AQAP remains extremely dangerous.
Al-Qa`ida Senior Leadership (AQSL)
Where does the threat to the U.S. homeland from al-Qa`ida in Pakistan, the al-Qa`ida Senior Leadership, stand today? Al-Qa`ida in Pakistan still has the ability to carry out attacks in the United States, but only small-scale attacks—a singular event that might kill 100 people or fewer. I do not want to understate the significance of such an attack, but al-Qa`ida in Pakistan no longer has the ability to conduct a 9/11-style event.
It had that capability twice—in the period just before 9/11 and from 2006 to 2010. It was first taken from the group after the 9/11 attacks by the U.S. paramilitary and military intervention in Afghanistan and by Pakistan’s decision to work with the CIA against al-Qa`ida. It was taken from the group a second time by the aggressive counterterrorism operations begun by President George W. Bush in August 2008 and continued by President Barack Obama.
But just because AQSL does not have that capability today does not mean it will not get it back someday. Indeed, it may even be likely given trends in Afghanistan. Even in a best-case outcome for Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. forces, in which the government controls Kabul and most cities, the Taliban will control swaths of Afghan territory in the south and east. (The worst-case scenario is that the Taliban will be knocking on the door of Kabul within 18 months of the departure of U.S. forces.)
The al-Qa`ida leadership in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), if not defeated by then, will find safe haven with the Taliban. Some members will stay in Pakistan, but many will move back into Afghanistan. And if the United States cannot or chooses not to contest al-Qa`ida there, the group will rebound, it will resurge, and it will eventually again pose a 9/11-style threat to the homeland. And, as in Yemen, there is one particular terrorist in South Asia who is the focus of concern—Farouq al-Qahtani.
The al-Qa`ida leadership in Pakistan sent al-Qahtani to Afghanistan as a backstop so al-Qa`ida could regroup if it lost its sanctuary in Pakistan. Al-Qahtani took his men to one of the most inhospitable areas on the planet—Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, where steep mountains and narrow river valleys make movement extremely difficult. There, al-Qahtani has developed a following among the Taliban and the locals, and his al-Qa`ida branch has grown as more operatives have joined his group.
Al-Qahtani, a Qatari by birth, is a counterterrorism expert’s worst nightmare. He is smart and operationally sophisticated. He is also a charismatic leader. He is one of the few al-Qa`ida leaders who might have what it takes to replace Bin Ladin.
The Khorasan Group
The Islamic State is not the only terrorist group in Syria. The first jihadi group there to rise against President Bashar al-Assad was Jabhat al-Nusra. While the Islamic State grew out of the old al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI), Jabhat al-Nusra was formed from an older organization of Syrian extremists who had helped to facilitate the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq, via Syria, during the initial rise of AQI at the time of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Unlike the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra is fully in the camp of AQSL. Jabhat al-Nusra is an official affiliate of al-Qa`ida, and it accepts guidance from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa`ida’s leader since Bin Ladin’s death in 2011.
Early in the fight against Assad, al-Zawahiri sent a group of his own operatives from Pakistan to Syria. Al-Zawahiri had two objectives for the group: one was to assist al-Nusra in its fight against Assad and the second was to use Syria as a base of operations for attacks the West, including against the United States. This group of operatives from Pakistan is called the Khorasan Group. Like AQAP and AQSL, the Khorasan Group has the capability to conduct successful attacks in the United States. And, as with the Islamic State, the greater the safe haven Jabhat al-Nusra has in Syria, the more potent their capabilities against the West will become over time.
There is a long list of other jihadi groups, largely in Africa but also more broadly, that pose a local threat to U.S. interests and our allies. These groups regularly conduct attacks—three of the best known are the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi against our diplomatic facility, an attack in September 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya involving the al-Qa`ida–affiliated group al-Shabab that targeted an upscale mall, and the January 2013 strike at In Amenas, Algeria, which involved terrorists from Mali taking hostages at a natural gas facility in the eastern part of the country operated by British Petroleum and Norway’s Statoil. In these three attacks, terrorists killed more than 100 people, including seven Americans. The risk to Americans living and traveling in certain parts of the world is significant.
Dealing With The Menace
So, how do we deal with the problem of terrorism and how do we end this menace? The most important concept that policymakers—and the American public—must accept is that if we are to keep the homeland and Americans overseas safe, we must maintain pressure on terrorist groups who have both the desire and capability to attack us. The history is clear—when the pressure is on, their capabilities degrade. When the pressure is removed, they bounce back.
But that is not the same thing as saying the United States must be the sole actor in putting that pressure on al-Qa`ida. Quite the contrary: it is best if other countries take the lead when they have the necessary capabilities, and that we act only when there is no other option. Not only does this make sense from the perspective of not playing into al-Qa`ida’s narrative about the United States, but it also has the best chance of being accepted, long term, by the American people.
What does this mean in practice? First, the U.S. intelligence community and military must—along with our allies—expend the resources and effort to build the intelligence, security, military, and rule-of-law capabilities of the frontline states in the fight against al-Qa`ida—particularly those that are historically weak and those destabilized by the Arab Spring. This is a long-term effort, but it has to be systematic, it has to be sustained, and it has to be funded.
Second, having the capabilities is not enough—a willingness by the frontline states to use them against extremist groups is also required. And here American diplomacy must take the lead. The U.S. Department of State needs to be active in convincing countries to fight terrorism within their borders. Additionally, the president, and his or her senior national security team, must actively support this diplomacy.
Third, we need to have global partners willing to take action outside their own borders when necessary—so that we are not the only country doing so. That’s another job for our country’s diplomats, including our top diplomat, the president.
This is what France did in Mali in January 2013.
The French government, growing increasingly concerned about the threat from al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), took action. AQIM, reinforced with thousands of weapons from Libya, had taken advantage of a security vacuum in the north of the Mali caused by the political crisis there. As a result, AQIM was able to seize control of a large swath of territory approximately the size of Texas, imposing sharia law and opening training camps for jihadis of all types. Understanding that France would be AQIM’s number-one target, the French responded, putting thousands of troops on the ground and going toe-to-toe with the enemy, killing hundreds of terrorists, driving the rest of them back into the mountains, and denying them a vitally important safe haven. The French are to be commended for this action. It is a model for what we need other allies to do when necessary.
Fourth, the United States needs to act when no one else is able. Whether the action is air strikes by manned or unmanned assets, action from special operations forces on the ground either alone or in close support of others, or even the use of conventional military forces, the United States needs to be willing and able to act.
All of the above is necessary, but it is not enough to win the war over the long term, as more and more terrorists are created every day. To win the war over the longer term, we and our allies must address the issues that create terrorists in the first place. We must address the disease as well as the symptoms. We must undermine the jihadist appeal to young Muslims. We must discredit the terrorists’ narrative that hatred and violence are the only mechanisms for dealing with the modern world. This effort requires engaging in and winning the war of ideas. But it also requires minimizing the number of disenchanted young Muslims through economic and social development. Counter-radicalization is a two-part effort.
Counter-radicalization has not been a major focus of the United States since 9/11, but action on this front in the long term will be just as important as action on the intelligence, law enforcement, and military fronts. There have been steps in this direction, but more needs to be done. Developing the policies to get at the root causes of why young men and some women join terrorist groups has never really gotten off the ground.
It is not unreasonable to ask why we have not yet attacked the problem at its roots. The answer is twofold. First, the priority will always be on those individuals who are trying to attack us. That will always take precedence over the longer-term issues. And, second, the issues involved in counter-radicalization are numerous and complex, and require a number of countries to take the right steps. The issues involve good governance, anti-corruption, economic development, social service provision but particularly education, religious tolerance, and a host of other factors. Most important, for every al-Qa`ida narrative there must be a counter-narrative delivered loudly and widely—largely by governments in countries where young people are radicalized and by Islamic scholars and clerics.
Such programs will take years to bear fruit. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that Islamic extremism is likely to be with us for generations. We are likely to look back at the last 14 years as only the opening salvo in what will be a very long war.
Michael Morell is the former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and is now a senior fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. This article is adapted from a chapter in his book, published by Twelve, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism from al-Qa`ida to ISIS.
[a] Islamic State-associated groups may have been behind two attacks this year against Westerners in Tunisia—one in March against a museum in Tunis and a second in June on a beach in Sousse.
 Global Terrorism Database, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, June 2015.