The latest terrorist attack in Nice, France on Thursday, reminded us of the long struggle in the global war on terrorism since 9/11. The West has been buffeted by one attack after another lately, and despite our aggressive efforts worldwide, the enemy is resilient and the fight has changed since the early days of the new millennium. The latest attack in France also presented another troubling paradigm shift: the use of a truck driven through crowds of people as a weapon of mass destruction. Now, the West must build countermeasures and so from now forward, all venues with heavy pedestrian foot traffic will have to be secured so that someone cannot simply turn a vehicle down a street packed with pedestrians and kill dozens of them.
We have had some successes. A sustained effort since 2001 has decimated al Qaeda’s senior leadership in their base of operations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Osama bin Laden is dead, and his replacement, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in deep hiding and unable to give the organization real leadership or direction.
We have captured or killed the number three guy in al Qaeda more times than I can count. Khalid Sheik Muhammad, the intellectual author of 9/11, first held the number three role in al Qaeda. He was arrested in Rawalpindi, Pakistan in March 2003, and he is now at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. He was immediately replaced by Abu Faraj al-Libi who was arrested in Mardan, Pakistan in May of 2005 in an effort that was documented fairly accurately in the movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Abu Faraj is also in Guantanamo. He was replaced in May 2005 by Hamza Rabia who died in a sudden explosion in Waziristan, Pakistan in November 2005. Hamza Rabia was replaced by someone else who died in another sudden explosion in Waziristan three months later. And so it goes. Being the number three in al Qaeda is a position with little job security. Today? No one but a very few in the intelligence community even know the senior hierarchy at al Qaeda because their tenure is so short.
But, the bad news is that while we have been successful against al Qaeda senior leadership, the ideology of radical Muslim extremism is spreading and more dangerous than ever. Yes, the al Qaeda core has been decimated, but the ideology is thriving, and the Islamic State is now the source of most of the recent terrorist attacks. Not long after I left government service in mid 2014, the Islamic State exploded on the scene, and far from the “JV team” we were told they were, they are aggressive, well financed, and control huge swaths of territory. They have quickly gained a well-earned reputation for barbarism and violence, and they have replaced al Qaeda as Public Enemy Number One.
It is telling that the Islamic State’s leaders, particularly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, felt little need to align themselves with al Qaeda. Rather, they defied Aymen al-Zawahiri, publicly rejected some of al Qaeda’s themes, and they broke away and assumed charge of the global jihadist movement.
So, while we continue to decimate the leadership of terrorist organizations, the bad news is that the ideology is proliferating, and they keep repopulating the leadership ranks. They are weaker for our efforts, but we are never going to be able to “win” and declare victory, because I don’t see us ever fully stopping terrorism. It’s just too much of an asymmetrical war. Despite our enormous military and intelligence budgets and a lot of hard work, one radicalized guy can get in a truck and kill 80 people. Something like that is difficult to defend against—even with the vast resources that a country like France commands.
The Islamic State and terrorism writ large is going to be with us for quite a while. This will be our long struggle that lacks both a clear beginning and a clear end. What we still don’t fully understand, after all these years, is why this ideology is flourishing and how might we stop it.