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They Have a Strategy

The jihadists’ insurgencies may look like ‘ local power struggles,’ but their ambitions are far grander

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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During a press conference on August 28, Barack Obama had a rare moment of candor. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” the president said in response to a question about the prospect of using military force against the Islamic State in Syria. Obama’s declaration drew widespread criticism, as the Islamic State (often referred to by its previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) has made stunning advances this year. Administration officials sought to deflect critics by noting that the president was referring solely to Syria, and not to neighboring Iraq. This does not make the president’s admission any less troubling, however.

Murderous Terrorists

The jihad in Syria is inextricably linked to the fighting in Iraq, and, therefore, Obama cannot have a strategy for combating the jihadists in one country without tackling them in the other. The organization is dedicated to wiping out the boundary between the two nation-states. Its propaganda videos frequently feature footage of bulldozers symbolically demolishing an Iraqi-Syrian border that has defined maps for decades. Today, the Islamic State controls a large swath of contiguous territory across both nations.

Only belatedly this year, in early August, did Obama authorize airstrikes in Iraq. The bombings have halted the Islamic State’s momentum in some areas, but there is no reason to believe the strikes will dislodge the jihadists from the significant ground under their control. Obama has no strategy for winning back the territory lost to the Islamic State and its allies in either Iraq or Syria.

Obama’s lack of strategy is no accident. It is a direct result of the way he has chosen to see the post-9/11 world.

For the president, the only terrorists who have ever really mattered are the ones who planned the September 11, 2001, attacks or plotted similar spectacular strikes against the U.S. homeland. Obama is satisfied as long as America’s vast intelligence bureaucracy stops jihadists from committing mass casualty attacks on American soil. This is the real reason he doesn’t have a strategy for combating jihadists in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere. Simply put, he doesn’t think such a strategy is necessary.

Obama has thought this way since well before he became president. During the summer of 2008, Obama toured the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq as a presidential candidate. He repeatedly told the press that Afghanistan mattered, whereas Iraq did not. When he arrived in Iraq, he was challenged by General David Petraeus, who was in charge of the American-led war effort at the time. The exchange between the two was recorded in The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, by New York Times reporter Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor.

No matter what one thought of President Bush’s decision to invade the country in 2003, Petraeus explained, al Qaeda’s leaders had made Iraq the “central front” in their war. Obama disagreed. “The Al-Qaeda leadership is not here in Iraq. They are there,” Obama said, pointing to Pakistan on a map. He wasn’t telling Petraeus anything he didn’t know, of course. Obama pressed on, wondering “whether Al Qaeda in Iraq presented a threat to the United States,” according to Gordon and Trainor’s account. “If AQI has morphed into a kind of mafia then they are not going to be blowing up buildings,” Obama said. Petraeus pointed out that an AQI operative was responsible for a failed terrorist attack in Scotland in 2007. Obama was unmoved. Al Qaeda’s fight for Iraq was not, in Obama’s opinion, a major concern.

Obama has not changed his mind in the years since, even as AQI evolved into the Islamic State, eventually gaining power and territory. The president has, if anything, doubled down on his belief that America’s only real priority is to stop the terrorists who pose the most immediate threat to the U.S. homeland.

The president said as much during a fundraiser on August 29 in Newport, Rhode Island. While recognizing that the upheaval in the Middle East is “scary,” Obama sought to assure his supporters the government’s “security apparatus” has been sufficiently improved since 9/11 such that it “makes us in the here and now pretty safe.” Obama continued: “We have to be vigilant, but this doesn’t immediately threaten the homeland. What it does do, though, is it gives a sense, once again, for future generations, is the world going to be upended in ways that affect our kids and our grandkids.”

The president did not seek to assuage concerns about the possible terrorist threat to Americans for generations to come. He said that “there are going to be some things that are a little bit out of our control.” And he later added, “We’re not going to solve every problem in the Middle East right away, although we can make sure we’re safe and that we’re empowering better partners rather than the worst in the region.”

This is not a strategy. America is playing defense on Obama’s watch. Our jihadist enemies, meanwhile, are
on offense. And the threat they pose to the United States and its interests, both at home and abroad, is rising. They are fighting for “future generations.”

When Osama bin Laden and his closest allies established al Qaeda in 1988, they were not centered on attacking the United States. To his dying day, this was never bin Laden’s lone goal. Attacking America was always a tactic, a step, in al Qaeda’s plan. 

Bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, including his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, sought the creation of Islamic nation-states governed by their exceedingly harsh version of sharia law. They could not create their idyllic societies, however, without first removing the dictators who, prior to the 2011 Arab uprisings, governed most Muslim-majority countries. And, they came to believe, they could not supplant the dictators without striking America.

The jihadists’ earliest attempts to topple the rulers in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Libya were abysmal failures. Al Qaeda reasoned that American support for the dictatorships was propping them up. Striking America became an increasingly important part of al Qaeda’s plan over time, but it was never the group’s primary reason for existence. More than a quarter of a century later, al Qaeda’s goal remains the same: to establish Islamic emirates, or nations, and eventually resurrect the caliphate.

In late June, the Islamic State declared that its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was now known as “Caliph Ibrahim,” the ruler of a caliphate stretching across large parts of Iraq and Syria. For the jihadists, the dissolution of the Islamic caliphate in 1924 was a disaster that continues to resonate. They believe that a resurrected caliphate will be capable of defending Muslims from all sorts of imagined conspiracies against the Islamic world.

After Baghdadi’s declaration, some commentators claimed that there is a sharp difference between the Islamic State’s goals and al Qaeda’s. The Islamic State is supposedly focused on seizing territory and governing, whereas al Qaeda is interested in other matters. This is simply not true. Al Qaeda also seeks to govern territory. And al Qaeda’s top leaders have repeatedly said that they are fighting to reestablish the caliphate. Just this past week, al Qaeda announced the creation of a new branch named Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, which will likely unite jihadist groups across several countries. One of the group’s stated goals is to wage jihad “so as to revive the caliphate.”

Before it expanded into Syria, the Islamic State was a formal branch of al Qaeda. Shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, Baghdadi released a eulogy pledging revenge for “the martyrdom of our sheikh.” Addressing his “brothers” in al Qaeda and their leaders, including Zawahiri, Baghdadi declared: “You have in
the Islamic State of Iraq a group of loyal men pursuing the endeavor of truth; they shall never forgive nor resign.”

The Islamic State was eventually disowned by al Qaeda’s senior leaders, in February of this year. That decision was based on differences over tactics, not goals. Islamic State leaders repeatedly disobeyed orders from al Qaeda’s general command, including by expanding into neighboring Syria. Once it became a significant part of the Syrian war, and changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the group decided that it should have dominion over all jihadists fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This brought ISIL, which was rebranded again as simply the Islamic State in late June, into direct conflict with the group al Qaeda was grooming to take over the Syrian jihad, Jabhat al Nusrah, as well as other allied jihadists. The Islamic State even initiated a bloody campaign against its fellow jihadists, eventually killing one of Zawahiri’s top leaders in the country. For al Qaeda, the infighting sparked by the Islamic State’s desire to rule the roost is a most grievous sin, as it jeopardizes the mission to overthrow Assad. Al Qaeda also does not agree that Baghdadi should be the top jihadist on the planet.

Beyond the power politics, there are other differences between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, all of which have been set forth by al Qaeda leaders. Stung by setbacks in Iraq during the height of the American surge and other failures, al Qaeda has adopted a more gradualist approach to inculcating its jihadist ideology within the population. Muslims have frequently rejected al Qaeda-style sharia law because of its extreme absurdities. Al Qaeda has decided, therefore, to implement its laws in the areas under its control more slowly, educating the public about the supposed merits of its rule along the way.

Al Qaeda also thinks that it is premature to declare an Islamic nation-state in any locale because the jihadists are too weak to effectively counter the opposition from America and others that will crystalize to fight any political body openly ruled by al Qaeda.

Thus, al Qaeda and its regional branches, all of which have sworn loyalty to Zawahiri, do not claim to rule over Islamic nations in any of the countries in which they currently hold territory. This does not change the fact that al Qaeda and its closest allies currently control turf in parts of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, West and North Africa, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. It does not change the fact that the jihadists, whether part of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or similarly inspired groups, have executed a massive land grab on Obama’s watch.

Obama and his closest advisers do not believe that this territorial expansion matters when it comes to American security. They are utterly dismissive of the jihadists’ stated goals.

“Our strategy is .  .  . shaped by a deeper understanding of al Qaeda’s goals, strategy, and tactics,” John Brennan, then Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser and now CIA director, argued during a speech on June 29, 2011. “I’m not talking about al Qaeda’s grandiose vision of global domination through a violent Islamic caliphate. That vision is absurd, and we are not going to organize our counterterrorism policies against a feckless delusion that is never going to happen. We are not going to elevate these thugs and their murderous aspirations into something larger than they are.”

What Brennan did not understand, or chose to ignore, is that, in some respect, it does not matter if al Qaeda or any other group successfully establishes a caliphate capable of ruling in the long term. Thousands of recruits have flocked to join the Islamic State, which was part of al Qaeda’s international network when Brennan spoke those words. Thousands of Iraqis and Syrians have perished as the jihadists have pursued their violent fantasy of resurrecting the caliphate. Many thousands around the globe are killed each year in the name of this “feckless delusion.”

A smarter approach would be to devise a plan to roll back the jihadists’ sprawling geographic footprint and the ideas that motivate it. But Obama is enamored with the notion that he can ignore our enemies’ broader strategy and focus narrowly on the terrorists who pose an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland.

As the Islamic State marched through Iraq in recent months, many have revisited Obama’s interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, published in January. Remnick “pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.” He asked Obama why, then, he had claimed that al Qaeda had been “decimated.”

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, in what Remnick described as an “uncharacteristically flip analogy.” Obama continued: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

Obama’s answer demonstrates that, fundamentally, he does not understand the jihadist threat. Since its earliest days, al Qaeda has invested heavily in what Obama describes as “local power struggles.” The central reason for al Qaeda’s existence is to foment political revolutions that sweep its ideology into power. Most of al Qaeda’s resources are, therefore, devoted to the same “local” fights Obama believes America should stay out of.

Consider the findings of the 9/11 Commission, which published its final report more than a decade ago, in July 2004. In Staff Statement No. 15, titled “Overview of the Enemy,” the commission described al Qaeda’s role in supporting various insurgencies around the world in the early 1990s. The commission found that bin Laden “sought to build a broader Islamic army that also included terrorist groups from Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Oman, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Somalia, and Eritrea.” While “not all groups from these states agreed to join .  .  . at least one from each did.” Al Qaeda’s plans evolved and suffered some setbacks in the years to come. But its grand strategy always contained a version of this original vision​—​geographic expansion.

Al Qaeda has consistently devoted some portion of its budget to attacking the United States, but not nearly a majority of its assets have been deployed in this manner. “We can conservatively say that thousands of men, perhaps as many as 20,000, trained in Bin Ladin-supported camps in Afghanistan” from 1996 until September 11, 2001, “Overview of the Enemy” reads. Only “a small percentage” of those recruits, however, “went on to receive advanced terrorist training.” Bin Laden knew that al Qaeda needed to train “terrorists who could bomb embassies or hijack airliners,” but it also needed “foot soldiers” and “guerrillas” to wage its insurgencies. Therefore, “most” of al Qaeda’s “recruits received training that was primarily geared toward conventional warfare.” To this day, al Qaeda devotes most of its resources to waging insurgencies in the pursuit of power.

From al Qaeda’s inception, therefore, the group has devoted “most” of its resources to the types of operations that Obama thinks are fit only for the junior varsity squad of terrorists. The reason for this imbalance is obvious: Building nation-states governed according to jihadist ideology is a far more ambitious project than striking the United States.

Obama’s gamble is that even as the jihadists have spread out across the globe, fighting in more countries than ever, they will not be able to successfully launch a catastrophic attack against the American homeland. We all hope he is right. Obama is certainly correct when he says our defenses have greatly improved since 9/11. America’s intelligence community will undoubtedly thwart plots in the years to come.

But there are already worrisome signs that the president shouldn’t be so confident. U.S. counterterrorism officials are hardly infallible. On December 25, 2009, a would-be suicide bomber trained by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) nearly detonated an underwear bomb aboard a Detroit-bound plane. Several months later, on May 1, 2010, an operative trained by the Pakistani Taliban left a car bomb in the middle of Times Square. Both plots went undetected and failed on their own accord, not because America stopped them. Before AQAP’s attack on the homeland, U.S. intelligence officials believed that it posed a threat only to American interests in Yemen.

On April 15, 2013, a pair of brothers detonated backpack bombs during the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding over 200 more. The elder brother’s suspicious ties to jihadists abroad were well known beforehand. He wasn’t stopped. And then there are the November 5, 2009, Fort Hood shootings, which killed 13 Americans and wounded dozens more. They were executed by a man whose jihadist beliefs were familiar to the U.S. military and the FBI.

The threats to America are multiplying. The terrorists will continue to seek ways to strike. And as their footprint expands, so do the possible ways they can mount an attack on the U.S. homeland. We are fortunate that the jihadists have not devoted more of their resources to attacking inside the United States. It is likely that if they did, they would be successful.

Even absent attacks inside the United States, the jihadists threaten us significantly. The attacks on the U.S. Mission and Annex in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, killed the ambassador and three other Americans. This was the first murder of an American ambassador in decades. Nearly one year later, in August 2013, the Obama administration was forced to shutter more than 20 diplomatic facilities after learning that al Qaeda was planning to attack one or more of them.

In the end, President Obama thinks that these types of attacks on American interests abroad are a fact of life. During a speech at National Defense University on May 23, 2013, Obama outlined his vision of the fight ahead. The president described “the current threat” as coming from “lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; homegrown extremists.” Obama added, “This is the future of terrorism. We have to take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.”

Notably absent from Obama’s threat matrix was a jihadist group capturing a significant amount of territory in the heart of the Middle East. In fact, the president downplayed the threat posed by groups he described as “simply collections of local militias or extremists interested in seizing territory.”

His own officials are now telling a different story. In a speech on September 3, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center explained that “the terrorist threat emanates from a broad geographic area, spanning South Asia across the Middle East, and much of North Africa.” Matthew Olsen warned that the terrorists “are now active in at least 11 insurgencies in the Islamic world.” He added that the threat from the Islamic State “extends beyond the region to the West,” and the group “has the potential to use its safe haven to plan and coordinate attacks in Europe and the U.S.” The Islamic State’s rivals in al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusrah have the same deadly potential: “In Syria, veteran al Qaeda fighters have traveled from Pakistan to take advantage of the permissive operating environment and access to foreign fighters. They are focused on plotting against the West.”

The president hasn’t been thinking strategically about the jihadists’ territorial ambitions. Unfortunately, our enemies have been. The threat they pose to the United States has only grown.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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