The chairmen on the 9/11 Commission urged the U.S. government on Tuesday, the anniversary of the 2001 jihadist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, to develop strategies for targeting radical Islam and diminish the appeal of global jihad, warning that groups like al-Qaeda continue to conspire against America.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who chaired the commission, and former Florida Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, who served as vice chairman, wrote in a USA Today column that they feared Washington had “made little headway” in the ideological struggle between modern, free societies and the fundamentalist Islamic worldview that drove al-Qaeda’s leadership to organize and execute the 9/11 attacks.
“There were 10,900 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2017, more than five times the number in 2001,” the authors note. “Violent extremist groups have gained footholds in 19 countries across the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, a region along the Sahara Desert stretching across North Africa.”
While acknowledging that the United States remains engaged in military endeavors against radical Islam and has spent $5.6 trillion since the attacks in 2001, the authors lament that much of this money goes into military endeavors, killing terrorists active in faraway places like Afghanistan and Iraq but not strengthening their local adversaries or preventing would-be terrorists from getting recruited and radicalized at home.
“Rather than attempt further nation-building, the United States should support national and local partners in these volatile regions who take the initiative to bolster resilience in their societies,” the authors suggest. “We cannot wait for terrorists to strike again. We must act now or suffer later.”
Tuesday’s anniversary comes at a time in which al-Qaeda has resurged as the preeminent jihadist organization on earth, following several years in which the group was weakened by the comparative strength of the Islamic State. Al-Qaeda has rebuilt in the shadow of the war against the Islamic State – which U.S. troops participate in, as ISIS is a rival offshoot of al-Qaeda. In Yemen, al-Qaeda has amassed territory uncontested by either side of the civil war: the legitimate government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi or the Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels. As al-Qaeda is a Sunni organization, it has begun to leverage its control in Yemen to work against the Houthis and, thus, by definition on the side of the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition fighting the Houthis.
In Afghanistan, where the “war on terror” began, al-Qaeda has maintained its ties to the Taliban, which has grown in combat strength and political influence in the past five years. The Trump administration has repeatedly attempted to launch peace talks between the Taliban and the legitimate Afghan government, but the former refuse to come to the table with the latter, which they view as an imposter government.
On a surprise visit to Afghanistan this weekend, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said the United States is hopeful that Kabul and the Taliban will find “reconciliation,” another sign that the United States has shifted priorities from the destruction of the terrorist group to securing its political legitimacy.
The former al-Qaeda in Iraq – the Islamic State – has lost most of its territory in Iraq and Syria. Yet it maintains a formidable force of an estimated 30,000 jihadis in the region who continue to attack U.S.-backed Kurdish troops.
At home, the appeal of the deadly jihadist ideology continues to attract supporters. This month, Alexander Ciccolo, the son of a Boston police captain, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for declaring himself a “committed soldier” of ISIS. In August, active servicemember Sergeant First Class Ikaika Kang pleaded guilty to charges of supporting the Islamic State, as well.
The Islamic State recently released an audio recording claiming to be leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, urging global jihad by followers around the world on the occasion of Eid al-Adha.