This week, the U.S. conducted its first airstrike against al-Shabaab in Somalia since the Biden administration assumed power. This was followed closely by a second strike that took place on Friday. The strikes come at a time when the focus of the U.S. military and our NATO allies is moving away from counter-terrorism and towards near-peer competition with Russia and China. This is good news for global terrorism leaders who continue to pop up in new areas and grow their organizations at an alarming rate.
Both al-Qaeda and ISIS remain active in Syria and Iraq where the United States is considering drawing down its counter-terrorism forces. Idlib in Syria is a hub of al-Qaeda terrorists. Simultaneously, ISIS, despite American and Iraqi pressure, continues to attack the population.
Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, and ISIS
The initial reason for getting into Afghanistan was to stop the flow of terrorism. Nevertheless, after 20 years, trillions of dollars spent, thousands of lives lost and forever damaged terrorism in Afghanistan is still alive and well despite proclamations to the contrary.
The flawed nation-building strategy that followed the West’s counter-terrorism strategy only prolonged and increased the level of violence.
The Trump administration wanted to end our “forever wars” and inked the Doha agreement with the Taliban. Nevertheless, they were never going to hold up their end in good faith.
Although then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated in March of last year that the Taliban had broken ties with al-Qaeda — a condition of the withdrawal agreement — this is not the case. In fact, the Taliban had never even entertained the thought.
The Biden administration is stuck with the Doha agreement. Yet, it is now also saddled with the fact that the Taliban still have a relationship with al-Qaeda. According to a UN report on the evolution of global terrorism, al-Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces.
Al-Qaeda has cut back on overt communications with the Taliban, in order to lay low and not jeopardize the Doha agreement, according to the UN. Last fall, Afghan Special Forces killed Husam Abd al-Rauf, a high-ranking Egyptian al-Qaeda member who was believed in some circles to be the number two leader of the global terrorist organization.
And then there is the Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K). Current estimates put ISIS-K fighters in Afghanistan between 500 and 1,500. Several intelligence analysts believe that that number could be much higher. ISIS-K has conducted over 100 attacks on civilians and military in Afghanistan and Pakistan since its formation in 2014.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 foreign fighters have joined the Taliban according to the UN. These men are flocking to participate in the Taliban offensive against the Afghan government. But the Taliban are now reportedly concerned that many of these “recruits,” who they haven’t properly vetted, are ISIS fighters.
While Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan rebuffed Washington’s overtures toward allowing U.S. bases in their territory, now with the threat of global terrorism at their doorstep, they’re considering some sort of cooperation with the United States. They may now allow the United States to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions from their countries.
Likewise, China, Russia, and Iran have been vocal about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now that global terrorism is at their borders, they’re scrambling to protect their own interests.
Africa’s Rise as a Hotspot of Global Terrorism
With the pressure on terrorist groups in the Middle East, global terrorism has spread its wings to Africa. Poor central control, abject poverty, corruption, and limited opportunities for young people make the continent a perfect breeding ground for terrorism.
In sub-Sahara Africa, the Sahel nations, Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso, are beset by growing Islamic insurgencies. The insurgencies began in Mali in 2012 and soon spread like contagion.
The French intervened in 2013 and initially managed to turn back the Islamic insurgents. Yet, with the French mission now winding down, the al-Qaeda-aligned terrorists are quickly gaining influence. According to a separate UN report that was released on July 21, the terrorists are moving from the outlying areas to major population centers.
Terrorism also besets the Horn of Africa. In Somalia, al-Shabaab has aligned itself with al-Qaeda. With the U.S. cutting back its support for Somalia, al-Shabaab has neatly filled the vacuum, as Somalia’s fledgling military struggles to combat the terrorist group.
South of the Sahel, terrorism is spreading in Nigeria, where hundreds of thousands are dead and Christians are being targeted for slaughter. Mozambique also faces a terrorist insurgency.
To the east, al-Qaeda has set its sights on Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Ghana, and Togo.
The US Must Not Hide its Head in the Sand
In a joint statement commenting on the latest U.S. strikes against al-Shabaab, Senators Chris Murphy (D-CN), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said, “We’re troubled that no one in the administration sought the required legal authorization from Congress for Tuesday’s drone strike in Somalia especially with no American forces at risk — and apparently, did not even check with our Commander-in-Chief.”
Yet, anyone who believes that al-Shabaab doesn’t pose a risk to all Americans, not just the military, needs to pay better attention.
Tellingly, just like al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab was planning a 9/11-style attack on the continental United States.
Cholo Abdi Abdullah, an al-Shabaab operative from Kenya, was “directed by senior al-Shabaab leaders, obtained pilot training in the Philippines in preparation for seeking to hijack a commercial aircraft and crash it into a building in the United States.”
Abdullah “[researched] the means and methods to hijack a commercial airliner to conduct the planned attack, including security on commercial airliners and how to breach a cockpit door from the outside, information about the tallest building in a major U.S. city, and information about how to obtain a U.S. visa,” according to the Department of Justice (DoJ).
Global terrorists will use the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Somalia, and a potential withdrawal from Iraq, as a recruiting tool to draw new recruits in the fight against the “Great Satan.”
So, we must understand that the threat of global terrorism hasn’t gone away. Rather, it’s on its way back.