The New Battlefield

5 ways terrorism has changed since 9/11.


Lost in all the controversy about the Benghazi attack is a basic fact that may be obscuring debate about the case: there has been a fundamental change in what might be called the "landscape of terrorism." In essence, nearly everything about the phenomenon is shifting away from the patterns that became familiar in the years after 9/11. The template used for counterterrorism strategy during much of the time since then has been overtaken by events.

First, there is the nature of society and governance in the areas of most immediate concern, principally South Asia and the Middle East. Beginning with the transition to civilian rule in Pakistan in 2008 and accelerating with the "Arab Spring" two years later, many of these countries have moved politically in directions that may ultimately more closely align them with our values, but many have simultaneously become less agile, capable, or united in combating extremism — and less aligned with the United States.

Compare the current situation to the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks. Back then, we dealt with governments whose authoritarian character might have given us pause but whose control of and visibility into their societies was keen and deep. That control came largely through powerful intelligence services that today are either redefining their roles in pluralistic societies, competing for influence in them, or struggling to establish their priorities both in terms of targets and foreign relationships.

These trends are visible in different ways in countries ranging from Pakistan and Egypt, to Tunisia and Libya — and pressures are building in other countries, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. For example, in Pakistan, the once all-powerful military — and by extension the country’s influential intelligence service — is now under challenge from an increasingly assertive judiciary, which explicitly disputes the military’s right to any role in politics. At the same time, the country’s weak civilian government has to contend with public opposition to U.S. counterterrorism policy that under the previous military government was not as intense or could simply be ignored.

And in Egypt, in contrast to the pre-revolutionary situation, when the intelligence service chief was the country’s second most powerful official, the military and intelligence services are having to feel their way through a transition of governance that, in the absence of a new constitution, is still far from complete. There are only glimmers of such trends in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but in the latter case a generational transition is underway with an uncertain outcome, amidst escalating protests by the Shiite Muslim minority in the Eastern Province.

Second, the "map" of extremist influence has changed dramatically. After the 9/11 attacks, the CIA had plans for attacking al Qaeda in dozens of countries globally, but intelligence led us to focus primarily on Afghanistan, the settled areas of Pakistan, and the Arabian Gulf, principally Yemen — areas where we rapidly registered substantial progress.

Today, tracing extremist influence on a map — even acknowledging the diminished vitality of al Qaeda’s core leadership — would nonetheless show extremists present, dangerous, and influential in a broader swath of geography than in the middle of the last decade.

As now commonly remarked, these movements today pose more significant threats in North and East Africa, with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb having extended its influence south into Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria having matured into a serious threat. And in areas of traditional concern like Yemen, the al Qaeda affiliate has grown more powerful, innovative, and strategically savvy.

Then, we must add to this the imponderable futures of Syria and Egypt; in the former case, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) could well evolve into a full-scale al Qaeda affiliate. With increasingly clear links to al Qaeda and a growing role in the Syrian insurgency, JN is the most vivid illustration of a concern many expressed at the outset of the Arab uprisings: that eventually the turmoil would open opportunities for al Qaeda-related extremists, even though initially these movements drew little or no inspiration from al Qaeda ideology.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, the Sinai is becoming harder to monitor and more hospitable to terrorist sympathizers and adherents. In fact, with the increasing extremist raids on police and military forces and incidents along the Israeli border, the Sinai has become the chief post-revolutionary concern of Egyptian military and intelligence officials.

Third, the physical field of battle is undergoing the most important change since 2001, largely as a result of the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our substantial presence there over more than a decade, on the one hand, opened our forces to attack, but on the other, gave us platforms to aggressively monitor and pursue terrorists — tasks that will now have to be accomplished more remotely and with less frequently acquired "ground truth." Additionally, it will place an added burden on intelligence collection, given the reduction in the number of physical outposts manned by Americans or allies and the reduced tempo of military operations, one of the best sources of actionable intelligence leads.

Some will insist that our reduced presence will diminish terrorist incentives to attack; others will argue that this possible gain is offset by the additional difficulty of detecting terrorist plots. At this point, it is impossible to determine where the balance rests between these two arguments. If there is any certainty here, it is simply that we will have to maintain a riveted focus on conditions in these two countries for many years to come.

Fourth, changes have been underway for some time in the way terrorists formulate and spread their narratives, and the opportunities they have to acquire and train recruits. The internet, with its capacity for rapid horizontal communication, long ago replaced the fixed vertical command-and-control path favored by al Qaeda’s hierarchically-minded founders. But added to this now are opportunities for new training areas, safe houses, and "rat lines" used to clandestinely move people and information. Those opportunities have been opened up by the diminished reach of the newly emerging governments in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria, and the creeping, if patchy, acquisition of territory by extremists, especially in North Africa. There are more ungoverned — or less-governed — areas than there used to be.

Moreover, some of the underlying trends in these areas, so far not very visible, enhance the prospects for intra-societal conflict and, by extension, the potential for extremist exploitation. For starters, many of these societies are acquiring a more overtly Islamic character, increasing the chance that sectarian disputes — largely Sunni versus Shia — will lead to violence. We already see this in aspects of the Syrian conflict. At the same time, tribal distinctions that had formerly been muffled, as in Libya, are bursting into the open. These are the kind of conditions that al Qaeda oriented extremists love to encounter.

Fifth, in the absence of Bin Laden, and his obsession with spectacular attacks on the U.S. homeland, we are likely to see terrorists focusing more on "soft targets," like the U.S. mission in Benghazi. This has long been a feature in the playbook of new al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. It is also favored by powerful al Qaeda affiliates, such as Yemen’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with its strategy of "death by a thousand cuts."

None of this means the U.S. homeland is off limits, but it probably does mean that smaller attacks are unlikely to be shelved in favor of a 9/11-style spectacular, as apparently was the case in Bin Laden’s time. The thinking in al Qaeda — or at least in Bin Laden’s circle — seemed to be: why waste a shot on a small operation that still risks bringing the United States down on us? Extremists appear to be learning that smaller-scale operations, such as the failed Christmas bomber in 2009 and the recent successful attack in Benghazi, can have still have a profound effect on the United States.

What does all of this mean in terms of our understanding of terrorism and what we need to do about it?

There are three major implications. First, a large dose of humility is called for in estimating the threat; it will simply be harder to have a confident understanding of the scope and nature of extremism in areas of high concern — or to confidently predict what might happen there. This is already true in the areas undergoing political revolutions, but it will soon be true also in Afghanistan and Iraq as our drawdowns inevitably reduce our visibility.

A second related implication is that the potential for surprise is going up. For some years, terrorists have been showing a capacity to adapt in the face of our successes. When we made it harder to get weapons on airplanes, they tried liquids in the 2006 airline plot detected in London. When we banned liquids, they devised weapons that were neither metal nor liquid — the failed 2009 underwear bomber in a plane over Detroit. When we tightened access to the passenger cabin, they tried (and failed) in 2010 to plant a package bomb in cargo originating in Yemen. And there are reports that in 2011, al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate was toying with the idea of surgically implanting an explosive device in a suicide bomber.

It seems only reasonable to assume that the more fluid environment to which terrorists now have access will allow them to continue this kind of experimentation, with perhaps a greater chance that they will surprise us with something more effective — or simply get lucky.

Third, there is growing urgency to preserve and nurture — or in some cases the need to restore — U.S. influence in all of these areas. Among the factors that made us successful up to now has been the broad anti-terror coalition our diplomats, military, and intelligence officers were able to establish and enhance over the last decade. Every effort must be made to keep those partnerships or to renew them in areas where they may be fraying or broken. Coping with this more complex threat is not something we can do alone.

Overall, the job will become even more labor intensive and painstaking for intelligence and our military and civilian policymakers. And in this so-called long war, it may be no exaggeration to invoke Churchill’s 1942 phrase and consider ourselves only at "the end of the beginning."

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