Weapons proliferation. Cyber-security. Global warming. Drug laundering. International trade. All of these above issues, among many others, are top priorities that affect national as well as international security and dominate the agendas of international bodies. However, terrorism, while still an important component of national security, has currently been waning in importance and coverage.
This is not without good reason. There has been a series of accomplishments over the past several years that leads one to believe that terrorism is a diminishing threat to the United States. For one, the long-time leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was killed in May 2011, which essentially cut off the head of the organization. It was also a major blow to the symbolic nature of the organization – bin Laden was the face of al-Qaeda and synonymous with fear, terrorist attacks and the loss of many lives.
The successes do not end there. There have been numerous senior al-Qaeda members based in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region who have either been killed through military strikes or captured and interrogated, leading to further uprooting of the organization from its original safe haven since September 11, 2001. Primary affiliates, to include al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have also suffered major setbacks such as the loss of leadership and the thwarting of major attacks. Because of these successes – in addition to greater world-wide awareness of these groups, the help of individual nations stemming home-grown threats, and other international efforts – the organization we knew in 2001 is very different now.
It is important to not lose sight of the threat of terrorism in the coming years. The fiscal environment understandably calls for all agencies, terrorism-related or not, to prioritize national security threats more strictly. However, one must recognize that terrorism still persists and important security policies require a similar sense of urgency to stem the prospects of terrorism and its root causes.
The primary reason for this is that terrorism has not completely diminished and continues to pose a very salient threat to the U.S. and its allies, including in North and West Africa as well as the Middle East. Many nations around the world have been more vigilant in combating the spread of al-Qaeda-associated and attributed violence throughout this region, most notably by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and loosely al-Qaeda affiliated group Nigeria-based group Boko Haram. Recently, France, with the assistance of other nations including the United States, has been trying to rid AQIM of its safe haven in Mali. And while France and her allies have been successful to some extent in rolling back the terrorists, there have been indications that these elements could possibly reemerge in other areas as well.
Terrorism has not diminished because the threat it poses is coupled with other security threats. Terrorism in and of itself does not exist within a vacuum. Standalone issues such as cyber threats, weapons proliferation and civil war can be used as a tactic or strategy for terrorist groups. It takes a whole-of-government approach to address these linked threats. However, as seen in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and East Africa, due to the resources devoted to counter-terrorism efforts, the U.S. and her allies have been successful in addressing and mitigating terrorism with the back drop of other major security threats. If and when the emphasis on combating terrorism decreases, it may be difficult in the long term to experience similar successes.
To be sure, al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization is very different from 12 years ago and there are many strikes against it. However, making counter-terrorism efforts less of a priority assumes the risk of allowing terrorists to conduct more strategic and spectacular attacks. The current Syrian civil war is a prime example in which there are many elements that pose a threat to U.S. interests and allies in the region. As there has been a rise in opposition against the Bashir Assad regime, the opposition has been increasingly countered by outside support for the Assad regime, including by Iran and Hezbollah. On the other hand, many, sources have indicated that the al- Jabhat al-Nusra Front, which is associated with the al-Qaeda elements in Iraq, are based within Syria and working with the opposition groups. Although it appears as though terrorism is a small portion of the current conflict, the terrorism element can no doubt create a complicated, longer-term issue. It will likely prove to be difficult to decouple from not only the opposition but possibly from how the U.S. will work with a presumably new opposition-leaning government.
It is understandably necessary for our leaders in national security to differentiate the up-and-coming threats while also forming and implementing plans to mitigate these threats. As the world continues to change and adapt, so do adversaries. However, the efforts and strides that were and are still being made in the fight against global terrorism should not be abandoned.
Stanli Montgomery is a Georgetown graduate and focuses on international security affairs in the Defense Department. She is a regular contributor to the WIIS blog. Any opinions expressed in this article are her own.