This May 1, 2019, marks the eighth anniversary of the Bin Laden raid. It is a good time not only to recall the brave efforts of our intelligence and special operations forces warriors who successfully accomplished that mission, but a time to remind ourselves of the continuing threat of terrorism in the world.
As memories of the 9/11 attack fade and there is an increased focus on the possibility of a great power confrontation with Russia or China, there is a danger that we will become complacent about the fight against terrorism.
While a five-year global effort undertaken by both Democratic and Republican administrations removed ISIS from their so-called Caliphate – the territory they occupied in Iraq and Syria – ISIS has not been defeated. The recent shocking terrorist attack in Sri Lanka that killed over 250 innocent men, women, and children made that clear.
In the recent Worldwide Threat Assessment by the U.S. intelligence community, the report stated: “Global jihadists in dozens of groups and countries threaten local and regional U.S. interests, despite having experienced some significant setbacks in recent years, and some of these groups remain intent on striking the U.S. homeland.”
ISIS is a clear illustration of how extremist groups believed to be in decline can morph and return in even more vicious forms. ISIS grew in Syria in the governance and security vacuum left by the nation’s civil war. They quickly spread south by overwhelming inadequate and undisciplined Iraqi security forces. The Taliban rose in the early 1990s from a faction of the mujahideen fighters that fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the decade before. In these cases, as well as in countries like Somalia, Yemen, and Libya, we have seen that terrorist groups are incredibly adept at finding and taking root in new areas of instability.
Beyond these safe havens, extremist groups attack civilians all over the world. We’ve seen in recent years how ISIS’ territorial losses have corresponded with a new focus on conducting and inspiring attacks outside of Syria in countries from France to Australia. Just this January, as it sustained major territorial losses in the Middle East, ISIS claimed responsibility for deadly cathedral bombings in the Mindanao region of the Philippines, where the government has long been battling the rebel group Abu Sayyaf. A former Abu Sayyaf leader had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, highlighting how interconnected many of these groups can become, particularly in this era of technology and social media.
Meanwhile in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel, the terrorist threat remains a persistent menace and has even intensified in countries like Burkina Faso. The Somalia-based group al-Shabaab killed 21 people in an attack on a luxury hotel earlier this year, while groups like Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb continue to operate across the region, taking advantage of weak governance.
I understand the resource trade-offs necessary in today’s era of budget caps but taking resources away at this critical period in the Africa counterterrorism fight could leave the U.S. with little ability to respond to the threat and in need of greater resources in the future.
The challenge of balancing continued needs on the counterterrorism front with the “near peer” fight against China and others identified by the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy demands creative thinking from the Defense Department, given the limited resources at hand. The department must be strategic about how it invests taxpayer money against such a powerful adversary and requires a “high-low” mix of platforms to meet a range of requirements. In addition to boosting investments in advanced technology such as artificial intelligence, the Defense Department should consider how it can re-employ existing platforms in the new threat environment.
For example, our fleet of unmanned aircraft, including Predator and Reaper drones that already are our most valuable tools in the counterterror fight, are less likely to result in a catastrophic miscalculation than if a more-sophisticated manned platform was used. Using these less-costly assets when possible allows increasingly scarce funds to go towards developing the high-tech capabilities our nation will need to deal with China and other state threats. Our military has the world’s most sophisticated and remarkable capabilities, but we must ensure that we do not lose sight of the budget realities of today and adjust our posture accordingly.
The eighth anniversary of the death of Osama Bin Laden offers our nation time for reflection. While we should applaud our nation’s advances in the fight against terrorism through the Bin Laden operation and the more recent gains against ISIS, defeating an individual group or terrorist leader does not eliminate the broader threat of extremism. The U.S. still faces a host of critical counterterrorism challenges, which it must now manage on top of a growing contest with geopolitical competitors. We must succeed in both missions to preserve the safety and security of the United States.
Leon E. Panetta is chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy. He was the 23rd U.S. secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013, and CIA director from 2009 to 2011, at the time of the Bin Laden raid.