Without minimizing the bravery and tradecraft that went into killing Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, chasing down terrorist leaders without helping the communities they prey on is a recipe for prolonging, not ending, the war on terror.
Salafi-jihadi groups such as Baghdadi’s Islamic State insinuate their way into communities made vulnerable by local conditions: bad governance, grievances, or external threats. The success of these groups is driven far less by some figurehead who releases occasional exhortations than by their ability to provide physical security, governance, and sustenance. Across the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, there are people who take what the Salafi-jihadis have to offer because they have no choice.
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In Iraq, al Qaeda reconstituted from the remnants of its organization to form what would later become the Islamic State. The very Iraqi communities that had fought hard with the U.S. against al Qaeda accepted demonstrators waving the black flag at their protests in early 2013. Sunni Iraqis from Anbar province were calling for the removal of then Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shia who strengthened his own power by sidelining Sunni rivals. The marginalization of Iraqi Sunni drove some to support—or at least tolerate—what would become the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
In Syria, al Qaeda-linked Salafi-jihadi groups defended communities opposed to the Assad regime from brutal oppression and attacks. Unlike Western countries, these groups came to the aid of the Syrian opposition. They fought on the frontlines and brought fighting experience and operational organization. They helped to protect and maintain critical infrastructure, sought to meet the basic survival needs of the population, and provided governance through local courts and councils. The groups grew stronger as the communities began to depend on them.
When some members of Syrian Salafi-jihadi groups began training for attacks on the United States, U.S. military forces struck. But killing that band of plotters only removes one immediate threat. The local conditions endure, providing fertile ground for Salafi-jihadi groups. Eventually, some group is going to evade detection long enough to gather and deploy enough resources to outdo the 9/11 attackers.
The U.S. strategy against the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and similar groups emphasizes the terror threats these groups pose and leaders and networks behind those threats. Big kills of prominent leaders reinforce a false narrative that the likes of Baghdadi and Osama bin Laden are the source of the threat. Their groups—and the Salafi-jihadi movement of which those groups are part—are more than the individual on top or the external attack cells. All groups have survived the death of a leader—and some, such as the predecessor of the Islamic State, thrived under the new personality.
Counterterrorism operations do nothing to fill the gaps in security and governance that drive vulnerable communities into the arms of Salafi-jihadists. The Obama administration’s prioritization of the counter-ISIS fight in Syria over the resolution of the Syrian Civil War enabled al Qaeda’s and other Salafi-jihadi groups’ expansion. The Trump administration’s reduction of U.S. engagement in Syria to counterterrorism and a token force in defense of the oil sets conditions for groups like ISIS to re-expand.
The global war on terror has become an endless war because the U.S. has yet to adopt an approach that will defeat the Salafi-jihadi groups at the heart of this terror threat. The cycle of military deployments—costly in both American blood and treasure—will not end so long as the conditions remain.
If the United States really wants to take the fight to the Islamic State or al Qaeda, it or its partners must out-compete them to fill the needs of their “constituents.” Providing communities with a viable alternative to the Salafi-jihadi groups reduces the groups’ influence and weakens its ability to operate. This will no doubt require some military force — to provide security, for example — but the U.S. military will be one of the first to ask for a broader strategy with the Defense Department in support, not in the lead.
The U.S. must shift to a civilian-led strategic approach that uses foreign assistance and other elements of soft power to strengthen communities at risk of or under Salafi-jihadi penetration. Such an approach seeks to restore the ability of communities to reject Salafi-jihadi overtures, and relegate them to the fringes where defeating them will be a more straightforward counterterrorism mission.
Paying once to improve conditions by strengthening local communities’ resilience will yield dividends in the future. Killing terrorist leaders feels great, but if that’s all there is, it means we’ll be back again, and again. And that is a true forever war.