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syria, middle east, terrorism, isis

Targeted Killing Isn’t the Solution to Terrorism

The ISIS raid reminds us that America is still waging an endless war.

Words: Daniel R. DePetris
Pictures: Cristina Gottardi

Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi died much as his predecessor did: Surrounded by US special operations troops, with an explosive ready to be detonated nearby. The US raid on the ISIS leader’s three-story compound on the night of Feb. 3 was almost identical to the raid two years earlier against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who also chose to hide in Syria’s Idlib province, a pocket of territory dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate. The Biden administration reportedly planned the operation for months, with Pentagon officials at one point bringing a makeshift model of Qurayshi’s hideout into the White House Situation Room.

In terms of the objective, the operation was clearly a success. Qurayshi, who kept a low profile as he sought to rebuild ISIS after the collapse of the group’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, is dead, which means the organization will be scrambling for a replacement. US forces were able to wrap up the hours-long operation without casualties. US officials briefing reporters after President Biden’s address to the nation claimed the ISIS leader’s death means the group is “significantly degraded.”

As US officials celebrate, however, it’s important to keep a basic fact in mind: terrorism is a challenge that can’t be eliminated through force. Indeed, as difficult as it is to admit, terrorism can’t be totally eliminated at all. Violent acts committed to intimidate a civilian population or influence government policy (as the US criminal code defines it) are as old as humankind itself. This is one of the principal reasons why the Global War on Terrorism framing, as articulated immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, is so counterproductive: going to war against terrorism is akin to embarking upon a war without end.

To be clear, anti-US terrorism does indeed remain a threat. Just last month, a woman who once lived in Kansas was arrested for trying to recruit operatives for an attack on a college campus. Last May, a 20-year-old man was charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

But the terrorism threat itself is low compared to other challenges that the US has to deal with on a daily basis. It certainly isn’t existential. The American public is quite resilient, and the US intelligence community has made remarkable strides learning from previous failures.

According to the New America Foundation, terrorism motivated by self-proclaimed Islamic ideology has killed 107 people inside the United States since 9/11, a ratio of roughly five people per year. And while every death is tragic, one has to question whether the terrorism threat is commensurate with the time, money, and risk the US has taken on trying to combat it. The Cost of War Project at Brown University estimates Washington has spent approximately $8 trillion fighting the Global War on Terror, a multi-decade campaign that has led US forces to conduct counterterrorism operations in 79 countries on five separate continents. One of those campaigns, the war in Iraq, was actually a boon to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, which used the US occupation to increase its recruitment base and establish an affiliate in the heart of the Middle East.

Organizations like ISIS will continue to operate so long as governments in the region are unable or unwilling (or perhaps both) to adopt the political and economic reforms necessary to ensure swaths of their populations aren’t susceptible to recruitment.

Over time, US officials have come to rely on more discreet, low-risk counterterrorism operations to maintain pressure on the groups Washington regards as a threat. Targeted killing, particularly via drone strikes, is now a principal US tactic. Successive terrorist commanders and leaders have been killed in these operations, including al-Qaeda second-in-command Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, AQAP chief Qasim al-Raymi, and IS-K leader Abu Sayeed Orakzai. For Washington, drone strikes are a tool of first resort: They don’t expose US forces and thus minimize US casualties, force terrorist organizations to prioritize survival over attack planning, negatively impact communications, and drive them to elevate less experienced replacements.

Even drone strikes, however, aren’t a panacea. There are significant costs attributed to them. For one, such strikes are only as effective as the underlying intelligence supporting them. If the intelligence is shoddy, civilians often bear the brunt as the US discovered in an especially devastating episode last summer, when a US drone strike in Afghanistan killed ten civilians, including seven children and an aid worker. As the US found out in both Pakistan and Yemen, drone strikes can also alienate the local population and produce what terrorism experts refer to as “blowback,” generating anti-US hostility which can serve as fodder for the very terrorist groups the US is seeking to pressure.

It’s also highly unlikely targeted killing will destroy an entire terrorist organization either. In her research on the topic, Jenna Jordan of the Georgia Institute of Technology writes that groups with some degree of bureaucratization and communal support (like al-Qaeda) are often able to recuperate from the killing of a leader. Considering al-Qaeda has survived a series of decapitation strikes on its leadership over the last two decades, it’s difficult to refute this analysis.

None of this, of course, negates the success of the mission against Qurayshi or diminishes the considerable risk associated with US forces engaging in an hours-long firefight in the middle of hostile territory. What it does suggest, however, is that these types of operations don’t solve the problem. Organizations like ISIS will continue to operate so long as governments in the region are unable or unwilling (or perhaps both) to adopt the political and economic reforms necessary to ensure swaths of their populations aren’t susceptible to recruitment.

In the meantime, the best the United States can do is distinguish between terrorist groups, focus on those that have the intent and capability to attack its interests, and most importantly start treating terrorism as a problem that can be contained rather than a war that can be won.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

Daniel R. DePetris

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