" Mission accomplished? That was doubtless then-President Barack
Obama’s expectation as he anxiously watched a team of American Navy
SEALs kill al-Qaida’s leader, Osama bin
Laden, six years ago. It was clearly Iraqi Prime Minister Haider
al-Abadi’s hope last month when he visited the city of Mosul, newly
liberated from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
But consider this: Al-Qaida had some 400 combatants on Sept. 11, 2001.
Today it is stronger than ever, with several thousand adherents in
countries from the Arabian Peninsula to Southeast Asia. If Western
powers like the United States and the United Kingdom and their regional
partners like Iraq continue to frame the countering of violent extremism
as an existential “war on terror” that ends only when the last
terrorist has been killed, the campaign against the Islamic State will
be no more successful than the fight against al-Qaida.
not doing everything wrong, and the terrorists are not doing everything
right. In hindsight, the Islamic State paid a high price for the
short-term public relations benefit of holding territory and calling
itself a state, since it was bound to be defeated in a pitched battle
against the powerful coalition assembled against it. The jihadi group
also made a mistake in committing such barbaric atrocities, as
alienation began to outweigh intimidation among the populations it
controlled. And the coalition against the Islamic State was probably
right to apply some military pressure to break the militants’ aura of
invincibility, which was a powerful recruitment tool.
question that needs to be answered now is who is learning quickest from
past mistakes. So far, the terrorists seem to have the edge. The Islamic
State learned from al-Qaida that sophisticated terrorist attacks in the
enemy’s heartland are useful if they draw the enemy into protracted
wars that create the kind of chaos that terrorists need to thrive. Bin
Laden probably did not plan on 9/11 bringing the U.S. to Afghanistan,
let alone Iraq, but al-Qaida opportunistically capitalized on both wars.
The Islamic State brilliantly exploited the U.S. occupation and
aftermath, gaining support from Sunnis who suffered the atrocities of
Shiite militias, and from officers of the Iraqi army summarily dismissed
as a result of a poorly conceived policy of de-Baathification. Now
al-Qaida has learned from the Islamic State’s gruesome later mistakes,
softening its hard-line stance and toning down its global agenda to gain
support with movements driven by local grievances, notably in Yemen. "